I didn’t get my stu­dents’ love for the Marvel films. Then I saw them.

We had rock mu­sic, says boomer Richard Gold­stein. What’s so dif­fer­ent about comic-book cool?

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - rp­gold­stein@ya­hoo.com

Iwasn’t al­ways a Marvel fan. Back in the 1960s, I was too busy rag­ing at the sys­tem to no­tice its line of su­per­hero comics. Spi­der-Man, whose strug­gle with self-doubt made him Marvel’s most ap­peal­ing char­ac­ter, was too clean-cut to suit my shaggy ways. And as a full-fledged adult, I never gave comics much thought.

Then, af­ter four decades of writ­ing about pop­u­lar cul­ture, I be­gan teach­ing a gen­er­a­tion whose de­vo­tion to the pan­theon of gods and cham­pi­ons seemed re­mark­able to me. I wanted to dis­cuss the­ory by Euro­pean in­tel­lec­tu­als; they wanted to talk about the Avengers. Even­tu­ally it oc­curred to me: They are ex­actly as con­ver­sant in su­per­hero lore as I was in the ar­cana of Bob Dy­lan.

I don’t say this pe­jo­ra­tively. They are also ca­pa­ble of ab­sorb­ing com­plex philo­soph­i­cal texts; they are clearly too smart to be wrong. So, though my taste runs to­ward arty films with sub­ti­tles, I de­cided to bone up on the Marvel cos­mos. I con­sumed ev­ery­thing from “Dead­pool 2” to “Doc­tor Strange,” just in time for this week­end’s de­but of “Ant-Man and the Wasp” (a se­quel about an in­sect-size ex-bur­glar and his air­borne ally, both in span­dex). And I came away with a new ap­pre­ci­a­tion of a les­son I learned at my stu­dents’ age: One gen­er­a­tion’s trash is an­other’s trea­sure. I had rock-and-roll, the bane of the civ­i­lized. They have Ne­ga­sonic Teenage War­head. B y now, every­body has at least a pass­ing aware­ness of the su­per­hero takeover. Marvel is a ma­jor film stu­dio, and its early em­brace of di­ver­sity has proved im­mensely valu­able in a global mar­ket. The most re­cent Avengers film, “In­fin­ity War,” has earned about $2 bil­lion world­wide. The whole Marvel canon has brought in more than $16 bil­lion at the box of­fice, dwarf­ing the fa­bled Star Wars fran­chise. Be­tween 10 and 16 TV shows, de­pend­ing on how you count them, carry the Marvel logo. For mil­len­ni­als, the brand lives in a cher­ished slot some­where be­tween In­sta­gram and Cardi B.

Why do Marvel films mat­ter to young peo­ple like my stu­dents? Like rock in the 1960s, these movies have a mythic qual­ity that in­vites us to tran­scend the con­fines of or­di­nary life. Every gen­er­a­tion has its myths — mine in­volved hairy, peace-lov­ing hob­bits — but the leg­ends that grab my stu­dents al­low them to imag­ine a mul­ti­cul­tural world. Marvel’s most im­por­tant film, “Black Pan­ther,” is the woke epic of our time be­cause it presents a tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced African so­ci­ety set against the grit of ghetto life. The theme of lib­er­a­tion is hard to miss, but the look of the movie re­ally brings it to life. Afro­fu­tur­ism, a style that com­bines the jazzy avant-garde sen­si­bil­ity of Sun Ra with the uni­verse-cre­at­ing spirit of sci-fi, is ren­dered in thrilling visual de­tail, and the story seems to take place in a realm that has al­ways, yet never, ex­isted. This mash-up of the past and present is a ma­jor rea­son “Black Pan­ther” is so hip, and that would have been true even if it weren’t po­lit­i­cal. What dis­tin­guishes Marvel movies, from the overtly pro­gres­sive to the merely mus­cu­lar, is the way they mess with cul­tural logic.

Take “Thor: Rag­narok.” I’m into Nordic mythol­ogy, and I ad­mit to some con­fu­sion about this adap­ta­tion. Why was the Hulk ram­pag­ing around the dis­tant planet Sakaar? (Isn’t that like pour­ing Velveeta on Swedish meat­balls?) And what’s with Thor’s self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion pitch to Loki, his adopted brother: “You’ll al­ways be the god of mis­chief, but you could be more.” I com­plained to my stu­dents that Loki is sup­posed to be a trick­ster, not a can­di­date for cog­ni­tive be­hav­ioral ther­apy, but they replied that know­ing the source of a su­per­hero myth can ruin it. Why does it mat­ter what some pil­lag­ing berserker thought Loki was like? Who cares if the Hulk con­sorts with valkyries or if those fly­ing maid­ens re­sem­ble Vam­pira? Every leg­end is up for grabs in the Marvel blen­der. Set the dial on hy­per-ex­plo­sive, add col­ors that make Day-Glo look dull, and you’ve got a style.

