Marvel World

Marvel World

Marvel Studios has managed to recruit fans into rooting not just for its superheroes, but for the company’s business plan.

Marvel action figures (Hannaford/Flickr)

As a kid, my favorite superhero was Batman. For me, superheroes are all about their origin story—not necessarily how they got their superpowers (Batman, after all, doesn’t have any), but why they’re driven to super-heroism. And Batman’s origin story is great: billionaire Bruce Wayne uses the financial bequest of his murdered parents to become strong enough to save them; only he can’t do that, because they’re already dead. So he spends his time compulsively regenerating the traumatic situation of their passing, inviting villainy and menace into his life, where it endangers whomever he loves. Batman is stuck in a loop, ever recreating the conditions for his primal failure, so that he may fail again. Freudians call this a “repetition compulsion.” We might just call it misery; the only love he knows is failure. 

But that’s grownup bullshit. The real reason I loved Batman, as a kid, was the toys. And let me tell you, these were awesome toys. I accumulated dozens of Batman action figures, along with various Batmobiles, Batplanes, and a much-cherished, delightfully intricate Batcave, sized appropriately for my army of plastic, crime-fighting orphans.

My abiding preference for figurines depicting Batman himself, rather than any of his friends or foes, created story problems, however. Why, in this universe, were there so many Batmen? Were they all the same guy in different outfits? That would mean playing with only one at a time! And who would he face off against? Luke Skywalker? That didn’t make any sense! (I was a neurotic kid.) My solution was elegant: I imagined scenarios involving evil imposter Batmen, terrorizing Gotham in his name—and team-ups between doppelganger Batmen from alternative universes. Kid logic is a flexible thing, but it demands satisfaction. Armies of android Batmen controlled by a demonic super-computer? It played. 

I was reminded of this boyhood conundrum—and my solution to it—while reading MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios, a highly competent history of Marvel’s rise to Hollywood supremacy by entertainment reporters Joanna Robinson, Dave Gonzales, and Gavin Edwards. (NB, nerds: I am aware that Batman is not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.) Since 2008, Marvel Studios has made thirty-three films, earned nearly $30 billion, and reshaped the movie business in its image, inspiring a feeding frenzy for superhero content and dormant intellectual property (IP) out of which complex, interconnected “cinematic universes” can be built. Disney, an IP powerhouse infamous for jealously guarding its roster of beloved characters, acquired Marvel in 2009 for $4 billion; three years later, it purchased George Lucas’s Star Wars universe as well. 

But in the 1990s, when Marvel emerged from bankruptcy under the stewardship of toy magnate Ike Perlmutter, its goals were considerably humbler. As Becca Rothfeld writes in her Washington Post review of MCU, “Before they became products in their own right, Marvel movies were unusually expensive and elaborate advertisements for action figures.”  

In 1993, Israeli-born toy-maker Avi Arad was appointed chief executive of Marvel’s fledgling visual entertainment division, which sold the rights to Marvel heroes to individual film and TV productions. “Putting a toy designer in charge of Marvel Films,” the authors write, “made clear what Marvel wanted out of Hollywood: shows and movies that would help them sell more toys. In industry argot, they wanted to make entertainment that was ‘toyetic.’” When Marvel founded an in-house studio in 2004, “toyeticism” was its raison d’être. Since the 1990s, Marvel IP had yielded several successful films, but these, including the Blade movies starring Wesley Snipes and Bryan Singer’s X-Men franchise, were seen as needlessly dark and adult by Marvel’s toy-focused c-suite. If instead Marvel made its own films, they reasoned, “it could keep the on-screen tone toy-friendly and ensure that each movie starred whatever lineup of heroes would move the most action figures.” 

