Age Of Heroes
With Age Of Heroes, Tom Breihan picks the most important superhero movie of every year, starting with the genre’s early big-budget moments and moving onto the multiplex-crushing monsters of today.
There’s this thing I’ve been doing. I’m not proud of it. It’s embarrassing. But I do it every time I get bored or depressed. And every time, I get at least a little bit of the feeling I’m looking for.
See, on the Thursday night when Avengers: Endgame first came to theaters in the United States, some people had their phones out. And some people used those phones to film the audiences they were in absolutely freaking out at all the obvious absolute-freakout points of the movie.
I know. You’re not supposed to do that. It’s a violation of movie-theater rules and etiquette. But I’m glad they did. Because when I saw Avengers: Endgame on that Thursday night, there were moments where I felt like my blood was on fire. And part of the reason it felt so good is that the entire crowd of people in that theater was right there with me. We were all freaking out at the freakout moments. It felt good.
I can’t get that feeling back by rewatching Endgame. But I can get at least a little piece of it from the tiny, grainy, illicitly captured videos of people loudly feeling the way I felt that night.
Avengers: Endgame was like that. It was a communal experience, a group catharsis session. It was billions of dollars’ worth of people whose emotions and reactions had been judged and massaged and manipulated in just the right ways by a multinational corporation and its many talented contractors. The architects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe created a need in their audience, and then they fed that need. Endgame was pure fan service, with the very important caveat that fan service might not be mere fan service if the fans being served constitute a vast chunk of the global population.
It’s not easy to manufacture a monocultural event. It’s especially not easy to manufacture a monocultural event in an age when all of us have our own little pet enthusiasms and our own social-media feeds dedicated to those little pet enthusiasms. We’ve seen many smart people try and fail to make something like that. All throughout 2019, one film franchise after another has either fallen flat on its face or limped along to bare adequacy: X-Men, Hellboy, Men In Black, Godzilla, Rambo, Terminator, Shaft, The Lego Movie, The Secret Life Of Pets.
Marvel’s closest competitors at DC are only now finding their feet after thrashing around for years in search of an identity. And the people responsible for Star Wars, Marvel’s colleagues at Disney, are showing signs of doing the same thing, going so far as to recruit MCU mastermind Kevin Feige. Meanwhile, the same weekend that Endgame hit theaters, HBO aired the much-anticipated Game Of Thrones episode about the Battle Of Winterfell. It was a mess.
On paper, Endgame and that Thrones episode did many of the same things: Long-teased grand-scale battle scenes, final confrontations, deaths of key characters. But where Endgame was triumphant, Thrones went out like a sad fart. Thrones offered up murky and incoherent battle scenes, rushed and hand-wavy storyline developments, and an out-of-nowhere finale that betrayed all the careful work that had gone into the planning. If you’re going to let a machine manipulate you, you at least want to be sure the people working that machine know what they’re doing. The people at Marvel know what they’re doing. Basically nobody else does.
For way too long, online film discourse has revolved around a huge and aggravating ongoing story. The titans of Hollywood’s ’70s new wave are sounding the alarm at Marvel’s unending dominance. Martin Scorsese kicked this whole thing off with a relatively anodyne interview quote: “I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks.” Francis Ford Coppola took Scorsese’s side a little more forcefully than Scorsese might’ve liked. James Gunn, one of Marvel’s best contractors, tried to argue back with an Instagram image of a sad anthropomorphic raccoon. People on Twitter got mad in the performatively eye-rolling way that people on Twitter get mad. It was hell. It is hell.
After weeks of this, Scorsese expanded on his words in a New York Times op-ed. He wrote with admiration of the craft that goes into Marvel movie and franchise films, but he also wrote that those pictures are missing the risk inherent in an individual vision. And he wrote that these big, expensive, market-tested releases are crowding more original films out of the marketplace, calling the franchises’ dominance “brutal and inhospitable to art.”
There is nobody reading this who is qualified to tell Martin Scorsese what is and is not cinema. Certainly, the Marvel movies, Endgame included, are not cinema in the same way that Martin Scorsese movies are cinema. They are also not cinema in the same way as the B-movies that Scorsese loved when he was growing up. They’re probably closer to theme-park rides than they are to either of those things. Scorsese is right. But have you ever been on a really good theme park ride? It’s not cinema, and it’s probably not art. But it rules.
When you get off the Twilight Zone Tower Of Terror, or Avatar Flight Of Passage, or Harry Potter And The Forbidden Journey, you have been through something. When you ride those rides, you’re on there with people who are all experiencing that same thing. You get off with a buzzy, tingly feeling, yammering to everybody about everything that just happened. That’s not dissimilar from how I walked out of Endgame. In that Times op-ed, Scorsese writes about walking out of Psycho with a feeling like that. Those cellphone videos of Endgame opening-night crowd reactions are not dissimilar from cellphone videos of people on those rides. It’s the same dim echo of mass euphoria. Maybe cellphone videos of Psycho audiences in 1960 would’ve looked the same.
