My SFRA 2018 Paper: Captain America and General Intellect: Abstraction in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

This is the paper I gave yesterday at SFRA 2018 in Milwaukee. It’s part of a future project on the franchise as form. It’s a bit rough, but some of the broad strokes are there I think.

Captain America and General Intellect: Abstraction in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

I am going to start with two quotes from within the MCU that speak to my interest in franchise. The first is from Hawkeye, in Age of Ultron: “The city is flying, we’re fighting an army of robots and I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense.” The second is from Baron Wolfgang von Strucker, in an end-credits scene to The Winter Soldier “This isn’t the age of spies. This is not even the age of heroes. This is the age of miracles … and there’s nothing more horrifying than a miracle.” I will come back to these quotes below, but for now suffice it to say that what holds the MCU together is not its genre or its historicity, but the fact that it does not make sense. This is miraculous.

So, I am interested in how we interpret a franchise, what methods we use, and how those methods must necessarily challenge older methods that privilege objects whose relative stability derives from their clear date of publication, release, or whatever. I am not primarily interested, here anyway, in franchise as a production model or as a means to leverage fan engagement. But when we speak of interpreting franchise we must ask what we are interpreting exactly. Can we can call a franchise, such as the MCU, Star Wars, Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games, a text? It would be difficult, I think, to call a franchise of any size a text, although we can say that franchises are made up of texts (all of which can be interpreted as such). We have other concepts available, including that of form. However, I am also not certain that franchises share clear formal characteristics such that we can easily compare them or establish a methodology that can account for all of them. Star Wars and Star Trek operate according to very different logics, I think, when we think about them at the level of franchise. Although they have both changed considerably over the courses of their respective histories, Star Trek begins with an episodic structure that still informs its overall development. By contrast, Star Wars begins with aspirations to a continuity and coherence of narrative that presents problems for its filmic iterations today. I realize that these are gross generalizations.

In any case, form seems a bit wrong here for other reasons as well. Consider an interpretive scheme close to the heart of many who attend this conference, if only for its politics. In The Political Unconscious, Jameson describes three concentric circles or horizons of interpretation. At the smallest level, we have the individual text as the symbolic solution to a social contradiction. At the second level, that of the ideologeme, individual texts are understood to engage in an ongoing dialogism with one another about an ongoing social contradiction, each offering its own solutions to this contradiction. The widest horizon involves what Jameson calls the ideology of form, where form itself is the content we interpret. By way of her analysis of the the ideology of form, the interpreter of the literary text discovers the contradictions that relate and distinguish one mode of production and another as latent in the sign systems those modes of production condition. The literary text comprises traces of such sign systems. But what do we do when the “text” and the form are the same thing? It does not seem to me that Jameson is saying that we should study “the novel” so much as novels as expressions of the form called the novel. How can we do anything but that? How can we study all of the novels or even a significant number of them? Likewise, how do we study a franchise? Do we claim that an individual text from within a franchise, such as Infinity War, expresses the whole? Infinity War in particular is problematic in light of these questions. All roads lead to it, and it seems clear that it has set the stage to reset the MCU for a new run of films. At the same time, I am not sure all roads always led to it. It may express what the MCU has become, but I am not sure that it expresses some formal essence of the MCU such that we can understand it as an instance of form in the way we can understand Middlemarch as an instance of the novel.

The problem of interpreting a franchise as a franchise and not as a series of related texts has to do with the fact that franchises ARE series of texts but are neither textsnor forms in any conventional sense. (And, as an aside let me know that the collections of texts we call franchises are not genres although they borrow heavily from genres in interesting and problematic ways.) So if there is a form of franchise, it’s tough to figure out. Again, we might identify some characteristics of franchises such as their seriality or their use of multiple media platforms to tell a single story, but I am skeptical that such characteristics bind them together into anything like a coherent category except perhaps at the highest level of abstraction. And even if we could discover and name the formal dimensions of franchise we would still be left with another problem. While it may be difficult to see how all novels relate to one another, and though we may argue about where the novel ends and the romance begins (for example), we can nonetheless take the novel as a critical fiction and understand this novel as an expression of it at a punctual moment in time, the date of its publication. Franchise allows us no such punctuality. If, for Jameson, the interpretation of form involves finding in a given formal expression contradictions between modes of production and therefore history itself, what do we do with ten years of the MCU, twenty years of Harry Potter, thirty years of Dragonlance, forty years of Star Wars, fifty years of Star Trek, or sixty years of James Bond? Again, the issue here is not reading Casino Royale the novel published in 1953 or Casino Royale the film released in 1967 or Casino Royale the film released in 2006. The issue is not even comparing them with one another as examples of James Bond, as examples of spy fiction, or as expressions of their respective historical conditions. The issue is interpreting them all as part of a franchise, as the “stanzas,” “paragraphs,” “pages,” or “chapters” in a larger work the form of which only emerges in time and is never “set”—even to the minimal standards we expect from novels or films.

