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The Marvel Cinematic Universe
is like a toll booth.
A few weeks ago, I found myself at an impasse with a toll booth. I had so far had a very successful trip along two of the major turnpikes of our nation, enjoying scenic views, a variety of identical and unobjectionable rest stops, and longish detours to save money on gas at Costco.
But at this last toll booth of my journey, the whole system had fallen apart under me: I couldn’t get an entry ticket. I pressed the button over and over, but nothing happened. I tried to press it more dramatically so the drivers behind me could tell I was making an effort, but they still seemed annoyed. The gate in front of me was already open—probably because the semi truck driver who was now gingerly backing away to try to take another lane had accidentally activated it with his toll pass—but I knew perfectly well that I had to have a ticket when I exited the toll road. What would happen? Would they refuse to let me leave? Would I be stuck with an endless line of cars accumulating behind me while I tried fruitlessly to negotiate with another machine? Would they calculate my tolls from three states back? I didn’t know, but I decided to hope that there would be a real person at my exit toll booth and carried on.
There wasn’t a real person at my exit toll booth. There was another faceless array of buttons, but thankfully at this toll booth (unlike the last one) the “call for help” button actually worked. An unfazed lady on the other end of the line listened to my tale of woe, asked where I had gotten on the toll road, believed me, and sent the correct charge to the card machine. I drove away, slightly less enamored of turnpikes.
When you’re a child, you assume that the adult system of rules and regulations is internally coherent. As someone who has a complex relationship with rules myself, I’m very familiar with the sensation of having failed the expectations of a librarian or a DMV official. But I didn’t realize until I grew older how often these systems of rules would themselves fail, no matter how good I tried to be at following them. I just paid the IRS a $30 late fee for an estimated tax payment which I had the money for before the deadline, attempted to pay before the deadline, and the IRS refused to let me pay before the deadline. My library no longer has any late fees. I like some of these anarchistic developments better than others, but none of them are what I expected from the staid, professional, mature world. Young adult life sometimes feels full of these paradoxical Alice-in-Wonderland experiences where the rules are both irrational and not followed:
At this moment the King, who had been for some time busily writing in his notebook, called out, “Silence!” and read out from his book, “Rule Forty-two. All persons more than a mile high to leave the court.”
Everybody looked at Alice.
“I’m not a mile high,” said Alice.
“You are,” said the King.
“Nearly two miles high,” added the Queen.
“Well, I shan’t go, at any rate,” said Alice: “besides, that’s not a regular rule: you invented it just now.”
“It’s the oldest rule in the book,” said the King.
“Then it ought to be Number One,” said Alice.
But the logic of Alice and the twentysomething does not avail against the toll booth. You may want with all your heart to follow the rules of adult life—you may even be frequently reminded that your whole generation is notoriously bad at following them—but much more frequently than I would have expected as an accident-prone teenager, it is the rules themselves that break down.
In his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton describes the rules that make a fairy tale work:
There are certain sequences or developments (cases of one thing following another), which are, in the true sense of the word, reasonable. They are, in the true sense of the word, necessary. Such are mathematical and merely logical sequences. . . . If Jack is the son of a miller, a miller is the father of Jack. Cold reason decrees it from her awful throne: and we in fairyland submit. If the three brothers all ride horses, there are six animals and eighteen legs involved: that is true rationalism, and fairyland is full of it. But as I put my head over the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world, I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened—dawn and death and so on—as if they were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of the imagination. You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail. These men in spectacles spoke much of a man called Newton, who was hit by an apple, and who discovered a law. But they could not be got to see the distinction between a true law, a law of reason, and the mere fact of apples falling. If the apple hit Newton’s nose, Newton’s nose hit the apple. That is a true necessity: because we cannot conceive the one occurring without the other. But we can quite well conceive the apple not falling on his nose; we can fancy it flying ardently through the air to hit some other nose, of which it had a more definite dislike. We have always in our fairy tales kept this sharp distinction between the science of mental relations, in which there really are laws, and the science of physical facts, in which there are no laws, but only weird repetitions.
