You were born. For billions of years, the universe existed and you were not alive. There were stars and lights and giant lizards and Romans and so on, but it all took place under a kind of invisible shroud, the blackness of non-experience. One day you will go back into that blackness, and it will be as if the universe had never existed. But you are alive now, in the early twenty-first century – and because of that fact, the human race will probably be extinct within the next thousand years.
This is called the Doomsday Argument, and frankly it makes a lot of sense. This subjectivity, this you-ness that you experience, could have come into the world at any point in human history. You could have been one of those Romans, but you weren’t. You were born in the middle of the greatest population explosion in human history. Two hundred years ago, the global population barely scraped a billion; it took nearly a century for that number to double. It’ll be eight billion soon. You were born in the time in which there were more people than ever before – and did you think this was a coincidence? You’re here now because now is the most likely time for you to be here. You’re here now because you’re not special.
The argument is a version of the German Tank Problem, which goes something like this. Millions of people are dying horribly in the Second World War, and in the middle of all this chaos you’ve managed to sneak a spy into a German tank factory – but they’re soon discovered, and manage to escape with their life having only taken one photo. A tank’s chassis, with the serial number 396. So: how many tanks are the Nazis producing? Keep in mind that the answer is crucial to the war effort. They might have only built four hundred tanks, and your spy happened to snap one of the last off the assembly line. Or maybe your spy caught one of the first, and the Germans are building millions of the things, tens of millions, enough tanks to drive into the English Channel, fill it up, and keep on driving, simply flattening everything from Dover to Durness. But in both cases, the probability is low. There’s only a 1% chance this tank is in the first or last 1% of tanks made. Without any other data, you have to assume that the one instance you’re aware of is probably somewhere around the middle of the distribution. So: eight hundred tanks total, give or take. This was a statistical method the Allies actually used, based on serial numbers from captured vehicles. After the war, when production figures from the Reichsministerium für Rüstung were analysed, the statistical method turned out to have been almost spookily accurate, far more so than the estimates given by ordinary intelligence. The nerds won. They always do.
You are a German tank. You were built by the Nazis to do evil in the world. The only data-point we have is that you are alive in the present day, and without anything else to work with, we have to assume that you were born vaguely in the middle of experiential history. Something like one hundred billion people have ever lived, so, once the dust clears and the final accounts are totted up, chances are there will have been around two hundred billion people to have lived and died on this miserable rock. But we’re still in the middle of a population explosion; we’re eating into that remaining one hundred billion faster than we’ve ever done before. The future of humanity will be much, much shorter than its past.
The simplest thing would be to kill you. Yes, I know, you didn’t ask for any of this – but the inevitable extinction of humanity is still entirely your fault, and it would still be pretty satisfying to make you suffer for it. But it’s too late now, your damage is already done. You doomed us all the moment you entered the world. The only thing you can really do is make sure that the life you’re living is worth the mass extinction it’s caused. It’s an impossible task, but you can try. Except you’re not even trying, are you? Life is short, and finite, and Avengers: Endgame is three goddamn hours long, and you watched it. You paid money to sit in a darkened room and eat popcorn and drink Coca-Cola while you watched Captain America travel into the past to knock himself unconscious and leer at his own ass, as if he’s about to pull down his own trousers and start fucking it. And now you’re reading a review of the same film, and every second that passes is lost forever. What the hell is wrong with you? How can you bear to look at yourself in the mirror? How do you sleep at night? Aren’t you ashamed of what you’ve done?
