Right now, Marvel and Star Wars are the two biggest franchises in Hollywood, producing a seemingly endless stream of movies and revenue. The past half-year alone has seen the release of two Star Wars films and two Marvel films – or three, if you stretch a little to include November’s Thor: Ragnarok. For several months now, Timothy Lawrence and Robert Brown have been discussing the two franchises’ strengths, weaknesses, differences, and commonalities.
ROBERT: The premise of this conversation is that there are a number of intriguing similarities between the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU for short) and what I’ll call the Star Wars Revival. Hollywood is obsessed with creating cinematic universes right now, and the obsession began with the success of Marvel’s multi-film set-up of the 2012 blockbuster hit, The Avengers. However, so far the only other attempted cinematic universe that has been able to imitate Marvel’s financial and critical success has been the return of Star Wars to the big screen, beginning with 2015’s The Force Awakens.
There are some obvious external similarities between the two franchises. Both have had at least one theatrical release per calendar year since their inception. Both have “main event” films (the Avengers films and the Skywalker-related sequel trilogy) and secondary films (solo hero films like Ant-Man or anthology films like Solo). Both are now owned by Disney. Both are overseen by one head producer (Kevin Feige for the MCU, Kathleen Kennedy for Star Wars). Both have seen instances of these producers replacing young auteurs mid-production with more conventional, conservative directors (Ant-Man, Solo). But there are also deeper similarities. For example, in your review of Black Panther, you made much of the uncanny (and hilarious) similarities between that film and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and when I saw The Last Jedi, I detected echoes of Thor: Ragnarok. Continuing to put these two popular franchises in dialogue with each other only reveals more and more narrative and thematic connections, so let us explore and elaborate on those connections in a dialogue of our own.
To ensure some semblance of focus, let’s limit ourselves to the four Star Wars films released so far (The Force Awakens, Rogue One, The Last Jedi, Solo) and to the MCU films released in the same years as those films, from 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron onward. (However, I think 2014’s Captain America: Winter Soldier will also need to factor into our analysis.) I’ll begin by asking our primary question: At their core, what do you think these two franchises are about, and how are they similar in what they are about?
TIMOTHY: Thanks for starting us off, Robert. I don’t want to play the cynic too much in this dialogue, so I’ll get some caveats out of the way early. When it comes to Marvel films, I am a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. I came out of the theater after Infinity War declaring my readiness to jump off the Marvel train for good; scarcely two days later, I turned around and saw it again. In the past, I have written generously about these films, and while their last several efforts have seen my goodwill sink dangerously low, apparently I am not willing or able to write them off just yet. My thoughts on the Star Wars revival are more settled, but still fluctuate: last weekend, I gave Solo a rather generous three-star rating, but when I look back to 2016 and see that I gave Rogue One four stars, I repent in dust and ashes. Solomon exhorts us not to ask why the old days were better than these, but I confess that my qualms with these films are largely Luddite in nature. In my critical thought, I tend to value authorial voice quite highly, and find myself skeptical of these seemingly corporatized productions. When it comes to Star Wars, I am a Lucas purist, and when it comes to Marvel, I usually point back to how much better Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy was. All this is to say that I find it tricky to have meaningful conversations about the modern iterations of these two franchises because of how diffuse they are. I refer not only to the volume of content, though that’s daunting – Infinity War is the nineteenth Marvel movie – but also to the number of cooks in the kitchen.
What, indeed, are these films about at their core – if they have one? It’s difficult to find a common denominator, but here are a few helpful contenders gleaned from our past conversations. There seem to be a few key ideas, separate but interrelated, that crop up with some regularity in both franchises. Both textually and meta-textually, these films reckon with the past. The Star Wars front is more self-conscious, as it has more of a cultural legacy to live up to; The Force Awakens, in particular, is markedly self-aware about the iconography it is evoking. However, both franchises are fixated on compromised ideals of fatherhood and inheritances. Kylo Ren and Star-Lord both commit patricide. Rogue One’s Jyn Erso is defined by her father’s involvement with the Death Star, while Iron Man – perhaps the closest thing Marvel has to a central figure – is similarly defined by his relationship to his father and his own anxieties about procreation and legacy. Thor and Black Panther are princes who wrestle with the failures of their kingly fathers, while Ant-Man wants to be a good father to his daughter. The list goes on.
