A con­fes­sion: Mar­vel has topped Star Wars

Fran­chise is now the best story in Hol­ly­wood, Brian Truitt says

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE -

Brian Truitt

It’s hard to pin­point — per­haps it was the Guardians of the Galaxy dance-fight­ing to save the cos­mos, or Black Pan­ther and the Wakan­dans rock­ing our col­lec­tive world — when Mar­vel sur­passed Star Wars as Hol­ly­wood’s best film fran­chise.

This con­fes­sion is prob­a­bly tan­ta­mount to blas­phemy in some cir­cles, and it’s not easy for some­one like me, who had the tales of Jedi and Sith, “Rebel scum” and Im­pe­rial vil­lainy hard- wired into his DNA at an early age. Star Trek, Harry Pot­ter, Lord of the Rings, Fast & Fu­ri­ous bro-fests and James Bond flicks all left an im­pres­sion on me, though none of them ever touched my heart and soul like Star Wars did.

That is, un­til Robert Downey Jr. suited up in Iron Man ar­mor, Chris Hemsworth hoisted Thor’s mighty ham­mer and Chris Evans (the best of the Chrises, for the record) grabbed Cap­tain Amer­ica’s star-spangled shield.

Over the course of 10 years and 18 movies — with the 19th, Avengers: In­fin­ity War, ar­riv­ing April 27 — Mar­vel has built a grand nar­ra­tive of pow­er­ful su­per­heroes and for­mi­da­ble foes that will like- ly never be re­peated in our life­times. Es­pe­cially as­tound­ing is the con­sis­tently high qual­ity of the films, par­tic­u­larly in the last two years with Cap­tain Amer­ica: Civil War (91% pos­i­tive re­views on Rot­ten Toma­toes), Spi­der-Man: Home­com­ing (92%), Thor: Rag­narok (92%) and Black Pan­ther (96%). Com­par­a­tively, Star Wars has four truly great films, and just as many iffy pre­quels.

Even though they pull from comic books dat­ing back to the ’40s, the Mar­vel films al­ways feel new and for­ward-think­ing in a cul­ture ob­sessed with look­ing back­ward. Star Wars seems to strug­gle

with its own sto­ried mythol­ogy, lean­ing into familiar ter­ri­tory rather than breaking new ground in spinoffs like Rogue One and Solo: A Star Wars Story (out May 25). Last Jedi faced its lin­eage head-on when bad guy Kylo Ren says, “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.”

I won’t be cut­ting out Star Wars any­time soon — it’s just a part of my be­ing at this point. But that quote stayed with me af­ter the movie, enough to spark an in­ter­nal debate about why I love this thing so much. A lot of it sim­ply comes down to nos­tal­gia: Watch­ing The Force Awak­ens was a rush not only be­cause it was a well-crafted movie with in­trigu­ing new he­roes and fun di­a­logue, but be­cause it spoke to the 6-year-old within who wowed at X-wings straf­ing TIE Fight­ers and a smirky Han Solo spout­ing one-lin­ers.

To its credit, the orig­i­nal Star Wars tril­ogy still has some of the most iconic movie mo­ments ever — nearly 40 years later, Darth Vader’s “I am your fa­ther” re­veal to Luke Sky­walker in The Em­pire Strikes Back is still a breath­tak­ing gut punch. Just as shock­ing, though, is Cap­tain Amer­ica and Black Widow dis­cov­er­ing Hy­dra’s decades-old in­fil­tra­tion of the U.S. gov­ern­ment in Cap­tain Amer­ica: The Win­ter Sol­dier, an en­e­mies-among-us sce­nario that res­onates in to­day’s po­lit­i­cal cli­mate.

When I was a kid, the real-world el­e­ments of Star Wars that were sprin­kled in (rise of fas­cism, re­sis­tance to ab­so­lute power) didn’t regis­ter as much as ATATs stomp­ing all over the ice planet Hoth or Ewoks pelt­ing Stormtroop­ers with rocks. Also, Darth Vader and the Em­pire seem a lot less cool once you grow up.

While to­day’s gen­er­a­tion of young­sters lose them­selves in the es­capist parts of Mar­vel movies (won­drous su­per­pow­ers, ex­tra­or­di­nary abil­i­ties), I find those to be the least in­ter­est­ing as- pects. Black Pan­ther is fan­tas­tic be­cause it’s the story of an African ruler strug­gling to keep his coun­try to­gether as the sins of his fa­ther un­ex­pect­edly arise. Home­com­ing is about a teen weigh­ing hav­ing great re­spon­si­bil­ity against just be­ing a kid. Ant-Man cen­ters on an ex-con fight­ing to be the heroic dad his daugh­ter de­serves.

Luke Sky­walker spoke to us Rea­gan­era youth as an or­phan who grew up on the fly, get­ting into ad­ven­tures with his friends and com­ing to grips with his fa­ther’s choices. Watch­ing his sac­ri­fice in Last Jedi gave a sat­is­fy­ing clo­sure, yet Cap­tain Amer­ica’s arc is hon­estly a lit­tle richer: Steve Rogers spent his life stand­ing up to bul­lies, whether as a 95-pound weak­ling or buff paragon of free­dom, and main­tain­ing a staunch moral cen­ter, even if it means bat­tling a fel­low Avenger to pro­tect his best friend (who, granted, is a sleeper-agent as­sas­sin).

Star Wars is stronger than ever in pop cul­ture and won’t be go­ing away any­time soon. And it will al­ways have the best toys. As for the movies, well, sec­ond place isn’t too shabby. The heart wants what it wants, and for now it’s feel­ing pretty #TeamMarvel.

MAR­VEL STU­DIOS

CHUCK ZLOTNICK/MAR­VEL

Black Pan­ther (Chad­wick Bose­man, left), Cap­tain Amer­ica (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scar­lett Jo­hans­son) and Win­ter Sol­dier (Se­bas­tian Stan) lead the charge in “Avengers: In­fin­ity War,” in theaters next week.

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