The Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Superhero’s Ambivalent Relationship with Technology
The term ambivalence was coined by the psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler to describe two opposite ideas that coexist in uneasy union. While superheroes are often understood as narratives of assurance, comfort and security, it is ambivalence, or even anxiety, that provides the more useful concept when it comes to interrogating the dynamics at work in the cinematic superhero phenomena. This is particularly the case in its relationship with technology, both aesthetically and philosophically.
Superheroes were conceived at a time when industrialisation was putting the worker out of a job. On the cover of DC’s Action Comics #1 (originally published in June 1938 and designed by Joe Shuster), we see the fantasy of a strongman lifting a car above his head, man dominating symbols of rapid modernity (Fig. 1). Images of this variety–Superman stopping trains in their tracks and smashing tanks with his bare hands–made up most of the dazzling illustrations that adorned the cover of early comic-books. Suffering from the Great Depression, the Super-man spoke to the need to re-assert human agency against technological forces of modernity. Yet, these cheap comics books were the product of revolutionary industrial manufacturing, based on a Fordist style of production. It wasn’t much later, either, that a superhero emerged who implemented technology in his crime-fighting escapades–the Batman. The history of superheroes is a history of ambivalence towards technology, a push and pull between resistance to its domineering influence in our lives and the implementation and assimilation of technologies in said life. This is exemplified in the manner to which superheroes reached our cinema screen, particularly those of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
In his scholarly critique of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, 1999), Randy Laist writes:
“The Phantom Menace can be read as a film about a cosmos where individuals completely lack what Heidegger calls Dasein, being-in-the-world. They somehow occupy space, but they do not dwell in it […] their existence takes place in a virtual reality simulation that runs parallel to them […] but which does not interact with them in any way” (2016: 200).
Excluding references to Heidegger, Laist’s complaint is one uttered in common audience discourse – that the CGI was “bad”. Yet, this isn’t just a critique of the quality of computer-generated imagery (CGI) in its nascent adolescence, but questions the ontological validity of this postmodern hyper-reality broadly. Yet, since Georges Méliès onwards, any endeavour to portray the fantastical on-screen comes with hurdles of photorealistic verisimilitude, to make the unreal look real. As Christopher Holliday and Alexander Sergeant have shown, today fantasy and animation, usually spoken as distinct genres, are often inextricably linked, and they argue that “Animation has continued to play an important role in defining our collective expectations and experiences of fantasy cinema” (2018: 1).
The blistering surge in cinema superheroes supports their hypothesis. While there is great appetite for superheroes to be interpreted through a Žižekian lens of ideology, society and politics, it is worth taking into account the industrial factors that have watered this pop-culture beanstalk. While superhero comic-books have been popular since the Great Depression, attempts to bring them to life have been mired by production limitations. Perhaps the most accomplished early attempts came via the cartoon serials, Superman (1941-1943), the drawn medium of animation lending itself neatly to adapting the illustrations of comic books, both sharing a ‘hand-drawn’ kinship. At the same time as telling stories through the animated medium, one of the most celebrated episodes of this short-lived series was “The Mechanical Monsters” (Dave Fleischer, 1941) in which Superman battles with a tyrannical army of robots. It’s not much different from the technophobic tale and spectacle we later see in Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, 2015), in which the titular heroes battle a sentient A.I. and his army of bots. Even as cutting-edge technology is implemented (seemingly necessary) to tell such stories, the moral of said story often concerns the overarching influence of technology in our lives.
