Critical Thinking And The Marvel Cinematic Universe
Cinema Junkie / July 14, 2021
Cinema Junkie has been on a quarantine break but I decided that July, the month of Comic-Con, would be a great time to make a comeback. My first guest is someone who not only fits the spirit of Comic-Con, but also is a longtime friend and frequent Cinema Junkie guest and that is Dr. Arnold T. Blumberg, a.k.a. Doctor of the Dead. We've bonded over zombies in the past and now I want to tap into a different side of his expertise to talk about comic book movies.
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Cinema Junkie was created and written by Beth Accomando with help from Kinsee Morlan, Emily Jankowski and Rebecca Chacon.
Critical Thinking and the MCU
Welcome back to the new and improved Cinema Junkie podcast, I’m Beth Accomando.
The podcast has been on a quarantine break but I decided that July, the month when Comic-Con returns for a second online convention, would be a great time for Cinema Junkie to make a comeback.
My first guest is someone who not only fits the spirit of Comic-Con, but who’s also is a longtime friend and frequent Cinema Junkie guest.
And that is Dr. Arnold T Blumberg, AKA Doctor of the Dead.
We’ve bonded over zombies in the past and now I want to tap into a different side of his expertise to talk about comic book movies.
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: There’s something to be said for the fact that the Marvel cinematic universe that they started building was just so incredibly successful and cohesive and fascinating.
STAN LEE Excelsior! (applause)
There would be no Marvel without its creative leader Stan Lee, who made a lot of kids like Blumberg fall in love with comics.
Blumberg’s passion for pop culture led him to create a course on zombies and then he taught the first college class on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But before we talk about comic book movies, I need to take one quick break.
To take us into the break, here’s a new part of the podcast called share your addiction, where people get to rave about something they love for 60 seconds.
And there’s no better person to start the segment off than Dragpool.
You may have seen the seven foot five red mutate drag queen at Comic-Con recruiting for her Xtra force. And there’s one thing she has an excess of and that’s opinions. So take us into the break Dragpool.
Share your addiction segment
Thank you Dragpool. If you have an addiction you’d like to share then head on over to the Cinema Junkie podcast page at kpbs.org-slash-cinema-junkie for more info.
And when we come back…
BEAT FADE IN
Blumberg explains how comic book movies help with critical thinking….. so stay tuned.
BEAT UP AND FADE OUT
So Comic-Con is going to be later this month in a second virtual edition and comic books and comic book movies are at the heart of this geeky gathering.
Dr. Arnold T Blumberg has the distinction of teaching. The first of its kind course on the Marvel cinematic universe. Back in 2015 at the university of Baltimore, the class was called media genres, media marvels.
So Arnold, what did the course description for this class say?
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: Well, it grew out of the similar course that I'd already been doing for years on the zombie genre. That was the first time I had done sort of a genre specific course at UB, and that had been very successful. So a few years into that, I came to them with media marvels, I thought, okay. And I have to give credit, by the way, a colleague and friend of mine goes way back. He's a filmmaker. He's in production. He did a movie in the Baltimore area called my boring zombie apocalypse. His name is Kevin Perkins and it was actually Kevin, who first said to me, I think on like a social media chat and you should pitch them doing a course on the MCU also. And I thought, well, I think they would probably go forward at this point because the zombie course was doing well. And it was basically the same basic structure in some ways it was even easier to set up because at that point, We were just getting up to Age of Ultron when I did it.
AGE OF ULTRON CLIP
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: So it wound up fitting perfectly into basically a 16 week semester of giving them the historical background of Marvel in the comic world, where the characters come from a little bit of grounding in mythology and heroic literature of the past. And then we started going through every film from iron man up to the point. And the semester ended with everybody going to the Senator theater for a screening of age of Ultron. It was great.
Well that sounds Perfect. And I do have to say that Kevin Perkins blew my brains out as a zombie. When I went to appear in his film for an NPR story I did on zombies. So he's, he's got quite a far reach into the undead, I guess. So when you set up this course, what was the response like from both students and administrators?
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: The university itself was already, they understood certainly the department that handled the media literacy stuff, they understood. Where I was coming from and where the benefit was and using a genre as a lens for talking about anything socially, culturally, and otherwise.So that part was fine and they were totally receptive to that. As far as the students are concerned. The interest was immediate, as you might expect…But what I did find right out of the gate on that one, from what I can remember was that in some respects, I think it worked even better quicker than the zombie course did in the sense that it felt like everybody clicked in immediately to the idea that we're not just doing this .