The Marvel movies are less physically visceral than theme-park rides. (My kids did not scream-cry through any part of Endgame.) Endgame is also three hours long, as opposed to a few minutes. It’s a richer text. And anytime a movie reaches a level of cultural dominance like what Endgame has, then that movie has some interesting things to say, intentionally or otherwise, about the world that so eagerly accepted it. Right now, Avengers: Endgame is the highest-grossing film, in pure dollars, in the history of the world. With grosses adjusted for inflation, it’s still high up on the list. (Box Office Mojo has Endgame at #16 on the all-time list, ahead of every film this century besides Star Wars: The Force Awakens.) Endgame is also a culmination of a long effort, a spectacle made for audiences who have been conditioned to see the appearance of the aforementioned sad anthropomorphic raccoon as something other than absurd. It’s a cultural phenomenon, and cultural phenomena demand analysis.
Endgame is, in its way, a cultural phenomenon about analysis. For most of the movie, Earth’s mightiest heroes are broken people, shattered and traumatized and full of regret. When the Avengers get together to kill Thanos, the unstoppable villain of the last film, it happens within the first 10 minutes. It’s a futile and unsatisfying act, and it only plunges the world further into darkness. The heroes react in different ways. Captain America leads support groups, and his optimistic banter falls flat. Thor plunges into deep depression, drinking heavily and gaining weight. The Hulk converges his two selves into one and comes out talking like a guy who’s been to a lot of therapy.
Nobody walked out of Avengers: Infinity War a year earlier thinking its ending was permanent, that all the dusted superheroes would remain floating particles. And yet that movie sold its tragedy. I sat there and watched a sobbing Spider-Man dissolve in Iron Man’s arms, and I came out numb. For as long as it possibly can, Endgame clings to that sense of trauma. In the nightmare-logic cold open, Hawkeye, absent from Infinity War, suffers the vanishing of his entire family. Later on, we see Hawkeye in a murderous berserker fugue state. Still later, he makes vague noises about wanting to atone for the sins he committed in that fugue state. Hawkeye, a secondary Avengers character if ever there was one, goes through a lot.
Crucially, Hawkeye doesn’t get any more satisfaction out of killing assorted miscreants than his fellow Avengers get out of executing a scarred and depleted Thanos. Thanos, barely in the movie before its whiz-bang closing battle, doesn’t even qualify as the villain of Endgame. Instead, the villain is the very idea of consequences suffered. These superheroes, glowing and fantastical god-figures, are helpless before the machinations of fate—until they aren’t. While proposing his big reset plan, Ant-Man asks, “What if we could somehow control the chaos?” That’s the fantasy, isn’t it?
This is where time travel comes in. Mercifully, the film doesn’t go the easy route, having the team revisit the scene of the last movie. Instead, thanks to a proudly loopy time-heist concept, they go through a greatest-hits meta-flashback reel of past franchise moments. This is an incredible flex on the filmmakers’ part. With full confidence, they can assume the audience’s familiarity with even a piece of shit like Thor: The Dark World. Long-gone characters show up for tiny encores. Robert Redford, living film icon, had temporarily announced his retirement after starring in the amber-hued 2018 indie The Old Man And The Gun. Then he’s in Endgame for like five seconds, playing a barely remembered Winter Soldier villain. Marvel does shit like that because it can.
Before the Avengers launch that mission, Captain America tells his team, “No mistakes. No do-overs.” And yet the entire mission is a do-over, an attempt to fix a mistake. In the end, the only one who has to sacrifice himself is Tony Stark, who’s previously been living out the billionaire dream of staying totally insulated from global calamity. The world crumbles, but Stark and his family are healthy and happy and fine. In the end, everyone besides Stark returns, ready to fight. (Pity the Vision, the one superhero too boring to have his death undone.)
Three times in Endgame, we hear Thanos boast that he is inevitable. After being fashioned as a true-believer eco-warrior in Infinity War, Thanos becomes ecological catastrophe itself. He rains fire from the sky and brags of what he’ll do to our puny planet. And yet Thanos is not inevitable. Endgame offers the reassuring spectacle of tragedy not just averted but willed out of existence. In an America where plenty of regrettable shit has gone down in recent memory, that’s a comforting image.
So there’s stuff going on beneath the surface. But Endgame also succeeds wildly as slick entertainment and as bow-tying storytelling. The three-hour runtime never lags. The convoluted plot requires a whole lot of gibberish exposition, but the script sweetens all that with jokes and character moments. Directors the Russo Brothers, who’d spent time working in TV before coming aboard the Marvel mothership, pull off sharp TV-showrunner moves—unexpected character pairings, plans that go sideways at the last second, expertly choreographed references and callbacks. Paul Rudd does charming Paul Rudd things. Chris Hemsworth commits admirably to his fat-drunk bit. Chris Evans radiates charisma. All these people do their jobs.
