Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Case in point

I've written more than once before about the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the myriad ways in which it fascinates me on a purely structural level. The interconnectedness of the movies has progressed from a risky move (both as a narrative exercise and a business model) to something which has been heralded as an unqualified smash hit (again on both the levels it needed to be), so much so that other major studios have started playing catch-up trying to launch their own hyper-franchise-of-franchises. Meanwhile the MCU has gone even further and branched out into television. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has fleshed out the world the heroes live in and given some story opportunities to minor players who couldn't carry their own blockbuster films. Agent Carter fills in some of the gaps in the fictional history of the MCU, since the first Captain America movie post-dates the origin back to World War Two but everything else takes place in the 21st century, leaving whole decades to explore.

And then there's the Defenders.

Disney owns Marvel, Disney owns ABC, hence the first MCU forays into broadcast television were primetime dramas for ABC, and thus reasonably family-friendly fare. Between the PG-13 mega-budget silver screen adventures of the marquee heroes and the more PG weekly serials for the supporting players, the MCU could cover a lot of territory. Still, there's always new frontiers to conquer, and apparently someone decided that they should mix together some of the mid-level Marvel characters, the superheroes with a pre-existing and potentially passionate fanbase but not quite the same name-recognition as an Iron Man or a Thor, with the darker, more violent subject matter leeway afforded to a subscription-based audience that could be reached through Netflix. So eventually we will get Power Man, Iron Fist and Jessica Jones, and further down the road those individual series will beget the Defenders, much as the first few MCU films begat the Avengers. And kicking it all off was Daredevil.

I don't know that I've ever brought these threads together explicitly before, but I know I've at least referred to the component ideas in passing; either way please forgive me for the extent to which I repeat myself. One of the things I've always loved about the Big Two superhero comic book universes is the way that they reward both deep and broad familiarity. If you have read every issue of Spider-Man for the past few years (depth), then chances are you will get a little more out of the current storylines, which inevitably build on the foundations of the past. If you have read a lot of Spider-Man and also a lot of other Marvel comics (breadth), then you will get a little more out of the storylines where Spider-Man teams up with, say, Silver Sable, because you know something about her past independent of Spider-Man. But at the time that I was most heavily into comics, in the sweet spot between understanding that it was one enormous macro-story tapestry and not yet having any real responsibilities that would prevent me from those deep and broad surveys, the industry itself was churning out so much content that it was unthinkable to consume it all. It would have been prohibitively expensive and exhaustingly time-consuming to read every issue one publisher put out (let along keeping tabs on both of them). It struck me as something that would have been fun and awesome to attempt, but it was an impossible dream. And that was fine, because it's not as though every single comic book ever published is a vital piece of a tightly unified single story. Much of it was always superfluous and forgettable.

But that was part of the appeal, too, I think, and the thrill of the hunt. You never knew when some random bit from last year's Doctor Strange annual might turn out to provide a critical piece of context for this year's X-Men stories (because really it all came down to the whim of the individual writers and how they chose to exploit and incorporate the existing history of the fictional universe they were adding to the collective development of). Even for a natural-born completist like me, it was absurd to contemplate being so unwaveringly dedicated to the point of reading every Marvel comic every week (and that doesn't even take into account the idea of going back to 1961 and trying to tackle every Marvel comic ever). But there was a numbers game I was playing; I couldn't read it all, but I could read a lot, and the more I managed to read, the better my odds of encountering those moments of deeper understanding and broader perspective on the big picture moments.

Which brings us right back to my fascination with the MCU, where I can, in theory, be a fully invested completist. There have been 11 movies so far and I have seen 9 of them. (The other two are on my list to check off as soon as I can, maybe this summer.) There have been two full seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and I've seen one and a half of them, with the remainder of season two sitting on my DVR at home. I DVR'ed Agent Carter as well. So I'm close, is my point, and there's no reason why I shouldn't be able to catch up now as more and more tv shows are going on summer hiatus. By the time Ant-Man hits theaters this fall, if anyone asks me "Why are you going to see that?" I'll be able to truthfully say "Because that's what I do."

Well, except for Daredevil, which managed to pass me by. Largely for technological reasons, since it was available through Netflix streaming and I remain devoted to physical DVD's I can watch on my non-WiFi commuter train. It's not that I had a bias steering me away from checking out Daredevil. It's not that I was oblivious to the many, many people posting online about binge-watching the whole series. I even got cc'ed on an email thread between my Little Bro and Very Little Bro in which they both extolled the virtues of the show. It's totally on my radar! (Rimshot)

But I can't solely blame the fact that I'm waiting for Netflix to burn it to discs and make it available to dinosaurs like me. I said yesterday that there haven't been major upheavals in life lately (knock wood) and that's true enough, but I do feel like I have a bit less to write about on the blog at least in part because I have less throughput in my brain from the popcult spheres. I feel busier and busier, and whether or not that's objectively true, the subjective can certainly have an outsize influence on my written reflections (or lack thereof). Again, it's not that anything is wrong or I'm complaining. It's simply life going on, always evolving and giving new shapes to what becomes the present-day version of normal. In the past few months we've dealt with the kids getting bigger and their needs changing, the bino in particular, and one way that manifests is that it seems to take longer and longer to get the kids to bed each evening. That in turn leaves less and less time for my wife and I to decompress together before we're desperate to get some shuteye. And we keep up with Community and Game of Thrones as best we can in between dealing with other demands on our attention. I used to read and watch DVDs, including tv shows like Smallville, on the train, and then surf the web during my downtime at work. Now I write as much as I can during that work downtime, and so I surf the web on the train (while the LTE signal lasts), and movies and cult tv shows fall off the bottom of the to-do list, and the days turn into weeks, and so it goes and goes.

So maybe even being an MCU completist is trending towards grail quest territory. If anybody had the motivation and desire to be one, it would be me, and I'm struggling and steadily losing ground purely based on time management. Maybe it's a young (unmarried, unemployed) man's pursuit. It's good to have goals, though, and I'll keep taking a shot at it.

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