As a general rule, fathers in these films are controlling influences, and their attempts to impose order are often reflected in the villains’ tyrannous agendas. I usually locate Marvel’s central thesis in the triumvirate of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Captain America: Civil War, all of which center on the tension between order and freedom. The same tension is present, of course, in the conflict between Empire and Rebellion (or First Order and Resistance) that the Star Wars films can’t seem to get away from. The anti-authoritarian streak is more pronounced in the Marvel films, which often frame larger institutions or programs as inherently inhumane – Tony Stark’s desire for “peace in our time” is presented as sympathetic, well-intentioned, but untenable. Building off of this skepticism, both franchises reckon with the apparently cyclical nature of conflict. What is the end of the story? Unfortunately, neither seems ready to offer a satisfying answer – a problem built into the limitless nature of their dramatic construction. If there are going to be sequels upon sequels for the foreseeable future, how can there be an ending? The films that come closest to tackling this problem head on – Age of Ultron and The Last Jedi – end up recentering the conflict. Instead of good and evil, categories that are questioned and redefined, the wrestling is between nihilism and affirmation, the will to death and the will to life. (Thanos, Marvel’s ultimate villain, derives his name from Freud’s concept of Thanatos, the death drive.) As we’ve discussed in our reviews of Black Panther and Infinity War, with the absence of an ultimate telos or eschaton to strive towards, the emphasis falls on empathy – to the exclusion, perhaps, of other virtues.
That’s obviously a rather sketchy flyover, and there’s plenty to unpack here. I suggest we start with parenthood and proceed from there. Which films in both franchises do you think address the sins of the father in the most compelling ways? Which say the most interesting things about it?
ROBERT: That’s a lot of fascinating territory to cover. But yes, let’s start with the sins of the father. I like that you connected the theme of fatherhood to the theme of institutions, because I don’t think I could talk about one without talking about the other. In both franchises, a father figure often represents an institution, and the failure of one is inseparable from the failure of the other. In both franchises, the characters not only grapple with the sins of the father on a personal level, but must also decide whether the institutions built by their fathers can or should be preserved. In Star Wars, this line of thought has been most fleshed out in The Last Jedi. Luke wants the Jedi, the institution of his father figures (Obi-Wan, Yoda, Anakin), to end. Finn realizes the institution led by Leia, the Resistance, buys weapons from the same people who sell weapons to their enemies. And Kylo wants to kill both his uncle and his mother, and destroy the institutions they stand for.
In the MCU, perhaps the best film on the sins of the father is Ant-Man, with multiple father-son and father-daughter pairs forming the emotional core of the narrative. I think the best film on the sins of an institution is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, wherein Cap discovers that SHIELD has been compromised beyond repair. Of course, in Ant-Man, the institution Hank Pym founded goes astray, and in Winter Soldier, SHIELD Director Nick Fury is a sort of father figure. But the MCU films that most explicitly intertwine these two themes are Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther, with King Odin representing the imperialist past of Asgard and King T’Chaka representing the isolationist past of Wakanda. Ragnarok ends with Thor deliberately destroying the land of Asgard to save the day (just as Captain America deliberately destroys SHIELD to save the day), but Odin his father assures him that “Asgard is not a place, it’s a people.” I take this to mean that the ideals of Odin and Asgard are still good and can be preserved, even if a reckoning has come upon the current bearers of those ideals. Black Panther however, deals with the sins of fathers and institutions in a way that is more troubling, if not self-contradictory. The film begins by making a reasonable and compelling case for why Wakanda had to isolate itself from the rest of the world. (In short: European imperialism happened.) Though the villain Killmonger is probably right to accuse Wakanda of inhumane negligence toward its neighbors, when T’Challa defies all of his forefathers (“You were all wrong!”) and totally reverses their foreign policy, I feel as if the baby was tossed out with the bath water. Perhaps a sequel will address whether or not T’Challa was irresponsible in abandoning the counsel of his father.