And the movie’s grand final setpiece is everything that you might want a grand final setpiece to be. All the characters, the ones who disappeared and the ones who stuck around, get big hero closeups. All of them strike poses and give good quotes. A giant Ant-Man punches a spaceship in the face. Hawkeye, Black Panther, and Spider-Man play football with the Infinity Gauntlet. Captain America picks up Thor’s fucking hammer. Even the corniest moments do the things they’re supposed to do. Every adult I know hates the brief scene where all the female superheroes mob up together. And sure, it’s a forced and clumsy bit of corporate wokeness. But it made my 10-year-old daughter jump up and down. I’ll take it.
As storytelling and as spectacle, Avengers: Endgame is a nifty and impressive piece of work. It’s not an ending by any means, but it’s still a satisfying culmination to a grand decade-plus project. Marvel’s operators gambled on plenty—on the idea, for instance, that mass global audiences would accept Nebula as an important character. Mass global audiences rewarded those bets. Endgame might have looked inevitable, but it never was. Its elegance was never a foregone conclusion. Compared to its thunderingly stupid franchise-film competition, Endgame is a beautiful machine. That’s not enough to make Scorsese happy, but it works for me.
You could argue that Endgame is more sensation than substance, more fan service than art. You probably wouldn’t be wrong. But there’s value in sensation and fan service, too. Martin Scorsese just reunited with Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, and Joe Pesci, making a gangster epic with a nine-figure budget while interrogating the subtext of his own past gangster epics. Is that fan service, too? Sure, probably. It’s also cinema.
Other notable 2019 superhero movies: I hated it, but I guess we have to take Joker seriously, right? Todd Phillips made a piece of sticky, shallow Scorsese karaoke, awkwardly stapled a few comic-book signifiers onto it, filmed a bunch of discomfitingly sweaty Joaquin Phoenix close-ups, and convinced pundits that this was something worth arguing about. The result: The highest-grossing R-rated film ever. We haven’t yet seen the effect this might have on superhero cinema, but it might be cool if directors with more to say find subtle ways to work their mythologies into their films while still making the movies they want to make. Too bad the Joker one had to be so fucking stupid.
DC, in general, has been getting its act together, and I like its other two recent movies a lot better than Joker. Aquaman, which came out last year after the 2018 version of this column ran, is a great little stoner flick, a gloriously parade of ridiculous things. And Shazam! proved to be a funny kids’ film with some commendable ’80s nastiness working for it. None of the past three DC productions have had much to do with the larger overarching canon, and this strategy seems to be working out for them.
Marvel, on the other hand, continues its dominance in ways that go beyond Endgame. Captain Marvel, arriving a few weeks before the main event, had fun moments, but it was rote and pointless—an exercise in correcting oversights and foreshadowing plot developments. I’d never been quite so antsy for an end-credits scene to hurry up and arrive. Spider-Man: Far From Home, on the other hand, was as dizzily fun as its predecessor, and it continued to make the case that Tom Holland is the guy to carry Marvel’s entire future. (The ensuing flap between Marvel and Sony was aggravating, at least in part, because we knew they were always going to fix their differences. There’s too much money on the line to separate Spidey and Marvel now.)
2019 is also a notable year just for how many superhero movies turned out to be total dogshit. Maybe the studios are too comfortable, thinking that any comic-book intellectual property will do business, or maybe it’s a case of too many executives getting involved and overthinking decisions. Either way, X-Men: Dark Phoenix was a remarkable debacle, a long-running franchise full of stars ending with a sleepy, endless dirge. Hellboy was a worst-case-scenario franchise reboot, one that added gore and cussing while piling on cheap CGI and adding absolutely no new ideas. It takes a lot to make me hate a movie that opens with a demon killing a vampire in a lucha libre ring, but Hellboy pulled it off.
Meanwhile, after bringing back Bruce Willis’ Unbreakable character in a great moment at the end of 2017’s Split and somehow inventing his own weirdly exciting cinematic universe, M. Night Shyamalan proceeded to blow it in spectacularly anticlimactic fashion with Glass. The idea—these superpowered characters from previous Shyamalan films coming into conflict—is fun, and the performances are great, especially James McAvoy’s schizophrenic supervillain. It all works up until the big ending. I don’t want to spoil that ending here, but it’s stupid, and it sucks. (Shout out to Samuel L. Jackson, anyway, for appearing in four superhero movies in a single calendar year. That’s got to be a record.)
Like Joker, the nasty little horror flick Brightburn goes self-consciously dark with superhero mythology. In this case, we get the Superman story, retold and barely disguised, with the added twist of a young substitute Clark Kent becoming a bloodthirsty force for evil. It’s not entirely un-fun, though there’s a scene involving broken glass and an eyeball that I did not like watching even one little bit.
At the exact opposite end of the spectrum, 2018 ended with the absolutely delightful Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, a smart and self-aware and ultimately moving animated film that made some strange and psychedelic concepts work even on a kiddie-movie level. It’s one of the best superhero films ever made. 2019 had nothing on that level. Instead, we got superhero stuff jammed into kids’ franchises like The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (Batman marries an alien, pretty funny) and The Secret Life Of Pets 2 (bunny with Kevin Hart voice thinks he’s a superhero, not funny at all).