BEAT IN-Captain America Clip start
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: We're not just sitting here. Talking about the films. We're going to look at them in a substantial way and try to figure out, you know, what they mean, what they're reflecting. And it worked really well….
Captain America Clip up
BEAT Fade out
….So what kind of public response did you deal with?
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: Their response publicly was exactly what you think it would be there as far as I'm concerned, the people that start attacking it for, oh, is this what our tax dollars are going for? Oh, this is why American children are falling behind. Or that that's just the kind of, uh, just complete willful ignorance that has led to such an incredible lack of critical thinking and the kind of media literacy we desperately need, especially in a world where organization. Are doing everything within their power to manipulate people into believing falsehoods. And of course they very well know how critical thinking and media literacy works. They're not foolish about it. They just want to make sure everybody else is. So these courses are not just a fun way of teaching students. They're vital and actually they're vital for much younger. They shouldn't be teaching these just in colleges. We should be teaching media literacy from the beach. And we don't. So that's, that's a major problem right there, but yeah, apart from the usual kind of garbage you get online about, you know, why would people waste a semester of that? Actually, the response was still for the most part. Pretty nice.
I mean, one of the things about a class like this that I think is great is that so often you'll get students who kind of. Glaze over at the idea of classes that have a very kind of academic sound to them and to take something that they already have an inherent interest in just seems like a great way to, you know, capture their interest and get them to come to class very eagerly. And it seems like a gateway to teaching that, you know, teachers should embrace and then the public should appreciate.
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: Absolutely. That's the fundamental thing that's at work. There is you, you already have like a steep slope at times to get kids engaged
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: and particularly to get them involved in conversation about all sorts of things, whether that's, you know, race and gender and other politics and cultural issues and social issues.
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: And if they're already excited about the fact that they get to talk about things they love.The one thing you find out pretty quickly, is there discussion about those things? It's usually not very empty. It's usu ally very substantial.
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: I remember like the zombie. Walking dead.
Walking Dead Clip Fade in
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: It just debuted. It was literally the first season of walking dead when we first started that class. And naturally one of the first things I did was let's watch the show every week and we'll talk about it. And there was that one particular episode that really hit one of those early points. I mean, not subtly where they had the women were doing the laundry. Like the river's edge.
Walking Dead clip up
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: And it was like a whole episode about, is this what we're going to do? Are we going to devolve back to these ridiculous gender roles for things and the conversation in the class after that episode, wasn't like, oh, it wasn't the zombie thing. Cool. Or that was a fun part, but incredibly deep and charged and very informed discussion about everybody's opinion about that. And that's why you do something like this. Can you imagine trying to get those kids to talk about things like that? That entryway. I mean, that's, that's how it works.
Walking Dead clip up again?
And what was it that made you decide to tackle Marvel and not DC? Was it strictly because of what films were coming out at that particular moment?
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: Well, partly, I mean, um, I was always a Marvel kid, so I mean, I've certainly read my sheriff DC stuff and I'm certainly in some respects because of my other work, having worked at, uh, the Overstreet comic book, price guide and I'm certainly very familiar with DC stuff, but Marvel has always been more emotionally I'm connected. I knew I could speak to that material with, with a conviction that I probably couldn't necessarily give as much to the DC, although I've taught courses in superhero mythology too, and use plenty of Superman, wonder woman, Batman, all that kind of stuff, because it's vitally important for that part of the history of it. And those characters are wonderful, but you know, there's something to be said for the fact that the Marvel cinematic universe that they started building was just so incredibly successful and cohesive and fascinating. And, uh, DC has continued to demonstrate that when it comes to comic book movies, Marvel seems to be the only one that really knows how to make it work. And I'll be happy to continue to defend that particular perspective on it. But so it was a little personal is also a little bit, this is a nice single narrative through line. We can look at through a whole semester.
Okay. Let's backtrack a little bit. Cause I want you to tell me how you first got interested in comics. You described yourself as a Marvel kid. So what was it about the Marvel comics that really attracted you or appeal to you more than the DC ones?
