Assembling the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Essays on the Social, Cultural, and Geopolitical Domains (ed: Julian C. Chambliss, William L. Svitavsk, Daniel Fandion)
Assembling the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Essays on the Social, Cultural, and Geopolitical Domains (2018) edited by Julian C. Chambliss, William L. Svitavsk, and Daniel Fandion is a collection of 15 essays examining the Marvel films, in particular how they “represent, construct, and distort American culture.” The essays vary in the level of “academese” employed, and also for me varied in how far they stretched their given premises, but taken as a whole this is an intellectually stimulating and rewarding anthology.
The editors have divided the book into three sections, the titles and descriptions given below:
- Section I: The Cultural Context of the Transmedia Universe
- “The relationship between the MCU and the rise of the transmedia experience … a new mode of filmmaking”
- Section II: The Social Context of the Cinematic Universe
- “[how] filmmakers have also created their own distinctive vision of the United States and how it should be in regard to the relationship between social distinction and difference in status.”
- Section III: The Geopolitical Context of the Cinematic Universe
- “The connections between the Marvel films and modern American geopolitical anxieties … [particularly] terrorist attacks and the ensuing war on terror … and foreign threats faced by the United States … [along with] critiques as to how American policy makers have gone about defending the country.”
I won’t cover all fifteen essays in Assembling the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but will share a few reactions to each general section and one or two specific essays within.
This section was probably the least engaging for me, in that it dealt more with the general concept of the MCU as a “transmedia” (across media types) product that required of its audience “continuity literacy” (the willingness and ability to retain information from varied/sequential sources). In that regard the first few essays, though they made use of and reference to several more academic terms, were a bit basic or self-evident. As such they more set the stage for later discussions.
Lisa K. Perdigao’s essay “#It’sAllConnected” is a more focused exploration, detailing the way plot and characters are interwoven between Marvel: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Marvel movies, thus “blurring the boundaries between film and television screens.” It’s a deep-bore look at this new sort of world Marvel is creating, and the ways the TV show and the films frame each other’s stories as they both converge and diverge. Derek. R. Sweet’s essay, “America Assemble: The Avengers as Therapeutic Public Memory” examines how The Avengers “conjures the perceived social and political failures surrounding 9/11 but also offers an opportunity to rehabilitate those failures … offering a cultural restorative revolving around the familiar theme of redemptive violence.” Sweet does a strong job of cataloging the many parallels to 9/11 in the film as well as some of the potential symbolic readings of character — Fury as “the intense feelings of powerlessness experienced by the everyperson in the wake of 9/11,” Black Widow as “the insecurities experienced when one discovers a friend is now an enemy.” While I appreciated Sweet’s thoughtfulness, I thought his interpretations were a little too often stretching things to make an argument.
On the other hand, I quite enjoyed the final essay in this section, “Your Ancestors Called it Magic,” by one of the editors, William L. Svitavsky. Here, the author applies the critical distinction between external realism (“rooted in similarity of the actual world”) and narrative realism (“requires plausibility and coherence within the narrative”) to the MCU, where “a coherent past is vitally important.” Svitavsky traces the ways in which magic gradually enters the MCU storyline, as well as how it broadens cosmically, as “MCU audiences have proven willing to accept more and more fantastic premises, even as the stories have offered less and less rationalization.” He also points out the way the MCU travels back and forth in time/history, with Thor for instance “establishing a distant past” which is “soon tied to the 1940’s and then to the present day in Captain America.” It is this rich history, Svitavsky argues, that allows for a greater depth of story and character, since “In the MCU, heroism is a quality that arises from an imperfect and complicated past.” Marvel’s heroes can redeem themselves despite “his or her past failings … Tony Stark can move beyond arms manufacturing and narcissism. Bruce Banner can use his inner monster to help people …” These redemption stories, Svitavsky says in his close, offer an audience surrounded by the “infinite complexities of the really world” a welcome “reassurance that it is possible to thrive amidst complexity.”
