“What’s up on earth?”: casual reflections of a first-time MCU marathoner

“What’s up on earth” is a favorite narmy subtitle in the bootleg copy of Inuyasha I watched during my newbie anime viewing years. The sub was for the phrase “いったい何があった!” and variations thereof. They are exclamations approximating “What the hell happened here?” or “What’s going on?”, often indicating the shit’s hit the fan and no one’s getting out clean. It came to mind last month when I was catching up (finally) with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and being struck by the stark contrast between earth-bound and other-planetary beings particularly when it came to the matter of feelings. Because, well, what’s up on earth that we’re doing them so wrong?

I’d already seen and loved Guardians of the Galaxy prior to this latecomer marathon, though it felt so different from my impression of western superhero comics I didn’t even associate it with Marvel. What completely caught me off-guard was how much I’d love Thor. In retrospect, my fondness for the former should have prepared me for it. Both films play on otherworldly sensibilities, tapping into its potential for situational humor (Thor‘s fish-out-of-water setup and Guardian‘s displaced earthling scenario) and theatrical outlandishness (read: perfection). More impressively, both portray characters who are fully present with their emotions, even when they can be deceptive or distrustful in other ways (*cough* Loki).

Compare this to the angsty brooding hero complexes of the emotionally unstable Iron Man, Hulk, and Captain America and I think we get a glimpse of some of that good ole modernity thing that happened on earth. These are grown men suffering from PTSD and anxiety, not managing their pain or their needs, and continually making really bad decisions, individually and collectively. Instead of turning to trusted resources (as Thor does in Avengers: Age of Ultron) or to one another (as the Guardians of the Galaxy learn to do time and again), they stall, allowing themselves to be blind-sighted by the emotions they deny or repress while innocents, including their colleagues and those who they purport to protect, bear the consequences of their subsequent poor judgment. These heroes inconsistently lean on institutions (in the name of “law and order”) no matter how many times institutions fail to be the answer to anything (see: S.H.I.E.L.D.).

I love it when one of Rocket’s outbursts disrupts the plot or flow of a scene and the film just let’s him have it, leaves it be. He gets to be angry when he’s triggered. He gets to mourn when he’s sad. It warms my heart that Groot’s existence is inexplicable and yet so many viewers’ understanding of his warmth and kindness feels self-evident. It moves me that Thor’s intelligence is emotional, reflects an ability to openly love. It makes his instincts honest. There is no drama of ego when his loss of power prevents him from fighting the Destroyer. He prioritizes evacuating civilians and entrusts the containment of the enemy to his friends. It’s both telling and also hopeful that these non-human beings are somehow more in touch with their humanity than we earthlings often prove to be.