While DC Comics characters have been relatively pally with cinema in the shape of Superman (Richard Donner,1978) and Batman (Tim Burton, 1989), it wasn’t until Lucas’ pioneering work in CGI in the 1990s, essentially bringing the concept of imaginative ‘sketch’ to live-action filmmaking, that the cosmic pages of Marvel comic books could be made at the industrial scale that we see today. If one can make a DC/Marvel distinction, the belated arrival of Marvel to the cinema screen seems to the result of the attitude towards technology in the Marvel canon contra DC. Technology is magic to Marvel, the thing that brings Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, and Bruce Banner into being, both industrially to the screen and diegetically as super-human characters. Prior to the MCU, Marvel comics were floundering in corporate mishandling, and were supported by critically panned adaptations of obscure anti-heroes such as Howard the Duck (Willard Huyck, 1986), The Punisher (Mark Goldblatt, 1989) and, to a lesser extent, Blade (Stephen Norrington, 1998). Since the standardization of CGI practices within mainstream Hollywood production, well-received adaptations with greater confidence in employing special effects emerged: X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000), Spider-Man (Sam Raimi, 2003), Hulk (Ang Lee, 2003), Fantastic Four (Tim Story, 2005). Technology has since allowed Marvel’s fantasy to thrive like never before. Marvel saw a friend and ally in CGI, while DC continued with a relatively “grounded” attitude. But it wasn’t until Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008) and the narrative synergy spearheaded by newly appointed Marvel President, Kevin Feige, that the company went stratospheric (Fig. 2). It is certainly appropriate that the character most responsible for this success was the most technologically-savvy of the Marvel panoply. Tony Stark is Western arrogance personified, a charming eccedentesiast with a brain on fire. Not dissimilar to the sort of technological revelry that characterized the early “cinema of attractions” (see Gunning 1990), the technology itself was the thrill, both for Stark and the audience. There was something highly entertaining about seeing this ego fiddle in his lab, building toys and gadgets, engaging in repartee with his robotic helpers, a personification of Marvel making enthusiastic baby-steps and flexing its own technological muscles.
Marvel jumped into the playpen of fantastical wonder, enabled by digital technologies, and left the paranoia that characterised its adjacent DC productions behind. The bemusement evinced by this characterized the direction of the franchise for a considerable time, much to the chagrin of the critical community. While it wouldn’t be right to say that Marvel films have been poorly received, there has, however, been an assured critique made against Marvel entries for tipping into an orgiastic spectacle of animated imagery come the narrative denouement. Despite any sympathy you have with scholarly interventions that disrupt the axial distinction between narrative and spectacle, it’s hard not to find justification in this criticism when reminding yourself of the inane and gratuitous climaxes of The Incredible Hulk (Louis Leterrier, 2008) and Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau, 2010).
It wasn’t until Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony Russo & Joe Russo, 2014) that a considerable, perhaps inevitable, shift occurred in Marvel’s attitude towards technology. While its influence remains integral, new directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo brought greater refrain to CGI use and introduced ambivalence in its attitude towards technology broadly. From a narrative standpoint, technology was something to be newly feared, speaking to a post-Snowden anxiety about intrusive political surveillance and inspired by 1970s political thrillers. Paranoia came to Marvel, turning previously benevolent S.H.I.E.L.D – the spy organisation responsible for bringing the Avengers together – into a covertly Neo-Fascist organisation was a bold move with a prescient moral about the over-reaching influence of tech in our lives. It is only good ‘ole fashioned, pre-internet Captain America who can see the tyranny of this.
From an aesthetic standpoint, human tactility gained intriguing prominence in the spectacle of Winter Soldier. Before anything else, the film is an excellent kung-fu movie (see right). Great effort was directed towards choreographed physical combat that resembled the great stunt work of the 1980s / 1990s Hong Kong cinema (that would itself be introduced into Hollywood soon after). Yet fantastical technology was seamlessly integrated into the action (a robotic arm, for example - see right). No longer robots fighting robots, the Russo Brothers smashed audience alienation brought about by the ontological divide between real and unreal. The pro-filmic melded with the animated, the human, quite literally, with the robot. With this, Marvel reached a newfound level of maturity outside of the technological revelry that characterized its early entries without losing its charm as blockbuster entertainment.
The subsequent critical praise heaped upon The Winter Soldier earned the Russo’s the role of chief helmsmen of the MCU and they continued to apply their sophisticated balance of indexical and animated spectacle with stories laden with real-world intrigue and human pathos. Captain America: Civil War (Anthony Russo & Joe Russo, 2016) may represent the epitome of this achievement, and one moment in particular. Take the scene in which Captain America uses his enlarged (but quite real) muscles to prevent a helicopter from escaping the scene (see below). For contemporary cinema, rarely has there been such brazen bodily spectacle, the camera lingering on bulging biceps as the music swells. It is, indeed, spectacular, “bicep porn” in Evans words. Here Evans is made part of the so-called “hard bodies” tradition, most famously exemplified by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Marvel has its roots in this cinematic tradition (Swedish hunk Dolph Lundgren played the Punisher in the 1989 film), but not even Schwarzenegger could bicep curl a helicopter. With the advent and assimilation of animated technologies, what we see here is not only the thrill of big muscles, a tradition that goes all the way back to W.K. Dickson filming bodybuilder Eugen Sandow in 1894, but a spectacle that mixes being-in-the-world with an otherworldly, impossible spectacle made possible by the proliferation of CGI practices. Thus, it is real, but unreal, the type of hyper-real screen fantasy that the Russo Brothers have brought to the table.