You mentioned an “anti-authoritarian streak” in both franchises, but I’d argue that both franchises still sense a need for institutions, as imperfect as they may be. T’Challa wants to make Wakanda and its resources a force for good in the world. In Doctor Strange, the world needs the institution of the three sanctums to protect it from supernatural threats. In Age of Ultron, SHIELD is briefly resurrected and — to paraphrase the words of one character — becomes what it was meant to be. And in The Last Jedi, Luke’s conclusion is that the Jedi and the Resistance must continue, and he sacrifices himself to preserve them.
So far I’ve covered governmental and religious institutions in these franchises. But we should also talk about the institution of the family in both franchises, and how that ties into the moral vision of these films. What is the good worth fighting for? What are these institutions trying to preserve?
TIMOTHY: I think you’re right to temper my reading of the films as “anti-authoritarian.” The Last Jedi, certainly, ultimately comes down in favor of its institutions. I think it’s telling, though, that in both franchises the vision of what is opposed registers more strongly than the vision of what is being stood for. Granted, it is more difficult to dramatize good than evil, just as virtue is harder to attain than vice, but I find it a tad dissatisfying to build the ethos of an entire universe on murky philosophy or simplistic platitudes. Vision is on the side of life, and Ultron is not, but “life” is an awfully vague thing to pledge one’s allegiance to. The Marvel films don’t have much of a foundation to fall back on, and this is a respect in which I think the Star Wars revival is better off, as it inherently points back to the ethos of Lucas’ films, even if it often fails to engage with them in a substantial way. Do these films have their own clear or robust vision of the good life?
Family is a good place to start looking. In Age of Ultron, Hawkeye’s traditional family unit is the clearest dramatization of what the Avengers fight to protect, and it is also a poignant picture of what the other Avengers long for but cannot have. The Hulk and Black Widow agonize over their inability to have children, and Tony Stark yearns for an end to the Avengers’ mission – “Isn’t that why we fight? So we can end the fight, so we get to go home?” Yet the nature of these films dictates that the fight cannot end, and Ultron‘s lament that its heroes can never lead normal lives is even more poignant considering that subsequent sequels have scrubbed the franchise of almost every semblance of normalcy. Stark gets about thirty seconds in Infinity War to plant the idea of having a child, but if Hawkeye’s family is Marvel’s vision of the good life, there’s something casually bleak about the way it’s dropped out of the following films almost entirely. Normal human concerns scarcely factors into these movies anymore; they are defined by Captain America, who Ultron critiques as “God’s righteous man, pretending [he] could live without a war.” The whole purpose of Marvel heroes, it seems, is to fight Marvel villains; they want to save people’s lives, but seem to have little idea how to better them.
Similarly, the Star Wars revival speaks to the absence of the family unit, but at least its absence is felt. To lack a good and mourn for it is one thing; to be unaware of its lack is another. Rogue One begins with the rupture of a family, which reverberates through the rest of the film. In the sequels, Kylo Ren longs to sever himself from his parents and their legacy, while Rey uses myths to fill the hole left by her absent parents. Even Solo lightly pencils in its hero’s family history. Once again, these films benefit from having a ready-made context to fall back on; family has been central to Star Wars since at least 1980. And even if The Last Jedi argues that Rey’s parents are ultimately irrelevant to the larger galactic drama, her need for them is still central to her formation. If Star Wars is no longer about family, what is it about? It took me a while to figure out if The Last Jedi had an answer, but in the end, I think it has a pretty good one: Star Wars is about, as always, the balancing of the intellect and the appetites by spirituality.
I don’t think the Star Wars revival contradicts Lucas’ ethos, but it does dilute it. This is best seen in Rose’s oft-mocked exhortation to save what we love rather than fight what we hate: it’s technically consistent with the moral thesis of Lucas’ films, as embodied in Luke’s choice to redeem Vader through non-violence, but it’s frustratingly vague and ineffectively dramatized. You can co-opt it to support whatever cause you want. In my Black Panther review, I pointed out that film’s version of the same sentiment, which is even more subjective, couched not in communal terms but individual ones: I fight for what I love. The failure of fathers has compromised the institutions of religion, government, and family, and the only goods our heroes have left to fight for are maddeningly undefined. Life and love are fine things, but without reference to higher things, our cosmos are flattened. Rather than pointing upwards, these films mostly end up pointing side to side – our heroes find meaning not in causes or ideals, but in each other. In your review of Infinity War, and my review of Black Panther, we discussed the way Marvel has set empathy up as the cardinal virtue. I particularly see this in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 – in which the hero kills his godlike father, literally named Ego, and declares that it is good to be “just like everybody else.” In their other films, or in the Star Wars franchise, do you see this theme being developed further, or in different directions?