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: Well, I mean, some of it in a certain respect might just be, those are the things I encountered first. Although when I look back at like the earliest comics I had as a kid, which of course I still have, I had picked up Dion, Superman, or Batman off the stand. And I don't know. I mean, sometimes there's a bit of like alchemy at work there. You don't know. I started off as real little reading Harvey comics as like Casper Richie, rich, that kind of thing. The first time I can remember reading Marvel was spidey super stories, which was the title they were doing at the time. There was a Spiderman series aimed particularly at younger readers at a time when they didn't do that, kind of, um, differentiating all that much in their audience. They do so much more than. And, uh, I quickly jumped from that right to the regular amazing Spider-Man title. And from there just expanded to everything.
And I just want to play a quick clip of Marvel’s Stan Lee addressing this at Comic-Con.
Stan Lee Clip
Beat fade in
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: and I loved those characters and they just, they felt right to me. And I liked the stories and I would occasionally look at something from DC, but there was never a sense of cohesion to them. And the idea that I was visiting the same world as I got from Marvel. And in some respects, that is the same thing. That's happening with the movies now as well.
BEAT FADE out
Comic book adaptations are nothing new. So quite soon after Superman appeared in the first comic book in 1938, there were Superman cartoons and later a Superman TV show.
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: And then in the 1960s, you have one of my favorites, which was the Batman TV show and movie.
So if we're sticking to the two big comic book publishers of DC and Marvel, DC definitely got the ball rolling early on in expanding from print to other media. So what do you think led to DC getting out of the gate faster?
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: Well, I mean, if you look back at the history of it, all, they, the guys who were involved in the business end of DC, of national periodicals from the beginning were keenly aware of the potential value of the properties they had. And for instance, with Superman, they immediately set up an incorporated company that was devoted expressly to promoting and merchandising and doing everything they could to produce Superman content. Yeah. Within a year of the action comics. Number one, in his debut, you had the radio show, you had a [00:15:00] strip in the newspapers. Uh, there was a club, the Superman Tim club. There were other Superman of America club where they would get kids to write in and you could get, you know, the usual assortment of rings or membership cards. And all of this was very concerted effort to build a brand. Uh, in a way that these people already knew how to do and had partnerships with people to do. And they were the first ones to really start doing these superhero comics. So you have the other characters show up and that man and wonder woman and the other characters and injustice society, and then suddenly there's a justice society club. And so they had the benefit of being there first and a chance to exploit that in a variety of ways. It's interesting though, that as time goes by. And then eventually get to the 1960s and you see what Marvel does. You see that a lot of Marvel success comes from an understanding of, of a difference in tone that speaks to a different audience, and that enabled them to take things in a different way. But it's certainly true that for a very long time, I mean, if you want to look at it as a competition, which I guess in some sense it is, I mean, marketing wise, they definitely had the upper hand for a long time in terms of adapting their characters and promoting their characters. And I mean, for awhile DC owned feature films and Marvel was stuck on television with stuff that was arguably at best. Okay.
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: And not really ever really, uh, the best adaptation is characters and then things definitely turned in the other direction.
And when do you see Marvel finally taking off? I know for me the film blade, which was not only a comic book movie, but it was an R rated comic book. Movie kind of stands out as the first Marvel film that I really took notice of.
But what do you see as kind of that turning point for Marvel when they started launching this franchise?
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: Yeah. I mean, you're right. It definitely happened before Ironman, at least in a,in a, in the sense of, uh, educating the movie, going audience about what they might find interesting and what could be relatable.
Let’s take a quick moment to listen to Marvel’s Stan lee on this idea of making characters more relatable. I spoke to the late comics creator at Comic-Con when Blade came out.
Stan Lee clip
Beat fade out
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: ….. so for instance, you go back and after the era of the cereals and after there of the seventies, TV shows and Marvel. You have DC doing Christopher Reeve, Superman movies, and then Batman with Tim Burton and Michael Keaton is Batman and it seemed like they've really got it. And then as that era starts to continue one it sequels and SQLs and there's diminishing returns. And when you get to blade, there's a turning point there. And the real transition, I think in a very. Big way is X-Men and Spider-Man movies coming out in the early two thousands.
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: And then by the time you get to iron man, the notion of continuing one single narrative through line one universe follow was the brilliance of the Marvel studios, people, specifically, those people, you know, Kevin foggy and all the people involved in developing. That said, let's actually try to replicate the experience of being a Marvel comics fan, which is, you know, when you pick up a comic that Spider-Man might turn up in the Avengers or Thor myco over and help captain American, his own title. And that kind of synergy was an incredible opportunity.
