Universe Now: How The Marvel Cinematic Universe Changed Our World by Zarathustra' Serpent (Arad Alper)

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Universe Now is a book going over the events of the Marvel Cinematic Universe from Phase 1 to 3 and trying to get some socio-political meaning and significance behind its popularity. It was written and self-published by the youtuber Zaratthustra's Serpent during the lock-down period, after the Avengers: Endgame movie. ZS, is one of the few remaining "anti-sjw" liberal YouTubers who have not drifted to the right nor grifted to the left (cough Kraut and Tea, Amazing Atheist cough), at any rate he is the last one of that breed worth watching without feeling just like nothing more than a throwback.

The reason he is worth watching and his book is worth reading is because he has something which most "skeptics", "anti-theists", "anti-feminists" lacked and that is a sense of history. As a right-wing reactionary I still think it is a wrong sense of history but at any rate it is still there.

I was not impressed by the book cover, it looked a little bit too new-agey. It features a blue hand about snap its fingers on a water-coloury fireworks background. I imagine this was to represent the Thanos snap in front of a galaxy or universe. The book title "Universe Now" is not that memorable either. As for the sub-title "How The  MCU Changed Our World," my immediate reaction was to think that it had not really changed my world.

The book starts with ZS laying out his view, which I was familiar with since I had watched his videos, that the high culture of today was the pop culture of the past, implying that the MCU which is the pop culture of today might be considered to be high culture in the future. Some of my reactionary friends would probably agree with this prediction but I don't think they would consider it a good thing. ZS believes that when it comes to art there is no expert opinion like in specialised fields like medicine and so in effect the opinion of the many outweighs the opinion of the few. In my opinion, the opinion of the many is directed by a few, the question always is "which few" is it at that moment doing the directing. This isn't to say that the masses and mobs don't have their spontaneous bandwagons and witch-hunts.

It has become popular to hate the MCU, just like it was popular to hate the Twilight Saga. I did not hate the Twilight Saga at the time because I was not online or in the west, so I was unaware that it was hated so much (for being popular) until much later. Because of this I have come to regard much of the hatred against the MCU as just posturing. This isn't to say I like the MCU, I am just indifferent to it. It is not impressive to me but it is not horrible either by western pop culture standards.

As Zarathustra correctly points out in the most interesting early section of the book, the MCU brought elements of television tv series, such as an ongoing plot and story arcs spanning multiple movies, to cinema. The problem is that I had already seen this been done many decades earlier in Japanese anime and manga adaptations with less inconsistencies so it wasn't that impressive to me. I don't understand why it was that impressive to ZS either given that he had already seen it done in western TV, maybe it's just cause the cinema's screen is bigger.

I found the early parts where ZS talks about "the making of" and production side trivia of the MCU to be the most interesting and convincing part of the book. It helped me gain some appreciation of what went into making the MCU by ZS's decoupling of the creators behind the MCU from Marvel Entertainment's corporate front.

The sociological parts on the other hand, about what the MCU means for society, felt a bit too Peterson-esque head canon. Jordan Peterson's bible analysis videos where he carves out secular self-help guru messages always felt theologically questionable and a distraction from the transcendent by explaining the "meaning" all away. By "head canon" I mean extracting meanings from the text which are not obviously there but which cannot be conclusively proven not to be there either.

It's not as bad as Peterson here and there is some merit to the parallels ZS likes to draw like when he likens the Thor movies to an allegory about western Europeans coming to terms with their imperialist past. But the problem that I have here as I had with Peterson, is that you don't really need the text to make any of these points. Nor do I need the text to reject any of these points. It's almost like the text gets in the way of the message being told, if anything. It's like the text is being awkwardly used as a trampoline for a message it may or may not have been meant to convey, or a very, very simple message. For example ZS might say that Captain America is supposed to show the kind of healthy nationalism necessary for our nation, but somebody else more cynical might say that they are just throwing in a bone there to superficially placate the patriotic faction in the audience.

There is a youtuber called Black Pilled, who makes hollywood film analysis videos which argue that every film classic was a piece of subversion every step of the way because of this or that message which though not immediately obvious, you need someone with an eye for it, like Black Pilled, to point it out for you. Black Pilled may be right about the subversion or he may be wrong but I was rarely ever  truly convinced. Maybe I could agree that hollywood has served in subverting western civilisation with liberalism and wokeism and whatnot but whether this or that specific example in a film was really an instance of subversion or not, it was not immediately clear to me.

ZS is kind of doing the inverse of Black Pilled, arguing that the MCU films provided a less toxic place, a less subverted environment to disentangle and overcome the divisions which seem implacable in our own universe. The answer which he comes up is that we don't know how good we have it cause we haven't had to live under a real authoritarian regime so we better defend western liberal democracy. Regardless of whether you agree with this message or not, would this interpretation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have come to your mind had someone not told you about it? It would not have come to my mind at least. Sure the MCU is vaguely pro-western, nazis are bad, megalomaniacs are bad etc... And sure if you asked the creators of the MCU they would say they are in favour of western democracy but I was not sold that this was really the message. Sure it was a celebration of western culture, not many places other than hollywood and outside the west can make special effects that look as good, etc...

I have not watched most of what the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, and I have no intention to either after reading this book. ZS colourfully retells the story of each films he analyses, and I kind of read it wanting to know what will happen next. If anything I am convinced that if there was anything of any value to be absorbed from the MCU I have already received it by reading his book.

Maybe I should explain what I mean by  "a lack of a sense of history" in modern pop culture like the MCU. Obviously fiction is not actual history, science fiction in particular, unless it is a fantasy setting like Star Wars, has a tendency of feeling outdated and narrowly sometimes to the degree of scaremongering ("oh no the robots are taking over") be concerned with current issues which soon become dated. ZS narrowly avoids this pitfall in his analysis by placing the MCU in a wider historical narrative about pop culture going back to the 18th or at most the 17th century, that is the length of this memory of history but on closer inspection it is just based in the 20th century and the earlier stuff is just a preamble to that.

I must confess that I have never liked superhero stories that much because the main characters are effectively celebrities in their universe, and as Zarathustra points out, in this day and age people do not look to celebrities for social commentary but rather to e-celebs like Mr Zarathustra himself who feel more like "/ourguy/", as in "one of us," rather than "one of them" with their over-polished, creepily-faux-familiar ADHD-riddled script and video editing.

Despite Zarathustra's efforts to characterize the MCU as essentially democratic because it is "popular culture", it still is not really folk culture. The direction of culture is still from the top to the bottom, essentially undemocratic. I cannot expect to reach out to the creators of the MCU, and expect them to respond to me as readily as Zarathustra would, and yet I have enjoyed myself and learned a lot more watching Zarathustra's videos than by watching any MCU movie.

Obviously a lot of work has gone behind this book, it is 300 pages long and goes so many movies, in fact I wouldn't be surprised if because of this he neglected his youtube channel, if that is the case then it was a mistake, at least in the short to medium term because obviously youtube has a larger reach than books these days - because youtube is free. Then again books have a higher longevity, and despite what Zarathustra might sometimes say, durability has value.