The trailer for the upcoming Avengers: Endgame came out Friday and it brought to my mind what may be a very controversial thought: The Russo Brothers are the best thing to happen to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, at least as regards tone.
This declaration is in no way an attempt to diminish the efforts of the many directors who made their entry into the MCU before or after the Russo’s arrival, especially not the contributions of Jon Favreau (Iron Man), Joss Whedon (Avengers, Avengers 2), or Ryan Coogler (Black Panther). I appreciate all of their work in the franchise and out. Neither do I mean anything derogatory towards the efforts of the production department nor of Kevin Feige nor of the actors who have, by and large, together created the most steady and successful stream of actor-to-character assignments perhaps ever put to screen.
What I mean by this declaration is that, while none of us can be certain of the direction films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe would have taken before Captain America: Winter Soldier — regardless of the general outline provided — it was that particular film, as directed by the Russo Brothers, that changed the potential seriousness with which Marvel films in general could be taken.
The change was undoubtedly the result of the change in tone. No longer were Marvel films altogether mere comics played out in live action. Captain America: Winter Soldier was a legitimate political spy thriller that just happened to have players who had superhuman abilities, making the story all the more intense and the world all the more richer. No more were the films mere comic book adaptations with comic book ethics. There were real-world parallels, risks and complications, to both the past and the present. Before the arrival of the Russos, the more grounded aesthetic — the deeper, heavier tone — was mostly absent, with the greatest exception being the very first film of the franchise, the first Iron Man, which to this day I regard as the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (though I readily admit it now has strong contenders).
The change has brought us more realistic plotting and more engrossing surprises. On more than one occasion the organizations that are meant to bring peace and safety to the world become the world’s greatest threat, as is the case in our world, as had not really been the case in comics or in comic book films. It is a very mature theme. It does not tell the easy lie that we generally tell to ourselves with a grin and tell most energetically to the youngest among us so that we and they can sleep at night — lies like Santa Claus, I might as well say, seeing as it is Christmas season and it’s the lie in which we are currently engaged.
The institutions we build are not always the instruments of good that we imagine they will be at their inauguration, because those institutions must be run by people who are just as corruptible as the rest of us and because they must be run by people who will eventually become self-interested the longer they remain in those protected positions. To paraphrase a principal framer of the US Constitution: there are no angels on earth to manage human governments, and if humans were angels, no governments would be necessary.
The Russo’s first entry into the MCU exemplified this truth masterfully. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s directive, as indicated by its absurd backronym, was to protect the United States from paranormal and supernatural threats. But as governmental organizations are wont to do, it expanded its own scope. The first expansion was to make the organization international, and with the assumption of this new power, it attracted bad guys from all around the world, who in their turn managed to convert a few of those who were previously good to their side as loyal partners in their upcoming crimes. Together, they had their own plans for the world; this Hydra, what it should be, what it should do, and they couldn’t care less about getting the consent of those whom they were purportedly protecting. S.H.I.E.L.D., as first intended, was no more.
The change in tone allowed the actual consideration of the subsequent difficulties to be had by those we regard as the super good guys, our superheroes. Captain America: Civil War is that consideration playing out. In it these good guys, vividly realized, are coming to heads about their place in the world. Are they ultimately a force for good in the world, they ask. Not everyone is exactly sure because, since their assembling, incidents of catastrophic violence have indeed increased precipitously and their own organization had betrayed them, putting the entire world in jeopardy. Even more recently a host of people have died as a result of their clandestine operations in unsuspecting, foreign countries.
Is conducting clandestine operations in foreign countries itself a violation of people’s right to know, and most heinously, a violation of their sovereignty? Are our superheroes, as aspiring forces of good, abusing their superhuman abilities, their unrivalled power? If so, what contracts or agreements should they make with lesser-abled people? After a bout, some of the team divides and subjugate themselves to the Sokovia Accords, a measure meant to address many of these lingering concerns, but the other half of the team refuses, take off their mantles of doers-of-good, and go into exile until such time as the restrictions are removed. Should events like these happen in the real-world, something very similar in outcome would occur. Again, the difference with the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that the atmosphere becomes more intense and the experience richer as a supplementary result.
The change in tone also allowed a more powerful, more universal entity to seamlessly come into the picture and claim that still enough had not been done to bring about the ultimate good. That force was Thanos. Specifically, his contention was that half the population of the universe needed to be removed so that the remaining half could lead more fortuitous lives. He had no plan for them after this particular excision but that they get on with their lives as best they could in their newfound predicament beyond what would have been certain struggle and final destruction. Though this is a far cry from what the Avengers want — to say nothing of the various governments of the MCU, human and alien — the argument is a plausible argument that can be had; one, in fact, we’ve had in our own world with various degrees of inhumanity.
I, for one, tend to disagree with Thanos that this most dire of conflicts is brought about by a desire to end fights over a severe lack of resources. To me, the reason why peace generally is not long-lasting throughout the universe — or in our world, to be more parochial — is because people are born differently, because they quite naturally have different ideas about how the universe should work. Any of these different people at any time then might become violent because they see their words are ineffectual in getting others to see as they see, or because they have no patience to allow those words to drift into the collective unconscious and convert, or because they feel imminently threatened that others will press opposing ideas onto them.
Nevertheless, a force with as much conviction and as much power as Thanos is certainly more likely than not to be successful in his designs. So I rejoiced at the end of Avengers: Infinity War that the Russos were brave enough to allow the natural consequence of this reality to play out. Some of our superheroes died; the others who survived were inconsolably sad; meanwhile, Thanos experienced the kind of timorous peace that sweeps over you when you do something you believed should have long since been achieved. It was the perfect ending, even though the goodness in us demands we prefer an alternate ending where our heroes win and Thanos and his ilk are forever banished from our minds.
But I don’t want to eject Thanos from my mind. I want him to lurk, prowl, lumber in my mind for many years to come. I want him to run roughshod over my sensibilities so that I am forced to consider how evil may come in the guise of good and why I must therefore be circumspect in my endeavours. That is the true gift of Thanos: to make us more thoughtful about what we do and desire. It is what any serious, self-respecting film should do in terms of developing a world by which an audience may ruminate on human themes.
And now, with the upcoming Avengers: Endgame, we are met with the idea of perseverance against all odds. We are told that loss is an essential part of battle — to lose the battles themselves and to lose people — but that battling all the same must continue on because the opposing forces that have caused those losses believe just as well that they are right and so will not voluntarily wane. The Avengers, in a universe of logos similar to our own, have given their word to be both earth’s finest heroes and guardians of the galaxy, and so they are committed instruments of that obligation. In their bleakest of moments, the questions they must ask themselves are those that form the fabric of the universe: will they live (the universe’s 1 bit) or will they die (the 0 bit), and as what (what combination of bytes)?
These wise and redolent cinematic pleasures seem as if they would have been impossible for Marvel without the on-boarding of the Russo Brothers. Expertly following the storytelling trajectory of tone creating theme, theme creating characters, characters creating conflict, internal and external, the Russos have saved the Marvel Cinematic Universe from being merely episodic and instead have made it a microcosm of aspiring new-age cultural mythology, something to be remembered for more than just the fact that it happened, as is sadly the case with so many cultural productions.