ROBERT: It’s interesting how you note Rose’s exhortation that what we love should be emphasized more than what we hate, and yet you also note the problem with both these franchises is precisely that they do not follow that dictum. We know the morality of the Avengers and the Resistance more by what they’re against than what they’re for. But I think you’ve pretty much identified the vague essence of what they do value: life and love — whatever those terms mean and encompass. I’d add one more: liberty. And thus they are vehemently against the opposing poles of death, hatred, and tyranny. Let’s take an example of each from the MCU:
Life vs. Death: In Infinity War, the Avengers react against Thanos’ plan to wipe out half of all life in the universe, and they agonize over all who might die trying to stop him.
Love vs. Hate: In Black Panther, T’Challa reacts against both the seemingly loveless, apathetic foreign policy of his predecessors, and the vengeful hatred of Killmonger.
Liberty vs. Tyranny: In Winter Soldier, Captain America reacts against SHIELD’s extreme surveillance and policing. “This isn’t freedom; this is fear.”
But over and above an opposition to death, hatred, and tyranny, I think the thing that Marvel heroes oppose most is suffering. The one exception I can think of is Doctor Strange, who embraces suffering in one of the most Christ-like actions of the franchise: “Pain’s an old friend.” However, for just about everyone else, it seems that their chief aim is to prevent, ease, or end other people’s pain and their own. Like you said, empathy becomes the cardinal virtue. Of course, there is something good and right to this impulse, but it can also be problematic and dangerous. As I wrote in my Infinity War review and will argue again now, I think the filmmakers at Marvel may have at least an inkling of the boundaries of empathy. If not, they’re doing an awfully good job at unwittingly exposing, again and again, the gaping hole in the middle of their moral vision. In the films of the MCU, I see the destructive results of extreme empathy manifested in at least four forms:
First, extreme empathy leads to a refusal to let others suffer, even if that suffering may be necessary for the greater good. The unwillingness to let one or a few die for the survival of many shows up multiple times in Infinity War (see: Star-Lord, Scarlet Witch, Doctor Strange, and Peter Dinklage’s character, and the choices each are forced to make). In contrast, Thanos won’t let his love for Gamora get in the way of what he perceives as the greater good. Similarly, in Doctor Strange, Mordo would rather let Dormammu destroy the world than tamper with the laws of nature. The trouble is I can’t think of a time when the MCU presented us with an example of a mean between these two extremes. As you have demonstrated at length in your Star Wars explication essays, Lucas uses color symbolism to point to spirit (green) as a way to balance mind/reason (blue) and body/passion (red). If the Avengers were Jedi, who would wield a green lightsaber? I don’t know.
Second, as a result of this refusal to let others suffer, extreme empathy creates control freaks. Nick Fury in Winter Soldier and Tony Stark in Age of Ultron try to use technology to obsessively maintain peace, and in both cases their empathy-driven endeavors are hijacked by those with impure motives. (On a related note, the character of Mantis the empath embodies how the overly empathetic can be exploited.) And in Doctor Strange, there’s a scene where the Ancient One counsels the perfectionist, self-reliant Strange, based on her own failures trying to micro-manage fate and time.
Third, extreme empathy leads to something even more sinister than refusing to let others suffer: an ideology of merciful nihilism. Villains like Ultron, Kaecilius, and Thanos believe they are liberating people from suffering by annihilating them.
Fourth, there is at least one character who concludes that empathy for others is so risky and painful that it would be better to have no regard for others, and in fact absorb all others into himself, remaking everyone else into his image. You mentioned this character just earlier: Ego from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. (Admittedly, I’ve only seen that movie once, and it was such a jarring, unpleasant experience I have mostly shut it out of my mind, so my analysis of Ego could be wrong. Ending the film with Star-Lord killing Ego is a far-cry from the redemption of Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy James Gunn so obviously wants to emulate.)
