Movies, Comics, and the New Weird
Marvel’s and DC’s flirtations with The Unseen
Navigating the Bleeding Edge: Between the pages and on the screen, lines blur and overlap to create a world where science fiction, fantasy and horror meet.
I remember just over a decade ago, sitting in my basement lair, surfing YouTube videos for new music to write to, when I came across a link to a trailer for an upcoming film set in the Marvel universe. Initially I couldn’t bring myself to watch it; I’d been more disappointed by each successive X-Men film and had never been that big a fan of the main character, Iron Man. Still, 3 a.m. is a lonely time, and eventually I succumbed to temptation. The visuals kept my attention until the very end, where the opening bars of Black Sabbath’s Iron Man sold me. In the years since, while some movies have been better than others, I’ve never been outright displeased by any of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films [ 1 ].
Those of you who have been reading the series here might be saying, “Uh, I got why you referenced Neil Gaiman and Sandman, but what do the Avengers have to do with the New Weird?” Well to know what a thing is, you need to do more than look at its center. You also need to explore its outer edges, testing where one thing ends and another begins.
As British Discworld series author (and longtime friend of Neil Gaiman) Terry Pratchett once noted, the real world doesn’t like hard edges and the fictional one that exists in libraries doesn’t either. This, my friends, is where we start to sail to the very edges of the amorphous sea that is the New Weird, piecing together what is, what is not, and what is both and neither. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the greater printed Marvel Comics canon behind that universe, qualifies by any point-by-point examination of what makes New Weird. As an aside, I can hear DC fans clamoring “if Marvel is, DC is too!” I don’t disagree, but we’ll get to that later.
As we’ve mentioned before, the New Weird is comprised of fiction at the intersection of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror; often containing elements such as parallel universes, unreliable narration, and unstable realities, and frequently involving or focusing on existential crises. Let’s take each of those one at a time and see if the MCU qualifies.
Let’s start with that overlap of science fiction and fantasy. In that first Iron Man movie, we see some solid contemporary science fiction, as Tony Stark proceeds to put together a high-tech super suit. As the MCU moves forward, it seems to shy away from outright fantasy, as the entire pantheon of Norse gods is labeled “super high-tech aliens,” with what Arthur C. Clarke might have labeled “sufficiently advanced technology.”
While the MCU is at the downright runny end of the Mohs scale of science fiction hardness, up until recently it’s clearly been science fiction. Now and then the supernatural is hinted at, especially with things like the powers of the Infinity Stones and the beings that seek them, but every possible “supernatural” thing is explained as “science beyond our understanding.”
Then, quite suddenly, “‘Mister…’ ‘Doctor.’ ‘Mister Doctor.’ ‘It’s Strange.’ ‘Who am I to judge?’” Seriously, if I ever meet the person who wrote that line, I’m buying them an adult beverage or six. Anyhow, in Doctor Strange the MCU doesn’t just hint at the supernatural, it slams the viewer in the face with capital—M Magic. Strange himself tries to justify things as just a science he doesn’t understand yet, and the Ancient One slaps him upside the head with, “Yeah, no.” Stephen isn’t learning alien tech or being exposed to mutagens; he’s living the dream of every Cards Against Humanity player [ 2 ].
So along with the clear science fiction and the now-canon fantasy elements, there are also various horrific items slipped in, like the idea of waging a genocidal war then bringing home an enemy infant to raise as your own, or surviving a fatal plane crash only to find the world as you knew it has fundamentally died, or even being surgically altered without your consent (because it happened before you were of age to consent) so you can be used as a Mata Hari.
If more visceral or gory horror is your cuppa, there’s “beheading by hammer, then bathing in the juices,” “being crunched by an artificial singularity,” or “having your brain operated on to make you forget the horror of being brought back from the dead.” While these aren’t all key story points, the fact is all of them are canon and all of them are pretty darn horrific.
So, one way or another, we’ve got our three genres represented. In terms of plot devices, parallel realities didn’t show up as such until Doctor Strange, but they certainly make an entrance in a big way there. They were hinted at in Thor: Dark World, what with the places other than the universe where things that existed before the universe, but they weren’t really slammed in your face the way they were in Doctor Strange. Meanwhile, with Disney+ shows like WandaVision and especially Loki being thrown into the mix, parallel worlds are in full effect in the MCU at this point.
Unreliable narration is difficult to portray in a movie. Not impossible, as we’ve seen from flicks like Fight Club and Memento, but still tough. There are certainly spots where it’s used subtly, like Jessica Jones, Avengers: Age of Ultron, the way the Scarlet Witch uses her powers in WandaVision, and, well, not to put too fine a point on it, but any gorram time Loki is on the screen, but it’s not a big portion of the live action Marvel universe. On the other hand, it’s certainly seen use in the comics from which that live action universe sprang, so I’d say overall it’s a base that’s covered quite well, and that’s sidestepping entirely the fact that not every example of a genre has every trope associated with that genre.
Existence is Horror
Finally, we get to that core element of the New Weird genre, the cornerstone upon which everything else rests: existential horror. I know some of you are saying “c’mon, those things you listed above are pretty weak sauce, horror-wise,” but hear me out. Existential horror isn’t based on being squicked or scared, per se. It’s based around the creeping dread that you, or the reality you perceive which by extension includes you, either do not exist or, more commonly, exist in an incredibly different fashion than the one you have subconscious faith in. For example, most of us believe we live in a corporeal reality, where we can minimize risk and maximize our chances of “success,” however we define that word.
