In May, the AMC in Times Square played 70 different screenings of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness in one day. Doctor Strange was meant to be a unique Marvel movie by virtue of it being helmed by one of those dark sorcerers of the cinematic arts – an auteur – in this case, Evil Dead genre legend Sam Raimi. One of the most distinct voices of his generation, it’s impossible to watch a Sam Raimi movie without knowing you are watching a Sam Raimi movie, and Doctor Strange is no real exception if you reduce Raimi to his gut-punch editing, maniacally woozy camera work and fever dream transitions.
And yet…watching Doctor Strange I couldn’t help but feel like I wasn’t watching a Sam Raimi movie; that I sensed something… other – a foreign entity or unwelcome presence that had me doubting not just whether this was a Sam Raimi movie, but whether it was a movie at all.
I think it’s important to accept that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is not cinema, or even art. It’s content, the true medium/form/thing of the 21st century. Approaching content with the same critical tools you’d reserve for film or TV or any other traditional art-form is like waging war on an alien deity with a slingshot. You should prostrate yourself before it; there is no way to do battle with it on anything but its terms. Content is entirely novel and homogenous at once, cursed to turn stale as soon as it hits shelves, yet blessed with the half-life of irradiated plutonium. Content creates nothing but more content for the sake of more content, feeding its past to its present to birth its future.
Nowhere does content take shape as purely as it does within the MCU, the most successful and expansive content franchise there has ever been. With 28 films (and at least 11 more in development) and at least 18 TV series under its belt, the MCU has come to reign supreme as peak content in the age of content. It smothers its rivals in their crib and proliferates like unchecked cancer. Since Iron Man hit cinemas in 2008, the MCU has reshaped an industry to mirror its cannibalistic evolutionary path, managing to eclipse “entertainment”, as it was, with “content”, as it is, without any real hindrance or competition.
It has succeeded so thoroughly that a majority of people find anything that does not feel like content repulsive and off-putting in equal measure, to the point where it sends them into genuine fits of rage, like the Marvel fans who planned to storm Sony headquarters for initially failing to negotiate a deal to keep Spider-Man in the MCU.
The brilliance of Disney’s content deluge is the way in which it reshapes everything around it into content also. Be it queer identities, schizoaffective personality disorder, or the Armenian genocide – everything is grist to the content mill. This is the beauty of a product that holds nothing distinct within it. The MCU has spent a decade and a half honing its voicelessness. That voicelessness sapped a generation of creatives like a parasite, allowing their content to have a universal blank quality that can be adapted to any topic, any vision, any direction, or any change in the market. The result is something that can be anything to anyone: any meaning you can dream of can be attached to this content, like an accessory snapped onto an action figure.
Take, for instance, the Disney+ show Moon Knight, starring Oscar Isaac playing a character with dissociative identity disorder (DID). Whether or not Moon Knight’s representation of the disorder is truthful or accurate or silly is ultimately irrelevant. By subsuming something as complicated and multivarious as DID into the MCU, the complexities of representation (in the old, artistic sense of the word) are made immediately irrelevant. It is smoothed down, plasticised and drained so that it can fit harmlessly alongside the MCU’s representation of mass death (Avengers: Age of Ultron), black radicalism (Black Panther) and PTSD (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier); another token placeholder in a blank cardboard puzzle.
In the MCU, ideas and identities are represented in the same way the idea of Snap, Crackle, and Pop are represented on a cereal box. There’s the sense that any of it can be cut out or pasted in without the viewer feeling much of anything. Be it a gay kiss chopped for release in some Middle Eastern countries, a CIA agent teaming up with our hero to overthrow an African ruler or ending half the life in the universe with a click of your fingers, there is an irreverence to what this content claims to represent that has a whiff of the listicle to it. It doesn’t matter how or why something appears, just so long as it does, reducing it to the importance of a fan Wiki stub, as much a part of the MCU canon as Mjolnir or Howard the Duck.
Its mere presence allows the proliferation of more content, be it fan fiction, YouTuber easter egg listicles, or articles like this one – the beauty of the MCU’s content moloch is that it feeds into the great ocean of content that fills our every waking minute online and off, a great big reciprocal laundry of ideas and images that bloom and bust as blips of light on the infinite horizon of digital media.
This simple equation has raked in over $25 billion dollars for Marvel, Disney and the various remora (Paramount, Universal, etc) that exist in its ecosystem. Multiverse of Madness’s global box office has hit $690 million as of writing, putting it at 16th place in the list of MCU’s box-office winners. Sometimes, if you stop and think hard enough, you realise that a relatively peripheral character like Doctor Strange raking in so much money would have been considered extremely, well, strange 15 (or even ten!) years ago, but we live in a time when characters and franchises once as obscure as Steve Ditko himself now have the pull of an Ethan Hunt or Ghostbusters.
Other Hollywood blockbusters have spent over a decade trying to replicate the MCU, throwing everything into a feedback loop of “anything you can do I can do better”, be it attempts to replicate the shared universe formulae to varying degrees of success – RIP Universal’s Dark Universe, we hardly knew ye – or the way in which 90 percent of modern blockbusters have taken on the MCU’s aesthetic, a flat digital appearance that resembles the washed-out colours of a concrete parking lot. Either way, the loop spawns deformed bastard sons like Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Morbius with a nauseating regularity.
The most troubled of these bastards might just be Disney’s other colossal shared universe – or galaxy – Star Wars. Once the playground of an inarguably odd little creature (George Lucas, not Yoda), and once decidedly art (I sincerely believe Picasso would have beheld a character like Dexter Jettster and wept), has become, under the stewardship of Disney and MCU creative forefather Jon Favreau, content. Like the MCU, it has had its future mapped out like a sold-off child bride – its portents foretold by the rolled knucklebones of think-tank analytics, focus groups, and ballistic ultra-fans, leading Star Wars, ironically, far far away from what once made it interesting.
Solo and The Rise of Skywalker failed at the box office like so many of the MCU’s imitators, because of an inability to grasp what the MCU and its content is exactly, even though the answer is so clear, apparent, and simple: The MCU is awesome. I use “awesome” in the terrifying “peasant beholding a Biblically accurate angel” sense here, as the everythingness of the MCU – both within the text and in the world – should and does inspire trouser-wetting, knee-buckling awe. Its content has reshaped not only culture, not only the market, but imagination itself.
We are now all content creators to some degree, and our creation mirrors the MCU’s process on a micro and macro scale. We are encouraged to think in brands, markets and phases, every part of us sellable scrap to the junkyard algorithm that dictates the course of everyone’s personal character stat sheet. The MCU and you are essentially working the same pump, and that might just be the greatest trick Disney ever pulled. This extends beyond the rabid tweets, petitions, memes and other frothy detritus hocked up by stans, and on into the base level modes in which people engage with this content on a whole: the shape of conversations, debates and theories. You’re not just a fan or a hater, you’re a participant, a peer, a sidekick, a Thor, a Spiderman, a Captain America – an assembled Avenger – a Venom to the great machine’s Carnage.
That, perhaps, is the art at the heart of the content’s artlessness. In content lies contentment. By drowning us in it, the MCU offers the willing and the unwilling both a shot at a beatific, market-researched singularity. Cinema, television, art: These are mutant genes that Disney’s Sentinels will purge until contentment is universal, and each of us, fan and hater alike, can be considered canon.