The Marvel Cinematic Universe and Tolstoy’s Philosophy of History
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a massive project, spanning multiple TV shows and a dozen films. Its scope includes the streets of New York and extends to the far reaches of the galaxy. Many superpowered characters live somewhere in there, all leading their own individual lives. But through these individual stories, a greater arc has emerged that aims to eventually involve every character introduced thus far.
Needless to say, this is a remarkably ambitious way to tell a story, one never before attempted on film.
Yet the basic guidelines for structuring a story told on such a scale have already been laid out in a perhaps unexpected place:
Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
The central conflict of War and Peace is Napoleon’s impending invasion of Russia, but the novel begins as a small story about several separate, wealthy Russian families — all of whom are leading normal lives focused on raising their children, managing managing their estates, and attending social events.
As time passes in the story, however, all three families are drawn into the war, either sending sons to fight or fleeing their homes when Napoleon reaches Moscow. And by paying as much attention to his characters as he does the historical record of the invasion, Tolstoy is able to both expand and demonstrate his personal philosophy of the nature of history, the same philosophy that gives the MCU its underlying structure.
Tolstoy’s philosophy of history is first and foremost a rejection of the “Great Man” theory that seeks to understand historical events simply by understanding the few men, the leaders of nations generally, who are in power when the events took place.
In the case of War and Peace, this means rejecting Napoleon as the all-encompassing will that led a half a million men to invade Russia and rejecting Tsar Alexander as the embodiment of the Russian force opposing him. In place of these men, Tolstoy substitutes the will of entire peoples. That is, Napoleon did not exert his will over the French people, but rather the will of the French people was aligned with Napoleon’s and only through this did he maintain his power.
As Tolstoy puts it,
We need only inquire into the essence of any historical event, that is, into the activity of the entire mass of people who took part in the event, to become convinced that the will of the historical hero not only does not guide the actions of the masses, but is itself constantly guided
This, by the way, is less controversial than it may sound; examples of this sort of thinking can be found as far back as Herodotus’ Histories, in which he states that Xerxes, the Persian emperor, was the least free man in all Persia, being bound by the wills of his people. But either way it leads to the question of how we are to understand the will of an entire people. Certainly this is a much harder task than understanding the wills of a few key players. Tolstoy even admits as much, but insists that despite the difficulties it is the only way to understand history that holds any truth.
Tolstoy’s solution, unfortunately, only makes the problem worse. If we are to understand the will of an entire people, and a people is the sum total of its individual citizens, then, Tolstoy argues, the only way to truly understand the will of a people is to understand each member of that people in their individual lives. He expresses this through an analogy to calculus wherein each person represents a single infinitesimal point and through integration form an area which is the true historical record.
As he puts it,
Only by admitting an infinitesimal unit for observation–a differential of history, that is, the uniform strivings of people–and attaining to the art of integrating them (taking the sums of these infinitesimal quantities) can we hope to comprehend the laws of history.
But let’s return to Marvel and apply this principle.
If the MCU were operating under the “Great Man” logic of Napoleon versus Alexander, then the whole interconnecting story that is building to the Infinity War would be told as the colossal struggle between Thanos and Nick Fury possibly, though perhaps Iron Man or Captain America better fit this role. But the lack of a central figure to oppose Thanos immediately shows the shortcoming of this sort of storytelling. Framing the story as a conflict between two individuals immediately places everyone else in the role of a supporting character and demands the thematic weight be carried by the two figureheads alone.
Instead, Marvel’s storytelling feels generous because every character has the chance to be a lead sometimes, even if their role is smaller in the grand scheme of things. Ant-Man’s story is not less compelling just because he will probably not be the one to deliver the killing blow to Thanos. Each character still has a perspective and philosophy worth exploring individually, even if it does not fit easily into a black and white, good and evil dichotomy.
This creates the crucial space for characters to be wrong or uncertain, and for the audience to feel the same way.