Marvel chose arms dealer Tony Stark to star in the first MCU film (2008’s Iron Man, with Robert Downey Jr.) because a focus group of kids reported that he was the hero they’d “most want to play with as a toy.” (And to be fair to those kids, he flies and shoots lasers from his hands.) For years, Perlmutter refused to approve stand-alone films starring female heroes because, he believed, the toys wouldn’t sell. Black heroes were also thought insufficiently toyetic. Marvel’s corporate brain trust was relieved when a change to the storyboarding for Captain America: The First Avenger, set during the Second World War, placed more emphasis on HYDRA, a syndicate of long-time Marvel baddies, because, as the authors note, “the resulting toys would be more interesting and—technically—not Nazi action figures.”

It’s not uncommon for genre stories to be constructed in this way: baubles first. The cartoon and comic book superhero He-Man, for example, rides an armored green tiger because Mattel, the toy company that invented him, had several warehouses of unsold tiger toys to get rid of. There is obviously something a bit sordid about so crassly subordinating the creative instinct to the necessities of commerce (in this case, commerce in surplus plastic cats). But isn’t that Hollywood in a nutshell?

What seems to trouble Marvel’s detractors—the critics and auteurs who regularly inveigh against its reign—is not that Marvel prioritizes profit over creativity, diversion over art, repetition over novelty, or juvenile wish-fulfillment over adult travail; but that it does so shamelessly, without the obligatory pretense of past eras of Hollywood. 

Ultimately, it wasn’t action figures that made Marvel king; it was ticket sales. Four of the ten highest-grossing movies in history are Marvel Studios productions. Still, I can’t stop thinking about “toyeticism.” In a perverse way, it has made me more, not less, sympathetic to Marvel to imagine its movies being conceived in a process not unlike my boyhood Bat-reveries. I envision a group of kids in their dads’ business suits, sitting on the floor of a conference room, staring down at a pile of their favorite action figures—three Spider-Men, a Thor with no hair (somebody’s sister had cut it off), maybe an Iron Man or two—and asking themselves, “Well, why would all these guys be in the same movie? Why would they be fighting each other? Why three Spider-Men?” If someone comes up with a good enough answer—and it only has to satisfy kid logic—they get to pick up the toys and smash them into each other, over and over again. 

Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (like He-Man, a Mattel product) took seriously the problem of plastic. Gerwig incorporates into her film the idea that Barbies are toys, that the stories we tell about them, and the world they inhabit, reflect the imaginative preoccupations of children—girls, in particular—whose incipient Weltanschauung is conditioned and constrained, but not entirely dictated, by gender, patriarchy, and Mattel’s bottom line. Barbie World is a cruel but fabulous place where every disposition is sunny, every outfit is perfect, every woman is a success, and every foot is arched and pointed primly downward. 

If we think of the MCU in similar terms, as a bedazzling prison populated not by superheroes but superhero dolls, what, then, would we say are the attributes of Marvel World? 

Well, it’s certainly a place that needs a lot of saving, where the resolution of one crisis tends to generate the seeds of the next. Most MCU villains are themselves victims, often of collateral damage from the last time the Avengers (the MCU’s premier supergroup) saved the universe, usually leveling whole city blocks to do so. (The narrative momentum of Marvel World, you might say, relies on blowback.) There are nations in Marvel World, but scant geopolitics, except in the form of globalist schemes to fetter the Avengers. Our heroes are celebrities, but celebrities of the besieged type; they may wish to live their own lives, away from the limelight, but they are constantly being dragged back into service by a simultaneously needful and irksome public. They carry this burden with a discordant mix of grim resolve and self-effacing humor (the DNA of the comics); at times, the Avengers talk about world-saving like it’s a nine-to-five job. (“He’s a friend from work,” quips Thor, before engaging the Hulk in gladiatorial combat in 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok.)

This lunch-pail badinage is at odds with another recurring conceit: that each of the Avengers, like Batman, is bound to hero-work by an originary trauma of some sort, the details of which they closely guard and quietly bear, except in whispered bouts of self-disclosure between pairs of heroes—stagy little superhuman trust-building exercises—which feel more artificial than all the computer-generated aliens. And oh, there are aliens. Lots of aliens. 