* * *
Look: I don’t understand the world, and even as a cultural critic, I’m ok with that. I don’t know why kids keep saying things like ‘yeet’ and ‘mood.’ I’m fine not knowing. The answer will end up being something horrible, mass lead poisoning maybe; I don’t want to find out. I don’t know why I’m haunted by intermittent intrusive visions of someone taking a disposable razor, sticking it in their mouth, and ‘shaving’ their gums. I don’t know why Americans who claim to be socialists are putting so much demented effort into opposing a less monstrous and cruel healthcare system. And I don’t really understand why people like the Avengers films; I have a theory, but I don’t really ‘get’ it. This is also fine. Not everyone will like the same things I like; it would be a terrible world if they did. What bothers me is the fact that the last two Avengers films also received near-universal critical acclaim, from people whose sole task on this earth it is to watch films and discern the good ones from the bad. These same people are basically united in the opinion that the DC comic book films are stupid, portentous, and ungainly, that their plots make no sense, that they keep hamfistedly telling us to care about fundamentally hollow characters, and that their over-long and terrifyingly expensive action sequences resolve into noisy tedium. But they like these ones. Why? What is it that’s crawled into their brains? Is there any way of getting it out again, or will we just have to line up every overgrown fanboy in every pivoted-to-online legacy publication in front of a ditch, and do what must be done?
These films are terrible. They’re not just bad in comparison to Tarkovsky or Bergman, bad in the way that all commmodity-culture is fundamentally bad. They’re bad as dumb action films. They fail to even meet the requirements of the genre. You are being pandered to and patronised. Why do you not want revenge?
In a New Yorker review, Richard Brody proposes that Avengers: Endgame could have been better if it spent more time delving into the characters and their emotions, if it dealt more seriously with the theme of loss. This is a terrible idea; he wants to turn the film with a giant blue alien into another tedious Hampstead novel. Instead, imagine taking a moderately bright and imaginative twelve-year-old boy and telling him you have a basically infinite budget to produce two films, which you want him to write. The films have to concern the Plot Emeralds, which were created alongside the universe itself, and contain the terrifying potencies of its six aspects: Space, Time, Mind, Soul, Reality, and Power. In the first film, a big purple villain manages to acquire all six IndecipheraBalls, and uses them to commit an act of cataclysmic evil. In the second, the bedraggled heroes band together and travel back in time to get the Sempiternal Zirconias back, and undo the damage he’s done. What kind of story would a twelve-year-old write? Probably, at a guess, one in which the narrative potential of these Chaos Crystals is actually explored. Space is spliced, cloned, distorted: the universe folds into terrifying new shapes, organic monstrosities unfurl from inorganic matter, the stars are dandruff, pebbles are planets, everything is a distortion of everything else. Time twists into loops and paradoxes; laser battles in medieval castles, Stone Age shamans hurling spears between distant suns. In the chaos, inert objects are ensouled and living creatures become mindless automatons; dreams blur with reality, unreal logics are set loose on the world, and our heroes have to battle in a universe turned to vapour. For all the inevitable high-concept manoeuvres, it would probably be quite dumb. But at least it would be fun.
This is not what we get. The stones are barely used in either film. In the first, Thanos attaches them to a big glove and snaps his fingers: half of all living creatures suddenly die. In the second, the Hulk does the exact same thing, and everyone who died comes back. That’s basically it. What a waste! The real focus is always on the crossover aspect, the fact that every character from every Marvel film is here, together. Instead of the creative potentials of a twelve-year-old, these films are pitched towards the level of someone of around six. A child playing with the tie-in action figures, recombining the characters: what if Iron Man met Nebula? What if Star Lord teamed up with Thor? If the Bog-Hole fought Pencil-Guy, who would win? Five and a half cumulative hours of a media franchise showing us its various copyright properties, all in their original packaging. Let me be mawkish and hysterical for a moment. Is this the kind of imaginative model we want to pass on to our children? Are these the dreams we want them to dream? Is this sordid petty rearrangement all that they have left?
Superhero narratives have a fairly obvious social role. People are boring and frustrated; they’d like to be more than they are, but everyone is still somehow less than themselves. You can feel your existence fraying away at its fringes. Whatever life should have been, it isn’t this: not plasterboard bureaucracies staffed by people with irritating vocal tics; not slow-withering marriages, hair falling out, cartilage wearing thin, dreams unfulfilled, places unseen, books unwritten and unread; not Netflix automatically queuing up the next episode; not this couch, this rough fabric, this laundry, this potted plant, this foetid darkness of 11.26 pm on a Saturday night, this screen, this single life in a planet of seven billion lives, this life that will not be remembered, that will vanish without a trace into the ooze of unbeing, that will end having gone unlived, full of regret, emptying its nothing into the nothing that ever was and shall ever be. But this is what you get. So you have superheroes, people who live in the not-this. They can fly: where would you go, if you could fly? They can turn invisible or stop time: what hideous crimes would you commit, if you could turn invisible or stop time? They can beat anyone in a fight: how would you live, if you weren’t so afraid? And they have secret identities, because this freedom could belong to anyone, maybe even you.
