Update on March 12, 2018:
James Gunn weighed in on this problem a few weeks ago in a Twitter exchange.
This answer to the problem isn’t ideal, but it at least acknowledges that people throughout the universe do, in fact, speak different languages. I don’t think that the idea of the Guardians having universal translators completely solves the problem, but it at least does enough to allow me to suspend my disbelief.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has a language problem.
Let me preface this by saying two things:
First, if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like to think about movies, if you’re the kind of person says, “But it’s just entertainment!” or “It’s just a movie!” or “You think too much!”––well, this post isn’t directed at you. You might as well move on to the next blog.
Second, this is not in any way an attack on the MCU. I LOVE the MCU. If I’m going to spend my increasingly-rare free time on a movie, nine times out of ten it’s going to be a Marvel movie. I’ve seen every MCU movie opening night since The Avengers. I was there for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 opening night in IMAX, and I loved it.
But it’s true: the MCU has a language problem. Up until now, it’s been a problem that we could basically ignore, but I’m afraid that Avengers: Infinity War (and the fact that the MCU is about to become more cosmic) will make the problem nearly impossible to ignore. The problem is this: apparently everybody in the MCU who doesn’t live on Earth––the Asgardians, the Jotuns, the Kree, the Xandarians, Thanos, Ego the Living Planet, the Collector, and all of the many races that we meet in Guardians of the Galaxy––speaks English.
The problem first comes up in Thor when the God of Thunder gets cast out of Asgard and
arrives on Earth speaking English. Now, at that point it was easy to say, “Well, he’s a god, so we can at least imagine any number of reasons why this would work.” Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. offered a good solution to the problem when Sif explained that Asgardians learn the languages of many different races and species in their childhood education. This idea isn’t perfect, but at least it offers a potential solution to the problem (even if it is delivered in a throwaway line on television and not in a movie).
Since Thor, it hasn’t been difficult to suspend disbelief because the Asgardians are gods and because of Sif’s explanation in AoS. But the language became more of a problem when Guardians of the Galaxy brought a Terran (Earthling) into space and dramatically expanded the number of races and civilizations in the MCU.
Re-watch the first Guardians of the Galaxy and ask yourself what language everyone is speaking. Whatever they’re speaking, it’s apparently a single language. Quill, the Xandarians, the people who live on Knowhere, the Kree, the Ravagers, Rocket, Drax––they all understand each other. What language are they using? It sounds to us like English, but that doesn’t mean that it has to be English. It could just be some alien language that gets translated for us (in the same way that foreign languages get translated for English audiences in any number of movies).
But why in the world would races and civilizations spread out across a galaxy all speak the same language? One answer is that whatever they’re speaking, it’s a kind of Common Tongue. We see this sort of thing in other fictional universes. The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and A Song of Ice and Fire all have languages that allow people who speak diverse languages to communicate. Maybe that’s what we see spoken in Guardians.
But Peter’s music cassettes complicate this question. When we hear “Hooked on a Feelin'” in that movie, are we hearing English alongside whatever this Common Language is that everyone speaks? Does that mean that in the sequel, when an alien character sings or speaks the lyrics of an earth song (Ego does this as well as one of the Ravagers), we’re hearing English spoken by someone who speaks this Common Language (just as I might recite the words to a French song while otherwise speaking English)? You could reason that Ego, as a Celestial, can understand all languages, but that explanation doesn’t apply to the Ravager.
Up until now, it’s been fairly easy to suspend disbelief because the cosmic side of the MCU has had little interaction with the mundane side of it. But that’s about to change with Avengers: Infinity War because that movie will presumably have the Guardians interact with the Avengers. When Tony Stark meets Rocket Raccoon, will they be able to speak to each other? If so, why? Will Rocket be speaking English? Has Quill given all the Guardians English tutoring in case they visit Earth or run into Terrans for the first time? Or is everybody in the galaxy except for humans smart enough to know all the languages in the galaxy?
There are possible solutions to this problem, but if if Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 is any indication, the odds are that the Powers that Be at Marvel Studios are just going to ignore it altogether. Tony and Rocket will probably meet and inexplicably be able to communicate––not only in the same language, but using the same sorts of slang and idioms, as well.
If any of you “But it’s just entertainment!” people are still reading at this point and you’re saying that stories about superheroes don’t have to be logically explicable, here’s my answer:
Yes, the MCU is fantastical and speculative. Yes, it has given us a sentient tree and a man in a flying iron suit and a guy who turns in to an Enormous Green Rage Monster. But it has also tried to give us those crazy characters in a believable way. The best example of this is Ant-Man, who wears a mask and a rebreather because if a man really were to shrink down to the size of an ant, he wouldn’t be able to breathe without oxygen molecules that had been shrunk with him.
After Winter Soldier and Civil War (which I consider the finest superhero films ever made), I trust the Russos to deliver a truly great film next year. I just hope that instead of pretending that the MCU’s language problem doesn’t exist, they find an interesting and creative solution to it. The story will be much richer and even more enjoyable if they do.