The Russo project, in one sense, has been to gradually deconstruct the hubris and infantilism brought about by technological power. The Winter Soldier performed a volte-face on S.H.I.E.L.D, and Civil War destroyed the Avengers from inside out, embodying the internal divides that characterized the year of its release, the same year that brought the divisive Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. More recently, Avengers: Infinity War (Anthony Russo & Joe Russo, 2018) takes this “reality principle” to a philosophical level, which is to say: life doesn’t always turn out the way you want, and the good guys lose. Facing Earth’s Mightiest Heroes against the cold and calculated cynicism of Thanos (Josh Brolin), the result was the collapse of an Empire, our heroes crushed and beaten down to their most vulnerable human essence. The battle between Iron Man and Thanos in Infinity War most exemplifies this (see below). Barbara Brownie and Danny Graydon make the point that “In the case of Iron Man, identity is more bound up in the costume than with any other superhero [...] Iron Man is not a man, but an augmentation” (2016: 145). So it is with added resonance that Iron Man, the hero with a gadget for every occasion and innumerable weapons of war, must undergo the indignity of having pure brute force strip away his armour as you would peel an orange. Robert Downey Jr, not unreasonably, once confessed to feeling like the “Atlas of the Marvel universe.” With Thanos using the power of the Infinity Stones to hurl a planet on top of Stark in the battle, we witness a bombastic metaphor for Atlas collapsing.
Thus, where Winter Soldier told us about the latent dangers of technology being used against us, Infinity War shows us the fragility of a civilization that relies on technology too much, of the fragility of an ego encased in technological prowess. The fight against Thanos is the agon of civilization against nature itself. It’s worth reminding ourselves that Thanos, unlike most villains, is not a pale reference to prejudice and discrimination that plagues our society (like a villain such as Grindelwald in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald [David Yates, 2018]), he is quite the contrary – non-discriminatory, as callous as nature itself. His (successful) intent to exterminate 50% of the world’s population is not irrational, tribal, or passionate; it’s a pathology of logic. Infinity War portrays the pitfalls of arrogance and complacency spawned from technologically-oriented society, even as it engages in spectacle of the most fantastical, technologically-derived kind.
And so we come to Avengers: Endgame (Anthony Russo & Joe Russo, 2019), the concluding chapter of the “Infinity Saga” (Fig. 3). Expectedly, the story concerns the rebirth necessary after the fall. There is an archetypal rhythm to this narrative trajectory that Geoffrey Hill articulates as “When the hero falls, he or she is beckoned to the depressive underworld of chthonic introspection” (1992: 34). As with anyone whose ego has been severely bruised, our heroes are suffering, turning to various coping mechanism, be it drink or group therapy. Stark, quite interestingly, has chosen to live the way of Thoreau’s Walden, retired to a secluded cabin in the woods quite apart from his usual skyscraper and luxury lab. One nice moment shows Tony washing dishes in a sink, drying down with a tea-towel. In an otherwise insignificant moment in any other film, here we see the pay-off of a decade’s worth of storytelling. Here is a man who in The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012) complained it “sounds exhausting” when told he must physically turn to view computer screens. Now, seven years later, we see a man humbled and mature. Moments like this occur frequently in Endgame and they are perhaps the most rewarding feature of the film. Captain America, unfairly considered to be a rigid character, swears not once, but twice! Joss Whedon deserves credit for turning the MCU into a “hang out” experience, like Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959), in which you go to the cinema screen to spend time with eccentric friends. The deeper truism, however, is how these small eccentricities change as the characters do.