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: And even though they still didn't have the rights to some of their main characters, they gave it a shot anyway, and that was key. I think if Warner brothers time Warner had come up with the idea of, you know, what would be really good, a Christopher Reeve, Michael Keaton movie, which we all used to joke about for years, where's the world's finest movie and they didn't do it, or they couldn't work it out or just didn't occur to anybody. And for whatever reason, they never got to build that kind of synergy. And, and that was A potential misstep that enabled Marvel to say we won't just give you adventures with these characters. We can give you an entire universe to immerse yourself in.
Okay. I need to take one last break and to take us into this break, there's something new called cold Turkey. This is where people get 60 seconds to go off on something that just needs to stop. We just need to quit cold Turkey. So let's hear what's ticking off drag pool about comic books movies.
Cold Turkey Clip
Thank you drag pool for your sassy opinions. I also want to take a moment to remind people that there's another new addition to cinema junkie, and that is a YouTube video called geeky gourmet. And this is where I'll be providing instructions, demonstrations, and more about how to make themed foods and drinks to go with your mood. So for this episode, you can head on over to the KPBS YouTube channel and the geeky gourmet will show you how to make comic book cookies that go pop bang, and maybe even Kapow.
Kapow sound clip
So Arnold, let's talk about this Marvel universe that they created kicked off with iron man. And there was really this overarching sense of one narrative kind of being threaded through all these different movies. So what do you think has defined this Marvel universe and made it so successful and popular?
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: Well, if I knew that I would be out there right now making lots and lots of money, I don't know. I mean, there are a lot of things you can pick apart later. I mean, for one thing, it's, it's certainly true. Let's not as much as I enjoy them. There's also plenty of reasons to say that they're flawed. So for one thing, They weren't as great out of the gate As people remember for one thing, they were floundering quite a bit early on to create the connectivity that now seems to almost come second nature to them. For instance, everybody remembers there was the bit about Robert Downey Jr. As Tony stark appearing at the end of the Hawk that didn't quite jive with….They had to like backtrack and Ironman two was a fix for some of these things, continuity what they had to work on this for a while. And they, they got there, I would argue that another major reason for the success was just one single thing, which was the casting of Robert Downey Jr.
Robert Downey Jr. Clip
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: Now looking back. I am certainly one that has not only changed my opinion, but I think, uh, added a lot of maybe more complexity in my initial opinion of the fact that when you really look at it, however, the entire arc of his character through all these films is arguably the arc of the biggest villain in the Marvel cinematic universe.
Downey Clip 2
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: He's a horrible, horrible person. Tony stark is just a horrible person. And although there's lip service paid to his supposedly various steps of redemption, he never actually stops being an arms manufacturer. His goal, for instance, in the first film of trying to redeem himself from a lifetime of arms manufacturing is to build the most effective weapon system in the world and wear it himself…..I mean in terms of like poster boy for white privilege, I think you got Tony stark.
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: But the fact is, regardless of whether you see the character as a villain or a hero or an antihero, it doesn't really matter on this, on the level of popularity, because in terms of success, the argument could be made that it was him as an actor.It was that choice that gave them the most perfect pairing [00:23:00] of an actor with a character that could introduce people to that world. And from that point on one of the things I would argue is always been one of their greatest strengths is their casting.
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: They always seem to come up with the perfect person for everything Even if that person didn't seem like the one you would have picked initially. And that I think has just been an element of genius and just the production side of it. They know how to pick people that will draw people in and embody these characters. And I'd argue that that's one of many things that DC is struggling with right now with a lot of the things they do.
BEAT FADE OUT
Now, when you were teaching your class, uh, you discussed how films can films like this films, like the Marvel universe can provide a fantasy framework to explore contemporary issues. Like the nature of heroism, about great responsibilities that come with wielding great power and our willingness to trade freedom for security. So. What kind of issue, or how did you talk about some of these issues in the class and how did students respond?
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: Well, it, it wasn't as much work to get to those points in that as we were watching the movies, I would turn to the students to find out what do you think? You know, what do you think this character is doing? Why this house represents? Of course, the ore movie, the reason why I did the course in the first place, the one that was sort of the, the pitch. Was winter soldier,
Winter Soldier Clip
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: because my argument was, and that's where you mentioned the thing about freedom for S you know, for security. There's so much in that movie. That's like they deal with drone strikes. They deal with the surveillance state and the freedom for security issue.
