No star in the cosmos of the American entertainment industry is burning hotter and brighter than that of Marvel Entertainment.
But while Disney executives appear convinced that Marvel’s star will make Disney+ the center of gravity in the vast and dangerous streaming universe, the consolidation of Marvel’s canon on Disney+ presents a fresh opportunity to reflect on the company’s domination of mainstream American culture — and all that comes with it. Marvel’s radical storytelling made the company a fixture of the comic book ecosystem, but the growing stakes present fresh problems. Corporations are notoriously obsessed with unrestrained growth, and their politics (and many compromises) have come to usurp the political efforts of the source material itself. Burning bright with commercial and mainstream success, those pressures threaten to strip Marvel of its radical roots — and to destroy everything that made the weird, wonderful property so valuable in the first place.
Indeed, there’s a growing anxiety over the hegemony of the Marvel Universe, captured in Martin Scorsese’s recent critique of Marvel’s place in the American cinematic cosmos. While Scorsese’s main target is corporatized entertainment — “market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption” — the subtext of his complaint is that Marvel lacks the daring to produce an impactful cultural product. “Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures,” he wrote in the New York Times. “What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk.”
If so, the problem isn’t something inherent to Marvel itself: The comic publisher has, for most of its life, been revolutionarily creative and, at times, aggressively political. Born from the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, Marvel embraced humanistic realism and verisimilitude in its treatment of spandex-clad do-gooders, an approach that, whether intentional or not, made every story a political one. Spider-Man was a lonely nerd who saved the world but couldn’t balance his checkbook; the mutant X-Men spent their golden years fighting to protect the humans who hated and feared them in a not-so-veiled metaphor for segregation and racism. As Sean Howe put it in “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story,” Marvel patriarch Stan Lee and the generation of writers he cultivated “smuggled countercultural dispatches into the four-color newsprint that found its way to drugstore spinner racks affixed with friendly ‘Hey Kids — Comics!’ signs.” Marvel’s raison d’etre has always been political — ‘nuff said.
It’s this manner of storytelling that has helped sales of Marvel Comics continually surpass those of main rival DC, despite the former’s financial woes in the mid-1990s. But Marvel owes its current status as a pop culture machine to Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios since 2007. He leveraged previously second-tier characters such as Iron Man and Thor into a groundbreaking shared cinematic universe while Sony and Fox allowed once-prominent Marvel assets Spider-Man and the X-Men to wither on the vine. As the “Avengers: Endgame” team noted in the DVD commentary, Feige made America fall in love with an alcoholic, womanizing arms dealer played by real-life problem child Robert Downey Jr. That was no small accomplishment, given that the character spent decades languishing as a vaguely familiar also-ran for those outside of comic book fandom.
But now that Marvel is a central pillar of American culture, Feige and his corporate paymasters are not immune to the politics that shape cultural products such as TV and movies. Sure, readers have complained about changes to their beloved characters for years — establishing African American Sam Wilson as Captain America or Jane Foster as a female Thor, for example — but Marvel enterprise has faced growing criticism for this apparent corporate spinelessness in recent months after the comics publisher pulled a pair of essays from upcoming collections. One, by “Maus” author Art Spiegelman, referred to President Trump as the “Orange Skull” — a reference to Captain America’s Nazi foe, Red Skull. The other, by longtime Marvel scribe Mark Waid, criticized the current state of American civil society as “deeply flawed.” Both removals, in the eyes of devoted Marvel readers, represented acts of political cowardice. There’s also Feige’s feeble response to Scorsese’s criticism: that “Captain America: Civil War” was a powerful piece of cinema because it included a “very serious theological and physical altercation” — not, despite the movie’s focus on a piece of legislation, a political debate.
Scorsese was right, if only accidentally: Every element of the MCU is watered down for broad consumption compared with its comic predecessors. In the 2008 film “Iron Man,” itself a subtle ode to the military-industrial complex, Tony Stark’s character-defining alcoholism is conveniently washed away in vague womanizing, which is, in turn, rendered narratively irrelevant by a predictable love affair with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). In the comics, Captain American once became so disenchanted with his U.S. government paymasters that he threw down his shield and took the name “Nomad.” But in the films, his soul-searching is flattened into a digestible good vs. evil story line in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Civil War.” Even “Black Panther,” hailed as a major coup for both on-screen diversity and political storytelling in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, only goes so far in replicating the radical and challenging narratives of the comics. “[Black Panther] is little more than a marvel of marketing,” wrote Kenyan critic Patrick Gathara in The Washington Post. “The movie trots out many of the same destructive myths about Africans that circulate the globe.”
Those stories won’t happen on the silver screen for a simple reason: Disney makes entertainment, and challenging entertainment isn’t profitable.
This trend in the MCU takes on new urgency in the context of Feige’s new job as chief creative officer at Marvel Comics, a corporate shake-up ostensibly designed to replicate his silver-screen magic on the comic book page. And this means that those corporate politics may end up infecting the source material that remains the beating heart of the entire creative enterprise. Indeed, the look and feel of the titular team in “The Avengers,” down to Samuel L. Jackson’s role as Nick Fury, was directly inspired and shaped by 2002’s comic book miniseries “The Ultimates.” In virtually every other detail throughout the rest of the franchise, from the broad details of stories to the particulars of dialogue, the entire venture rests on those and other comics. He who controls the comics controls the fate of the entire Marvel enterprise.
Disney investors and analysts expect the launch of Disney+ to prove a success, and it’s certainly possible that it will bolster Marvel’s creative venture more than any best-selling comics saga ever could. But with Marvel such a plum target for the new era of America’s culture wars, a reactionary push toward extra-profitable cultural homogeneity may end up rooting out what has made Marvel so special for decades. All stars burn bright in the emptiness of the night sky: Now, with Marvel’s cinematic success dwarfing its comic business, the heat death of the Marvel Universe appears closer than ever.