Theodor Adorno: not into the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
The new star-packed Eternals film premiered only a few weeks ago, directed by Academy Award-winning director Chloé Zhao. It feels like every day a new superhero film or TV series is announced, and you must live under a rock to not have heard of the Marvel Cinematic Universe before. The MCU, for proper fans, you see. This abundance is despicable to some, and beyond exciting to others. Despite one’s stance on the matter, one thing cannot be denied: the superhero culture has been growing steadily and seems to be here to stay. Is liking superhero films a mere matter of preference, or does it indicate a deeper societal and cultural ill? Take us back a few decades, and German philospher Theodor Adorno would have had quite a clear answer that still resonates today.
A leading figure of the famous Frankfurt School of critical theory, Adorno is not known for being an optimist when it comes to the state of culture in the 20th century. He was actually incredibly critical of what he called the “culture industry”, a theme present in some of his most influential works. This concept encompasses Adorno’s distrust of the technological advancements of his time, which encouraged mass production and turned art into an industry in itself. Because of this mechanisation, he was afraid cultural products turned people into unthinking masses, who are not seen as audiences anymore, but rather as indicators of profit – the new ideology of culture.
In a world where box office records make the news constantly and there seems to be a race to always beat the latest one, Adorno’s concerns seem more present than ever. Every product of the culture industry turns into its own advertisement since it is part of a bigger commercial force – and, clearly enough, superhero films have reached a point where they can comfortably sell themselves. Their promotion is built on the fact that they belong to a so-called cinematic universe, and support each other through expectancy. True fans know they have to stay in the cinema until the credits are done, (patiently) awaiting a new scene that will tease the next installment without having properly digested the one they’ve just seen. There’s a knowing smile around the room, an air of superiority and excitement, like you’ve been let in on a secret that only the others who’ve stayed know. And it’s a formula that seems to be working better and better.
If we take a step back and look at it, the MCU (and superhero films in general) seem to tick off all the boxes that Adorno was so concerned about. There’s another aspect that comes into play, however. While many defenders of the superhero film argue that there is room in culture for every genre, which seems an admirable sentiment in theory, reality shows a different story. Superhero films have incredible box-office success, prioritisation in promotion and an overwhelming presence, so how much room do they actually leave for other types of films to creep in? How many small, independent films, for example, will have the possibility to make it in the little space that is left in the audience’s attention? As a result, how many stories will not be told because studios don’t believe they will make enough money?
Though it may seem Adorno’s concerns are those of a different century, it’s clear how well they still fit into the consumed art of today. Moreover, they’ve been shared by many big names in the film industry, such as Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Denis Villenueve, Jane Campion, or Alejandro González Iñárritu. All of them have cited lack of originality, weak scripts and story arcs, little to no character development, and reliance on impressive special effects to make up for the lack of potent dialogue as the main offenders. The most serious accusation, perhaps, is the lack of emotional connection with the audience; though looking at the theatres full of excited fans might contradict that.
To a certain extent, this brings us back to the ever-present debate about the role of “high art”. Does something have to be artistically great in order to be considered valuable? What even is artistically great, who determines it and on which principles? Many argue that it is enough for something to move you, to make you laugh, cry or anything in between for it to be considered profoundly powerful. At the end of the day, besides their monopolistic tendencies, superhero films often produce just that: true emotion in their viewers.
Additionally, perhaps one of the most valuable arguments that the critics of this genre haven’t fully considered is the effects of representation. Having such a large audience also means you can reach an immense number of people, people who haven’t seen themselves on a screen before. Coming back to the newest MCU release, Eternals, actress Salma Hayek recently said in an interview that she couldn’t believe a Mexican and Lebanese woman in her fifties such as herself just became a superhero for the first time, and that she cried the first time she tried on her costume. The film introduces characters of all shapes and sizes, races, sexual and gender orientations, and the first-ever deaf superhero. The impact of seeing oneself on a big screen in positions of power has been proven again and again to promote a sense of normality and acceptance. Instead of hindering the development of people’s individuality, like Adorno feared, products of mass culture might actually help those who felt like they were outcasts, outside of the constructed societal norms, to be inspired and become more confident.
While the arguments against the superhero film industry remain powerful and often cited, they don’t necessarily turn the audiences into blind consumers. Quite the opposite: they can connect people in ways we couldn’t have imagined before, and serve as reminders of strength in the face of adversity. Their lessons remain relevant, and it is understandable to relate to the concerns of economic and artistic overpowering, lack of emotive storytelling and repetitive patterns; but maybe we can all take a page from the book of the children (and adults) who see themselves on the big screen for the first time and choose to feel inspired instead.