Sunday, April 15, 2018

MCU Phase 3: Your Dads and Heroes All Sucked


SPOILER WARNING: This post covers pretty much the entire MCU to date. If you're not caught up, come back when you are. Trust me -- it's more fun to find out for yourself.

Having finally caught my happy ass up to Thor: Ragnarok, I came to kind of an unpleasant realization about the current state of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: there's an overarching theme, and it's all about how there are no heroes and all our dads were the worst.

Okay, that's taking it a bit far. But this is the Internet and that's what gets people to read things, so humor me.

Starting with Captain America: Civil War and moving forward, the MCU has been feeding us -- or, rather, its protagonists -- a steady diet of disenchantment. Fans of the comics, or people who just know how story arcs tend to go, probably already knew that nothing was as clean and pristine as advertised. There are a million skeletons in a million closets, and it's probably time to shake them out before we start putting our heroes' lives on the line and making bets on who survives.

Granted, we're still seeing our coming-of-age stories in everyone's first title film. But if I had a nickel for every bad dead dad or shamed idol, I could probably get back into cosplay.

So, why? What the hell? And, on top of all that, how has Marvel managed to stage so many falls from grace without turning grim and gritty?


The Parade of Bad Dads


From Ego to T'Chaka to frickin' Odin, everyone's dad has made a complete hash of things lately. Now, Ego stands apart from T'Chaka and Odin in that the latter two actually tried to be decent people after the fact... even if "being decent people" apparently involved burying the hell out of their mistakes so the new good heroic kids don't find out. Thor and T'Challa had some unpleasant coping to do, but at least their dads weren't insane immortal planets who wanted to use them as batteries.

As I've said elsewhere, and as has been true of fiction and psychology for millennia, surpassing our parents and learning to see them as human and fallible is an important part of the growing-up process. Seeing so many paternal mess-ups back to back to back, though, is more than just coincidence. Our line-up is being put through the wringer, forced to fix mistakes they didn't make, that they inherited through no fault of their own.

And, they see their fathers as heroes, they have to become disenchanted with said heroes.

Speaking of which...


Your Heroes Can Be Let-Downs, Too


Doctor Strange and Spider-Man: Homecoming have more in common than just starring two attractive beardy men as snarky smart people. Though that's noted and appreciated. Both also see their protagonists being failed -- either temporarily or really quite hugely -- by their mentors.

It's a harder hit for Peter Parker, but also an easier recovery, as Homecoming is as much about Tony Stark's growth as it is Peter's. Stephen Strange never had nearly as much of a link to the Ancient One as Peter did to Tony... but the disappointment, the confusion, and the failing is there.

Frankly, it's a little interesting that T'Challa, Dr. Strange, and Peter Parker all made their MCU headliner debuts by being grossly disenchanted. Throw in Star Lord and Thor's experiences in their 80s corner of the universe, and... what's going on?


Honey, You've Got a Big Storm Comin'


The short and not-so-sweet assumption is that Infinity War is going to require our heroes to be as self-sufficient and mature as possible. And that's not really a surprise, seeing as how they're going up against Thanos (speaking of bad dads).

But the surgical cutting-away of major past figures -- parents, mentors, heroes -- seems to be leaving our stars free of any attachments. Steve Rogers was already pretty forcibly freed up from his own past; now the rest have followed. It's a mass-exodus coming-of-age combined with a giant slap in the face: nobody's perfect, heroes are something you become and keep working to be.

And yet -- and this is the part that makes it all worthwhile for me -- this repeated, brutal life lesson never comes across as grim, despite the fact that we've been getting it over and over for this whole span of films.


Deep, But Not Dark


Real talk? Thor: Ragnarok was pretty frickin' grim. Bruce Banner battled with his loss of self, Odin died, the literal goddess of death laid out an insane body count, and Asgard was destroyed. And yet it was still one of the most joyful movies -- Marvel or otherwise -- I've seen in recent months.

The same applies for the Phase 3 movies in general. They all tackle dark, heavy topics -- but as a rule, they don't lose their sense of fun. And the action and entertainment don't dampen the message; if anything, they make us more ready to receive it because we're open to the movie for what it is and not as some sort of Superhero Deconstruction.

Movies can absolutely be dark and grim and cold. Some benefit hugely from it. Superhero movies can play in that field. But you don't lose the ability to tell a multifaceted story when you embrace the fun, even childish aspects of what make these stories great.

Avengers: Infinity War will almost certainly not sparkle as ridiculously as Thor: Ragnarok or Guardians of the Galaxy 2. But I'm hopeful that it will strike the same balance as the best of this phase's offerings. And whatever the greater MCU is prepping us for...

Okay, real talk. I'm probably never going to be ready.


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