Winter Soldier Clip
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: at this point in things for Marvel. All they had to do was make a really cool adventurous captain America movie. They did not have to do anything else. And yet, what they wound up doing was a movie that actually had some things to say in and around all the adventure and excitement. And it demonstrated that these movies operate on different levels. It's not just a frivolous adventure. You can also incorporate these things and make something out of that.
Winter Soldier Clip up and out
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: And when we would talk about it in class, It really didn't take much work to get to that. And when we were in the classroom, everybody would get really energized. And particularly if they enjoyed it and sometimes particularly if they didn't, they would have things to say about why that was and conversation we'll go from there.
Well, in these films, even though they're entertaining, they also have a way of educating or at least. You know, raising issues about ethics, morality, race, gender, class, and how did you see Marvel films kind of touching on those?
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: everybody who was crowd to craft these movies has brought themselves to it. They can't not reflect all the various things going on in our country and our culture in the time when they're made. For example, in Marvel, they’re as guilty as anyone else in this culture as well of having flaws of, of incorrectly or improperly or inappropriately representing some things, because they are reflecting the culture in which they're made. So like for example, it's not all positive, but it's also can be very instructive and telling about where we are. So like, for example, like we're just now getting to the point where the black widow movie is coming out and captain Marvel came out and there's a sequel of that, but it's like, it took this long before we had women in lead roles in this, and it's taken until phase four before we were going to have an Asian lead in one of these and the black Panther movies and the sadness of losing Chadwick Boseman. But we had that, but. Why did it take that long? It's like, there are no easy answers because these are problems and even Marvel is not immune to these kinds of problems.
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: Marvel is still a very white story and it's a very male story. And this goes all the way back to the source material and to the people that created it and to the comics that proceeded.
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: And it's important at the very least that if there are things that are bad about these movies, that's also worth talking about and maybe that gets people thinking about how can you make it better?
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: And in some respects, maybe it's, it's certainly not enough, but in some respects we are seeing some things getting better.
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: So there are ways that these movies can be instructive and educational as much for the things they're doing wrong. As for the things that they might deliberately, or sort of tangentially trying to communicate that are good.
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: That's also, I feel part of the importance of media literacy is you got to look at these things and not feel like you're a fan just come at it with your own perspective and see it for what it is.
BEAT Fade out
And would you have any closing words about Marvel comic movies, something that you want to leave? People thinking?
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: Well, like I said, early on, these are characters that I always, it felt like emotionally connected to. So anything I said through the course of this whole thing, I certainly expect everybody to understand is through the biased lens of someone who grew up with these characters.I can't possibly evaluate the Marvel material in a way that's truly objective. I can only offer my perspective. And like I said, also there are things about it. That's still deeply flawed, but I think that overall they're an extraordinary experiment in storytelling that it would be very interesting to see done in a variety of different ways, which we are seeing happen sometimes. Good, sometimes bad. It's an amazing thing to be able to craft an entire universe. Where people can immerse themselves in an ongoing narrative. And there's [00:37:00] so many opportunities to do different things with that general idea. And Marvel has been one of the most successful experiments in that, but I would like to see it as just the beginning of how we can tell stories in this kind of cohesive and ongoing and complex way. And it would be fun to see that happen with a much wider range of voices than we currently have.
I've been speaking with Dr. Arnold T Blumberg and Arnold remind people where they can find you on social media and where to listen to your podcast.
ARNOLD BLUMBERG: Absolutely. You can berate me about all of my Marvel and DC opinions on Twitter at Dr. Of the. And I'm sure some of you will, but that's what blocking is for. And if you want to listen to my podcast, um, Natalie and I talk about everything from classic car and science fiction of the fifties, all the way up to the latest films on goals in the house.
CLIP Ghouls in house music and line only ghouls in the house is you
Thanks Arnold for a marvelous chat.
Next time on cinema junkie, there’ll be an episode entitled crew call.
This is where I talk to people about their jobs in the entertainment industry. And for the next edition, I’ll be speaking to stunt people who make movies and often comic book movies kick ass.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the new and improved cinema junkie. I want to thank Emily Jankowski and Rebecca Chacon for their editing assistance, and thanks to podcast producer Kinsee Morlan as well as to all those who provided feedback on the redesign of the podcast.
So till our next film, fix I’m Beth Accomando, your resident cinema junkie.
Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place.