In other words, fairy tales—and all fantastical tales—can break some rules but not others. They can break the rules of what we have seen before, but they can’t change what logically follows from something else. That includes, in my opinion, how people interact with one another.
Many stories do in fact attempt to change those rules, including Alice in Wonderland. I do not find Alice in Wonderland compelling for this very reason, but many people do. That being said, though, Alice in Wonderland is a very different kind of story from the Father Brown mysteries or the Chronicles of Narnia or even Jack and the Beanstalk. In Alice and Wonderland, logic itself is breaking down—you don’t so much suspend disbelief as you suspend belief in anything, in logic or coherence or order. Anyone could say anything after anyone else says anything, and though that might make for an unusual story, I don’t think it makes for an interesting one.
That is the problem that the Marvel Cinematic Universe faces today. When I watched Ant Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (don’t worry, you will be able to track this if you haven’t watched it, and if you still want to watch it I won’t spoil it for you, and I will also try to convince you not to watch it) I thought I was watching the final throes of the Marvel train wreck. The movie was chock-full of the kind of imaginings that Chesterton attributes to a fairy tale—imagining trees “growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail.” But not only was the worldbuilding something less creative than that (mostly strange and vaguely organic life forms ripped from Star Wars and children’s cartoons), it also didn’t have the kind of consistency Chesterton insists that fairy tales properly have.
Watching it I felt not only that I had lost the plot, but that Marvel itself had lost the plot. People kept on saying things that didn’t follow from what the last person had said, and doing things that seemed entirely devoid of motive or logic. Perhaps because the actors all had to act against a green screen, it was like each was in his or her own little bubble, unable to connect with the other actors and interact with them realistically. Nothing meant anything: the movie was just a constant ratcheting up of the well-worn stakes of the Marvel franchise—the whole world is at stake, again—until you wondered whether you’d care if it all just blew up at the end in an attempt to make you feel something.
It is following the rules of real human interactions that makes a fairy tale really work. I was putting the finishing touches on my Marvel Doom and Gloomer card when I watched Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, and was surprised to find that in the most aesthetically anarchist corner of the Marvel franchise Chesterton’s rules still obtained. In Guardians actions had consequences, and people actually talked to each other rather than to the screen. People really died. If you saved one person, it made it harder to save a different one. Most importantly, the movies built up the connections between characters that make a story matter, even when the story is about an anthropomorphic tree and a raccoon and an alien lady with antennae. The story brought the stakes back down and made me care more about the life of a tiny baby raccoon than I realized I could have (admittedly they had a sympathetic audience on their hands there, but it worked).
Modern adult life and Marvel movies fall apart for the same reason: the failure to get someone else on the line. If our actions have irrational consequences and there is no one there to account for them, if you can’t defend yourself to the IRS* or the toll agent or your landlord, you have a sense that the framework of rules that you always assumed was the means by which adults communicated is not such a good communication device after all.
When you grow up, you realize that the rules are unstable in a lot of ways—there aren’t real connections, so there aren’t real consequences, or consequences are totally unrelated to actions. Modern adult life means engaging with plenty of faceless organizations, and that can feel absurd. It can even be dangerous—the IRS is inconvenient, but wrongful conviction is evil.
We can insist in our own little ways on living a story where actions have consequences by recognizing that is the lack of human connection that makes those experiences absurd. We can bring the stakes back up to the level of a real story by bringing them back down to earth—connecting to real people in real life, people who could make us laugh or hurt our feelings or bring us coffee, even people who won’t be in our lives for ever. Then we’ll be in a real story.
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Come back in two weeks [editor’s note: this was sent incorrectly as “next week”]: for a patron-only post on why a bird in the airport is like Bruce Springsteen.
Here’s the: U.S. Surgeon General’s report on loneliness this week.
This is more or less: what I’m saying, but in the form of a 2002 song from the raccoon movie soundtrack.
*I technically can defend myself to the IRS. I’m just not doing it because I’m willing to pay $30 for them to not look any more carefully at my tax return.