An increasingly common sentiment I’ve found amongst my friends is a complete rejection of superhero movies, a rebellion against not just a few films a year but an entire ecosystem. “I saw the last Spider-Man,” one of these friends said as she explained why she wouldn’t see the newly released Avengers: Infinity War with me, “and needed the movie annotated to me the entire time.” It seemed like exaggeration, until I remembered that Spider-Man: Homecoming required partial knowledge of The Avengers (2012), The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Captain America: Civil War (2016), at least one of the Iron Man films (2008, 2010, 2013), and if possible, some familiarity with Spider-Man’s existing history (comics: 1962-present; movies released in 2002, 2004, 2007, 2012, 2014), as this movie didn’t recap his origin story, because doesn’t everybody know that by now?
We’re coming up on nearly 20 years of superhero movies — specifically, superhero movies based off of Marvel or DC comics — dominating the box office, genre supremacy matched length-wise only by the western, which proliferated throughout Hollywood from the ‘30s to the ‘60s. What makes superhero movies historically novel is the fact that most of them are now of a set, each one playing off previous films and endeavoring to set up the next. Avengers: Infinity War was preceded by 18 related movies from the Marvel Universe over the past decade, nearly all of them providing necessary context in bits and pieces. It concluded by teasing a 20th installment.
This is occasionally satisfying, inasmuch as recognizing stuff you remember is an evergreen thrill in fiction and the advancement in computer technology means all of it looks really cool, except for Thanos’ chin. It’s depressing in the sense that summer blockbusters shouldn’t require a syllabus, especially not when the pleasure is rarely more advanced than “and then they punched” or sometimes “and then he was vaguely wistful about some sloppily explored melodrama.” These movies can only be consumed in sequence; as standalone experiences, they’re largely formulaic, and halfway incoherent to anyone who didn’t spend years mainlining comic books.
There are so many of them, and they make so much money. Sometimes I see them as a self-replicating algorithm meant to reprogram our brains to enjoy no other kind of entertainment — to normalize the expansion of every group of linked characters into a cinematic universe, as some studios have attempted to replicate to middling success. But to be honest, the movies don’t bother me as much as the means by which they become desired, and thus created and sold to audiences whose enthusiasm becomes generative energy for a collective hallucination of a world where all of this deserves commitment, and definitely a box office-breaking weekend. The conversation before the conversation, the conversation after the conversation, the persistent state of anticipation induced to make sure we can never, ever look away — this ever-expanding and regurgitating echo chamber is what gets me, not Thanos’ chin.
Speculative discourse permeates the modern internet. Sports sites speculate about playoff winners and breakout seasons from young players; music sites speculate about Kanye’s latest collaborators and potential Grammy winners; video game sites speculate about release dates and E3 reveals; and so on. Sometimes you sense a desperation to be taken seriously in the speculator; some analysts talk about LeBron’s losing record in the NBA Finals like it’s a crime punishable by the Hague. Most often, people speak casually as they envision dozens of possible universes in which something interesting may happen, some of which may even make them happy. They read grand designs in tea leaves, sort through received wisdom about the way things work, spin deeper fictions when something seems plausible.
Superhero movies are a hotbed of speculative discourse because there is so much source material that might yet become relevant. The films can tease future events, but that’s not even required; a producer or actor might make a slight aside in an interview, or tweet a photo from set, and set off waves of articles fantasy booking what might potentially happen. Websites hire writers who finally have something to do with the vault of useless comic bullshit rattling around in their brain, and can hypothesize all the possible ways a character, power set, or story arc might come into play. Publications that used to never, ever cover such subjects now abase themselves at the altar of ad revenue, hoping a high Google result on “Captain Marvel infinity stone” will enable them to keep the lights on for one more week. And people read all this in droves, perhaps because they’re enamored by the possibilities, or maybe just bored at lunchtime and in search of something low calorie to accompany their chopped salad.
Fun is fun; I can’t resist an occasional curious click. But the queasy part is how this effectively turns everyone into a publicist for the next corporate venture, their excitement bottled and rebranded as “organic growth.” Such unpaid labor is historically consistent. These companies insist they’re treating important cultural legacies with respect, but they’re monetizing characters and stories taken from creators who signed iffy contracts regarding ownership, and have likely never seen any profits now that their inventions bring in millions of dollars. They partner with the military; they collaborate with Donald Trump. Superheroes espouse the worth of truth, justice, and the American way, only they mostly benefit the forces who’d oppose Captain America.
It feels iffy and purposefully dour to allow systemic imbalances to deny pleasure. I get it: I once got into an argument with a guy who insisted my anticipation for the new Star Wars was nothing more than a Pavlovian response to corporately weaponized nostalgia, to which I said: “Yeah, and so?” But to see the system work with barely any variation — despite promises that the next movie counts more, no real consequences are ever sustained by these characters, who may be easily rebooted and de-aged in a new franchise — feels like a creative stopping point, given the winners. There are so many possible universes to be explored and we stick with these few, with all their accompanying flaws.
A fandom born not of curiosity but obligation is cultivated, as thousands of people pretend they know or care anything about the Avengers.
Many of the people who initially gravitated toward comic books — and nerd culture at large — were looking for some kind of escape, in the form of righteous, relatively uncomplicated stories of good and evil. That’s how it was for me and my co-workers at the comic store, at least. By sharing a secret language over this appreciation — I remember at least one high school friendship that began with a conversation about a Batman comic — we found a solidarity reserved usually for sports fans.
It was nice, at the time. But as the audiences for these characters has magnified far beyond what any comic book owner might have imagined, what was once the refuge for a band of losers has now become a mothership looming over us all. Nerds have long played the victim; often, that’s what they’ve really been. Now, there’s no ignoring that their culture is the dominant one, and that their enthusiasm drags thousands of other consumers along with the ride by limiting their options at the theater. A fandom born not of curiosity but obligation is cultivated, as thousands of people pretend they know or care anything about the Avengers.
The culture we cared about is elevated, but cheapened as it transforms into another celebrity vehicle to hold mainstream attention. Decades of stories are strip mined to provide a creative backbone for a few movies that will be focus tested for their market appeal. It’s not as good, but it is oddly comforting. By interpreting the offered details into a spectrum of outcomes, fans make legible a universe that need not go deeper than the surface. There are no confusing grays, no moral complexities, only every piece to be put into its place. We understand, because it is there to be understood. Set against the confusing, random universe we’re actually in, the appeal is obvious.