Infinity Stones, Loki (not to be confused with Low-Key), #WakandaForever – if these terms go over your head you’re not alone.
This Friday a feat rarely matched in popular culture will come to pass: a film that brings EIGHTEEN films together over a span of 10 years. Have you been a part of it? If you’re an educator, you should be.
No, really. If you’re teaching stuff to students, you need to watch the Marvel Movies.
Trust me, I’m not an action movie fan. I thought the worst part of Batman vs. Superman was the Batmobile car chase, and I liked the parts with Congress (although they did politics better in Captain America: Civil War). But the Marvel Movie Universe is being widely consumed in our culture, is generally significant and in our media, and really does have literary merit that should be discussed – outside of (and within) the fights and explosions.
I realised not enough educators are talking about this film when I started to hear the reactions from many teens about Black Panther – “it was ok”. Clearly they don’t know how to read movies – and adults with a deeper understanding of cultural weight aren’t engaging with them.
In a generation that is rapidly decreasing its consumption of traditional literature, it is more important than ever that we infuse critical and textual literacy into our discussions of mass media – through all subjects.
As an educator, you DON’T want to be removed from the conversation everyone is having (in this case, the Infinity War Conversation), or you can’t educate into it. This goes for teens, but also your uncle or millennial sister-in-law or whoever is relevant.
I have three big reasons for Educators to watch marvel movies.
1. Critical Literacy
Media teachers all know that using a piece of culture of which students are familiar – like Disney Princesses, or Axe Body Spray – invites them into a conversation they can’t access with as much expertise if we start them off with a critique of, say, CNN. Marvel movies both serve as a “way in”, and as a teaching tool to avoid consuming media without applying literacy and critique. For example, if they thought Ant-Man and Thor – or even Iron Man and Iron Man 2 – were made at the same level of excellence, craftsmanship, aesthetic merit, attention to thematic significance, and writing, then they’re not “reading” movies well in general – and you can tease that out in the classroom.
My Superheroes Unit covers the following types of literacy:
Media literacy – differentiating text-types, implicit and explicit messaging,
Visual literacy—analyzing an image, video, text and image, comics (genre), film, graphic literacy
Cultural literacy –from where does popular culture arise? Cultural influences of media, media manipulation of culture; adaptation/appropriation
There is a deep cultural significance to Black Panther’s success, to a 19-film juggernaut series making us sit through 10 minutes of film credits every time (think of the job creation!), and to Thanos as a villain threatening the destruction of earth. We have kids in our classrooms for a short time – why not use that time to engage them critically and give them the tools to succeed as adults?
2. Cultural Critique
If you go back on the history of comics, heroes, and popular culture, each hero comes to us at a particular time as a reaction to something within the culture (a colleague taught me this while we were talking about movies). We know from the famous “Captain America punches Hitler” cover that “Cap” comes in at a time when America needs to get more active on the world stage (WWII had some bad dudes to stop). But the significance of superheroes to contemporary culture threads all the way through comic history. Wolverine was a grizzled war vet suffering from PTSD around IRL Vietnam vets coming home broken. The Dark Knight Returns – Frank Miller’s “gritty reboot” of Batman – came out in the midst of the Nuclear Freeze, Reaganomics, and the rise of the Yuppie. It begs the question(s): What world has made us long for Wakanda? What world has made us anxious that Thanos cannot be defeated by the good guys we’ve seen defeat bad guys for 10 years?
A few weeks ago a student sat beside me in the library, and said, “Hey- who do you think has the soul stone?” He thought it was Heimdall. And you know what? I was convinced. His level of analysis had me sold.
The joy of discussing fan theories and the state of culture aside, how can you understand your students’ depth of thought if you’re not participating in their thought world?
Engaging teens through fan theories and visual literacy (e.g. Heimdall’s eyes, powers, and the stones), engaging let-downs and critiques and reconciling them with film, cultural, and literary history – wishing for literary, thematic, and symbolic cohesion – and engaging with the WHY – (Fan Theories are all trying to make a narrative make sense)- show a high level of literacy, which we can’t see if we’re not a part of the conversation. And we can’t challenge it, either.
3. Cultural Narrative and Participation
There is a lot of discussion about whether we should still read Hamlet in English class. The answer is: Of course – the reason? Cultural participation, shared understanding, and influence. Also, if you teach it well, students (even ones who “don’t read”) will like it. But it’s a useless exercise you don’t extend Hamlet to the culture it has influenced.
We need Hamlet in our English and Media Studies classes just as we need Elsa, Star Wars, and Black Panther – and for similar reasons. But we also need all educators not to dismiss their significance.
When WHATEVER BAD HAPPENS IN INFINITY WAR – happens, you’ll want to be able to engage with your students about the near-apocalypse that is contemporary time giving us Thanos – a villain who can destroy worlds with his fist, and utterly crumble the superheroes that we’ve spent 10 years watching save the world (or galaxy). But we also want to connect these major cultural events to the past in literature and life. What makes sense? What doesn’t? What has led to this point?
There’s also a discussion about artistry to be had. Take director Taika Waititi – what similarities can we draw between his film The Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Thor: Ragnarok (which is about more than you might think).
There have been countless examples of contemporary Shakespearean influencers and media critics comparing the Marvel Universe to the Bard. So if you’re looking for something with weight to ground your teaching, or if you’re looking for something with which to critique culture, or if you’re just looking to teach tropes, inversions of tropes, the Hero’s Journey, thematic significance, a number of literary theories, or … well… almost anything … (Science and Science fiction, Math, History?) then try out Marvel.
And if you just want to be able to engage with your students (and possibly enjoy Avengers Infinity War) I’ve included a list of Marvel movies you should catch up on.
WHAT YOU SHOULD WATCH TO CATCH UP
For the infinity stones, and for the significance.
- *Captain America: The First Avenger
- Iron Man –
- $ Thor
- $ The Avengers
- $ Captain America: The Winter Soldier –
- * Thor: The Dark World –
- $ Guardians of the Galaxy
- The Avengers: Age of Ultron
- Captain America, Civil War –
- *Doctor Strange
- *Guardians of the Galaxy 2
- $ Thor: Ragnarok
- $ Black Panther
* if it’s not the greatest movie but it’s important to the narrative
$ if it’s a really great movie
– if you could cut out watching it to save time (but, like, you shouldn’t, cuz culture).
note: Spider-Man Homecoming is really great, and watch it for itself…but not for Infinity War.
Disagree? Need resources? Let me know in the comments!