Douglas Wolk is the author of “Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean.”
The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s 22 superhero movies to date, from 2008′s “Iron Man” to the new “Avengers: Endgame,” are all parts of one gigantic, interconnected story. The narrative runs 48 hours so far, not counting the 11 TV series that have spun out of it. And Marvel’s films aren’t just a series or a serial, but also a multi-threaded, time-jumping, tonally varied web of narratives that fans can experience individually or in any combination. You can watch “Spider-Man: Homecoming” or “Captain Marvel” as stand-alone stories; or follow Nick Fury’s swaggering path through the movies in which he appears; or completely nerd out and try to piece together the chronology of the whole thing.
In recent years, an oft-repeated talking point has suggested that Americans lack the attention span of even notoriously distractible goldfish — that we’re all smartphone addicts who can’t keep track of our personal relationships, much less the entanglements of contemporary politics. The box office for the Marvel Cinematic Universe suggests otherwise. The popularity of the MCU, along with similarly rich, dense works of entertainment such as “Game of Thrones,” suggests that we, as an audience or a political body, actually crave complicated narratives.
The depth of field and multiplicity of vision that define the Marvel Cinematic Universe come straight out of the comic books that are also the source of most of their characters and plot points. In the 1960s, one of the great innovations of the Avengers’ co-creators, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, was braiding together the plot threads of Marvel’s comics, even when they were still aimed mostly at kids. A desperate search by Daredevil would pass through the pages of a Thor story, or a couple of mutants would renounce Magneto’s revolutionary tactics in an issue of “X-Men” and join forces with Captain America a week later in an issue of "Avengers."
Since then, dozens of simultaneous comics serials have constantly intersected with each other, referred to each other’s histories and occasionally depicted the same incident from multiple perspectives. Marvel’s comics division is currently publishing a story called “War of the Realms,” which has been foreshadowed for the past six years’ worth of Thor comics. Roughly 20 other series are addressing how various characters, from the Avengers to Deadpool to Venom, are dealing with the fallout from that conflict. Those comics’ writers and artists can’t assume that anyone is reading all of them. But a reader who’s following several of them gets to see how they fit together.
It’s an astonishingly complicated kind of storytelling, and often trickier than any one reader or viewer can grasp in its entirety. That’s fine. Occasionally running across something confusing, in either superhero movies or superhero comics, is not a bug but a feature. If you don’t know, for instance, why “Black Panther” character M’Baku (Winston Duke) would declare “glory to Hanuman,” or what’s inside the cocoon at the end of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” somebody else does. And a lot of the pleasure of stories of this scale is getting to be part of a community that can discuss them collectively, in person or online.
The huge cultural presence of the three-hour-long “Endgame,” and of the mammoth body of stories and characters on which it builds, directly contradicts the myth of this historical moment as a time of flickering attention spans and instant forgetfulness. We’ve been told incessantly that the public can handle only simple stories — that we have no patience for complicated scenarios, granular policies or 448-page investigative reports. That’s absolutely not true.
These stories have become mass cultural phenomena in part because they’re wildly entertaining on their own. (The superhero genre elements of the MCU movies — their costumes and spaceships and occasional dance numbers — help a lot with that.) But their value as entertainment has lingered and grown because there’s more to them than we can understand immediately. The Marvel movies’ curious details and overlapping cosmologies allow us to be drawn into conversation to understand them better — to ask questions, propound theories and see them from angles we wouldn’t have come up with by ourselves.
We want to know that stories go deeper than we can experience them at first, and if we're lucky, we can have the experience of letting our perspective inform a friend's or a stranger's, or the experience of letting theirs inform ours. We don't have enough hours in the day for everything that wants to lay claim to our attention, but when someone offers us a story so big and strange and beautiful that it can mean more to us together than alone, we'll fill the theater to see it, we'll stay until the end to pick up every detail it has to offer us, and we will return.
Politicians and policymakers might not be able to fire photon blasts, wield Thor’s hammer or defeat the biggest problems of our time in a single, epic showdown. But when it comes to trusting the public to listen to a complicated argument or to hash out the details of a complex idea, there’s a lot they could learn from the way we talk about Marvel’s movies.