I started England’s second lockdown last year with good intentions: I was broke and underemployed, and since it didn’t look like my economic circumstances would be improving anytime soon, I was determined to emerge from the pandemic rich in cultural capital. I decided to work my way through the British Film Institute’s directors’ poll of the 100 best films ever made and soon I was watching arthouse films like there was going to be an exam at the end of the pandemic. This wasn’t purely about self-improvement: many of these films I found straightforwardly entertaining or moving, while some were more challenging (ie boring) but rewarding in different ways. It felt like a good use of time. But then, one Friday evening, it all came crashing down: my younger brother suggested that we watch Captain America: The Winter Soldier, on the tantalising promise that it was “not as bad as you might expect”.
Prior to this, it wasn’t so much that I disliked Marvel films but that I’d staked a claim in being the kind of person who didn’t watch them. I opposed them as a symbol of cultural decline, a phenomenon that had destroyed cinema (I was at least partly correct on both counts – Hollywood’s seeming inability to think of anything new can be traced back in part to the franchise’s success). That night, I was sceptical but curious. In the end, the film wasn’t exactly a revelatory experience, but I enjoyed it well enough. Before I knew it, I had watched more than 20 of them in a month-long frenzy.
After a certain point, I recognised that I was doing this because I was enjoying it. I liked making fun of the films (I’ve never laughed harder at a film than when, during a pivotal fight scene in Captain Marvel, Brie Larson’s character rejects the pseudonym that her alien captors have given her and defiantly declares, “My name … is …Carol!”) while also getting sincerely sucked in: during Ant-Man, I was moved to tears by the death of a not-even-anthormophised insect called Ant-thony Now, having seen almost all of them, I have a balanced view. In their favour: they’re zippy and well-paced, up until their bloated final acts. They can be funny. The narrative ambition to link all of these stories together, taken as a whole, is impressive. Most of all, I enjoyed the scenes where characters show up at well-timed moments: just when all hope is lost … here comes Doctor Strange! I found moments of them genuinely stirring, even as I felt embarrassed by the goosebumps on my arm. Martin Scorsese’s criticism of the Marvel films as akin to “theme parks’’ was both accurate and not necessarily an insult.
As for the bad: they’re visually hideous, with the possible exception of Black Panther, and their politics are terrible, the moral lesson almost always being: the American military is really cool. This is more than just incidental: Marvel has collaborated with the Department of Defense on a number of films. While the villain of Captain America: The Winter Soldier is ostensibly the US deep state, this is only because it has been infiltrated by a fictional organisation headed up by a Swiss robot. You don’t have to agree with a film’s politics to find it enjoyable but we don’t have to pretend, as regular Marvel directors the Russo brothers recently claimed of the Avengers films, that they represent “a powerful political tool”. Maybe for the Pentagon. Do I regret the hours I spent watching them? Not really. I was so addicted to my phone at the time that doing literally anything else, even watching the trashiest film, felt as restorative as attending a monastic retreat.