As with the revisionist Logan (James Mangold, 2017), the time feels right for our newly despondent heroes to give it a last hurrah for heroism. With the entire world spiralling into apocalyptic depression, with few families left untouched by 50% of the world’s population disintegrating, the remaining Avengers figure they’ve got nothing better to do but hatch a plan that will bring them all back. The call to assemble is tantamount to a call to integrate former selves for just as long as they can fix a wrong. But thus it involves reclaiming the technological power lost, their sense of self tied to their technological command, albeit now with a new and humbled wisdom. So, Steve Rogers is bequeathed once more with his vibranium/steel alloy shield, and Tony must (very reluctantly) get back into the lab. More than that, the characters must learn to reconcile the tensions in their heart, and their traumatic past. In what turns out to be a great excuse for Marvel to relive their greatest hits and give the franchise a neat ouroboric structure with mythological ambitions, a time-travel plot also makes Endgame a great metaphor for the psychoanalytic process in general – revisit the past, resolve your trauma, understand your ambivalence. This is naturally what occurs at the narrative level as the Avengers attempt to undo Thanos’ callous deed, but this ‘undoing’ also operates at the level of each character’s specific history. Unmentionable at the risk of spoilers, but some of the most touching moments occur when reconciling the legacy of flawed parenthood and lost love. If Infinity War was the trauma, Endgame is the therapy.
Cathartic it most certainly is, a joyful and feel-good reclamation. Equipped not just with the technology that brought us to Marvel and Marvel to us, at this point our heroes go into battle with added history and knowledge. You could not have hoped for a more fitting conclusion to a long-running narrative. All that made the Russo’s previous adventures so worthwhile remains true here, particularly their strict adherence to a sense of geography, time and place. This is something noted by director Barry Jenkins, who tweeted:
“The Russo bros are so fundamentally sound in the way they communicate spatial relationships between characters during set-pieces. It’s what truly separates their work on this scale from most others. It’s truly jaw-dropping how grounded the audience is at all times.”
It may not sound a big-deal, but as any budding film student knows, coordinating a cohesive sense of space in a film is an extremely difficult task. At the scale of Endgame, keeping the logic of various complex mythologies logic intact while avoiding deus ex machina, the accomplishment is astonishing. While the craft is special, it always feels optimally chaotic. The Avengers, contra Thanos, are scrappy and diverse agents of improvisation and balance, doing their best with the situation given to them. They are the chaos that maintains order, the dialectic itself. Hence the spirit of diversity runs through Endgame. You could argue, in all of its imperfections, the spirit of democracy itself. Perhaps it is this that we feel, intuitively, as we cheer on.
Beyond making the argument of fantasy or ‘escapism’, an utterly banal one as far as I am concerned, there’s something more radical at work in the MCU: an attempt to make sense of the postmodern, technological world we find ourselves in, a re-assertion of the value of the Self beyond the razzle and dazzle. The great ambivalence that characterises Marvel’s use of and attitude towards technology embodies a dialectical process - a type of ‘figuring out’, where good and evil is perpetually in flux and never stable. Cinema superheroes are not here to heal our wounds, but to reflect them; they are both the symptom of a culture at war with itself and the balm that helps us better understand our world of post-modernity. Understood on these terms, it becomes clear that even with all the technological wonder and spectacular action that characterises the Marvel project, it’s chiefly been an adventure in seek of solace. In other words, Endgame is the ultimate proof that Tony Stark has a heart.
Brownie, Barbara and Danny Graydon. The Superhero Costume: Identity and Disguise in Fact and Fiction (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).
Gunning, Tom. “Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, its Spectator and the Avant-Garde,” in Early CInema: Space, Frame, Narrative, ed. Thomas Elsaesser (London: BFI Publishing, 1990), 56-62.
Hill, Geoffrey. Illuminating Shadows: The Mythic Power of Film (London: Shambala, 1992).
Holliday, Christopher and Alexander Sergeant, “Introduction to Fantasy/Animation,” in Fantasy/Animation: Connections Between Media, Mediums and Genres, eds. Christopher Holliday and Alexander Sergeant (London & New York: Routledge, 2018), 1-20.
Lust, Randy. Cinema of Simulation: Hyperreal Hollywood in the Long 1990s (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).
David G. Hughes earned his BA in Film Studies from King’s College London and his Masters in Film Aesthetics from The University of Oxford. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the film website Electric Ghost Magazine / @EG_Magazine. You can follow him at @BelovedFire_