This section’s essays are all excellent, but I’ll focus on just three. The first, “Stark Contrasts: Reinventing Iron Man for 21st Century Cinema,” by Sarah Zaidan, is an in-depth look at Tony Stark’s character, both in comparison/contrast to the original comic book character and in his growth throughout the various MCU films featuring Iron Man. Zaidan notes early on underlying connections between the 1960s character despite some surface differences. The way, for instance, that “Stark is always the engineer of his own survival, whether the events play out in Vietnam, Afghanistan, or somewhere else entirely.” Or how the original Iron Man’s expression of “his audience’s fears of what technology can lead to when used in the service of warfare … have become no less relevant with the passage of time.” Zaidan is particularly astute when in her examination of how Tony Stark is not only often his own worst enemy — something readily apparent to most — she points to a more nuanced observation that Iron Man’s villains are also “by and large the product of his own actions [and] share superficial aspects of Stark’s character.” A point she returns to later in more detail when she notes in how many ways Ultron is the “inverse of his creator even as he apes him.”
James Rovira’s essay, “Silly Love Songs, Gender, Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Age of Ultron” is another strongly argued essay. Rovira explores the gender structures of the two films, exploring for instance how Peter Quill “embodies a contradiction between biological sex and gender,” how Guardians’ “villains embody masculine stereotypes,” how the hyper-masculine Drax and his desire for vengeance for his wife and children seems at first to play into the usual “common motivator for male rage,” but then becomes something wholly different as “he begins to acquire feminine characteristics” and how Gamora, a “hyper-masculine female” follows the same sort of path. When he turns to the Avengers, Rovira pays especial attention to Black Widow, particularly in her relationship to Banner/Hulk. He also doesn’t shy away from taking on the storm of protest over the bit of dialog where the Black Widow calls herself a monster just after telling Banner how she’d been sterilized. This was a truly insightful reading of gender and androgyny, of how male and female traits in the films were disassociated from biology.
Finally, Anton Mullen’s “Bodies that Shatter: Violence and Spectacle in The Avengers” is a fascinatingly detailed look at the different “value place upon different lives in the film [so that] … the loss of a single American life is represented as a pivotal and traumatic narrative event while the killing of a non-human is a spectacle.” While the observation itself is not all that original, the level of detail Mullen goes into in terms of tracking editing, lengths of shots, individual images, the soundtrack, and other aspects of the film as he marshals his argument is both impressive and entirely convincing.
While the entirety of Assembling the Marvel Cinematic Universe often references the tension reflected in the MCU films between modern America’s desire for “security” after 9/11 and the inherent risks of the obsession with or normalization of a “security state,” the last section jumps more fully and overtly into that conversation. Jason Bainbridge opens the section with a deeply engaging look at the tension between “justice” and “law” in the MCU and a similar one between superheroes and “the state.” Bainbridge cites legal scholars, Derrida, and the old Roman idea of “the pater imporiosius who himself bears both the character of the father and the capacity of the magistrate.” If all that sounds daunting, don’t worry. Bainbridge does an excellent job of making it all accessible without over-simplifying or condescending. I highlighted so much of this essay I may as well have dipped my iPad in a can of paint.
Sasha-Mae Ecleston’s “Enemies, Foreign and Domestic: Villainy and Terrorism in Thor” offers up just as many insights, but to more depressing effect as she explores the many ways the Thor franchise “reinforces nativist fears about a homeland made vulnerable by an enemy within.” Whether it’s the portrayal of the frost giants, Loki, or the “less-fair skinned and less human looking” Dark Elves, she points to how time and again the films reinforce the idea of the inherently sinister nature of the foreigner, the other. Similar points, in just as convincing fashion, are brought up in Samira Shirish Nadkarni’s “To Be the Shield: American Imperialism and Explosive Identity Politics in Agents of SHIELD”, which notes that SHIELD, though being presented as a rogue (in a “good guy” sense) organization actually reinforces the idea of American exceptionalism and hegemony while the show itself “reproduces racial and cultural hierarchies” in its presentation of non-white characters.
Assembling the Marvel Cinematic Universe is intelligent, engaging, insightful, academic without being inaccessible, accessible without being overly simplistic, and an entirely devastating negation of the idea that superheroes are “mere” entertainment — nothing but fluff and escapism.