Andrei and Pierre argue over serious questions in War and Peace and often, it is not clear who is right. But more importantly, these questions rarely bear any relation to the impending war, which they naturally do not anticipate as it is only obvious to those with the benefit of hindsight. Were War and Peace written like other histories, these questions could not have a place in the story, as they do not address the ordained conclusion of the story in war. However, because it is simply a story of the lives of specific people who end up involved in this massive conflict, all these conversations have a place. These characters are living their lives first, and participating in history second. And it’s the exact same case for Marvel.
Take Guardians of the Galaxy as an example.
The heroes of that film, in retrospect, are surely playing a significant role in events that will have galactic ramifications, given that they came into possession of an Infinity Stone and directly thwarted Thanos’ attempt to acquire it. But the Guardians never realize this or the responsibility it places on them during the story. How could they? These are insights that can be made only once the story is over. In the midst of the action, Quill and his companions are simply acting, living their lives by their own values, not acting according to the inevitable necessity of a foregone conclusion. When we first meet these characters, almost all of them are “in the wrong,” and the last line of the movie — deciding between doing something good or something bad and settling on “a little of both” — cements them as morally dubious, a position made possible by them simultaneously being the leads in their own movie and supporting players in a larger story.
This simultaneity of roles is at the heart of how characters can exist as themselves and help to establish the greater trends that build up to shape history, both in War and Peace and in the MCU.
Marvel has received criticisms that most of their movies follow nearly identical structures, particularly those several that use the Infinity Stones as MacGuffins (The Avengers, Thor 2, Guardians, Avengers 2), but this is no mistake on the studio’s part. Instead, it is these repeated elements that create the sense that the story is building to something bigger. As Thor says in Avengers: Age of Ultron, “It is no coincidence that four Stones have appeared in only the last few years.” But, for all the similarity in basic plot structure, each film is balanced by enough character-specific elements that it feels like an adventure uniquely suited to them, one with ramifications and meaning that would be lost if another hero were swapped in.
These ramifications compound between phases, creating a status quo in Avengers 2 quite different from that in the first. Seeing how the characters have grown and their interactions have changed between the two films creates the sense of narrative development; not only are the specifics of the conflict different in the second movie, but the way the team goes about solving it are changed on a more fundamental level.
This is the MCU’s version of capturing the “spirit of a people,” of showing how the interests and values of various parties come to coalesce into movements of great importance. There may be differences in perspective between the different heroes, but they can be forced to unite those perspectives toward one end, though the full richness comes from appreciating each individually so that its unique qualities can be seen affecting the will of the group.
While it is somewhat true that each superhero constitutes their own “Great Man”, if we take War and Peace as an example of how to tell a story within this framework, Tolstoy is tacitly acknowledging the complete impossibility of his own idea.
All told, Napoleon’s Russian expedition involved the lives of nearly one million soldiers (counting both sides) and affected the lives of many, many more. Instead of attempting to address all of these people, Tolstoy focuses on six main characters. There are three families at the center of his story. To attempt a scope greater than that already becomes hopelessly convoluted. All three of these families — the Rostovs, the Bolkonskys, and the Bezukhovs — are very wealthy. All of the main characters are aristocrats, that is, they hold a position elevated enough to have a tangible effect on things. Tolstoy does not choose random serfs for his protagonists, he chooses characters who have had the means to develop themselves mentally and spiritually, who have meaningful interactions and lives, and whose actions and views can be taken as representative of more than themselves.
In this way, the MCU follows Tolstoy exactly. Superheroes are by definition aristocrats in that “aristos” come from the Greek αριστος, meaning “best.” In the sense that superheroes have abilities far beyond normal people, they are indeed the best, the greatest, generally ‘more than’. They have perspectives on power and knowledge and justice that a normal person simply does not. But at the same time their abilities only go so far. No hero in the MCU — barring The Vision — has godlike abilities or an influence beyond their immediate location in time and space. Marvel’s heroes operate on the same level as Tolstoy’s, with the means and motivation to move around and influence events, but without enough to ascend to the level of godlike ability of Thanos or Napoleon.
Tolstoy’s plan was the only option available to Marvel. With no assurance of their success, they started telling stories about their characters. And these stories could have gone many different ways. They chose a structure that leaves the future within their stories just as uncertain as theirs was in the real world.
Luckily the will of the people was aligned with theirs.
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