If we are instead living in some variant on The Matrix, if everything we perceive is just a coded simulation; the coders could change the programming at any given moment, or someone could pull the plug on the hardware running the simulation. In both cases, reality itself would cease to exist, either as we know it or entirely; and there is no way we could even know of the risk beforehand. In fact, if the programmers were subtle, we might never know our reality was altered.
Now, while “reality is a simulation” comics are uncommon, especially since the Matrix movies, beings which can warp reality by force of will are more common than anyone would care to admit. Whether it’s the ability to change fundamentals of reality like the Infinity Stones [ 3 ], massive telekinesis with ridiculously fine granularity like Phoenix, or plain vanilla “reality does what I want it to” like Franklin Richards [ 4 ], the number of people who can rewrite reality as thoroughly as any programmer might alter The Matrix abound in comics.
We don’t need to give someone the power to rewrite reality to provide existential dread. That much power, by its very definition, defies suspension of disbelief. A reader can’t really envision it, so the dread coming from it isn’t as potent. If we go smaller, on the other hand, the dread can really set in, although it may wind up being a bit of “fridge dread.” Fridge Dread, of course, being the dread that slowly overtakes you as Fridge Logic tries to parse the media you’ve just consumed and realizes you’re standing in front of MC Escher’s refrigerator.
Think of what it would mean if someone had the power to make you loyal to them. No puppet strings, no micromanaging your brain; just making you honestly believe that they are the most important thing in your world, that you are honest and true and good. Now we’re no longer in the realm of superheroes. There have been politicians, world leaders, and cult leaders who seemed to have the ability to make otherwise rational people do horrible things. Now imagine if someone had the ability to do that in such a way that knowledge of what they were doing had no relevance to your decision-making process. Alternately, think on a person who can convince another to do something against their own self-interest. We’re not even talking about charisma at the level of world leaders; con men the world over can do this.
Suddenly all your friends, your loyalties, your connections to other people, which for most of us are a big part of what makes us what we are, are called into question. Whether it’s Loki’s ability (via his magic spear, which I know contains the Mind Stone, but play along, please) to make someone unfailingly loyal, or the Purple Man’s ability to give someone a command and have it followed unflinchingly, these powers cut at the core of who we are. In a world where things like this exist, which is as noted not so far from our own, a person can never be sure if the thing they’re doing, the decisions they’re making, the ideas they have, are their own or the product of someone else’s meddling.
That said, I think I’ve made my point; while they’re obviously not at the core of the New Weird genre, the MCU, the DCEU, and the rest of the comic-based movies as well as the comics themselves have earned themselves a substantial sea within the amorphous ocean that is the New Weird genre. Now, I know some of you guys at this point are saying “but you didn’t really mention DC, and you didn’t go into detail on the comics!” To this, I reply “I’m writing an article, not an encyclopedia,” followed by “DC would earn its New Weird cred from Sandman alone, and for everything I mentioned in Marvel, DC certainly has analogues” [ 5 ]. Finally, I’ll point out that my area of expertise in this area of the ocean is the MCU; I read comics, but not as much as I once did, and I’ve not had time to catch up on the DCEU [ 6 ] as much as I’d like.
So Marvel and DC certainly each have their own little areas within the ocean we’re exploring. Obviously not every comic is going to be part of the New Weird, but as we’ve shown today, the New Weird can crop up in unexpected places. That’s just where we’ll keep going every episode, so for now head on back to your graphic novels with your eyes open a little wider for jabberwocky, and I’ll see you next time as we Navigate the Bleeding Edge.
- “Collectively known as ‘The Big Two,’ Marvel and DC have certainly left their carbon-footprint on the landscape of pop-culture.” Source – https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/rostovondon-russia-october-12-2019-hands-1528840094 nikkimeel on Shutterstock. (“ROSTOV-ON-DON / RUSSIA – October 12 2019:hands holding the iPhone with Marvel and DC comics logo on the screen. comics pagebackground.”)
- “Given the spread and influence upon generations of authors, who have in turn, come in-house to these firms and complicated their lore further, the symbiosis with bleeding-edge science fiction and the New Weird is self-evident.” Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/notebooks-comiccon-dortmund-1143684/ “Peggy_Marco” on Pixabay.
Having wandered through multiple careers, hobbies, and educational paths over five decades of life, Robert’s body of work has ranged from systems analysis, work a butcher, a baker, a professional educator, and published author. A regular speaker at PhilCon and other events, he’s been a force multiplier for community youth outreach. Steam-Funk Studios senior creative staff, his insights helped shape both The Unconventional and The Living Multiverse punctuated by his dry pronouncement, “Boom.”
- Marvel Cinematic Universe. (n.d.). Marvel. Retrieved July 18, 2021, from marvel.com/movies.
- Cards Against Humanity card image, “Being a mother*king sorcerer” in Mastrangeli, Tony. “Cards Against Humanity Review,” Board Game Quest, 18 Jun 2012. boardgamequest.com/cards-against-humanity/. Accessed 2 Nov 2020.
- Infinity Gems (The Stones) History, Owners & Powers. (n.d.). Marvel. Retrieved July 18, 2021, from marvel.com/items/infinity-gems.
- Franklin Richards in Comics Powers, Villains, History. (n.d.). Marvel. Retrieved July 18, 2021, from marvel.com/characters/franklin-richards/in-comics.
- Clough, Rob. “DC’s Sandman explained.” Looper, 6 Aug 2020. looper.com/234039/dcs-sandman-explained/. Accessed 2 Nov 2020.
- DC Movies. (n.d.). DC. Retrieved July 18, 2021, from dccomics.com/movies.