Monday, May 23, 2016

Speculative Leverage

I enjoyed the AoS finale. It was epic, exciting, and built with vigor on the developments of the previous season. After two hours I was still interested in what happens after one more careful reset of the series (one or two every season apparently). Something about the events of the finale and the teaser at the start of the first half promises AoS will serve as a valuable bridge between the Earth-bound and Galactic corners of MCU.

AoS Collage, Morgan Crooks 2016
The finale also serves the useful function of highlighting how much the Marvel Cinematic Universe has changed over the years.

When MCU first started, we had a rich dude who sold weaponry in a world not all that different from our own. Tony Stark was certainly an out-sized personality playing with versions of technologies not present in our own world but, for the most part, Phase One of the MCU painted in the conservative tones of late 00's techno-thrillers. No supervillains, just out-of-control versions of the heroes.

Over time, Marvel's approach has shifted. Avengers One was the first chance movie-goers got to experience the quintessential point of shared superhero universes, which is not origin stories or five second cameos, but known, developed characters fighting along side each other in cataclysmic spectacles. Yet, even with the aliens and floating helicarriers, Avengers felt within the understood boundaries of the real world. So much so that the second Captain America film could set what amounted to an updated version of the Parallax View inside MCU.

Those days are receding into the rear view mirror.

The third Captain America was a mix-match of realistic (although amped up) cinema with the pure four-panel punch-up of the airport fight. Doctor Strange promises a further drift into the more fantastical realms of Marvel's universe. The season three finale of Agents of Shield also brings the ostensibly lower power heroes of MCU into space and beyond.

Power creep has already begun.

That's why the Netflix Marvel series (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage) are so important for the continued viability of MCU. I'm sure there's a better term to use to discuss the developments with in MCU but basically this is speculative leverage. Speculative because Marvel, in all of its forms, is a projection of fantasies, nightmares, and wonderings endemic to the human mind. Leverage because after nearly a decade of franchises, movie goers have become used to and accustomed to ever more extreme leaps from reality. AoS, Agent Carter, and the Netflix series serve to ground the other properties. Like leverage in the Stock Market, a growing divide between what is actual and what is fantasy invites collapse. In the case of the 2008, the collapse demolished our economy. In the case of MCU, it means diminishing returns and an impending round of reboots. 

Has Marvel reached that tipping point? The two-part Agents of SHIELD finale, along with Captain America's Civil War, contains much of what is right and wrong with this shared universe.

There were problems with the finale. I wish, for example, that they had had the production budget to really sell the "Primitive" terrigenesis. The concept of one SHIELD agent after another being dragged off screaming to their fates was the right kind of appalling. It's part of why I've been in favor of the Inhuman story-line from the start - that interesting sense that while the powers of each Inhuman might follow a plan, that plan is unconcerned with the people going through the transformation. That said, the terrigen mist looked it came from a fog machine. Not exactly impressive.

"Absolution/Ascension's" story felt secondary in the same way that bothered me about Avengers 2. There was a lot of set-up, some pay-off, and dialogue that felt rote and perfunctory.

In addition, I respect how they ended Grant Wards storyline without being terribly excited about it. Partly this has to do with how Grant has been in the process of leaving this show for most of the run of the show. Dalton did a fantastic job portraying Hive, filling him with the calm, self-righteousness similar to how he played Ward in the first season but tempered by some awareness of the fragility of humans and their plans. But in the end, the true end of Ward happened where the show said it did, back on the Blue Planet when Colson squeezed the life out of him. The scene of Hive and Lincoln floating in a doomed Quinn Jet, awaiting their fates felt superfluous, as though each had already reached their ultimate conclusion and were now just waiting for the writers to return from a coffee break.

I don't mean to say that all is rotten in Stan Lee's Denmark. Far from it. Even after a second viewing, I really liked Civil War. Agents of Shield has gotten better and better at doing what it does. Doctor Strange (casting issues aside) looks like the Inception sequel no one knew they wanted. But Marvel has a tough choice ahead: do they continue to ask, as Tony Stark does in Civil War, "anybody on our side hiding any shocking and fantastic abilities they'd like to disclose?" or do they embrace the classic storytelling of Daredevil and Jessica Jones, or the wrenching battle between Steve Rodgers and Tony Stark. If the purpose of hanging on to Grant Ward was to kill him off in ever more elaborate ways, I'm not sure if that qualifies.

Ultimately, I am a fan of comic books stories, which is more than just one shocking surprise after another. It's about wanting to know more about how Daisy dealt with the events of the finale than why she's wearing goth webbing. It's about wondering why Coulson joined SHIELD in the first place and what his early career was like. It's about being glad that Fitzsimmons survived because, seriously they're awesome.


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