Too Many Superheroes: Why We Keep Coming Back to Marvel, Even When We Shouldn’tPhoto: Cara Howe/Netflix TV Features Marvel
The MCU might have characters suspended in the quantum realm, or bending space-time and becoming intra-dimensional multiverse cosmonauts, but on balance, I might be ready to conclude that they have not changed the basic reality that TV is bound by the laws of classical physics, especially my most often invoked one, the second law of thermodynamics: In a closed system, total entropy cannot decrease over time.
In other words, shit gets old. Old and tired.
It would be hard to understate my admiration for the recently departed Stan Lee, and I’m not even a comics gal. He had a totally unfettered imagination, an enviably prodigious output, and a good heart. His massive oeuvre was (is) grounded in needful and righteous ideas: That everyone is the hero of his or her own story, that the battle of good versus evil plays out everywhere, all the time, largely in mundane little ways among people who are flawed and complicated; that power transcends and also corrupts; that people working together can accomplish real change. That we can turn our wounds into our power sources. It’s been fun to see screen wizardry finally catch up with Lee’s imagination, and it’s understandable that this would generate a lot (wow, a lot) of producers green-lighting origin stories and crossovers and spinoffs in an endless, Spiderman-worthy web of movie and TV minutes.
But as Marvel adaptations have proliferated, it’s become clear that they aren’t created equal—that not every character is worth his or her own origin story series just because that character was scribbled across the pages of a comic book at some point in the last century. After a while, the 10,000 iterations of “Alienated person develops superpowers as a result of accident, experiment, injury or, occasionally, doomed heroic gesture” and “ragtag team of misfits with intriguing edge team up to defeat large looming forces of evil” start to get paler and thinner, to feel like they’ve been done before. Because they have.
So, the two questions for the philosophers are perhaps, “Why, why, why must everything be about superheroes?” and “Have we achieved Marvel (or Marvel-DC, let’s be fair, but for now I’m focusing on the Stan-iverse) Entropy Syndrome?”
Recent weeks have seen the mercy killing of Iron Fist and the cancellation of the more ambiguous Daredevil. Netflix also put the kibosh on Luke Cage, which I would love to imagine was done in a spirit of leaving the party while everyone was still having fun: It was the Marvel-Netflix stalactite with the most nuance. But that principle is nearly nonexistent as long as there is an identifiable fan base, so we’ll assume Luke Cage was discontinued in spite of its Most Improved status, and not because of it. (There are, of course, clear business considerations at play here—namely, that Netflix doesn’t own the Marvel properties it distributes, and that Disney, soon to launch its own, competing streaming platform, does—but this is an essay on the state of Marvel’s TV “aesthetic,” as it were.)
In the Marvel-ABC constellation, the attempt to conclude Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. sputtered because no one was ready to leave that party. (Thankfully, Inhumans received a peaceful burial.) Hulu is about to drop Season Two of Marvel’s Runaways, and… well, I confess I am not sure why, but there it is.) Season Two of Marvel’s Cloak and Dagger, on Freeform, is currently in production. And because the universe (like corporate ledgers) demands balance, the Disney side of things is still ramping up, with TV spinoffs and side-hustles forking off cinematic characters from Vision and the Scarlet Witch (one imagines an Enhanced Joanie Loves Chachi) to a vehicle for Tom Hiddleston’s (admittedly fabulous) portrayal of Norse trickster-god, Loki. The Marvel Studios clutch of TV-eggs will have stratospheric budgets, big-screen names, and probably greater artistic unity with the movie constellation than… well, than Runaways, which has bupkiss tying it to the MCU other than the fact that it did technically originate in the Marvel On The Page Universe.
In a closed system, energy cannot be made or lost.
In that same closed system, the quality of that total energy inevitably degrades over time.