The social function of a superhero story is to work through all these possibilities, to leave the audience with some of the libidinal payoffs that come with a brief excursion to the not-this, exhausted but satisfied, ready to go back to work. In Minima Moralia, Adorno complains that under conditions of domination, happiness is reduced to tawdry pleasure: one ‘has no choice but to find inspiration in the trashy film, the expensive but bad meal at the French restaurant, the serious “drink” and sexuality reduced to doses of “sex.”‘ The classic superhero story stands in the same relation to actual liberation as sex does to sexuality. But clearly, we’re no longer in that era. It’s got much, much worse. Another layer of ersatzification has formed over our enjoyments. That vague sense of the not-this has been hardened and crystallised into the hermetic detachability of a cinematic universe, in the same way that the vastness of love and sexuality became the healthy energetic pleasures of sex, and then contracted further into porn: rigid and isolated, infinitely distant from the actual act. The vision of another existence no longer needs to explore the unfolding of human potentials. It can just as easily be maintained in their annihilation. After all, these characters are dealing with the fundamental forces of the universe, but they’re absurdly under-powered. One of them is a superhero by dint of being good at archery. Not that it matters. A made-up world where meaningless heroes fight meaningless monsters with meaningless names.
It works. You love it. It takes you out of yourself for a moment. It’s like you’re already dead.
* * *
Thanos is a Malthusian, but he doesn’t appear to have any books on his big spaceship of doom, so we’ll have to assume that he’s never actually read Malthus. This has to be the case, otherwise he would never have thought that exterminating one-half of the living population of the universe would make things any better. Too many people, he says, not enough to go round – but he’s forgotten that the number of people will still continue to grow, and it’ll grow faster if there are more resources available. So he snaps his fingers, and returns the Earth’s population to what it was in the year 1973, when we had no problems whatsoever.
1973, as it happens, was the year of the economic crisis that put an end to the era of social-democratic expansion in the First World. In its wake, we got the beginnings of neoliberalism, the financialisation of the economy, the replacement of common ownership with cheap credit. This new system met its own major crisis with the economic collapse of 2008. That was also the year that Iron Man, the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was released.
And this is supposed to be a coincidence?
* * *
It’s maybe not entirely true that there’s no element of wish-fulfilment fantasy in Avengers: Endgame. The heroes don’t maintain secret identities while performing exhilarating feats in their spare time, but they do go back into the past, correct their mistakes, and resurrect the loved ones that they’ve lost. This fantasy has a decent pedigree, right back to Gilgamesh and Orpheus. And I get it: when tragedy has struck in my own life, there’s always been an irrational part of my mind that’s told me this isn’t real, you can go back, you can undo it all. I’d like to undo it all. I’d like to go back and tell that first cell not to split, avoid all the trauma of differentiation, let life in its entirety persist in a singular eternal prokaryotic bliss. It can’t be done, which is why I’m a melancholic, constantly splitting and doubling my ego, introducing new traumas and breaks, to preserve all the objects that were lost. But it’s nice to see someone manage to do it onscreen.
Except – what is this underworld that we enter to resurrect the dead? Here, it’s the past, but a specific past: they go back into the previous Avengers films. We get to see the big scaly monsters from the first instalment invade New York again, only this time our heroes are standing around wryly commenting on the action, rather than participating in it. We’re watching Thor again, and the first moments of Guardians of the Galaxy. The stakes have vanished; it’s been doubled into farce. And this is happening everywhere. Sequels and reboots aren’t enough; now the Hollywood nostalgia-machine is umping out simple recapitulation, serving up the exact same warmed-over pap that we’ve already seen. One of the new Star Wars films overlaps directly with the first trilogy, with the help of a CGI Carrie Fisher. A decent chunk of 2015’s Terminator Genisys takes place within the action of the 1984 original. In Jurassic World, one of the more interesting examples, the sequel itself appears within the film as a ravenous and unholy monster cooked up by mercurial executives, which tramples all over Spielberg’s legacy before finally being taken down by the iconic tyrannosaur. What is going on?