That said, I want to offer a very tentative definition of the franchise as form, which I hope is not too obvious. It’s also very new, it came to me yesterday in fact, so it’s not terrible well integrated into what follows. So, a franchise is a form that incorporates and thematizes its own historical conditions and methods of production into its storyworld and narrative. It does this on a more obvious or literal level than that of signification, figuration, or symbolization. Character aging as a result of the pasage of time in the real world or the direct address of fan concerns. Examples of this sort of thing include Hawkeye’s statement with regard to his bow and Lor san Tekka’s opening line to The Force Awakens that “this will begin to make things right.”

The difficulty of franchise, then, as Jameson’s theory of interpretation reveals and as my tentative definition hopefully makes clear, is its lack of punctuality. To return to the MCU, for example, we can ask: what is the historical moment of Infinity War? Clearly, the answer is 2018. But is the 2018 version of Thanos the same as the 2012 version of Thanos, the one played by Damion Poitier rather than Josh Brolin? How is Thanos, in the context of the Obama administration, different as an unknown future threat different than Thanos, in the context of Trump, as a current threat? Another example, more in line with the definition I offered, is that of Iron Man’s likely death or disappearance in Avengers 4 because Robert Downey, Jr. no longer wants to play the part or Marvel no longer wants to pay his fee.We have to take this sort of thing into account when we interpret a franchise. It’s not enough or even possible to say that this film was produced under these conditions or that it encodes sign systems at odds with one another in a properly dialectical manner. The content of the franchise is its ongoing production, the relationship between innumerable historical transformations within a relatively short time and what finally appears on the screen.

This is the part where I get away from this definition, so let me apologize if the rest does not quite fit into what I just said. Continuing with the MCU, let;s think about the first two complete MCU trilogies, Iron Man and Captain America. The Iron Man and Captain Americatrilogies are clearly the most invested of all the MCU seriesin some representation of real world politics, especially American in an international context. (It’s likely that The Incredible Hulk and Spiderman: Homecoming belong in here as well as individual films.) The Iron Man trilogy deals with the American military industrial complex and its impact on a global stage under the conditions of late capitalism and globalization rather than under the conditions in which Eisenhower named that complex. Or, better, the trilogy is interested in the military industrial complex under the conditions partly determined by the establishment of the military industrial complex after the second world war. Captain America deals with the emergence of the US as a superpower by way of that second world war (in The First Avenger), the use of American power and the occulted nature of conflict during and after the Cold War (in The Winter Soldier), and debates about American unilateralism under globalization (in Civil War). These history lessons are themselves refracted through a certain presentism, as is all textual production. American imperialism and adventurism in the Middle East, and the terrorist blowback this caused, not only appear in Iron Man, but also help determine the film and the trilogy’s understanding of the emergence of the military industrial complex as a sort of teleology. Globalization and American authority on the international stage are both thematized in The Winter Soldier and Civil War. These issues also shape the overall arc of the trilogy insofar as The First Avenger gives us the second world war as the precondition not for an open-ended future, but for specific events of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

All of this is to say that, the franchise as form certainly involves contradictions between various sign systems characteristic of different moments in history and the modes of production at work in those moments. However, the contradictions do not manifest in a single text but across a series of texts that: 1) are produced at different historical moments; 2) thematize historical progress; 3) thematize historical progress by assuming a specific trajectory for this progress; and 4) remain open to new historical events even as they happen. This last point is, of course, especially important as the MCU moves through the present of our world and into its future, as the figure of Thanos suggests.

And this brings me to my second major discussion point, abstraction and the general intellect. Here, I will start with the MCU and then turn to Marx a bit. The MCU is abstract, in the sense of being drawn away, all the way down. Nothing in the MCU connects with anything else in a concrete, historical manner such that we would expect to see in science fiction or certain other mimetic or realist forms. Tony Stark invents world-changing tech so often that the films cannot represent this invention as it happens. He spends considerable screen time in Iron Man creating the flight capacities of his suit (although only a week or two of diegetic time, it would seem). Then, once that’s perfected and he starts using the suit, he reveals other tech already included in the suit the development of which is never represented to us despite its world-changing quality.The various gizmos that get him into and out of his suit groundbreaking—not to mention the artificial intelligences he has just lying about in case he needs them or the impossible smart phone only he possesses. How are these things made? Why don’t they affect the world in any transformative sense?

More broadly, there are many references to the Chitauri invasion in films following The Avengers, but the world seems to remain largely the same (Spiderman: Homecoming being the exception to this rule, I think). Some of my favorite examples of abstraction have to do with the MCU’s various villains, many of whom (especially in later films) seem to just hang around in utterly unlivable spaces divorced from all society by apocalypse or maybe just by design. Think about the Frost Giants, the Chitauri, the Dark Elves, Dormammu, Thanos, Surtur, the Mandarin, etc.: each of them sitting in some other place, often an as yet unheard of dimension, where nothing else exists, waiting to do bad guy things. Then think about some of the abstract spaces themselves, including the Bifrost, the brain map in Iron Man 3, Jotunheim, the nanoverse in Ant-Man, the dark dimension, the mirror dimension, Sanctuary, and more—none of which seem to have any relation to anywhere else and all of which are empty of everything but reference to themselves as the place that they are. Hawkeye somehow owns a farm, as if such pastoral bliss and cliché American values could co-exist with superheroes. would say, And, as he would remind us as he stands in a city abstracted from the very earth itself, “None of this makes sense.” And, as a further example of abstraction apropos of the conference theme, Hawkeye then says, “But I’m going back out there because that’s my job.” Follwing Peter Frase’s talk last night I am tempted to say that, like trolling on Twitter, Hawkeye’s is a un-waged, tedious, bullshit job.

