Now, regular readers by now are aware of my criticisms of the MCU, especially because I went back on my word and started talking about the TV shows. And readers of all levels of interest in my work may be aware of the popular criticism of MCU as summarised by a single line: humour based on the phrase “So that just happened”. And I must reluctantly acknowledge that this criticism is a little overblown. It’s not the fact that the line itself has, to my knowledge, never appeared in any MCU property; it’s that it’s a fixation on a very particular detail rather than the big picture, and one that oversimplifies and flattens the actual problem it fixates on regardless. If anything, it’s a criticism as frustratingly shallow as the very thing it criticises.
The intent of the criticism is that the MCU’s humour tends to be a facile acknowledgement of the absurdity of the situation that undermines the stakes of the story – not very funny and dragging down your ability to care about the plot around it – but I think this is three entirely separate problems that aren’t really tied into the nature of the humour, and especially not those jokes in particular. I suppose that, by definition, trying to remember an unmemorable joke is a fool’s errand, but the closest specific joke I can think of that matches “So that just happened” is when Spider-Man first meets Stephen Strange in Infinity War and, in response to hearing his name, remarks “Oh, you’re using your made-up names.” I have to admit, it’s a little funny because it’s something Peter Parker would probably say (especially Tom Holland’s take), but it also demonstrates the basis of the criticism: that the MCU is fundamentally embarrassed by its concepts – something I’ve never really thought to be true, especially past Phase One.
Eastern critics of Western pop culture have tended to comment on the rigid tone that Westerners put into art (Tony Zhou, despite being American, is the one name I can drop here), and I think a lot of the MCU’s tone makes sense when you come from comedic and semi-comedic anime in particular – the shift from po-faced self-seriousness to wacky comedy especially makes me think of Full Metal Alchemist. Like, meta-humour has become grating now that it’s become the expected norm, but I have no beef with it in conception, only execution. The reason that I can’t take MCU stories seriously is because their plots follow absurd impulse rather than dramatic necessity – the conflicts are basically meaningless and the characters have vague motivations. The fact that the humour is unfunny is an unrelated issue.
If I were to point to a comedic line that actually articulates my issues with the MCU experiment, it’s “He’s out of line, but he’s right.” I get that the joke is that Zemo’s pop culture analysis is supposed to be jarring and out of place, and while I find it a bit sub-Tarantino, that line is fine. It’s Sam’s response that genuinely bewilders me – I genuinely cannot conceive of a reason anyone would find his fairly middle-of-the-road lifted-from-Wikipedia description of Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Maker as ‘out of line’. I feel like I’ve said more outta-line-but-correct things about African-American culture than Zemo has – I doubt we’re gonna hear Zemo’s take on The Last Poets. It’s yet another moment where you hear the MCU writers wanting to be clever and cute as opposed to a character naturally saying something in a way that flows with where they are in the narrative.
What intrigues me is the way criticisms can get wrapped up in these peculiar myths. It’s like how everyone thinks Jerry Seinfeld constantly said “What’s the deal with…” on his show (which extended into a cliche applied to observational comedians as a whole), when in fact it was only said in sincerity once, ironically in the episode “The Deal”. My theory is that it’s a maelstrom of inappropriately used yes-anding and repetitive hackery – that is to say, Hitler kills millions of people and someone quite cleverly explains why this is a bad thing, and then someone else wants to look clever so they chime in “And also he was a sex pervert!”. And then other people hear this and find it confirms their feelings, so they don’t analyse or fact-check it. My thinking is two-fold: one, something flattering my preconceptions demands even stronger interrogation. Two, the MCU has done enough actually bad things that I don’t have to make more up. Criticism shares a lot of principles with creativity, but the fundamental difference is that it has to be true, which by definition means you don’t make things up.