This May will mark the 10th anniversary of the release of the original Iron Man film, and the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) box office domination. It’s hard to overstate the success of these films. Over the last ten years, the 18 films of the MCU have generated just shy of 15 billion dollars in revenue. This is not including the merchandise deals also valued at billions of dollars. Recent films in the MCU franchise such as Black Panther are continuing to break box office records. With more and more of these films being turnt out every year it’s safe to say the MCU isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The time has come to question this.
This wasn’t always the case. Before Stan Lee achieved holy GOAT status, the history of the MCU pre-2008 is largely one of failure. In the late 80s onwards, Marvel housed more bombs than Ted Kaczynski’s cabin. Howard the Duck, Elektra, and Punisher films all lost money. The 1990 Captain America film which had a 10 million dollar budget, had box office receipts of just over $10,000.00, dying a straight-to-video death. The outlook of the fully produced 1994 Fantastic Four film was so bad, it remains unreleased!
But something happened in 2008 with the release of Iron Man. The movies got better sure, but that’s not it. The plots of these films are very similar to their failed predecessors. The special effects of these turds were largely on par (or better) than those of their time. What changed, was America.
To understand 2008, we must first look at the year before it. What happened in 2007? A lot to make the world retreat to their polarized corners. In 2007 alone, the iPhone is released. Twitter and Facebook become global platforms; Amazon unveils the Kindle. YouTube is purchased by Google. This life-altering year is profiled with considerable stank and gusto by Thomas L. Friedman in his book Thank You for Being Late. So let’s move forward to 2008. On September 15, 2008, about 4 months after Iron Man is released, Lehman Brothers collapses, triggering the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. Which means that while many Americans were getting their Iron Man on, they were living in houses they were about to lose, that they could never afford in the first place.
Americans in 2008 were yearning for hope. After being exposed to new technology that only further alienated and polarized them, Americans wanted to feel like Americans again. The Occupy Wall Street movement is emblematic of this nihilism. In an attempt to recreate misguided 60’s nostalgia, Americans took to the streets in a synthetic attempt to protest a complex financial system so disconnected few of them understood it. What exactly were they protesting? The election of Barack Obama in November 2008 is further direct evidence of this. His platform was literally “hope” and “change”. However, many more Americans placed their hope that year in Tony Stark and the MCU. Sho Nuff.
The MCU never succeeded pre-2008, because there was no need for it. There was a sense of collective identity that outweighed the voice of the individual. Granted, America has always been a country of divisions, but these were largely a battle of ideas. Not narcissistic alienation or outright exile. Even the philosophy of the vile 60s is telling. Protestor’s goals were quite utilitarian in retrospect. “Leave us be, we don’t expect you to understand us. Just move out of the way.” Society today blames the other side for their problems and shortcomings. In the 1960’s, counter-culture chose the middle finger, today it’s always the index. The MCU allows us to use the index finger not to point straight out to an enemy, but up to a greater good.
There are no longer bonds that make us all Americans. The American idea has failed. We can longer get behind someone as a “hero”. We no longer see greatness in our leaders. There are no more Roosevelt’s, Kennedy’s, or Patton’s. But we can all agree on the fantastical “extra” that is Captain America or Iron Man. Americans still have hope for an external communal existence bigger than the individual, a collective hero. We have often gone to the movies to escape. The question should be, what are we escaping to? The MCU allows you to escape into a collective world of duty, hope, and honor. We are grasping on to a thread of hope, even if we have to make it up. It’s not just a distraction; it’s something to believe in.
Enter, the sidekick with some additional albeit different perspective.
An interesting facet of the escapism delivered by the MCU is that it offers us a compartmentalized, identifiable force that is easily discernable as the bad, in stark contrast with the easily identifiable force that is the good. Never mind that the spawn of the MCU’s “enemy” was ostensibly conjured by the negligence of the superheroes in the first place, what’s important is that the enemy, from the lay-perspective, is distilled enough into the bad guy/group who is villainous chiefly because the aims are against humanity, thereby unjust prima facie.
And theirs is a cause of justice and cosmic balance, after all.
Swooping in to save humanity from the ails of utter extinction, slavery, or worse, subordination to otherworldly beings with questionable fashion sense, are these superheroes: humanoid beings with powers and personal affectations of altruism so great that power or wealth have no primacy over the pursuit of justice and the provision of humanitarian aid. This is a hyperreal aim, as it has no basis as a positive characteristic in human nature. It is aspirational.
In the objective sense, there would be no humanity or civilization if there were superheroes from the outset. Yet, as the saying goes, faith is the essence of things hoped for – and when nothing seems to mean anything, perhaps the victory over otherworldly injustice (over which normal humans have no intrinsic power) behooves our collective faith. Mr. Joseph Campbell has much to say on this topic, especially our propensity for latching onto origin stories and subsequent identification with the hero’s trials. It’s likely not a stretch that the recent uptick in superhero fandom has increased in lockstep with the inclusion of these superhero’s trials and the human-like problems they encounter along the way.
The contrast between the Iron Man and Thor origin stories is a particularly striking quirk in the MCU. Tony Stark is a human genius channeling his vast wealth and knowledge while Thor is more of a mythical god, tasked with protecting and serving humanity. One broadcasts his identity while the other chooses to downplay. Interestingly, their common denominator is a collective pursuit of justice characterized by a hyperreal conviction: that humanity is worth saving.
And perhaps we need to be reminded of this basic tenet of existence as Dawkins’ attempts to do with The Selfish Gene. Perhaps the emphasis on the hero’s journey and the less-than-super inner conflicts and tribulations experienced by the MCU superheroes affords us a chance to see the value of working together to achieve common aims. Even if the ultimate reason is a zero-sum game, when presented from the perspective of extra-human beings, the beauty of existence is confirmed as worth preserving.