At the height of the controversy over America’s involvement in the Middle East, MARVEL Studios added their voices to the mix with Iron Man. Tony Stark, personified in the charisma and scabbard-sealed wit of Robert Downey, Jr., raised the curtain on the MCU by wrestling with questions of war, peace, and morality in dangerous times. Downey’s ability to ape moral angst — to wonder if his cause was truly just, out loud and in motion — was a defining feature of the MARVEL moneymaking machine for the first 19 years of its existence. More than the perfect mirror for a nation in retrospective flux, Iron Man and his cast of conflicted co-conspirators served to hoist the art form they inhabited beyond the bounds of superhero cinema and onto the shores of widespread critical acclaim.
In 2018, MARVEL began clearing the deck of their original cornerstones — not just Downey’s Iron Man, whose arc landed with so much closure that it ended an entire phase of MARVEL movies, but Captain America, and the Hulk, and the Black Panther and the accompanying Widow, and, in short order, Thor and Hawkeye. This, with the exception of Panther, was the band brought and held together by the Iron Man himself, united around his uneasy mission, eating and drinking in the sacraments of vocational malaise. The Hulk begins his career as half a fugitive, feuding with and fleeing from the US Army as their science experiment gone wrong. Thor’s divinity, like all divinity, everywhere in the modern world, is contested, by none other than Captain America — who, coincidentally, is a figurehead for a contested entity himself. Even King T’Challa, the Black Panther himself, utters indictments to the face of his father’s ghost over Wakanda’s indifference to the atrocities beyond its borders. They see themselves, to quote the poet Patricia Lockwood, in the mirror of Iron Man, the glue-guy Avenger who spends his 11-year storyline agonizing over his father’s legacy as an agent of US military might— to say nothing of his own.
As MARVEL slowly begins to peter away the originals, replaced by characters like Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel and Anthony Mackie’s Falcon-turned-Captain America, they’re not just replacing the old-timers’ bodies, or their styles, or their faces and names. They’re replacing the disease that united the originals together, beyond any threat from Thanos or Ultron.
More than ever before, it seems that MARVEL’s upcoming crop of heroes relies on the great beyond to aid them in their various causes. Shang-Chi, a master of hand-to-hand combat in line to inherit an entire criminal enterprise, relies instead on assists from mystical mountaineers and all-powerful dragons in a struggle against the, uh, “Dweller-in-Darkness.” The Eternals, divine beings from thousands of years ago, unite to prevent an Emergence of… evil spiritual creatures millennia in the making. Not even Spider-Man is immune from the pull of the great beyond — in trailers, Spidey enlists the super-sorcerer Dr. Strange as a sidekick of sorts in the upcoming No Way Home.
This might seem like an innocuous shift in storytelling at first blush, but the message it carries is clear: Someone, out there, is looking out for the MCU. And how could anyone wrestle with the righteousness of a cause that convinces the very universe? When dragons are popping up from the waters to fight your battles for you, when sorcerers are reclaiming the memories of the entire population, when your directive consists of fighting creatures who could be flippantly described as demons, what room is there to reconsider? What room does such intervention leave for the angst of our modern time? Must we believe, without question, that our heroes’ causes are just? Apparently MARVEL, after relying on the uncertainty of its heroes to pierce the bedrock of “prestige film,” has erected a financial flywheel capable of sustaining itself with only a shadow of the agonizing storytelling that might have kept some fans coming back.
It’s entirely possible that there’s something off with me — a Batman fan, unaccustomed to the surf-shop-spiritualism of the 21st century and blind to its appearances in the early works of the MCU, pining for the kinds of gritty, devil’s bargain-riddled storytelling that Disney can’t deliver. Perhaps Tony Stark was a man before his time, forcing MARVEL to empty their tank of quizzical patriotism over Iraq before social issues opened up the reserves in Black Panther, Captain Marvel, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Or maybe, just maybe, the OG MCU was itself the realm of prophets, kicking around the can on questions we knew were coming at some point.
Maybe Iron Man was a gift — a favor from the future. And maybe we’d be wise to heed his lessons on how to wrestle, how to reckon, and how to repent, in the shade and shadow of those who came before us.