Trash & Treasure is a miscellany of monthly opinions on SFF, fandom and general geekness from Foz Meadows.
With Avengers: Infinity War now out at the cinemas and inflicting grievous emotional damage on the general populace, I’m once more forced to examine my weird, pseudo-relationship with the MCU. Once upon a happier time, DC vs Marvel was not a fight in which I had any sort of dog, but slowly, steadily, superhero films and TV shows from both imprints have become so ubiquitous that, having seen a certain percentage of what’s on offer, a whining mongrel investment has shown up at my door regardless. I’d be lying if I said fandom itself hadn’t played a part in my caring about the MCU: though I didn’t love many of the early films – or, indeed, most of the later ones – enough friends bombarded me with well-written fanfic and judiciously chosen gifsets of Chris Evans, Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan that I found myself on board with the general concept, if not always its canonical execution. And that’s a strange place to occupy, I’ve found: a sort of liminal territory between caring and not, where the bulk of my caring has less to do with the cinematic canon and more with what fans, through meta, art and ficwriting, make of it afterwards.
From my perspective, the MCU involves more misses than hits. I liked the original Iron Man fine, I enjoyed the first half of the first Captain America movie and hated everything after the weird musical number, and I appreciated S1 of the Agent Carter TV show, but up until Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the only film I genuinely loved was Thor. I’ve heard good things about Spiderman: Homecoming, but I noped out of watching it less than fifteen minutes in for reasons that, at the time, I could only really articulate as Spiderman Fatigue. Iron Man 3 was good, but I’ve never felt compelled to rewatch it, and the more world politics goes to hell, the less inclined I am to be charmed by Tony Stark, period. As of right now, I’m prepared to state unequivocally that Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther are the two best things in the entire MCU, and by a considerable margin – but not even the promise of more Chadwick Boseman and Danai Gurira has made me care even the tiniest bit about Infinity War.
To put it bluntly, the previous Avengers films – Avengers Assemble, Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War, have all, in different ways, in my opinion, sucked. Yes, I’m aware that Civil War is technically a Cap film, but functionally, the whole thing is about the Avengers cast picking sides before duking it out in an airport, so I’m granting it dual citizenship for the purposes of this essay. Consider that my Controversial Geek Stance of the month, but there it is: the Avengers just don’t work for me, not even at the level of trashy popcorn flicks that I can throw on for a fun rewatch – and believe me, I’m a person who loves good trash. I’ve watched Twister, The Day After Tomorrow and the Underworld series more times than I can count, and I’m sure as hell not averse to superhero movies. But the Avengers films, to me, are this weird, inexplicable mix of grating and forgettable. I want to like them, I’ve got a base degree of investment in the characters, but none of their narratives connect – and after belatedly getting into The Expanse, the TV adaptation of James S. A. Corey’s award-winning SF novels, I think I finally understand why.
Which means that, in order to explain how I feel about the Avengers, I first need to say a little about The Expanse.
When I first tried The Expanse last year, it didn’t click for me. I stuck out the first two episodes, half-watching as I dicked around on my phone, and then gave up. Something about the pacing was off, I thought, or maybe the tropes just weren’t my bag. But I kept on seeing gifsets of it online, along with rave reviews, and it made me curious enough to give it another go. And I’m very glad I did: because once I made it to episode three, I realised that my initial dislike was largely my own fault. First, I’d failed to fully pay attention – The Expanse has quick, often naturalistic dialogue and little narrative signposting for which parts matter, which makes it easy to miss things if you watch it with one eye on Twitter. But second and most importantly, I’d been watching with the assumption that the show was going to be traditionally episodic, instead of – as it actually is – a largely continuous narrative. In that respect, it’s stylistically comparable to Game of Thrones, but without the gratuitous misogyny, rape and violence: episode to episode, the story just keeps on going, without any random breaks for sidequests or self-contained adventures.
Which is why, in the middle of watching season 2, I suddenly realised why I find the Avengers so frustrating: they’re a botched attempt at episodic TV narratives done through film instead, and it doesn’t work. Every Avengers movie is like the extra-long season finale of a TV show whose writers feel the need to go bigger and more dramatic every season, regardless of anything else – but at least with TV, you’ve been watching the characters develop under roughly the same creative auspices through the course of a single series. With the Avengers, the characterisation is consistently scatty, because every film in the MCU has a different writer, a different director. The characters might be constant, but their characterisation isn’t: Joss Whedon forcing Age of Ultron to adopt a couple of totally unheralded, left-wing romantic pairings (Hawkeye with a secret wife; Black Widow with Hulk) is one of the more egregious examples, but it’s certainly not the only one. As I pointed out in my original review of Avengers Assemble, the film starts with Hawkeye being suborned – but given that he’d only had a cameo with no independent characterisation in Thor before then, it’s hard to care about his wellbeing at that point unless, as a comics fan, you already care about his wellbeing. And while that’s fine for comics fans, it doesn’t exactly help to make the MCU a thing that exists on its own merits.
