For the past 21 weeks, I have been re-watching the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; combing over minute, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it details in an attempt to assemble a definitive, undeniable timeline for these movies. In a minute I’m going to talk about why this was a stupid, agonizing thing to do, but there’s one movie left before Avengers: Endgame and I can’t quit here, inches from the finish line. So let’s quickly burn through Captain Marvel‘s placement.
This one’s gonna be pretty easy, and a bit different from the others. The biggest difference being that, because the movie is not yet available on home video, there’s no good way for me to collect screencaps as I have in previous entries, so you’re just gonna have to trust me on this. If want to check my work, you can always go out and buy a ticket to see the movie again. There are still no shortage of show times available.
So what do we learn from Captain Marvel. Well, for one, after eleven years, we finally get to know exactly how old Nicholas J. Fury is. When Carol and Fury arrive at the Pegasus airbase, Fury shows his ID to a guard, revealing that the future director of S.H.I.E.L.D. shares a birthday with Captain America – albeit 32 years later. That’s right, Nick Fury’s date of birth is July 4, 1950.
We also learn that the crash that gave Carol her powers and her subsequent capture by the Kree happened in 1989, and that six years have passed since then. Later, a calendar prominently displayed in the background as Carol, Fury, Maria, and Talos listen to the black box recording from that fateful day further clarifies that the events of the film take place in June of 1995.
With that in mind, some have questioned whether or not some of the needle drops in the movie are slightly anachronistic. For the most part, no. Most of the songs in the movie were released prior to June of 1995. No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” was released in September of ’95, but it’s also the only song that does not seem to be diegetic so that gets a pass. The one song that does seem to be out of place is “Only Happy When It Rains” by Garbage, which was released in August of 1995. This one’s almost non-diegetic as well, but the very end of it plays from the jukebox as Carol enters the bar. So, I guess take your pick of which No-Prize you like better; either Maria Rambeau has forgotten to change her calendar for the past two months, or this karaoke bar out in the middle of the California desert got an exclusive hookup on the new Garbage single two months early.
And that’s it, the timeline is complete just in time for it to surely be messed up by whatever time travel shenanigans are likely to transpire in Avengers: Endgame. So all that’s left is to talk about the bigger issue…
Why This Was a Stupid, Horrible, Bad Idea.
It seems like a thousand years ago. When I had the idea to do this project, I thought it’d be fun. An excuse to revisit this series of movies I’m tremendously fond of and really dig deep into a narrow facet of it I had enjoyed casually keeping track of. For years, I’ve entertained myself by crafting leaps of logic to try to rectify the silly, inconsistent timeline presented by these movies, but the catch was, back then, I wasn’t taking any of it seriously. It was fun, it wasn’t a project. When I started in on this, though, it almost immediately stopped being fun.
It really hit me with Iron Man 2. I’ve never exactly loved Iron Man 2 in the past, but I’ve always been able to coast along on the charm of its cast. I could say, “sure, the script is dookie, but you’ve got Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell chewing the scenery in all-time great weirdo performances. How can you not have at least a little fun?” Turns out you can not have fun by pausing the movie every few minutes to meticulously catalog every date stamp on a computer monitor, every spoken reference to time, every birthdate on old dossier files. A movie that I’d always managed to enjoy despite its low ranking among the Marvel lineup suddenly became an excruciating slog. I couldn’t engage with anything I liked about it because I was so bogged down in stupid minutia that didn’t mean anything.
That wasn’t even the worst part. The worst part was that, because of the structure I’d established for myself with this ridiculous endeavor, there was no real room to talk about anything I do like about these movies. There’s no graceful way to transition from being pedantic about the dumbest thing imaginable into doing real critical analysis and appraisal. The two things are fundamentally at odds with one another, and the closest I got was a post-script to my entry on Guardians of the Galaxy where I got on a soap box to protest James Gunn’s then-current firing from Marvel Studios. Even that, though, was completely divorced from the purpose and intent of the rest of the article. I couldn’t find a good way to justify doing that every time. So I muddled through, growing more and more bored by this stupid project with each passing week.
Because, you see, this approach to discussing film – even when it’s meant to be fun, even when it’s done out of sense of love – is antithetical to the very thing that makes movies special. The joy of film is getting swept up in a world that’s not your own, but that has something you can take back into the world with you after you leave. That can be knowledge of people, cultures, or ideas you’ve never been exposed to; it can be awareness of social causes or someone else’s experiences; it can be the catharsis of seeing your anxieties, pains, or fears recognized and confronted; or it can be the life affirming feeling of hope and inspiration you get from seeing heroes fight against opposition to do what is right and in order to make the world just a little bit better. Movies can connect us to other people as well as help us to confront aspects about ourselves that we may not recognize otherwise, but that trick only works is you’re willing to be open and engage with a film on its own terms. It doesn’t work if you’re stuck on the surface, obsessing over superficial details, combing for meaningless inconsistencies. This is the reason why the CinemaSins videos are absolute trash; they directly undermine the magic trick of movies. It turns out I accidentally did my own CinemaSins, and I hate myself for that.
