A Thing To Marvel At

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2021-09-13 12:00:00 No comments

My wife ended up finally watching Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, with me popping in and out as I'd seen both of them before. Being re-exposed to them reminded me the problem I have with most such material is not that it's bad as entertainment, but bad as a teaching example for creators to follow. They're worth watching and enjoying, but not necessarily worth emulating.

Many of the Marvel movies are quite good in a technical sense. And not just the visual effects, but in that they have spot-on casting, tight story construction, and lively pacing. But they're part of a collective of projects, and that collective adds up to much less than the sum of its parts. I enjoy them individually, but as a unit they feel burdensome. Their larger plan is not to tell a story but to perpetuate a continuum as a marketable concern. In other words, the movies have recapitulated exactly the same thing that made the comics themselves a bore in the long run.

This is not something you want to consciously aim for as a creator. It's a little like how Google and Facebook try to hype their internal infrastructure innovations as being good for businesses of all sizes. What works at their scale doesn't always work at the scale needed to run something for a few dozen people. Likewise, the examples set by mainstream tentpole franchises are not the ones worth emulating by individual creators, because the design for those things is at odds with what most individual creators need or want to do.

When I was a young'un I was distantly aware of the distinction between stuff like Marvel/DC and the one-shots or more self-encapsulated things that also appeared on the shelves of Forbidden Planet. It wasn't who was in them or who drew them, but how they worked as stories. Marvel/DC was soap opera: it never ended, and you could enter or leave at any time. But that also meant nothing really mattered, except in the most localized sense. The death of a character was big news for a while, until they found a reason to bring them back (and that reason was, well, money). It was, so to speak, an emergent phenomenon of the way the business worked around such media. It wasn't a pattern worth emulating.

My friend Eric and I have gotten into good-natured arguments about the "no consequences" nature of this kind of storytelling. My point, again, was not so much that it was no good as entertainment, but that it teaches a bad example for other creators. Soap-opera/continuum-style entertainment seems counterproductive as a goal, because it all it teaches you to do is appeal to an audience that is ultimately impossible to please anyway. You might as well please yourself first, and from that develop the good taste needed to please yourself well (and please others as a byproduct of your own refined tastes).

I get the appeal in the abstract of soap opera, or the continuum approach to entertainment. It's comforting, and most people want comfort from their entertainments. They want to know there's something consistent they can return to, something that's new without being too jarringly so. In my less charitable moments I describe it as something people can lie down and go to sleep in. Over time I've come to accept the existence of such things with some grace; it's not for me alone to kick in its teeth. My responsibility is to create the best possible things I can that uphold my sense of how these things should work.

Tags: Marvel Comics creativity entertainment movies