When people critique the Harry Potter movies, there’s continual frustration between the way Ron is portrayed in the books and the way he’s shown on screen. Many of his finest moral, human moments are missing from the films, often replaced by new material that has the opposite effect on his characterisation – but even so, that permutation of his character is still distinct enough, and still given enough on-screen development, that we can distinguish between book!Ron and film!Ron. With the Avengers, by contrast, it often feels as though their film characterisation is so thin that viewers automatically blur the lines between films and comics to flesh it out. To use Hawkeye as an example again, his deafness is consistently present in MCU fanfics and meta despite never being included in the actual MCU. Obviously, there’s always going to be some emotional/mental crossover for audiences when stories are adapted across different mediums, but if an adaptation leans so heavily on the source material for character depth that disentangling the two leaves one version skeletal, I’m going to call that a problem.
What stands out to me about Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok and the original Thor – aside from their incredible writing, gorgeous visuals, and the groundbreaking black representation and worldbuilding in Black Panther particularly – is the fact that all three films stand on their own merits. Yes, there are still moments where a viewer with no knowledge of the other movies would likely blink in confusion, but emotionally, in terms of their core narratives and characterisation, they’re internally consistent. None of this is true of the Avengers films, all of which make sense only when contextualised by the wider MCU – and while that’s meant to be a feature, in the sense that it’s been done deliberately, I’d argue that it’s also a bug, in that it largely hasn’t been done well. A rare exception to this is Captain America: The Winter Soldier. While understanding its premise requires familiarity with the original film, the actual narrative develops both new and existing characters in ways that further a memorable, self-contained plot: it’s a continuation, not a haphazard add-on.
Understanding the premise of each Avengers film is similarly dependent on having seen between five and nine other films – and that, by itself, is fine, if a little unwieldy when spread out over the better part of a decade. The problem is that, overwhelmingly, each Avengers film contains so many characters – some new, some pre-existing – that the majority don’t get developed during the actual movie, even if we’ve never met them before. The sudden appearance of Spiderman in Civil War is a case in point: he just shows up, the character retconned and recast for the third time in fourteen years, and only gets a solo movie after this cameo. Yeah, that’s presumably cool if you’re already a Spiderman fan, but narratively, it makes no goddamn sense whatsoever. If, instead of Spiderman, Tony Stark had gone and fetched a completely new, original superhero to help out with his airport fight – one with no existing comics pedigree – the entire audience would’ve gone, “HUH? Where did he come from?” and wondered if they’d missed or forgotten something. That’s what I mean when I say the structure and characterisation is leaning too heavily on audience knowledge of the source material: without it, the story literally doesn’t work.
There is, however, a different type of storytelling that deliberately, successfully leans on the source material: fanfic. And I’m a fan of fanfic! Which is, perhaps, why the laziness of the Avengers films grates on me: because the bulk of really good fanfic, even when it hits those resonant sweet-spots for readers who know the canon, is still comprehensible to newcomers. In using existing characters in original ways, fanwriters make choices about what has to be explained anew, what can be generally assumed, and what can be referenced in passing – and that’s because fanwriters care about the characters. The Avengers films… kind of don’t. Sure, they want everyone to show up and kick ass and look sad at the appropriate moments, but there’s too many of them per film to do much more than that.
Which is ultimately why watching The Expanse catalysed my thoughts about the Avengers: thematically and structurally, they’re accidental opposites. Whereas the single, continuous narrative of The Expanse makes the whole thing feel less like a TV show and more like a very long, very good film, the episodic, semi-disparate stories of the MCU make the Avengers feel less like a film series and more like a very weird, very clunky TV show. Even the vaunted after-credits sequences are reminiscent of procedural TV, when a murder- or monster-of-the-week episode is capped off with a teasing, cliffhanger clue about the season’s Big Bad.
At base, I’d feel better about the MCU if I got the sense that any of this toying with TV/cinematic staples was deliberate. Instead, it comes across more as Marvel throwing money-darts at the wall and seeing what sticks. I won’t see Infinity War in the cinemas, and it’s debatable whether I’ll bother once it’s on Netflix – but probably, thanks to fans and fandom and three good films in twenty, I’ll still keep caring about these stupid characters.