I’ve watched my children grow up on the MCU (one is also a Marvel Comics geek; the other likes her graphic literature to be Japanese). We have extensive dinner table discussions about who would have what superpower, which Marvel character we’d be, which one we’d rather be friends with, which ones we think are better in their MCU iteration than they were in the original print medium and vice versa. One thing that seems clear is that the conjoined enthusiasm for and fatigue with Things Marvel is intergenerational and irrespective of how much of a fan of Marvel Comics you are or ever were. (One of my kids collects them, one prefers manga; I don’t even need five fingers to count the number of times I’ve been excited by that medium.) We dutifully go to those movies. Then we end up buying copies and watching them a million more times. Then we notice how we’re completely sick of superhero conceits, but still decide that the right thing to do on a Sunday afternoon when no one made social plans, is watch Doctor Strange again, even though we kind of have it memorized. I’ve pondered this for a while now, mostly because I don’t get why I enjoy them. I never cared about those comics, even while I acknowledge their cultural relevance. I mean, there are too many freaking superheroes. Aren’t there?
There kind of are. And I think we are open to infinite numbers of mutants and Gifteds and Inhumans and Enhanced Persons for reasons, possibly reasons a sociology major would tackle in a college thesis: something about our collective consciousness reacting to increasing pressure to solve increasingly insurmountable problems, perhaps. Something about needing superpowers to get through a normal week right now.
I say “right now” as if Stan Lee wasn’t confronting the exact same Big Bads in the 1940s—we have increasingly adopted a tendency, also dissertation-worthy, to emphaticize and dramatize how uniquely cataclysmic our moment is. We fling around words like “Nazi” when (because?) most of us (unlike Lee) have no active memory of actual Nazi Germany. Hyperbole culture would have you believe fervently that 2018 is the most horribly destructive moment in human history, even though by pretty much every measure 1918 was empirically worse. Lee’s heroes have always stood against social issues that exist now and also existed then, and that’s why even doofy, dated Captain America is still relevant. Marvel Superdudes took down Nazis, saved neighborhoods from urban blight (a fight Lee knew a long time ago is never really won, which means the heroes can go on donning their masks and Supersuits forever), stood against racial intolerance and corporate corruption and violence both human and inhuman. Importantly, his heroes also have a tendency to be their own arch-nemeses, whether Dr. Bruce Banner is duking it out with his anger-management-challenged alter ego or Luke Cage has decided he’s bulletproof enough to take over Black Mariah’s Harlem empire. Lee was always quick to acknowledge that Superpower can corrupt… well, Superly, and made sure power didn’t look too good on anyone.
Sadly, even in a very long career, Lee didn’t come up with a compelling Discernment Man or other stalwart against Hyperbolic Cataclysm Timeloop Syndrome (“Dormamu, I’ve come to bargain…”). I’m not saying Now doesn’t have problems. I’m not even going to try to say I don’t understand why the problems of Now feel heavier than a Chitauri spaceship descending on TriBeCa. But I am starting to wonder about our Superhero-OCD a little bit. You know that thing? That thing where it’s New Year’s Day, you have a bit of a hangover and a distinct gastric remorse situation around all the cheese you ate, and you’re on the couch under a big fluffy blanket trying to stop feeling bad and the next thing you know you’ve spent six hours in front of a PBS pledge-bait self-improvement programs?
That. There’s a certain place where watching people quit smoking, lose 20 pounds, get out of credit card debt and embrace meditation and self-acceptance begins to feel indistinguishable from—or like a cozy, valid alternative to—doing those things for yourself. I’m starting to wonder if the endless, self-replicating reels of superhero-ness might not be creating a weird palliative substitute for actual heroics. Like, I don’t want to say we might’ve hit the point where we’re no longer motivated to get the plastic out of the Pacific because we’re pretty sure that is what Agent Phil Coulson is really doing in Tahiti. (It’s a magical place). That’s not really what I believe. I am not sure what I believe, but I think it might be this: I might believe it is time for fewer superpowers, less character development by SFX, maybe fewer mutants and radiation injuries and alien DNA injections and, oh, I don’t know, more characters whose problems are not metaphors, tropes or conceits. Because you don’t have to be a genius with six doctorates and a black belt to kick ass. And maybe at a certain point, plain old humans need to be a little less of an endangered species on the screen.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.