Marvel World is not a good place to learn anything new about heroism, about love, grief, or responsibility—although these themes are explicit in every film. The films are also full of melodrama, big swells of emotion of the most compulsory type. (Adorno said popular music “hears for the listener”; Marvel feels for him.) But Marvel World is not without its charms. It is a good place, for example, to see what it looks like when a massive, metallic space-whale crashes through Grand Central Terminal. Likewise, Downey Jr.’s screwball patter with Gwyneth Paltrow in the early Iron Man movies is undeniably charming; James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films are far enough removed (several light-years) from the instrumental plotting and obedient house style of most Marvel films to earn their jukebox fight scenes and sentimentality; Zendaya and Tom Holland (a real-life couple) are winning and believable as teenage sweethearts in the John Hughes–inspired Spider-Man films.

And in at least one respect, Marvel movies are highly sophisticated texts. As the films accumulate, a creeping self-awareness—of the sort that brings chaos and, eventually, liberation to Gerwig’s Barbies—starts to bedevil the denizens of Marvel World as well. Watch enough of these movies (and God knows I have), and what they seem to be about is Marvel Studios itself. 

Other critics have noted this self-reflexivity. “MCU movies are often metaphors for themselves,” writes the New Yorker’s Michael Schulman, “In ‘The Avengers,’ the tense collaboration among superheroes with complementary powers and sizable egos resembles nothing so much as Hollywood filmmaking, with writers, directors, and producers wrangling for control.” Similarly, frequent handwringing within the movies about which heroes should comprise, or lead, this or that version of the Avengers stands in for the casting process. As Schulman notes, in Captain America: Civil War, the imposition of government oversight on the Avengers is “a handy analogy for creativity under corporate supervision.” 

But repressed anxieties are at least as pervasive as self-conscious allegory. Marvel Studios built its empire on characters and storylines generated, over decades, by an army of comic book writers and artists. In exchange for using their designs in billion-dollar movies, Marvel artists have received checks as low as $5,000 and invitations to a premiere. It’s notable, then, how frequently villains and heroes in the MCU are motivated by a desire to defend, hoard, or steal intellectual property. In Iron Man, Jeff Bridges’s Obadiah Stane rebukes Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark for keeping the Iron Man suit secret from his business partners: “You really think that just because you have an idea, it belongs to you?” 

In Iron Man 2 (2010), Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko resolves to kill Stark because he believes Stark’s father stole his own father’s design for the “arc reactor,” which powers Stark’s suit. “You come from a family of thieves and butchers,” Vanko lectures Stark, “and now like all guilty men, you try to rewrite your own history. And you forget all the lives the Stark family has destroyed.” Hoarded IP derived from alienated labor represents the MCU’s primitive accumulation; Vanko’s speech—delivered in an over-the-top Russian accent by Rourke—is compelling despite itself.

Anxiety about corporate control and uniformity also animates the MCU’s most critically lauded film. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018) is set in the techno-utopian kingdom of Wakanda, an African nation unspoiled by European colonialism. Wakanda owes its distinctive visual grammar—its Afrofuturist costuming, artful lighting, and inventive set design—to Coogler’s decision to bypass Marvel’s in-house art leads “in favor of his own crew,” some of whom won Academy Awards for their work (the only Oscar wins for the franchise). 

Notably, no other MCU character appears in Black Panther before the credits run; in most respects, the film resists not only Marvel’s visual tyranny, but the instrumentalization of its plot for the purpose of advancing the larger, interconnected MCU saga. Black Panther is a movie about an isolated, self-sufficient Black civilization resisting interference from outsiders, including the Avengers, who would use its resources for their own aims. In a sense, Black Panther is the Wakanda of the MCU—a site of resistance against Marvel’s hostility to sovereign artistic ambition—which makes what happens in the next MCU film particularly galling. As critic Aaron Bady notes, in Avengers: Infinity War, Wakanda is bled dry, narratively, by the arrival of the Avengers, whose plot takes immediate precedence, and robbed of its visual distinctiveness by directors Joe and Anthony Russo. Situated within an Avengers tentpole, Wakanda serves as yet another wasted landscape for an interminable, computer-generated battle between superheroes and aliens, the same one we’ve seen dozens of times already. It is exhausting.