All that to say, I don’t think the MCU has quite made up its mind on the merits and demerits of empathy. It’s messy and ambiguous. Like you said, there may be too many cooks in the kitchen for there to be a consensus. As for the filmmakers behind the new Star Wars films, when it comes to the themes of empathy and the avoidance of suffering, they focus mostly on the question posed by their counterparts in Infinity War: When are sacrifices and casualties worth it? In Rogue One, The Last Jedi, and Solo, this question keeps showing up, and I think collectively they provide a more nuanced and compelling answer than anything the MCU has offered so far.
In Rogue One, almost every hero dies to retrieve the Death Star plans, setting up the Rebels’ victory in A New Hope. This creates perhaps the most downbeat third act in Star Wars history outside of Revenge of the Sith, but it’s also unambiguously clear that our heroes did the right thing. It’s implied they know they are dying for something bigger than themselves. Meanwhile, their fellow rebels honor their sacrifices. They do not succumb to survivor’s guilt, but fight to ensure their deaths were not in vain. In Solo, by contrast, our heroes derail or endanger the success of a heist more than once in order to rescue friends from dying. But I don’t think this contradicts the message of Rogue One, because there’s a big difference between thieves stealing from thieves to pay back other thieves, and rebels dying to protect future generations from tyranny. There are times when sacrifices must be made, but there is a difference between martyrdom and suicide, and courage and bravado. This brings me to The Last Jedi, which integrates both positions. It argues Poe was wrong to send his bombers on a suicide mission, and that Finn was foolish to try and emulate the reckless heroics of his friend. And yet Holdo and Luke’s sacrifices are portrayed as noble. This is a paradox, perhaps, but not a contradiction.
Something notable about the new Star Wars films is how populist they are. Star Wars is no longer just about a few exceptionally gifted leaders. We still have larger-than-life characters like Rey or Kylo, of course, but we’re also given more of a glimpse into the lives of the people in the trenches. The filmmakers want us to care about the rebels and the stormtroopers, the mechanics and the pilots, the orphans and the slaves, and even the droids, that up until now were only abstractions and extras. These films insist — and none more loudly and obviously than Solo — that every single life-form has intrinsic dignity and worth. Nevertheless, I think these films also suggest that this commitment to life should not cloud sound judgment and deter costly commitments. You wrote earlier that, “Rather than pointing upwards, these films mostly end up pointing side to side – our heroes find meaning not in causes or ideals, but in each other.” You’re probably on to something there, but at least in the new Star Wars films, I don’t think this is entirely the case. If these characters only found meaning in each other, they would all, like Finn, try to run away and hide with the few people that mattered most to them. Jyn and Cassian would have gone to the Outer Rim, not Scarif. I see echoes of Yoda’s warning to Luke in The Empire Strikes Back: If you let your empathy – your concern for your friends’ suffering – control your decisions, you will endanger the causes for which they sacrificed. Or, to cite a parallel scene in Attack of the Clones, Obi-Wan convinces Anakin to leave Padmé behind and pursue Dooku, because in his position Padmé would have done the same, putting her duty over her emotions.
I apologize for my response being so long-winded, but if I may make one more point: There are critics of the new Star Wars films who were first critics of the Marvel films and now complain about the “Marvelization” of Star Wars. In particular, some see Marvel’s heavy use of bathos – the undercutting of dramatic and emotional moments with humor – infecting Star Wars. Maybe the higher-ups at Disney are giving Kathleen Kennedy memos about how well Marvel humor works on test audiences. Maybe Rian Johnson asked James Gunn for writing advice. But I think this is more likely a problem of correlation, not causation, and I think this ties back to the issue of empathy and the avoidance of pain. (I promise this is a purposeful tangent.) Maybe the problem isn’t Marvel or Star Wars. Maybe these franchises are simply expressions of our secular age’s lack of a moral vision beyond “Do no harm, and don’t be harmed.” Maybe The Last Jedi gave us too many Porgs, and Infinity War gave us too much Rocket and Groot, because neither the filmmakers nor the audience are really willing to think that long and hard about the serious subject matter contained or alluded to in these films. Both those films try to stare death and despair in the face, but they flinch when – to use a modern idiom – things get too real. Indeed, reality is not for the faint of heart. What do you think? Is Star Wars being Marvelized? If so, how? Or are the similarities between the two franchises more a result of both reflecting our cultural moment? If so, how?