I hate to use a buzz­word like “post­mod­ern,” but it fits these films. They are a pas­tiche of half-re­mem­bered images and fa­bles. Though I may wince over the lack of con­sis­tency, the point of the Marvel uni­verse is to rip myths from their roots, mix­ing and match­ing in ways that make them flex­i­ble and eter­nal. All these sto­ries share a com­mon theme: the war be­tween good and evil, which, for most young peo­ple, un­folds only be­fore a con­sole. But on the big screen, with sound that res­onates in your in­testines, it feels, dare I ad­mit, trans­port­ing.

True, you won’t find emo­tional re­al­ism in a Marvel movie, any more than you will in a Wag­ner opera, be­cause it’s a sen­sual ex­pe­ri­ence be­fore it’s an in­tel­lec­tual one. But that doesn’t mean these su­per­heroes lack per­son­al­ity or that ren­der­ing them in broad strokes is merely crude. These are comic books and video games, af­ter all, and Marvel has fig­ured out how to bring the aes­thet­ics of those gen­res to­gether, twist­ing and tweak­ing the tropes, adding el­e­ments of kung-fu movies, Trans­form­ers fig­ures and psy­che­delic art to cre­ate a shim­mer­ing pack­age that my stu­dents, in­ducted as chil­dren into all those modes, can eas­ily parse. They were raised in the long shadow of Star Trek, and they ex­pect en­ter­tain­ment to im­merse them in al­ter­na­tive re­al­i­ties. They don’t bring lit­er­ary stan­dards to these films, and nei­ther should you. Aban­don PBS, ye who en­ter here! Ac­cept the in­vi­ta­tion to regress, sink into a day­dream­ing de­light, and you’ll find the plea­sure in these films. Un­bounded by the orderly se­quence of events, free to roam across time and space, fu­eled by the sugar rush of a hu­mon­gous Coke, you’ll plunge into a world of light and dark­ness that doesn’t ex­ist in real life — although, in a sense, it does. F an­tas­ti­cal as Marvel movies aim to be, the best of them are al­le­gories about real prob­lems. Su­per­heroes em­body the cru­sade for a just or­der (en­forced, in this case, by elite war­riors who rule from your side). Think about the ul­ti­mate sce­nario of chaos for most stu­dents: an ac­tive shooter at school. Think about a gen­er­a­tion whose first sense of the wider world was 9/11. Now imag­ine your­self sur­rounded by a band of guardians with mag­i­cal pow­ers, decked out in an­cient yet cut­ting-edge garb, ded­i­cated to jus­tice yet re­lat­able and very buff. Su­per­heroes ex­press the yearn­ing for power, safety, de­cency — ev­ery­thing miss­ing from my stu­dents’ lives. You can’t imag­ine any of these cos­tumed power-packs bust­ing up a Black Lives Mat­ter rally, and, though the fu­ture in Marvel films is hardly fe­male, the grow­ing ranks of fe­male su­per­heroes are more than strong enough to de­mol­ish tyrants or smack down the likes of Har­vey We­in­stein. The uni­verse this fan­ta­sia cre­ates is utopian, but it’s a re­sponse to ac­tual con­di­tions.

Lit­tle by lit­tle, I’ve come to ac­cept the so­lace that the Marvel Cin­e­matic Uni­verse pro­vides. When I was as young as my stu­dents are, and as aghast at the state of so­ci­ety, every bar of a Bea­tles song seemed to sum­mon up a new, bet­ter world. It isn’t hard to see that same en­chant­ment in the whoos­hand-whomp of su­per­heroes. I haven’t con­vinced my boomer friends, who find these movies too rapid-fire to fol­low and too va­pid to take se­ri­ously. But they’re miss­ing some­thing.

Ul­ti­mately, Marvel films have so­cial and for­mal qual­i­ties whose full ap­pre­ci­a­tion may re­quire a youth­ful eye. These movies are glim­mer­ings of a new youth cul­ture, har­bin­gers of the largest gen­er­a­tion since mine. I think of it as the Su­per­hero Gen­er­a­tion. But if I can bear be­ing the old­est per­son in line this week­end, I’ll whis­per “One se­nior ticket for ‘Ant-Man’ ” at the box of­fice. Now I own a Black Pan­ther back­pack, an ebony bag with raised sil­ver flanges. Af­ter I saw it on a stu­dent, I had to have one. Wear­ing it, I feel part of some­thing emer­gent and cool. Isn’t that what pop cul­ture is all about? Richard Gold­stein, an ad­junct pro­fes­sor at Hunter Col­lege of the City Univer­sity of New York, was ex­ec­u­tive editor of the Vil­lage Voice.


Evan­ge­line Lilly and Paul Rudd star in “An­tMan and the Wasp,” the lat­est re­lease in the Marvel Cin­e­matic Uni­verse.

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