But Marvel’s self-awareness extends even to this exhaustion; the films seem to know they are testing our patience. In Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019), Jake Gyllenhaal plays an aggrieved former Stark employee who uses combat drones and holograms to trick humanity into believing he is an interdimensional superhero called Mysterio, fighting to save Earth from elemental monsters. The revelation of Mysterio’s deceit, halfway through the movie, lends a weightlessness to the entire MCU canon: the fight scenes we’ve seen thus far—including Spider-Man’s showdown with a massive water golem in the canals of Venice—were fake; but for the audience, they were no more or less fake than any other fight scene in a Marvel movie. In the end, there is something contemptuous about the relish with which the film brings attention to its own artifice. As Mysterio tells Spider-Man, “It’s easy to fool people when they’re already fooling themselves.” 

The hero of MCU is Kevin Feige, the plucky comic-book savant who rose through Hollywood’s ranks to become Marvel’s top producer and the creative architect of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The authors invite us to root for Feige the way we root for characters like Steve Rogers, the skinny kid from Brooklyn who is transformed into a super-soldier to fight the Nazis. “So many big men fighting this war,” says Captain America’s inventor, a German-Jewish refugee played by Stanley Tucci. “Maybe what we need now is a little guy.” This is the essence of the Marvel power fantasy: regular people—skinny kids, Jews, outcasts, nerds—becoming strong enough to defeat their tormenters and, by dint of their own history of suffering, wielding their superpowers for good. (Captain America was created in 1941 by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon; he is seen punching out Hitler on the cover of Volume 1.) 

This perverse identification with power explains the “sore-winner” quality of Marvel fandom—the online armies of superhero fans who react with rancor every time a trendy actor or director criticizes the MCU. Marvel may be on top of the world, but some of its fans still feel like they’re trapped inside a high-school locker. 

Feige isn’t the son of immigrant garment workers like Kirby. (His origin story involves being rejected by the University of Southern California’s film school five times.) But the authors of MCU take pains to establish the unlikelihood of Feige’s astronomic success. “Feige’s vision for Marvel wasn’t linear, limited, or safe,” they report. Marvel Studios grew “by combining the improvisational bootstrap culture of a Silicon Valley start-up with a modern version of the studio system, signing up actors for long-term contracts, cultivating a coterie of staff writers, and bringing on a small army of visual artists who sometimes determined the look of a movie before a director was even hired.” 

In truth, of course, safety—in the sense of a guaranteed return on investment for shareholders—has been Marvel’s principle accomplishment, reviving a flailing blockbuster system by eliminating the risk associated with novelty. To do so, Feige merely supercharged what had already been working for Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter: constituting a “paracosm” out of existing IP, an endlessly iterative fantasy world, with a locked-in, nostalgic audience. South Park satirized this enterprise, and the essentially conservative impulse underlying it, in its twentieth season, in which the adult townsfolk become addicted to “Member Berries”: little grape-like, sentient fruit who squeak IP-centric slogans like, “member Chewbacca?” and “member Ghostbusters?” before tossing off increasingly reactionary ones: “member feeling safe?” “member Reagan?” “member when marriage was just between a man and a woman?” 

Robinson, Gonzales, and Edwards are clearly Marvel fans, but they’re too well-sourced to paint an exclusively flattering portrait.  We learn, in MCU, about contractual disputes with actors and directors; about the likely pervasiveness of HGH prescriptions on Marvel sets; and about the mistreatment of Marvel’s visual effects workers, who recently voted to unionize (a conflict also presaged by the Mysterio plot line, in which a disgruntled viz dev underling organizes a revolt against the Avengers). But even these darker moments are conveyed in a relentlessly sunny and over-awed tone. The cumulative effect of this dissonant boosterism is a sense of creeping dread, like perusing a glossy, trifold pamphlet only to gradually realize it advertises a concentration camp. “The MCU is inevitable,” the authors write, “as Thanos says of himself,” perhaps forgetting for a moment that Thanos, the arch-villain of Marvel World, planned to destroy half the universe in order to save it. 