So, here, at the end, let’s try to finally write something worthwhile about the Marvel movies. For basically as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve heard people pose the question, “what will be the next Star Wars?” Since then there has been Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings movies, The Dark Knight trilogy, Twilight, The Hunger Games, Fast & Furious, Game of Thrones, and so many other extremely popular fixtures of contemporary culture, but even the most successful and enduring among them never quite matched the seismic impact Star Wars had. That all changed with The Avengers.
Very few movies can boast that they changed the course the entire industry. The Avengers is on that list. For better and for worse, The Avengers made household names out of characters that were up to that point considered B or even C-list heroes, it catapulted Disney to industry swallowing proportions, and it left every other studio scrambling to try to assemble their own shared universes in order to compete. But The Avengers itself wasn’t just a flash in the pan; since 2012, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become the premiere fixture of global pop culture in a way that nothing else ever has. Even Star Wars has somewhat limited appeal outside of North America and Europe (so much so that Disney removed “Star Wars” from the Chinese title of Solo hoping to trick people into actually going to see it), but the Marvel movies are adored literally the world over.
So, what is it that makes these movies so globally beloved in such an unprecedented way? A big part of it can certainly be attributed to the interconnectedness of world culture that’s different from any era in the past, but there’s more to it than just that. What makes the Marvel movies work is ultimately the same thing that has made the Marvel comics work for decades: the simple thrill of getting to see wildly disparate yet equally beloved characters juxtaposed against one another in interesting ways, along with the Marvel model of heroes with feet of clay. People fighting against their own failures and foibles as they try their hardest to get it together in the service of making the world a better place.
When it comes to individual Marvel movies, there’s plenty to criticize. Not every movie is equally good, and even the majority that are enjoyable stop just shy of being truly great (with notable exceptions including Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Black Panther). Character arcs aren’t always fully cooked, there’s a samey-ness to a lot of the action setpieces that can be attributed to Marvel’s production model, and the digital cinematography introduced late in Phase One often looks a bit bland and flat. But what makes these movies compelling in spite of all of that is the way Marvel Studios has been able to use the interlocking nature of these stories to continually build upon the previous foundations, reshaping unfinished character journeys into compelling motivations for future growth. You look at a movie like Captain America: Civil War, which isn’t even my favorite of the Marvel films, and you have to be impressed by the journey its two central characters have taken; arcing in opposite directions over the course of eight films until they’ve each arrived at the place where the other started. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, Marvel has created an apparatus that allows them to tell types of stories that are wholly unique in the history of cinema.
But uniqueness wouldn’t matter if there wasn’t a reason to care. Fortunately, the MCU has been shaped by the influences of filmmakers like Joss Whedon, James Gunn, and Ryan Coogler. Filmmakers using these larger than life heroes to tell deeply personal stories about people wrestling with their pasts, their failures, their legacies, and their desire to be better in spite of it all. Between the three of them, we’ve gotten billion dollar blockbusters exploring the tension between isolationism and outreach, cycles of abuse and the painful path to healing, and wrestling with our capacity for both creation and destruction as flawed human beings. These stories represent the best of what Marvel has to offer – larger than life figures that become a lens through which to examine our failures, fears, and insecurities, while always offering hope that we can overcome, learn from the past, and help make a better world for tomorrow. In a world where we’re seeing the sins of our past left unresolved come back to torment us, where the internet amplifies and exacerbates the best and the worst of what we can be, having stories that reaffirm that no matter how hopeless things seem, no matter how far we’ve fallen, no matter what mistakes we’ve made, we can still do the work to be better than we are and make the world better for those who follow us.
One More Thing…
If you’ve been following along with this whole silly project, first of all, I’m sorry. Second of all, you should do yourself a favor and go check out Siddhant Adlakha’s Road to Endgame series over at /Film. They’re super thoughtful, thorough reappraisals of each of the Marvel movies that also dig deep into the fascinating, uncomfortable relationship this series has with American propaganda and the military industrial complex. It’s great, and it’s way better than the dumb nonsense I’ve done for the past 21 weeks, so please go check it out.
Also, if video essays are more your speed, then Patrick Willems has a really good trio of videos that serve as a good overview of Marvel’s films, their successes, and their shortcomings. Again, if you read all 21 of my articles, you kind of owe it to yourself to watch these.
Anyway, now that I’ve done what I can to appease my guilty conscience after publishing 20 weeks of trash, here is the final, complete (for now)…