12 thoughts about Marvel's big announcement
1. Nothing actually happened today. The Internet goes crazy for announcements, and today might very well go down in history as the single most announcement-y announcement in the history of superhero movies or movies or pop culture or human history. But an announcement is not a movie. Anticipation is another word for enjoying something that doesn’t exist yet. Currently, here on the Internet, there are bizarre people hurling insult grenades at critics who have committed the sin of liking but not loving Interstellar—a movie that none of the bizarre people hurling insult grenades have actually seen. Maybe they will never actually see Interstellar. Anticipation, when it builds up for months or years, can blind you. That is not a culture that loves watching movies; that is a culture that loves looking forward to movies. The Superhero Movie era is an era of announcements. We’re all just unpaid publicists now. The system is in place now; it can’t change. Forget it, Jake, it’s Comic-Con.
2. Click here to see precisely what Marvel did announce today. But here is what Marvel did not announce today. A director for Thor: Ragnarok. A director for Black Panther. A star for Captain Marvel. A star for Doctor Strange. A cinematographer for Inhumans. A set designer for Avengers: Infinity War, Part 1. A sound designer for Avengers: Infinity War, Part 2. Some of these movies will loom large on the cultural landscape for half a decade before anyone actually makes them. If you’re the kind of person who cares about this stuff, you already have some kind of opinion about nine movies that don’t exist yet. This is madness, and as long as we accept that this is madness—as long as we acknowledge that whatever we are doing today is the opposite of having an actual serious conversation about movies, as long as we know that we as a movie culture are beginning to treat movies like Fantasy Football—then we can stay at least partially sane.
3. Madness accepted: Captain America: Civil War is the only movie I am unabashedly looking forward to, because Winter Soldier is my favorite Marvel movie and the equation on Civil War is “Everyone who worked on Winter Soldier + Iron Man as an Antagonist.” Doctor Strange looks problematic, Cumberbatch or no: It’s a character who was only really interesting when he was embarking on surrealist adventures illustrated by a brilliant Ayn Rand fanboy, absolutely none of which sounds anything like the Marvel Studios we know. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 will either be a Spider-Man 2 or an Iron Man 2, by which I mean, it will either be a sequel that finally gets to the good stuff now that all the boring plot-origin machinations are through, or it will be a sequel-spinoff-nexus that moves the chess pieces into place for an Avengers movie and hopes the audience is easily amused by witty banter.
Thor: Ragnarok is already the second-best Thor movie just by virtue of not being The Dark World. Black Panther and Captain Marvel are hugely important films purely because they aren’t going to star a white dude named Chris. Inhumans, best case scenario, is X-Men meets Game of Thrones; worst case scenario, it’s Guardians of the Galaxy for emo kids, which still sounds way better than another Green Lantern movie.
4. Infinity War, though. When I was a kid collecting comic books, I read the last half of the Infinity War crossover, which was the story of how Adam Warlock assembled the heroes of Earth to fight against the Magus, who was Adam Warlock’s purple future self. The comic-book Infinity War was a sequel to the more popular and much better The Infinity Gauntlet, which was the story of how Thanos assembled all six Infinity Gems onto one awesome glove and then killed half of the universe. That includes half of the superheroes, although they were only the half people didn’t care about. (Yep, Hawkeye died.) There’s also a more recent crossover, which involved Thanos attacking Earth directly.
It’s even money that the two-part Infinity War epic will draw from all those sources. For the mass of people who have merely enjoyed the Marvel characters on the big screen, the simpler way of explaining all of this is: Infinity War will be Avengers plus Guardians of the Galaxy plus every other Marvel character you have ever heard of.
5. The big secret that every single person who collects comic books knows: Crossovers are never good. Usually they’re terrible. The best-case scenario with a big universe-spanning arc is that you get something that allows individual creators to have fun by pushing their characters into extreme, unusual situations. (The single greatest crossover event, IMHO, was X-Men’s “Age of Apocalypse,” which sent every mutant character into an alternate universe where Magneto was a hero and Cyclops had long hair.) The worst-case scenario is that the central story arc becomes an anchor that weighs down every individual story arc. You can already see this happening in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: How many of the movies so far are about a race to control a giant glowing thing of power? How many of these new movies will be about that?
6. Certainly not all of them. The most exciting thing about this announcement is that it shows Marvel pushing further into the most interesting corners of its universe. A Black Panther movie is something people have been waiting for; a Captain Marvel movie is something no one even expected. In many ways, it feels like Marvel Studios is essentially repeating the history of Marvel Comics at top-speed. And there have been plenty of times in Marvel’s history when the big top-level brands were boring and safe and popular, and their popularity paid for adventurous demo-auteurist excursions. Because Marvel Comics had Uncanny X-Men, they could also have Howard the Duck. The big blockbusters pay of the smaller, more interesting work.