What does seem unique about Feige’s accomplishment is that he managed to recruit fans of the MCU into rooting not merely for its superheroes, but for his own business plan. Like sports fans who scrutinize the machinations of their teams’ front offices as closely as the action on the field, Marvel fans debate and dissect the twists and turns of Feige’s content development pipeline, which is divided into numbered “phases,” as they would be on a corporate slide deck. Jason E. Squire, a professor emeritus at the film school that rejected Feige five times, recently told Variety, “Kevin Feige is the Babe Ruth of movie executives.” He calls his shots, and they (usually) leave the park. (Maybe rooting for Marvel is like rooting for the Yankees.) But just as our sympathy for skinny Steve Rogers wanes the longer we know him as Captain America, the thrill of rooting for super-charged winners in the c-suite may diminish too. (Somebody has to root for the Mets.)

Still, Feige is difficult to hate. He strikes the reader as so thoroughly a man for his moment, so naturally and plentifully endowed with the meager qualities needed for this endeavor, that it’s difficult to summon or maintain the appropriate resentment at what he and Marvel have wrought. As Rick and Morty creator Dan Harmon told the authors of MCU, “[Y]ou can’t fight Kevin Feige in the street. He’ll just say, ‘Oh, I love that you’re fighting me. This is so wonderful,’ and everyone will start booing you for being a bully.” He’s a slap-happy warrior, a fan himself. Arguing with Feige about artistic integrity, I imagine, would be like arguing with a beaver about why he builds his den with sticks instead of stucco.

Indeed, these debates—about Marvel, mass culture, and art—feel as stale and redundant as the movies themselves. Now as in the past, it’s difficult to discern whether the lover of high art is principally disturbed by the market or by the masses (consider, for example, Adorno’s disdain for big band jazz); likewise, it’s hard to tell whether apologists for mass culture are at war with elite snobbery and self-satisfaction or with taste, quality, and the very notion of artistic merit. Suffice it to say, even Marvel’s harshest critics usually admit the films are entertaining. And I suspect most MCU devotees know that entertainment is not all our souls require. 

“The March Hare explained to Alice that ‘I like what I get’ is not the same thing as ‘I get what I like,’” Dwight Macdonald wrote in one of his prickly takedowns of mass culture, “but March Hares have never been welcome on Madison Avenue.” I suspect March Hares aren’t welcome at Marvel Studios either. (Then again, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is public domain, so be careful what you wish for.) Despite frequent industry warnings of “superhero fatigue,” audiences continue, at least, to like what they get; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 pulled $845.6 million worldwide, just a smidge under the returns of Vol. 2 ($863 million). The other highest-grossing movies of 2023 included Barbie, The Super Mario Bros. Movie, the tenth entry in the Fast & Furious franchise, The Little Mermaid, an animated Spider-Man, and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One. No doubt, Hollywood’s love affair with iterative IP is far from over. 

That isn’t to say Marvel doesn’t have problems. The studio’s latest offering, The Marvels, was the worst performing MCU entry ever, grossing just under $200 million in its first month (a flop). The visual effects for Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023) were slapdash and widely mocked by critics and fans. Ratings for MCU television content seem to be flagging. And in December, Marvel cut ties with the actor who was supposed to shepherd the MCU into Phase Six, Jonathan Majors, after he was convicted of misdemeanor assault and harassment. Most of all, perhaps, standards are slipping amid a glut of content on the streaming service Disney+. “The quality is suffering,” one of the authors of MCU, Joanna Robinson, recently told Variety. “In 2019, at the peak, if you put ‘Marvel Studios’ in front of something, people were like, ‘Oh, that brand means quality.’ That association is no longer the case because there have been so many projects that felt half-baked and undercooked.”