TIMOTHY: Excellent questions. Before I get to them, let me circle back and respond to a few of your other points.
I can’t help noticing that in your observation about the two extremes – those who are unwilling to let others die and those whose commitment to causes or ideals supersedes their empathy – the examples in the former camp are all heroes, and those in the latter camp are all villains. There is nothing wrong with this, per se; it is true that misplaced commitments can lead to great evil and inhumanity. But as a pattern with almost no apparent counterpoints, this strikes me as an indication of a troubling failure to believe in higher causes or ideals at all. I think you’re right to single out Doctor Strange as an exception, who not only embraces suffering for himself but is willing to let others suffer for the greater good. Though I suppose we won’t know for sure till next year’s sequel, my interpretation of Infinity War is that he only hands the time stone over to Thanos because he foresees that it’s the only way to defeat him, not because his emotions have swayed him from his commitment.
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 may be the purest expression of Marvel’s philosophical problem. You mention Ego’s desire to “absorb all others into himself, remaking everyone else into his image,” and Vol. 2 seems to suggest that this is the only inevitable endpoint of any attempt to pursue a higher cause; Gunn’s film hinges on the conflict between empathy and ideology, and it presents no middle ground. This is seen most clearly in the scene where Ego explicates the lyrics of “Brandy” by Looking Glass: “The sea calls the sailor back. He loves the girl, but that’s not his place. The sea calls upon him as history calls upon great men, and sometimes we are deprived the pleasures of mortals.” In another marked contrast to Star Wars beyond the treatment of patricide, the solution in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is not to reconcile the intellect and the passions but to do away with the intellect (symbolized by Ego, who is literally a giant brain). Yondu tells Star-Lord to use his heart, not his head; it seems to me that Star-Lord is only using his stomach, and doesn’t have much of a heart at all. Of course, there are many bad ways in which man tries to be like God, but it’s a troubling trend when no good ways have been presented after nineteen films. Even the Vision, presented as a(n unorthodox) Christ figure in Age of Ultron, lost all his Christological overtones in subsequent films. There’s good reason to be skeptical of an overzealous proliferation of “Christ figures” in popular media – look, this superhero’s arms are outstretched in a vaguely cruciform pose! – but a pointed dearth is equally troubling, if not moreso.
On the subject of control freaks, I was struck when I last saw Age of Ultron by the fact that both Tony Stark and Luke Skywalker react in fear to visions of terrible futures – and these fearful reactions create their dark reflections, Ultron and Kylo Ren. The limits of human control are a key theme in both these franchises, as we have discussed, but once again, I can’t help feeling the absence of a counterpoint. There’s little to no sense of, say, Gandalf’s sentiment in Fellowship of the Ring: “There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil.” Both franchises come down to little more than good people vs. bad people. If The Last Jedi mentioned “the will of the Force” even once, I would find it much more satisfying; as is, the Star Wars sequel trilogy largely lacks the sense of spiritual weight that made Lucas’ trilogies so profound. On a related note, it also lacks a certain cohesion, a sense of telos or ultimate purpose. We know Episode IX will conclude the trilogy, but I, for one, have no idea what that conclusion will entail, or why I ought to care, because it’s entirely unclear what The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi have been building to. The spin-offs, like Solo, are better able to avoid this problem because they don’t purport to have the same sense of stakes, and because they are placed within a preexisting context. Rogue One is able to have its characters die heroic, sacrificial deaths because we know exactly what they are dying for: it was already dramatized in 1977. There is a clarity to their mission in principle, even if I find the film’s execution needlessly muddled. Once again, I fall back on my argument that the films of the Star Wars revival owe a great deal to Lucas’ cosmological vision, whether they acknowledge the debt or not.
