I wasn’t always a Marvel fan. Back in the 1960s, I was too busy raging at the system to notice its line of superhero comics. Spider-Man, whose struggle with self-doubt made him Marvel’s most appealing character, was too clean-cut to suit my shaggy ways. And as a full-fledged adult, I never gave comics much thought.
Then, after four decades of writing about popular culture, I began teaching a generation whose devotion to the pantheon of gods and champions seemed remarkable to me. I wanted to discuss theory by European intellectuals; they wanted to talk about the Avengers. Eventually it occurred to me: They are exactly as conversant in superhero lore as I was in the arcana of Bob Dylan.
I don’t say this pejoratively. They are also capable of absorbing complex philosophical texts; they are clearly too smart to be wrong. So, though my taste runs toward arty films with subtitles, I decided to bone up on the Marvel cosmos. I consumed everything from “Deadpool 2” to “Doctor Strange,” just in time for this weekend’s debut of “Ant-Man and the Wasp” (a sequel about an insect-size ex-burglar and his airborne ally, both in spandex). And I came away with a new appreciation of a lesson I learned at my students’ age: One generation’s trash is another’s treasure. I had rock-and-roll, the bane of the civilized. They have Negasonic Teenage Warhead.
By now, everybody has at least a passing awareness of the superhero takeover. Marvel is a major film studio, and its early embrace of diversity has proved immensely valuable in a global market. The most recent Avengers film, “Infinity War,” has earned about $2 billion worldwide. The whole Marvel canon has brought in more than $16 billion at the box office, dwarfing the fabled Star Wars franchise. Between 10 and 16 TV shows, depending on how you count them, carry the Marvel logo. For millennials, the brand lives in a cherished slot somewhere between Instagram and Cardi B.
Why do Marvel films matter to young people like my students? Like rock in the 1960s, these movies have a mythic quality that invites us to transcend the confines of ordinary life. Every generation has its myths — mine involved hairy, peace-loving hobbits — but the legends that grab my students allow them to imagine a multicultural world. Marvel’s most important film, “Black Panther,” is the woke epic of our time because it presents an advanced African society set against the grit of ghetto life. The theme of liberation is hard to miss, but the look of the movie really brings it to life. Afrofuturism, a style that combines the jazzy avant-garde sensibility of Sun Ra with the universe-creating spirit of sci-fi, is rendered in thrilling visual detail, and the story seems to take place in a realm that has always, yet never, existed. This mash-up of the past and present is a major reason “Black Panther” is so hip, and that would have been true even if it weren’t political. What distinguishes Marvel movies, from the overtly progressive to the merely muscular, is the way they mess with cultural logic.
Take “Thor: Ragnarok.” I’m into Nordic mythology, and I admit to some confusion about this adaptation. Why was the Hulk rampaging around the distant planet Sakaar? (Isn’t that like pouring Velveeta on Swedish meatballs?) And what’s with Thor’s self-actualization pitch to Loki, his adopted brother: “You’ll always be the god of mischief, but you could be more.” I complained to my students that Loki is supposed to be a trickster, not a candidate for cognitive behavioral therapy, but they replied that knowing the source of a superhero myth can ruin it. Why does it matter what some pillaging berserker thought Loki was like? Who cares if the Hulk consorts with valkyries or if those flying maidens resemble Vampira? Every legend is up for grabs in the Marvel blender. Set the dial on hyper-explosive, add colors that make Day-Glo look dull, and you’ve got a style.
I hate to use a buzzword like “postmodern,” but it fits these films. They are a pastiche of half-remembered images and fables. Though I may wince over the lack of consistency, the point of the Marvel universe is to rip myths from their roots, mixing and matching in ways that make them flexible and eternal. All these stories share a common theme: the war between good and evil, which, for most young people, unfolds only before a console. But on the big screen, with sound that resonates in your intestines, it feels, dare I admit, transporting.
True, you won’t find emotional realism in a Marvel movie, any more than you will in a Wagner opera, because it’s a sensual experience before it’s an intellectual one. But that doesn’t mean these superheroes lack personality or that rendering them in broad strokes is merely crude. These are comic books and video games, after all, and Marvel has figured out how to bring the aesthetics of those genres together, twisting and tweaking the tropes, adding elements of kung-fu movies, Transformers figures and psychedelic art to create a shimmering package that my students, inducted as children into all those modes, can easily parse. They were raised in the long shadow of Star Trek, and they expect entertainment to immerse them in alternative realities. They don’t bring literary standards to these films, and neither should you. Abandon PBS, ye who enter here! Accept the invitation to regress, sink into a daydreaming delight, and you’ll find the pleasure in these films. Unbounded by the orderly sequence of events, free to roam across time and space, fueled by the sugar rush of a humongous Coke, you’ll plunge into a world of light and darkness that doesn’t exist in real life — although, in a sense, it does.
Fantastical as Marvel movies aim to be, the best of them are allegories about real problems. Superheroes embody the crusade for a just order (enforced, in this case, by elite warriors who rule from your side). Think about the ultimate scenario of chaos for most students: an active shooter at school. Think about a generation whose first sense of the wider world was 9/11. Now imagine yourself surrounded by a band of guardians with magical powers, decked out in ancient yet cutting-edge garb, dedicated to justice yet relatable and very buff. Superheroes express the yearning for power, safety, decency — everything missing from my students’ lives. You can’t imagine any of these costumed power-packs busting up a Black Lives Matter rally, and, though the future in Marvel films is hardly female, the growing ranks of female superheroes are more than strong enough to demolish tyrants or smack down the likes of Harvey Weinstein. The universe this fantasia creates is utopian, but it’s a response to actual conditions.
Little by little, I’ve come to accept the solace that the Marvel Cinematic Universe provides. When I was as young as my students are, and as aghast at the state of society, every bar of a Beatles song seemed to summon up a new, better world. It isn’t hard to see that same enchantment in the whoosh-and-whomp of superheroes. I haven’t convinced my boomer friends, who find these movies too rapid-fire to follow and too vapid to take seriously. But they’re missing something.
Ultimately, Marvel films have social and formal qualities whose full appreciation may require a youthful eye. These movies are glimmerings of a new youth culture, harbingers of the largest generation since mine. I think of it as the Superhero Generation. But if I can bear being the oldest person in line this weekend, I’ll whisper “One senior ticket for ‘Ant-Man’ ” at the box office. Now I own a Black Panther backpack, an ebony bag with raised silver flanges. After I saw it on a student, I had to have one. Wearing it, I feel part of something emergent and cool. Isn’t that what pop culture is all about?