Marvel has been a large presence in my life for the past sixteen years. And of course, that includes the huge run of blockbusters, even though it started humbly enough, with my dad’s old comics up in Grandma’s attic.
By now, my husband and I are starting to get a little tired of the whole movie thing, though, and it makes me pause to reflect on my favorite titles from the cinematic universe. And the result was a little surprising. My top picks have a distinct element of sadness to them.
To me, that’s surprising, at least, because I will defend happy endings vehemently. I can rail against other bloggers who claim that Harry Potter is inferior literature because it ends on a happy note. But apparently I like it best when super heroes lose a little.
My favorite is Captain America: The First Avenger. The movie has a lot of heart, but it ends on kind of a double-whammy: Peggy Carter, the Colonel, and Howard Stark mourning their friend and then Cap awakening to almost all of his friends being already dead or in the midst of dying of old age.
Thor ends with the titular hero mourning the loss of his brother and separation from Jane Foster.
Black Panther sees one of his best friends betray him, as well as many within the Wakandan government collaborate with Killmonger, plus the knowledge of his father’s mistake. And there’s the historical baggage prompting some of the plot.
Maybe my fondness for the bittersweet endings stems in part from the fact that I don’t like the silly humor element that is shoehorned into a lot of the Marvel canon. You can argue that it works for Iron Man (I don’t like him, so I’m not the person to ask about those movies). And it definitely works for Guardians of the Galaxy, but it doesn’t work for Thor. It doesn’t work for Dr. Strange.
And while both Black Panther, Thor, and First Avenger have many upbeat scenes with organic humor, they are tonally consistent throughout the movie. Dr. Strange constantly undercuts itself with a forced joke, and as such, has problems with tone. Thor: Ragnarok completely junks established character traits for Thor to make it more like Guardians of the Galaxy.
Finally… bittersweetness means that there are stakes. Marvel has attempted to add stakes to other movies, but being told about the death of a bunch of faceless extras in Eastern-Eurovania doesn’t hold much weight. It’s not like hearing about a real world tragedy on CNN in a real Eastern European country because it’s fiction, and it doesn’t hold much weight dramatically because we have no connection to the dead people. When War Machine falls out of the sky in Civil War, realistically, he should have died. But he lived, just suffering spinal injuries that had been fixed by the time of Infinity War.
And speaking of Infinity War… well, one quick look at the upcoming list of Marvel movies tells us who’s coming out of that alive. The cinema was dead silent when the movie ended, but we all know we’ll be meeting our favorite characters again soon. And it’s a little disappointing.
Going back to my earlier Harry Potter example… by the time “all was well” that happy ending had been amply earned. Characters died, and the heroes suffered to get there. And it could be a difference in mediums, admittedly, because books can do things movies can’t, and vice-versa, but if we want things to work out for our Marvel heroes, they need to earn the eventual ride into the sunset. And what is a sunset but the end of a long, arduous day, with shadows.
And I guess I like the bittersweet endings because all of those elements are found in those movies. They feel complete to me.
Hopefully Infinity War Part 2 will be, too.