This brings us back around to your final points. I think it is a recurring problem of these films that I rarely feel their gravitas, and this is partly because of their limitless nature. Because there is no ending in sight, there is no sense of ultimate finality to the overarching story – and because the individual units are all busy connecting to each other, they have no sense of finality in themselves either. Spider-Man 2 was the middle entry in a trilogy, but it was also a self-contained and deeply compelling story in its own right; if Spider-Man 3 had not been made (though thank God it was), Spider-Man 2 would not have felt incomplete. Spider-Man: Homecoming, on the other hand, exists only as connective tissue between other films. Thus far, this problem has plagued Marvel more than the Star Wars revival, though Solo’s dangling plot threads and baffling cameo suggest a movement in a less-than-ideal direction. Marvel has brought so many characters back from the dead, conditioning us to believe that death is not permanent in the Marvel universe, that the death of quite literally half the universe in Infinity War garnered no more than a shrug from me. But you’re also right that, when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of dramatic execution, these films often shy away from weightiness. On paper, The Last Jedi is perhaps the single bleakest entry in the Star Wars saga. The story it tells is nearly apocalyptic, but it never feels that way, and when it does try to evoke a sense of doom and gloom, it feels like it’s straining. Leia tells us that the spark of hope has been extinguished or what have you, but I don’t buy it when the last two hours have been punctuated by jokes.
But perhaps there’s an even deeper problem. We have been wondering if these franchises’ sense of the good is impoverished. If it is, then it stands to our reason that our sense of what matters, what is truly at stake, would be similarly diluted. Maybe these films lack gravity because they lack a center of gravity. I think you’re correct that it’s a matter of correlation, not causation, and I don’t think any of the people producing these intend them to be deliberately nihilistic, but by unintentionally eroding their vision of goodness, they’ve opened themselves up to that danger. As we move away from the institutions of the past, we (as you put it) throw the baby out with the bathwater.When it comes to things of the past, I tend to think we ought to keep more than we throw away. The Marvel universe has done away with its governmental and religious institutions; without apparently intending to, it has mostly done away with the institution of the family as well. Has it offered anything substantial to fill that hole? Does it even realize the hole is there?
From this, it’s easy to draw some alarming generalizations about our cultural moment, which is also ridden with distrust for the institutions of government, religion, and family. But this is, after all, a conversation about blockbuster movies, and we only have so much time and space here. Are there some particular ways you see these films reflecting current events?
ROBERT: Of course, with themes as universal as failed father figures and failed institutions, we could make so many connections from these films to our present moment and to our own experiences. I’ll limit myself to three connections that particularly resonate with me.
First, I’ve known my share of Luke Skywalkers and King Odins. Whether it was a personal mentor or a public leader, more than once I’ve experienced the confusion and pain of seeing people I respected turn out to be less than what they seemed. I think we’ve all been there, and if not, we will be sooner or later. And so these films strike a cord when Rey finds out why Han returned to smuggling and Luke is in exile, or when Doctor Strange and Mordo start to question the wisdom of the Ancient One, or when Tony Stark discovers the secret Steve Rogers was keeping from him in Civil War. All of our heroes have feet of clay, whether they’re in our families and communities, in our headlines, or in our blockbusters.
Second, to cite a very current institutional example that also hits close to home, I’m a Southern Baptist, and right now my denomination is embroiled in a very public scandal surrounding one of its most high-profile leaders. The other day I read Ross Douthat’s New York Times editorial on this “Baptist Apocalypse.” Douthat made the following striking statement, one that speaks not only to this particular crisis but to dozens of others:
So the question posed by this age of revelation is simple: Now that you know something new and troubling and even terrible about your leaders or your institutions, what will you do with this knowledge?
Really, isn’t that the nagging question also at the heart of many of these Marvel and Star Wars movies? What will our heroes do? And what are we going to do?
Third, it should be noted that at least some of these films have a social justice bent. This is reflective of how our culture is grappling with a newfound awareness and unease over the continued presence of racism, sexism, and other systemic injustices, particularly in its institutions. On the Marvel front, Black Panther is most obviously a work of political and cultural commentary, and even though that film is flawed, its historical significance and timeliness cannot be ignored. And on the Star Wars front, there have been more lead roles for women and ethnic minorities. Now some will say that they don’t want their favorite franchises “getting all political,” and others will say that good art should tackle social issues with more nuance and subtlety (if at all). Still others, those more sympathetic to these causes, will express concerns about tokenism. But I don’t mind the brazen political allegorizing of Black Panther, because I want my fellow white Americans to benefit from a much-needed civics lesson while they munch their buttered popcorn and watch vibranium-powered explosions. I welcome the diversity of the new Star Wars films, because now the galaxy far, far away much better resembles the neighborhood in which I live and the multi-ethnic church that I call family. And I would like to believe these filmmakers are approaching these issues out of a genuine concern and principled commitment to be a part of the solution.