Hawkeye is right though. None of this makes sense. Nonetheless, I would claim that all of this abstraction, all of its “not making sense,” is what allows the MCU to make sense—and that is its primary characteristic as a franchise and the quality we must always account for when interpreting it. For Kevin Feige, the various screenwriters, directors, editors, producers, actors and the rest who create the MCU cannot attempt to turn the Iron Man films into sf, in which each of Tony’s nova has a totalizing effect on the culture in which it was produced. Doing so would render the MCU untenable going forward. People have personal reactions to aliens, but if the response to aliens happened on a national or global level in an historically appropriate manner, we would lose the sense that this world might relate back to our own as our own currently exists. Giving the bad guys backstories beyond “ancient grudge” or “wanton destruction” would risk derailing the forward motion of this or that film (Thanos and the Vulture being significant exceptions here).

So let me work back to this point by way of a short quote from Marx. In the Grundrisse, at the beginning of the fragment on machines, Marx writes, “Capital which consumes itself in the production process, or fixed capital, is the means of production in the strict sense.” By “fixed capital” Marx means machinery, specifically industrial machinery. Machines “store” human skill and knowledge and thus represent an abstraction of the general intellect. Under late capitalism, however, we should no longer consider machinery to be limited to the technologies of industrial capitalism. Franchise is a type of machine characteristic of the present mode of production, one that alludes back to Marx’s machine but is more characteristic of the machines we find in Deleuze and Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia.

Franchises store human knowledge and skill for the purpose of extracting value from that knowledge and skill. Star Trek is its own thing, but also an expression of a more generic form, the space opera or frontier sf. The MCU, and the DCEU, are capital in much the same way. They store and deploy superhero comics, the types of stories and characters they involve, the way such stories and characters interact, and so on. They thus privatize an aspect of the commons and develop it for their own ends and according to new conditions that manifest on the fly, as the films are produced.

It seems non-controversial to claim that franchises seek to leverage themselves in order to produce more franchise. Each franchise does this in its own way, some more successfully than others. Nearly every franchise eventually runs into some aspect of its past production it can no longer tolerate, for example because of problems associated with world-building or the simple passage of time in the real world. Star Wars and Star Trek, among other longstanding franchises, deal with the latter. The MCU, because of the speed at which the films have appeared, has not yet dealt with this problem. It has, however, dealt with the former problem, which is especially a problem for a franchise that has averaged nearly two films per year for ten years (not to mention all of the related television programming). At the start, the films mainly isolated characters from one another. Obviously, there were crossovers but they did not become significant until The Avengers. Nonetheless, there were hints of the future in early films: the shield in Iron Man, for example, or the appearance of the Tesseract in The First Avenger. Each of these easter eggs could have fallen by the wayside if necessary, but they nonetheless begin to shape the franchise as they accumulated. The appearance of the Infinity Gauntlet in Thor does not guarantee Infinity War, but the appearance of Thanos at the end of The Avengers does guarantee his subsequent appearance as a major villain. This both produces a future for the franchise even as it limits that future. The franchise has committed itself to something. And by committing itself to that something, it begins to exhaust itself. It reifies one possibility amongst many and thus eliminates other possibilities. Until it reaches a crisis point.

And that’s how the MCU machine works. It’s not a means of simple reproduction but rather one that takes on an accumulative shape as it develops and as more and more parts are added to it. These parts remain abstract, or drawn away, from one another but they grant the overall machine a shape that in turn determines future production. Ryan Vu tells us that every MCU film is the trailer for the next MCU film, which is true. It is also true that every MCU film is the most recent expression of a fixed-ness of capital, a machinic collection of abstract parts whose overall shape produces a limited set of possibilities for what can follow.

So I need to wrap this up, but let me say that I think that this explains the increasingly cosmic scope of the films. This scope is necessary to contain the abstract parts of which the franchise is made, as if only contact with the truly impossible, the radical outside that capital can only dream of expanding into, can salvage all of this. Thus Strucker’s line from The Winter Soldier, which bespeaks the death of genre fiction that deals with history, and even that which deals with impossible humans: “This isn’t the age of spies. This is not even the age of heroes. This is the age of miracles … and there’s nothing more horrifying than a miracle.” Thank you.


2 Responses to “My SFRA 2018 Paper: Captain America and General Intellect: Abstraction in the Marvel Cinematic Universe”

  1. […] Ben Robertson put up his SFRA talk on the MCU and abstraction as well as his opening statement for the Avengers vs. Jedi roundtable (which coined the already […]

  2. Hey, Ben, I don’t have your email contact, but I’m wondering if you’d be willing to have this published in SFRA Review as a Feature 101 article. They’re typically about this length and, as is, I think this would make a fun read and good contribution. Let me know! ( or twitter)

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