- Marvel Studios
It's a Monday morning, on Day Eleventy-Billion of working from home, and I've slipped down an Internet rabbit hole. Usually, such a thing would involve a subject leaving me angry—about politics, about society in general, etc. This time, it left me unable to hold back tears.
The cause was something that has been making the rounds on and off over the past several pandemic months, popping up as social media links: videos of people in movie theaters, watching the most crowd-pleasing moments of recent blockbusters, particularly 2019's Avengers: Endgame. I listened as people absolutely lost their minds when Captain America wielded Thor's hammer, or when Black Panther returned to life and emerged from a portal. It's not even the first time I'd seen one of these in the past year, and I'd likely characterize my previous response as, "Aw, that's great, someday again ..." But not this time. Gentle reader, I wept. And as I moved on to the next one, I wept some more.
This is fraught territory for a critic to step into, so it feels like a few caveats are in order. Because the Marvel Cinematic Universe is such a lightning rod for controversy—becoming central to every shouting match between the "let people like things" and "maybe let other kinds of movies get more cultural oxygen" contingents—it's hard to tiptoe through the DMZ of "there's good and bad." This is decidedly not a defense of superhero movies as the only kind of movie that justifies a return to the theatrical moviegoing experience. And come on now, movies that make billions of dollars don't really need anybody's defense.
It's also almost too obvious for a critic to cheerlead for movie theaters as the best way to watch movies. We've survived the past 12 months with creative innovations (like art-house virtual cinemas) and the relative ubiquity of streaming services, and those have been great ways to continue enjoying movies while not everyone felt safe returning to theaters. There is no one right place to watch a movie.
That said: A collective experience of watching a movie is just different. It's not always better-different, as anyone who has been frustrated by cell phone lights or crying babies can attest. But there are movie-going experiences that absolutely change the way a movie works. That's certainly the case for comedies; it's been hard to watch weird delights like Borat Subsequent Moviefilm and Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar over the past year, and not wonder what they might have felt like in a room full of a couple hundred other folks laughing hysterically.
And yes, it's true of stuff like Avengers: Endgame. The Marvel Cinematic Universe spent a decade building up affection for its characters, and the grand culmination of Endgame was exactly the kind of movie story that primed its audience to explode at all the right moments. The people who crafted those moments knew exactly what and where they would be. They were calculated as "applause breaks." But they worked—and they worked best because everyone there was sharing them.
Over the years, I've related anecdotes about my first real job as a teenager, working as a movie-theater usher in Central California circa 1984-1985. During my 18 months there, I'd figure out what scenes in certain movies were the ones that worked the crowd to perfection: the "crane kick" finale of The Karate Kid; Eddie Murphy popping up in the back of Taggart and Rosewood's car in Beverly Hills Cop; Sarah Connor emerging victorious in The Terminator; a tongue-kiss phone call in A Nightmare on Elm Street. I'd be sure to position myself at the back of the theater when those moments were about to happen, just so I could soak up the cheers, the laughter, the screams. It was intoxicating. I loved that movies could do that to people, and that those moments were heightened in the company of strangers, in the dark.
Maybe it was the chatter surrounding the Disney+ WandaVision series, or the arrival of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier this week, that reminded me how long it's been since those kinds of stories have been in theaters. Maybe it's the falling infection numbers and rising rate of vaccinations providing a sense of hope for relative normalcy being around the corner. Whatever the reason, I found myself crying as I realized how special those moments are, and how much I miss them. Unashamedly, I raise a glass to crowd-pleasers, anxiously anticipating the day when we remember how much the "crowd" part of that expression matters.