Borderless Worlds, Imagined Places: Bending Time and Space in the MCU

Bending the reality of New York City in Dr. Strange (Derrickson, 2016)
[Ed. note: this post is part of a roundtable discussion on “Marvel Entertainment and the Urban Spaces of Superhero Authenticity.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

In Iron Man (Favreau, 2008), Tony Stark’s Point Dume mansion juts daringly out over the Pacific Ocean, as if stretching as far from New York City as one can get while still remaining within the contiguous United States. Yet New York City still looms large over Tony Stark’s development from self-centered warmonger to self-sacrificing superhero. As demonstrated in Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011) and Agent Carter (ABC, 2015-2016), Stark’s family roots are in Manhattan, and Iron Man 2 (Favreau 2010), both begins and ends with massive set pieces set in Flushing Meadows, Queens. Marvel’s The Avengers (Whedon, 2012) makes Tony’s migration to New York City and true superhero-dom complete, through both the unveiling of Stark Tower and Tony’s willing self-sacrifice in flying the missile through the Chitauri portal to outer space. The West Coast marks Tony Stark’s shift away from superhero life: womanizing, drunken violence at parties, and erratic behavior like nursing a hangover atop L.A.’s iconic Randy’s Donuts.  It is in New York City where Tony fully realizes his potential as a superhero, becomes part of a team, and also cements his mature, romantic relationship with Pepper Potts. While subsequent films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) pull Tony away from NYC, the fact remains that he reaches peak superhero there, thus reinforcing New York as an essential component of Tony Stark’s journey.

But what about other superheroes? From comics to television to film, the entire Marvel canon is vast. While most of Marvel’s popular characters are located in or nearby New York City, there are still numerous characters for whom NYC holds little to no importance. Particularly within Marvel’s film properties, not only does New York City not dominate as a setting, but also entirely new countries and worlds are invented, and characters manipulate time and space so that boundaries between places are erased. What does it mean when borders no longer matter, and imagined locations take the place of real locations? Superheroes have long been tied closely to U.S. nationalism, whether it is portraying Superman as the ultimate immigrant story or Captain America in his star-spangled costume, punching Nazis. Are borderless superheroes the way to be both American and global at the same time? Does Marvel move away from nationalistic concerns by attempting to position their characters not as bastions of American patriotism but literal universal citizens?

As I noted in my previous roundtable piece, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has begun to purposefully expand beyond not only New York City, but across and beyond the U.S. as well. Parts of Thor (Branagh, 2011) take place in Puente Antiguo, New Mexico, and its sequel’s Earth-bound action is located in London; Ant-Man (Reed, 2015) is set in San Francisco, California; and Dr. Strange (Derrickson, 2016) travels to Kathmandu, London, and Hong Kong. Brooklyn-boy Steve Rogers relocates to Washington D.C. in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo Bros., 2014), and by Captain America: Civil War (Russo Bros., 2016), he and his compatriots are globetrotting to locations like Lagos, London, Vienna, Bucharest, and Berlin. NYC, and Queens in particular, are utilized within the film, but the majority of the narrative takes place abroad.

Utilizing international settings has marketable appeal for global audiences; to open up the MCU and tamp down on the perceived American-ness of its product is to Marvel’s advantage. Marvel has paid particular attention to this since early in the franchise, shortening the first Captain America film to simply The First Avenger for release in countries like Russia and South Korea, and in Captain America: The Winter Soldier swapping out and replacing Captain America’s list of culturally relevant media texts and events to better suit the country of release.  Iron Man 3 (Black, 2013) went so far as to not only shoot parts of the film in Beijing, but to also feature popular Chinese actors in additional scenes in an extended cut of the film available only in China.

Targeted appeals to specific sectors of the global audience are only one facet of Marvel’s strategy to defray the traditional associations of the superhero genre with the United States. As in the comics, the MCU is limited neither to Earth-bound spaces or real locales. However, creating imagined places for film and television is far more complicated than doing the same within comics, demanding a degree of visual plausibility in world building that was more difficult to achieve on screen prior to the early 2000s. For the Thor films, eight of the Nine Realms of Norse mythology, particularly Asgard, needed to be created from scratch utilizing a blend of constructed sets and computer-generated imagery. Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014) takes place almost entirely in outer space. Even when set on Earth, the 14 feature films that currently make up the MCU canon re-draw boundaries of the global map to place fictional countries such as Sokovia and Wakanda within it. Realism here is found not by accurately reflecting the world according to maps, but by creating imagined locations that “feel real,” fitting seamlessly into both culture and geography.

Taking this a step further, borders matter little at all to characters like Thor, who can travel between worlds easily via the Bifrost, and Dr. Strange, who can bend space and time through the use of magic. As Vincent M. Gaines notes: “Despite the gaps between worlds, spanned by the Bifrost, Thor ultimately demonstrates connectivity. […] The images of Yggdrasil emphasize universalism, the importance of interconnection that has been highlighted by transnationalism between realms/nations.” 1Vincent M. Gaines, “Thor, God of Borders: Transnationalism and Celestial Connections in the Superhero Film.” in Superheroes on World Screens, eds. Rayna Denison and Rachel Mizsei-Ward (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2015), 51. As the MCU progresses, more and more characters and narratives enter these liminal spaces. When Thor and Malekith bounce between the Nine Realms in Thor: The Dark World (Taylor, 2013), borders are erased, one space merging with another. The motley crew of the Milano in Guardians of the Galaxy has no home apart from their ship as they constantly travel between planets. In Dr. Strange, The Ancient One and her students can open pathways that bring the farthest of places as close as a single step, and they can bend reality to their will. What’s more, in Ant-Man time and space cease to matter all together in the Quantum Realm.

The MCU often takes advantage of movement between spaces and imagined worlds rather than locking their characters into specific, U.S.-based locations like New York City. Entirely fictitious locations may lessen political ramifications and offer opportunities for international audiences to engage without necessarily factoring in issues like nationality. Likewise, the erasure of borders between countries and worlds make superheroes seem transnational, weakening ties to specific locales, particularly traditional associations with the United States. As the MCU barrels toward the two-part saga of Infinity War, 2As of this writing, Infinity War Part II is being re-named, but the new title has not yet been announced. which is expected to take place in outer space, it seems as if the urban authenticity of spaces like New York City are being traded in for the potential of global interconnectivity and the blank slate promise of entirely fictional places.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Vincent M. Gaines, “Thor, God of Borders: Transnationalism and Celestial Connections in the Superhero Film.” in Superheroes on World Screens, eds. Rayna Denison and Rachel Mizsei-Ward (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2015), 51.
2. As of this writing, Infinity War Part II is being re-named, but the new title has not yet been announced.

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