That thing we tell you to do, and never show you how to do it? Critical thinking is all about context. For example, take the Marvel cinematic universe. I promise I’m not obsessed about this even though I’ve mentioned it quite a lot. Critical thinking starts with a ‘what is’ question. What is Marvel Studios? It is in a basic sense just a successful film and TV production studio with some really good IP. Simple. But that does not explain its dominance and reach. I hope I am not being unfair when I say that impacts can not be justified by the artistic quality of the work. I enjoyed many of the films and TV shows, however a fair assessment would be that their succession depends on qualities beyond artistic elan and the craftsmanship on display.
Why do I say that harsh thing? I feel I am justified because the most critically well received elements of the MCU are not necessarily its most commercially successful. So we have a puzzle. Maybe the critics are wrong and they miss the appeal. Or, the audience is wrong. Am I out of touch? No: it’s the public who are at fault. Or, we have to look at other qualities that drive the success of the MCU. Critical and commercial success could be not only decoupled, but in opposition. Many commentators have made the point I’m going to make.
I believe that the impact of it relies on its very successful integration of storied IP, regular pace of output, and output tailored to the widest demographic, which produces an unrivalled capacity to shape its own audience and taste culture. When you look at how it works though, it is really a massive and well honed content generation system. We can pull out the significant qualities here. One that is integrated across different media – TV, games, other tie-ins. That explains a lot about the content producers. The films have to make a lot of money back. So we have to appeal to an audience beyond fans of the comic characters.
Whenever I watch one I’m always confused about who is doing what. Why is Thanos angry? The films are designed so that does not matter so much. You can still enjoy Thor or Wonder Woman without knowing very much about the backstory. Good guy/gal thumps bad guy, but in a knowing way. They also include enough so that if you do care about the backstory you will enjoy the fan service going on. Some of the TV shows are meant to be more niche. If you care about Loki then you will be satisfied with his own spinoff show. That is why the films always full of supporting characters and jokes regularly every few minutes. They are entertainment, of a particular type.
Maybe I am wrong about that and in fact once you reach a certain level of a success the product is so much in the cultural atmosphere that you do not have to worry about backstory. I think that the interesting question is how did we get from a situation where comic books and Spider-Man and so on were seen as rather childish, nerdy and a bit weird. Consider the character of Comic Book Guy in the Simpsons. We are meant to find his obsessions a bit sad and funny. Now they are accepted as part of the culture. They are cultural events in themselves. They are so accepted that to look down on them is seen as a dreadful faux pas.
It is notable that this is very different in terms of cultural product from those examined by Bourdieu in his work on taste. There is little in the way of class distinction or self positioning to be drawn by liking or not liking The Avengers. The CGI-led films are well beyond such considerations. And if you critique the current content of one you are pretty much critiquing the content of all of them. It explains why for example the gender politics of them are rather bland and agreeable, and why there is little geopolitical content.
Compare the 1990s films of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Those films were heavily invested in the geopolitical context of the time. They featured Middle Eastern terrorists, and a genuine clear sense of what masculinity was in opposition to feminine qualities. Non-American characters tended to appear only as sweaty-ass terrorists. I mean literally. They were always covered in sweat to make them look more shifty. As if the filmmakers were not confident that we might as an audience get the sense that they were bad guys just because they were terrorists and needed extra guidance in that.
Why does the MCU not do the same thing and have The Avengers solving the Middle East crisis or bumping Putin on the head?
The reason is that if you take sides in any sense in these contemporary conflicts you’re losing your audience. And also the audience does not really want to be reminded of these intractable and difficult human conflicts. The MCU cannot tell us much about taste culture it count on us quite a bit about the cultural moment we are in. As an aside I didn’t want to make too much of this distinction. Schwarzenegger did not always play it straight and plenty of his films The MCU cannot tell us much about taste culture it can’t always quite a bit about the cultural moment we are in. As an aside I didn’t want to make too much of this distinction. Schwarzenegger did not always play it straight and plenty of his films have a raised eyebrow and self-awareness. Perhaps for the same reasons. Perhaps for the same reasons the MCU does. I want to say here there appears to be an inverse relationship between artistic quality and scale. My very favourite Schwarzenegger film is The Terminator, a fairly small budget and quite dark film about a robot assassin and a feature apocalypse. Terminator 2: This Time It’s CGI is a much bigger film and was rather more cheery about the future, and also please to a wider demographic. The first film was very adult, the second much more youth and child or young adult focused.
We have established that Hollywood studios productions relates to the cultural moment and the audience. However the MCU is a good study because it does not just reach its demographic, it shapes and moulds it. The MCU generates taste. It does not simply respond to them out, it makes it. Some of that is in a very straightforward material way. Ensuring most cinema screens are booked out for your big launch means there isn’t much else to say. Another is creating an identity for you audience. When the Terminator was released there was no concept of a young adult audience. Now however there are films, books and much more aimed at a young adult audience. The Hunger Games is a fantastic example of what that is like when it’s very successful in its own terms. There might be another argument related to the turbulent times we live in. And it is that this is what audiences want. Perhaps a break from intractable political polarisation into a self-contained universe where the baddies get repeatedly punched in the face, but not too seriously, is very very welcome. And I can hardly blame anyone for that.
A further critical point that we can draw on here is about how academics talk about consumption of culture we tend to look at why culture is consumed, but not the content. Which is maybe a bit strange. We act as if distinction and other judgements are content independent. So say the audience that consumes opera could just as easily be concerning basketball. I do not think that is true. The MCU is a great example of how cultural functions and taste culture and content work together.