Theory is comfortable with self-reference, but this is something else. The classical poststructuralist metaphysics of inscription constrains its institution of difference within a horizon of ineradicability. Writing institutes a relation to death precisely because, unlike the vocal utterance, it survives its author, whose death and absence ‘belongs to the structure of all writing.’ Omar Khayyam had it: ‘The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on; nor all thy piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.’ In Derrida, writing is figured as a negative space, a break or chasm in matter: track or footprint, chisel to stone, fissuring neurones. It is also indifferent to its substrate; without writing, the lithographic ‘slate’ is in a state of ‘virginity’ – but further, writing must ‘produce the space and materiality of the sheet itself.’ This notion is articulated in his essay Freud and the Scene of Writing, itself a reading of Freud’s Notiz über den Wunderblock. Here he compares the function of the perceptual system to a children’s toy, the Mystic Writing Pad, consisting of a clear plastic sheet pressed against a block of wax. By making marks with a stylus on the plastic sheet, you can record words and images; lift the sheet away, and the surface is cleared. But even though these traces are no longer visible, they are retained, imperceptibly, within the wax. The analogy is not perfect: Freud notes that to function like the mind, it would have to be possible for the wax to recall and make use of marks that had already been withdrawn from the surface, to bring them back again after they’d been erased. ‘It would be a mystic pad indeed if it could accomplish that.’ Here, in the twenty-first century, we can recognise what he’d done. In 1925, Sigmund Freud invented the computer.
You are reading this review of Avengers: Endgame sequentially, from the beginning to the end, maybe skipping over the boring bits, maybe giving up halfway through, but treating it as what it is: a written block of linear time. But I wrote it on a computer, and as I wrote it I continually went back, changing things, fixing things, dipping in and out of linear time at will – because I badly need an editor, but I’m doing my best. In Paper Machine, Derrida gives some thought to the potentials of word processing. ‘With the computer, everything is rapid and so easy; you get to thinking that you can go on revising forever.’ But the operative word here is rapid: throughout, he conceives of digital writing as an acceleration of existing processes. Before the computer, actions were ‘slow, heavy, and sometimes off-putting,’ now, ‘the word processor saves an amazing amount of time.’ It’s ‘a question of speed and rhythm,’ differing velocities on the same course. But digital text abolishes the sequential ‘now’ of writing; there is no speed and there is no course, only an endless folding and complication, potentially interminable revisions, a text that is endlessly going back and fixing itself, reanimating its own corpse.
The desire to bring back the dead, to re-present the impressions that have been wiped clean – this isn’t Orpheus, because Orpheus had to go elsewhere, into the underworld, into the future, to smooth over the gaps in the world. In Avengers: Endgame, the journey is into the past, into itself, into the existing body of text, pulling out a section, pasting it into the roving present. It’s the dream the computers have dreamed for us. And this dream is incapable of computing finality. (Even after I publish this review, if I find a typo I can stick my hands back into the thing and fix it.) But the world itself is only a final and oncoming horizon. Is it any wonder, then, that we seem to be so incapable of dealing with something like climate change, stuck in our endlessly editable fantasia? Is it any wonder that you’re wasting your life watching Avengers: Endgame and reading reviews of Avengers: Endgame, even while the circle of light that surrounds you is narrowing, and the blackness tightens closer to crush you through your skin?
At a showing of Avengers: Endgame in Fullerton, California, an entire film-going audience was unwittingly exposed to measles. The measles virus, of course, works by sticking its glycoproteins into a host cell, and editing the cell’s DNA to produce more viruses. It causes around one hundred thousand deaths a year. More meat for the past; a slow swelling in the ranks of the one hundred billion who brought us here, to this moment, to this film, to you. Can you really pretend that it isn’t your fault?