The recent films have a narrative problem as well. In the early going, the principle story challenge for Marvel productions was keeping audiences invested in the stakes: how many times can the Avengers save the world before “saving the world” ceases to feel like such a big deal? The Thanos storyline was the apotheosis of this emotional arms race: in Infinity War, Thanos succeeds in disappearing half the universe’s population—along with dozens of beloved MCU heroes—with a snap of his fingers. But then, in Endgame, the Avengers succeed in reviving most of their dead friends by traveling to an alternative universe where Iron Man uses the “infinity gauntlet” to reverse the Thanos snap, while sacrificing himself: an emotionally satisfying triumph. 

But it can’t be replicated. From then on, the existence of the scarcely understood “multiverse” was supposed to provide narrative momentum for the films—and a handy justification for including Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire’s versions of Spider-Man in the Marvel/Sony co-production Spider-Man: No Way Home—but all the multiverse could really do was provide narrative indeterminacy, evacuating the stakes from any consequential event or loss. Tony Stark’s death in Endgame was tragic, but why should fans accept its permanence, when in the very same movie, dozens of other characters were revived? In 2021, as if to taunt Feige and co. for confining themselves to this metaphysical cul-de-sac, a group of Marvel fans paid for a billboard urging the studio to “#BringBackTonyStarkToLife.” And why not? (One reason why not: Downey Jr.’s salary had ballooned to $75 million for Endgame.) 

In the latest Guardians of the Galaxy movie, the last to be directed by James Gunn, Chukwudi Iwuji plays the High Evolutionary, a megalomaniacal alien geneticist who aims to build a utopian society inhabited by supreme beings of his own creation. A space-age Doctor Moreau, he evolves new species from the DNA of lower life-forms (raccoons, badgers, walruses), branding each as the IP of his company, OrgoCorp. In pursuit of perfection, he builds creature after creature, world after world, looking for signs of the “capacity for invention” that is the hallmark of civilization. But each iteration disappoints him. His experiments only ever replicate what is already known; they can’t make anything new for themselves; they are perfect, but perfectly predictable. (A race of man-animal hybrids, sequestered on an alternate Earth, rebuild 1950s suburbia, down to the linoleum floors and manual transmission cars; the High Evolutionary destroys them to start over again.)

It seems likely that Gunn intended some of this thematic resonance. After all, what is Disney if not a massive corporate zoo of super-beings and talking animals, made of recycled and remixed franchise DNA, which are frantically combined into flawed but functional worlds? (Gunn’s bitterness is a matter of record: Marvel/Disney fired him in 2018, over blue tweets from the aughts; he was rehired to finish the movie in 2019, after his cast revolted.) Notably, Gunn invites the audience to sympathize with all of the High Evolutionary’s creations—not just the ones we know and love. To be test subjects for OrgoCorp experiments is to be instrumentalized, enslaved. And so the Guardians free them all, facilitating an exodus of giant animals, toothy space squids, and gleeful star children onto a giant spaceship headed for the cosmos. It’s a moving moment. 

Where is this ark of liberated misfits headed? Well, if they could go where Gunn is going, then to Warner Bros. Discovery, where he’s been hired to revitalize the DCU, the shared universe inhabited by Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman. Gunn’s message in Guardians 3 seems to be that the capricious world-builders of the MCU don’t deserve their progeny; that Feige and Disney have crushed the creative potential of their own creations, by exerting too much control and imposing their own definition of perfection. Like Prendick, Gunn has come to sympathize with Moreau’s abominations. (“I say I became habituated to the Beast Folk. . . . I suppose everything in existence takes its color from the average hue of our surroundings.”) Oddly, I find myself sympathizing with Moreau and the High Evolutionary; their lengthy, torturous experiments have failed to reproduce the human spark. Some abominations are not worth saving. 

Sam Adler-Bell is a freelance writer in New York. He co-hosts the Dissent podcast Know Your Enemy.