I come before you today with a problem.
It is a rather insidious one at that, beginning at the base of my spine and migrating with so many spider’s steps one fraction of an inch at a time up along the vertebrae and couching itself in the recesses of my brain, there to ferment and fester and trickle into the forefront of my thoughts. It is the contradictory notion of living in the height of the era of fantasy and comic book-inspired film adaptations, long dreamed about since boyhood, and being overtaken gradually by a creeping fog of ennui that threatens to grow into shrugging disinterest.
You see, I have Marvel Fatigue.
I know, I should probably be forced to turn in my geek card after a statement like that, and go and lurk the message board of the New Yorker waiting for Richard Brody’s latest bloviation on Antonioni. But I’m wondering, in the last few weeks before Avengers: Age of Ultron debuts, if we’re just getting too much candy and we’re growing benumbed to its taste. Since 2008 there have been ten movies set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with eleven more slated for release over the next five years (even more if you factor in the X-Men and Spider-Man movies). And that doesn’t take into account whatever it is DC is doing (which seems to be a late-to-the-party duplication of the Marvel game plan, but with much more depressing product, in keeping with the prevailing dark chic aesthetic of the period), or the various TV iterations of the MCU, be they Agents of SHIELD, Agent Carter or any of the plethora of forthcoming Netflix originals. We’re way past saturation point now; we’re drowning. And it would be one thing if the movies were bad – for the most part, they’re all serviceable pieces of entertainment, made with top-notch talent. But they are all so locked into a shopworn and audience-tested formula that they’ve utterly lost their capacity to do the one thing movies like that should:
The feeling began to bubble up after I saw Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie that was being lauded left and right in the community of fandom as one of the greatest things for those of our ilk to hit the cineplexes since the original Star Wars. My son, naturally, was presold, but, won over as I was by seeing gushing praise from sources I respected, I even managed to sway my wife to join us. And apart from a few cute touches here and there, I came away from the screening feeling let down. The clincher for me was the music, the collection of tracks on Peter Quill’s fabled “Awesome Mix Volume 1.” Disappointingly, there was not a single song on there that hadn’t been used in at least a dozen popular movies preceding this one. Perhaps the intent was to feed nostalgia by scoring the story with the songs that would have been popular around the time Star Wars was wowing us all for the first time in 1977. For me, it was the most blatant possible reminder that these movies are suffering from what I’ve talked about before with cultural karaoke. Rather than striking out for bold, new, uncharted territory, they’re treading ground that has already been crushed under the weight of heavily booted footprints, choosing always the safe and familiar route. Every moment is a callback to something else, instead of standing on its own. You practically need a pop culture dictionary to understand everything that’s going on.
I enjoyed the first Avengers, but I’ve never watched it again from start to finish, as for me it was rather like a meringue: sweet and sugary but ultimately hollow and scarcely worth a second taste. If you set aside the whee! factor of seeing all those characters together in a movie for the first time, the story is paper-thin, and the emotional moments are forced and artificial – I mean, come on, the idea of the bickering team bonding over the death of a marginal character who’d had little impact on the lot of them (and turned out to only be, as Miracle Max would put it, mostly dead) just in time to fight off the alien menace in a CGI orgy of exploding buildings, is pretty flimsy for ostensibly A-list screenwriting. One can also see, based on the clips released from Age of Ultron thus far, that the sequel will follow the same pattern. Now that they’ve become an inseparable team, the heroes will find themselves pitted against each other, again – not for any organic reason, but because the Scarlet Witch’s magic messes with their minds – until they again overcome their differences and unite to fight off the robot menace in a CGI orgy of exploding buildings. Throw in a few pop culture puns delivered from Robert Downey Jr. and you’ve pretty much got the whole movie there in a nutshell, haven’t you?
I don’t say this all to be snarky for the sake of being a contrarian. I want to be wowed. I want to be surprised. I want the movie to go left when I was convinced it was bearing right. I want to burst out of that theater and race to the kiosk to buy a ticket to see the very next screening.
I just have little faith that that’s going to happen.
I imagine that I will take my son to Age of Ultron, laugh at the parts I’m expected to laugh at, roll my eyes at the showers of concrete from the exploding buildings, and shuffle on home to mark the calendar for when I’ll have to take him to Ant-Man. Marvel hasn’t shown in its productions thus far, nor indeed, have any of the other superhero movies of the 21st Century, that they have any interest in pushing the envelope and giving us something unexpected. And why should they? They have a formula that keeps generating hundreds of millions of dollars annually, a pent-up demand from my generation and our descendants that continues to flow as predictably as Niagara Falls. You know exactly what you’re going to get when you walk into one of these movies, and it’s foolish to pretend that there is no appeal in that, as anyone who keeps going back to McDonald’s can attest.
I’m tired of McDonald’s. Give me a steak.
Yeats famously said that things fall apart, the center cannot hold. Eventually, one of these movies is going to fall flat on its face, and questions will be asked, fingers will be pointed, articles will be written and everyone will collectively scratch their heads, wondering where it all went wrong. There won’t be one distinct answer, other than the notion that by refusing to evolve, by churning out essentially 21 versions of the same story in a period of eleven years, they will have brought on their own demise. The irony of it all is that it isn’t as though the potential is not there for mind-twisting stories and emotionally resonant moments, given the sheer volume of the source material, and the reservoir of talent bursting to be heard. But the focus remains only on predictable flash, because that is what a group of accountants in Burbank have decided is what sells – especially to overseas audiences who don’t grasp the puns – and they want their bazillion-dollar Christmas bonuses.
I’ve simply reached the point where as an audience member, I can’t overlook the hyperkinetic pixels and the stale one-liners anymore. Yet I cling to a tiny, diminishing reservoir of hope that one of these days, one of these movies will leap off the screen and smack me out of my complacency and remind me why I loved these stories to begin with. That hope is what keeps me buying tickets.
But I’m not there lining up on opening night anymore.