Here’s a cheerful holiday question, as we enter the third year of a once-a-century pandemic: What does it feel like to live through the world ending?
This is — if you really, really zoom out — the question that occupies the aggregate Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m not saying this is why everyone sees Marvel movies. Obviously not. They make money for the normal reasons of being entertaining, with some of the best and most charismatic actors in large-scale, interlocking adventure stories that occasionally elevate into greatness; they are without pretension and with the natural pull of superheroes (having a favorite). They are a good time.
What I am saying, however, is that a real depth of the MCU derives, paradoxically, from a hollowness at its core: It's a series about the world ending via surreal external forces that never really deals with what it means for the world to end.
I’ve been thinking about this for three reasons: a. The pandemic just won’t end, b. I have somehow seen six of the nine Marvel properties released in 2021, including Eternals, c. I happened to catch some of Iron Man recently.
At the time of release, the original Iron Man was a true product of the George W. Bush years. In 2008, the film's sunshine wittiness and rejection of defense-contractor WMDs sat against the dominant superhero series of that era: Christopher Nolan's Batman. On some level, The Dark Knight, also released in 2008, concerns how far Americans should go to eradicate terrorism and what happens to those who do and why anyone would pursue that at all — a more realist (in presentation), more violent venture into the soul, where you might see a tattered American flag waving in the early morning sun. Rather than bleak, Iron Man is fun.
Thirteen long, long years later, Iron Man — if you watch it right now — loses all that Bush-era context and gains a different one. If that exact movie were released today, given all that’s come since within the constructed MCU and in the unfolding trajectory of our real lives, you'd almost expect arch title cards at the beginning: “This was back before the aliens started invading and half the world's population disappeared for five years.” Back when things were messed up, back before they got REALLY messed up, possibly where it all began. It’s a much simpler, more contained movie, where the problems are entirely man-made and direct. Aliens don’t invade; people aren’t forced to kill each other or themselves to protect humanity; there isn’t even that much of a mysterious next property to set up yet.
Because Marvel has decided (so far) against completely rebooting existing properties under the Disney banner, the shows and films have begun to acknowledge how weird and extreme the last 10 years of the parallel Marvel world was.
The latest Disney+ title, Hawkeye, opens with an 11-year-old girl — Kate Bishop (eventually Hailee Steinfeld) — watching aliens destroy her family’s penthouse and kill her father in 2012, i.e., a scene from the first Avengers movie, from a spectator’s perspective. These touches are usually more comic than anything: In that series’ present day, Hawkeye eyes “Thanos Was Right” graffiti, and catches a terrible musical rendition of the Avengers history. In Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Shaun (Simu Liu) walks past flyers advertising help coping with the blip: “POST-BLIP ANXIETY? YOU ARE NOT ALONE.” His college friend tells him, basically, it's time to grow up because you never know when half of humanity, including you, might disappear again.
The more surface touches of this, though, weirdly, are reminiscent of the surface touches of the pandemic. The New York subways remain plastered, for instance, with an ad advising proper mask-wearing, featuring a consistent black-ink cartoon style against a rich gold-yellow backdrop. These cartoon characters started in summer 2020; they got winter clothes toward Christmas last year; they started reminding you to wear a mask even if you're vaccinated in the spring; now they remind you to wear a mask, ask you to read or look at your phone instead of talking, and get a booster vaccine ("Need a boost?"). Staring at one while on your way to the dentist has that same sort of surrealist humdrum irony touch.
Nothing deals with the preceding decade of the MCU without really dealing with the decade more than Spider-Man: Far From Home. That movie opens with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) arguing about how not every catastrophe is aliens, the catastrophe apparently being aliens, then a segue into a meme-looking high school PA in memoriam of fallen Avengers set to “I Will Always Love You,” and a recap of people returning from the blip with a lament that people had to take midterms and a returned marching band member getting hit in the face with a basketball. Shortly thereafter, Spider-Man and a joking Aunt May do a Salvation Army fundraiser for everyone in New York displaced from their homes by their own disappearance. Now Far From Home rules (many Spider-Mans converge on Spider-Man in a trippy virtual reality), and arguably a jokiness fits both Spider-Man and the overall realm of high school, but it does not per se encompass all the emotions that might follow half the earth’s population atomizing temporarily.
Elsewhere in Phase Four of the MCU, this occasionally goes deeper, if briefly, like the suggestion of Kate Bishop’s origin story. WandaVision features Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) waking up from the blip in a cancer ward to find her mother died a long time ago; the hospital is total chaos. Hawkeye opens one episode with Florence Pugh’s Yelena stepping into a powder room and seeing herself disappear and reemerge in the blip, with the walls changing color around her as time jumps ahead five years. When she exits, her old friend has a husband and a child. The overall effect in 2021 is: Oh damn, it’s like the pandemic.
What they aren’t really doing is dealing too much with how everyone keeps living their lives — on any deeper, presumably more emotionally chaotic level — despite the actual mass death, destruction, and resurrection that the Marvel world puts forward. The story stays pretty contained to a few dozen heroes; absolution is usually not too hard to achieve; the next thing is always coming, and whatever it is, it will follow the rhythms of the first thing. We all know to expect the last 15 to 30 minutes of a Marvel enterprise to be consumed by a CGI fight in the air with aliens/robots/dragons/witches (so much so that Spider-Man: Far From Home’s villain operates on that expectation) intermingled with some forward-looking irresolution. Even with (fun!) characters like Kate Bishop, Marvel doesn’t really delve too deeply into how and why the collapsing earth resulted in a wealthy 22-year-old beating up mafia bros (beyond a dope opening credits sequence).
WandaVision, for instance, tells a very specific, deep Twilight Zone story about how the mind can try to rewrite a brutal, shocking loss. But when the narrative ventures toward how that kind of grief — no matter how real — can inflict pain on other people, the show backs away from dealing with the implications of what Marvel’s heroes wrought, in favor of the next thing (promoting Captain Marvel and Doctor Strange). Which is, actually, mostly fine; not everything must be The Leftovers or Crime and Punishment, and WandaVision offered plenty of compelling cuts of a life undone. And Spider-Man: Far From Home is fun as hell and they shouldn’t have changed anything about it.
The more I’ve thought about this eternal setup at the expense of the current thing, though, it’s seemed to me almost like an accidental depth, one that speaks to the last decade, in which it’s occasionally felt like the world is ending — or at least becoming complicated beyond previous recognition. And I wouldn’t exactly say this fundamental feature of the MCU makes most of these titles excellent art on the individual level about what it feels like for the world to feel like it’s ending.
But taken together, at the 100,000-foot level, the fact that each property is basically about someone doing what they were doing anyway, then having to deal with some new iteration of surreal but familiar external forces invading, and never having any time to really think about what it all means because the next thing is already happening, as it turns out — now that we really do live in a notable historical period of continual surreal events that could make you question the foundations of society — everyone has to continue doing what they were doing anyway when the world is ending, and you’ll never have that much time to think about what it all means because the demands of the next thing will be upon you.
What does it feel like when the world ends? It just feels like aliens invading until something else happens. ●