Ultimately, what I find most compelling about both these franchises is that they are predominantly the work of young filmmakers who are inheriting not only the stories they grew up with, but also the confused and confusing world in which those stories were created. And so the filmmakers and the new stories they tell look backward, asking, “What was good about the stories we were told and the institutions that we grew up in, and what was wrong?” And they look to the present and to the future, asking, to quote Douthat again, “What will [we] do with this knowledge?” Unfortunately, neither franchise is as good at looking forward as at looking backward. Introspection is easier than change. That’s one reason for why these films are so given to nostalgic callbacks and fan service, and one explanation for the growing sequel fatigue of their audiences. Again, the problem seems to be that these stories need a proper ending, and a deeper meaning.
TIMOTHY: Thanks for sharing, Robert. As you say, these films are the work of artists who are passing stories from the previous generation down to the following generation – and, in the process, deciding what about those stories to preserve and what to do away with. The Force is often likened to Hegel’s world spirit, and in The Last Jedi, Luke’s final act is to become a legend, a part of history. This focus on myth is one of the facets of the Star Wars revival that I find most interesting, probably because (I’m pathetically predictable) it’s also what Lucas was doing in the first place. From the beginning, Star Wars has been concerned with the formation of young people by preserving old traditions of thought and storytelling, marrying the ancient and classical (Oedipus, Plato, Faust) to the more recent and popular (Kurosawa, Freud, Flash Gordon). To be predictable again, I’m often disappointed by the way the older influences tend to drop out of the picture as these new films go on. The Force Awakens looks back to Star Wars, but no further; The Last Jedi knows its classic cinema, getting as far back as Wings, but its concerns feel quite modern, or are at least couched in very modern terms. One of my least favorite trends in film criticism nowadays is the tendency to bend over backwards to tie everything to What Is Happening Now; reviewers see references to Trump the way Jesse James sees Pinkertons. Surely there is a danger in the opposite direction, and I ought to be wary of my inclination towards apathy and negligence of the present. You say you have known many Luke Skywalkers; I could easily be one, retreating grumpily into the past. Still, let me ask: much has been made of how “relevant” Black Panther is in 2018, but will it be equally relevant in 2028? 2038? Tying all our stories to the zeitgeist limits their universality, but what is universal, by definition, also encompasses what is current. Interpreters saw Revenge of the Sith as a commentary on the political climate of its day, but almost fifteen years later it is still referenced in regard to the political climate of our day.
Vision says a thing “isn’t beautiful because it lasts,” but I’m not sure I agree. The greatest art is not always recognized in its time, but it usually does last. Many gems are underappreciated upon their release, only to be recognized much later, once time has sifted the wheat from the chaff. Consider Vertigo, or Citizen Kane – or on a more pertinent note, the recent reappraisal of blockbusters like Spider-Man 3 and the Star Wars prequels, which were reviled upon their release. (Every dog will have its day; I am still waiting for The Lone Ranger‘s.) At their best, the films of Marvel and the Star Wars revival cut through my disinterest; at their worst, they encourage it. I still find myself coming back to the theological beauty of Doctor Strange‘s climax, but is there anything less interesting in a blockbuster nowadays than the introduction of a resistance movement? (Among the reasons I appreciate the flagrantly goofy Thor: Ragnarok more and more as we move into the Dionysian summer months is the way it treats its revolution as a punchline, rather than burdening it with vague portentousness.) As a friend of mine put it, many of these films no longer have political themes; they have political soundbites.
Christine’s inscription on Doctor Strange’s watch reads, “Time will tell how much I love you,” and I can’t help feeling skeptical when I wonder what time will tell about these movies. As these films chip away at their foundation, they’re left with less and less to stand on. They capture the anxieties and frustrations of our time in ways both explicit and implicit, but how much do they capture that is timeless?