Why Marvel Phase 2 is like the Buffy musical
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"Where do we go from here...?"
If you're a Marvel fan, it's not unlikely that you're also a Joss Whedon fan, and vice-versa. After all, Joss Whedon was influenced by Marvel comics, they have storytelling styles in common, and they even overlap (The Avengers and Marvel's Agents of SHIELD onscreen, plus Astonishing X-Men and Runaways in comics). If you're a fan of one but not familiar with the other, why not check the other out? (Not to be confused with the Avengers character The Other, played by Whedonverse veteran Alexis Denisof.)
In any case, this comparison of the recent Marvel films Iron Man 3, Thor 2, and Captain America 2 (and the TV show Marvel's Agents of SHIELD) with Joss Whedon's first show Buffy the Vampire Slayer will try to avoid any major spoilers (though there's one for Captain America 2, which will be clearly marked), so feel free to keep reading.
Post-Avengers, all of the characters face the question posed in song at the end of Once More, With Feeling, Buffy the Vampire Slayer's musical episode; “Where do we go from here...?”
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is serialised, just like Joss Whedon's' work and Marvel comics (not coincidentally, since the storytelling styles of Joss Whedon and of Marvel Studios are both largely influenced by Marvel comics).
So “Where do we go from here...?” type endings play a key function in serialised storytelling. While there's some kind of definite resolution (to a greater or lesser extent) to each episode or movie or issue of a comic book, thus balancing the serialised structure with standalone elements, cliffhanger endings not only set up the next adventure to come, but also, taken as a recurring trope, emphasise the constant forward momentum of the story.
This mirrors the progression of life, a strong point of the long-term, character-driven storytelling that Joss Whedon and Marvel specialise in. Thus, while a particular story can provide great character moments, and smaller arcs, long-term storytelling allows for character arcs that are unrivalled in their audacity, sweep, and organic, nuanced nature. Take Spike or Wesley for example, or any number of comic book characters.
After a big, dramatic event such as the Buffy musical, or the epic superhero crossover of The Avengers, there's the possibility of losing momentum, but Joss Whedon and Marvel deftly avoid this by putting the focus on the character-driven nature of the story. These characters each still live and breathe in their respective fictional universes, and they've still got emotional, moral, or pragmatic situations to deal with, if not all three.
Joss Whedon and co. followed up the Buffy musical with the hilarity of the very next episode, Tabula Rasa, and the rest of the underrated Buffy Season 6, delving into the characters' issues in a dark but emotionally resonant way. As an ensemble show, the group of characters returned for these stories, albeit more fragmented due to their various problems.
Marvel Phase 2 goes further by splitting up the main characters from The Avengers into their own films (as they were in Phase 1 leading up to The Avengers), although each film is bolstered by strong supporting characters, in each case making for a great team (and found family), as well as an array of adversaries. There's no shortage of stuff going on, and it's used to explore what the main characters in each film are going through.
Iron Man 3 explores Tony Stark's post-traumatic stress and sleep deprivation as a result of the events of The Avengers; the fallout from being a hero. Well, that's how it manifests, but the deeper issue is his relationship to the Iron Man suit, his identity as Iron Man, and how that affects his identity as a whole.
He places too much reliance on the Iron Man suits (cleverly represented in the film by Ben Kingsley's “fortune cookie” metaphor, as well as many other characters in the film), and goes through crisis of identity as he attempts to forge a healthier relationship between Tony Stark and Iron Man. Also, things blow up and people say funny things.
Thor: The Dark World, though bizarrely qualifying as a romantic comedy in overall tone (the latter element working more effectively than the former; with Darcy (who needs to show up on Marvel's Agents of SHIELD) being particularly hilarious, despite being effectively irrelevant to the plot), is essentially about the relationship between Thor and Loki.
This almost Shakespearean dynamic was explored effectively in Thor and then The Avengers, and Thor: The Dark World carries this forward, with Thor almost as a stand-in for the fans, desperately wanting Loki to be redeemed, but understandably wondering if he can trust him, seeing as he basically tricks and betrays everyone he knows, and recently tried to conquer the world, requiring no less than the formation of the Avengers to stop him.
[If you haven't seen Captain America 2, aka Captain America: The Winter Soldier yet, there's a spoiler in the following paragraphs, so just skip to the Agent Coulson picture below and keep reading from Marvel's Agents of SHIELD.]
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is about how the old-fashioned hero Steve Rogers / Captain America deals with being a player in the murky, cynical, modern world, and doing the right thing in the midst of the moral ambiguity that it often operates under.
He teams up with Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow, who's lived in that world all her life, is starting to come to terms with how she's not entirely comfortable with the morally grey, and is trying to navigate how to come back from that. In that sense, she's a bit like Selina Kyle / Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises. The story explores this moral ambiguity in the context of SHIELD, who are supposed to be the good guys, but as it turns out, it's a lot more complicated than that. The way that SHIELD is set up, with a lot of power and not a lot of oversight, turns out not to be conducive to always doing the right thing. To reference the Buffy musical episode, "I'm sure that HYDRA wasn't there..."
The film shakes up the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and none more so than for SHIELD (though future Marvel films are teased in the two end-credits scenes).
This brings us onto Marvel's Agents of SHIELD, which reportedly kicks things into high gear following the game-changing events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Marvel's Agents of SHIELD follows Agent Coulson and the team he forms after the events of The Avengers. The implications of his return reflect on the very nature of SHIELD itself, and give him a hefty emotional arc, as Coulson comes to terms with the horrifying nature of what's happened to him. The show explores themes of power, coercion, and the moral choices people make when placed in difficult circumstances.
Without wishing to spoil anything, these themes are also reflected in characters such as Skye, Mike Peterson, and Ian Quinn (with the mysterious Clairvoyant seemingly a key player in their arcs), making for some interesting parallels. While this deconstructionist approach is more reminiscent of Joss Whedon's previous show Dollhouse (which MAoS showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen also worked on) than what one would expect from Marvel, it's nonetheless interesting to analyse, and with its great (though morally compromised) characters and intriguingly plotlines, it's going to be very exciting to find out what happens next.
There are also some thematic parallels across the different stories. For instance, Coulson would empathise with Buffy's plight in the Buffy musical episode, as could Tony Stark, to an extent, since they're all dealing with the ramifications of being a hero (following on from one, big, heroic, sacrificial act) in an imperfect world.
And though she probably wouldn't admit it, Melinda May parallels Loki. They both have a sense of guilt and resultant self-loathing, manifested in a scorn for others they sees as mirroring themselves. In contrast, while Black Widow struggles with how to deal with her own guilt, she seems to be trying to process this in a less self-destructive way. Thus, she seems further along an arc of redemption than the other two.
While the stories Marvel Studios have told so far have been great, their cinematic universe transcends any of the individual stories, leaving fans with loveable characters, an increasingly fleshed-out world, themes to ponder, and tantalising story elements to speculate over, cueing the refrain, “Where do we go from here...?”
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