7. Part of the problem with that theory, though, is that Marvel doesn’t appear to be doing anything small. All of these movies are hitting in prime blockbuster season—summer, or November. (By comparison, consider that Fox is attempting to diversify its mutant slate with a February movie about a super-psychopath.) Marvel Studios is in the business of releasing megablockbusters. It’s a steady business, but it’s worth asking whether something as weird as Inhumans was ever meant to be a $200 million movie. Or rather, it’s worth looking at what you lose when you hyperbolize a weird thing into a popular thing.
8. I love Thor, the character. The first Marvel comic I ever bought was Thor #447. (The Absorbing Man! Spider-Man guest-starring! Thor with a grunge-era beard!) And to me, the Thor sub-franchise is the one example of Marvel Studios not quite getting its own source material. The Asgard stuff is never as grand as it should be; the fact that Thor only hangs out in Earth’s friendliest tax havens is suspicious. And Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is a great character, but all his best moments were in Avengers. The fact that they have subtitled the Thor threequel Ragnarok is encouraging, but also worrisome. Hasn’t every Thor movie so far been about the end of the universe? Doesn’t it seem entirely possible that Ragnarok will set up Loki as an antagonist, until him and Thor team up to take down the REAL bad guys in the third act? Tom Hiddleston once described Loki as his “Hans Gruber.” Isn’t it time to let Loki go Full Villain?
9. The casting of Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther is exciting. The Black Panther mythology presents the possibility for a truly fascinating mixture of tones. Some of the best Black Panther stories are mystical, and some of the best Black Panther stories are political. On a purely abstract level, the best possible version of a Black Panther movie would be an entire season of House of Cards mashed into a couple episodes of Vikings. In Marvel Studios terms, Black Panther could be Winter Soldier crossed with the first twenty minutes of Thor 1. I’m not sure if there’s a right director for that movie; the only recent film that comes close is Snowpiercer.
10. A couple weeks ago, Warner Bros. made headlines for announcing a Cyborg, a movie about a black superhero. A couple months ago, Sony made headlines for announcing Untitled Female-Centric Spider-Man Spinoff, a movie about a company struggling to figure out what to do with an ailing franchise. As of today, Marvel’s black-superhero movie will come out three year’s before Warner Bros’; as of today, Marvel’s female superhero movie has a release date, and Sony’s does not. It shouldn’t be a competition, true; we should now start aggravating Marvel for like just one gay character, yes. But these are positive developments, insofar as they aren’t negative.
11. One of the biggest takeaways from today is that Marvel is probably never going to make a Black Widow movie. I think this is smart, and I think it reveals that Marvel has a much better sense of its own limitations than we tend to think. Scarlett Johansson deserves some kind of medal for what she’s done with a character who was introduced as eye candy amidst the general disarray of Iron Man 2. She was the glue of Avengers; she graduated to a genuine presence in Winter Soldier. But the movies have never even tried to explore the character’s past—in Winter Soldier she claims to be ex-KGB, but that feels like a weird leftover from the comic book character, who has basically nothing in common with the bigscreen Black Widow beyond hair color and skintight clothes. As a result, almost accidentally, Marvel Studios has coughed up maybe the most popular superhero of the superhero movie era who doesn’t have an elaborate backstory, or a mournful psychodrama, or all the other structural problems that grade-deflate even the best superhero movies to like a B+ at best.
When Kevin Feige talked to EW’s Lindsey Bahr today after the announcement, he specifically referred to a theoretical Black Widow spinoff as a “prequel,” which UGH UGH UGH UGH. I say keep her as the glue; I say keep her as the closer; I say have at least one scene in Infinity War, Part 2 where Thanos appears to be triumphant, staring down at the bodies of the greatest superheroes on earth, his dominion over the multiverse assured—and then a small human woman with a ridiculous red wig punches him square in his purple jaw.
12. Are you reading Hawkeye? I’m reading Hawkeye. The other day, I picked up the collection Hawkeye: L.A. Woman, which collects a recent story arc where a female Hawkeye named Kate Bishop moves to Los Angeles. She loses her credit card and fights a third-tier villain named Madame Masque and occasionally interacts with a character who appears to be Elliot Gould-as-Philip Marlow in The Long Goodbye. The events could not be less cosmic; one issue focuses on her attempts to track down some orchids for her neighbors’ wedding. (Her neighbors are two gay men, which I only mention because that’s two more gay characters than have appeared in 10 Marvel Studios movies.) L.A. Woman is one of the best mainstream comics collections I have ever read. When I’m done writing this, I’m going to read it again. It’s a comic book about the lesser-known version of a lesser-known character. It is funnier than any of the Iron Man movies and smarter than any of the Captain America movies, and it feels more plugged into what is actually happening now than any of these movies based on a compilation of stories culled from across the last fifty years.
You should read Hawkeye. Then we’ll have something to actually talk about, while we wait for the Marvel decade to end.