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Tuesday, December 27, 2022

December 27, 2022: 2022 in Review: “Woke” Marvel

[2022 has been a lot. A lot a lot. So for my annual Year in Review series, I wanted to focus mostly on somewhat lighter, pop culture kinds of topics, with just one much more serious exception. Here’s to a better year to come!]

On why the complaints about Marvel’s new phase are silly, and why they’re a lot worse than that.

As was the case with yesterday’s post, a good bit of what I’d want to say about the question of whether Marvel shows and films have become too “woke” was addressed in a prior post, this one from last year’s Year in Review series, on the TV show The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. So check that out if you would and then come on back.

Welcome back! As I hope that post made clear, I think the idea that Marvels shows or films can’t be simultaneously entertaining as hell and engaged with social and political issues is profoundly silly, and not at all borne out by the actual evidence provided by works like Falcon. Indeed, I would go further—if you go back to the film that launched this entire run of Marvel stories, Iron Man (2008), you find a film about a weapons manufacturer and arms dealer coming to grips with the global as well as personal realities and effects of his work and life, and doing so first and foremost in one of the most conflicted global hotspots (Afghanistan) to boot. Obviously Marvel films and shows haven’t always been so directly tied to social and political issues—but I would argue that most of them (and certainly the best of them) have dealt with complex themes alongside the entertaining superhero storytelling, and those themes have included such contemporary issues alongside lots of other (and interconnected) questions of identity, heroism, community, and more. Folks are certainly entitled to their own opinions about the current slate of Marvel stories, but to criticize them as suddenly “woke” is to reveal at least a limited perspective on the entire series to date.

I say “at least a limited perspective” to give those folks the benefit of the doubt. But the truth is, when someone uses “woke” as a criticism of an individual cultural work, they’re playing into a much broader and more destructive political narrative (whether they realize or like it or not). I haven’t yet performed the scientific research on this phenomenon, so this is simply an estimate at the moment (if an educated one to be sure), but I believe something like 97.4% of the time, the descriptor “woke” means “featuring main characters and storylines that aren’t predominantly white and male.” (This is quite similar to what “politically correct” meant in an earlier iteration of these arguments; plus ça change and all that.) Of course diverse characters and stories aren’t immune from criticism, any more than any artistic choices are or should be—but when the diversity itself is the basis (or at least the starting point) for that criticism, that reveals a great deal more about the perspective of the critic than it does about the text being criticized. For a long time, the powers that be at studios like Marvel genuinely doubted whether characters like Black Panther or Black Widow could carry their own film—if it’s “woke” that we’ve learned not only that they can do so, but that diversification leads to infinitely more enjoyable storytelling, then let’s never go back to sleep.

Next 2022 reflection tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other parts of 2022 you’d reflect on?

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