Michelangelo's Dream

The Old Master's drawings for a young friend are reunited at the Courtauld.

As an Italian, I found it an uplifting experience to hear Michelangelo Buonarroti's poems read, in his own language, at the exhibition "Michelangelo's Dream", recently opened at the Courtauld Gallery.

Love, beauty and artistic genius are on display in what the Telegraph has called a "curatorial and scholarly triumph". For the first time, Buonarroti's complex drawing Il sogno ("The Dream") is being shown alongside the so-called "presentation drawings", a series of highly refined works made between 1522 and 1533. The Old Master gave them as a token of friendship and love to the young and talented Roman nobleman Tommaso de' Cavalieri.

Vigorous, perfectly defined male nudes are created on paper with black or red chalk, breathing in a powerful life of their own. Drawing on classical sources, the artist shaped his own visions of ancient myths. The intention was probably both to instruct the young draftsman in the art of drawing (it is said that Tommaso spent hours looking at them with a magnifying glass) and to please him with unique works featuring moral teachings as well as explicit signs of his newborn infatuation.

Yet the show is not the "joyously gay love story" described in the Guardian's review. These drawings convey a subtle sense of melancholy, the same tormented and somehow suffering mood that Michelangelo delicately and vigorously expresses in his letters and poems, shown alongside the artworks. In one of his poems, Michaelangelo writes:

Or if fame or dreaming brings someone before my eyes

Or make him present in my heart, leaving behind

A burning trace I cannot describe -- perhaps it is this which draws

my heart to tears . . .

There is no trace, moreover, of a homosexual love story; at least not in the sense that we mean it. Despite the artist's attraction to the outstanding beauty and cultivated wit of the young Tommaso, the artist himself firmly remarks on the nature of his "chaste love".

Love and beauty were for Michelangelo an extraordinary mean of redemption, symbolising human aspiration towards the highest good. His contorted figures, caught in the perfection and thus the forceful sexual appeal of their forms, symbolise the struggle of the soul to free itself from matter. This is just the main theme of Il sogno, which the curator Stephanie Buck describes as "one of the finest drawings in the whole Renaissance".

Rather than expressions of his longing, Michelangelo's compositions are ideograms: they feature an unprecedented combination of superb draughtsmanship and overlapping psychological, mythological and philosophical meanings. Take the giant Tityus: cruelly grasped by the wide-winged vulture who is torturing him, he is not only a marvellous attractive struggling male nude but also the mythological embodiment of the terrible consequences of lust, the soul dragged down to the underworld. His extraordinarily balanced dialogue with the bird expresses the overpowering physical attraction of beauty.

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Marvel has moved past the post-credits teaser, and it's all the better for it

Individual stories are suddenly taking precedence over franchise building.

The lasting contribution of 2008’s Iron Man to contemporary cinema comes not from the content of the film itself, but in its Avengers-teasing post-credits scene featuring an eyepatch-sporting Samuel L. Jackson. While post-credits scenes were not invented by Marvel, their widespread adoption in other blockbusters is a testament to Marvel using them to titillate and frustrate.

Fast forward nine years and Marvel’s direction has significantly altered. Having moved to a three-film-a-year structure ahead of next year’s climactic Infinity War, their two releases this summer have featured less explicit connective tissue, using post-credits scenes that are, in typical Marvel fashion, self-reflexive and fun – but this time with no teases for films to come.

Where previous Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films have trailed characters donning superhero mantles, confrontations to come, or more light-hearted team ups, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 decided to lovingly poke fun at Marvel grandmaster Stan Lee, leaving him stranded on a godforsaken space rock in the outer reaches of the stars. Spider-Man: Meanwhile Homecoming targeted filmgoers who had stayed until the end in expectation of a tease, only to receive a Captain America educational video on the virtues of “patience”.

That isn’t to say that connective tissue isn’t there. Marvel seems to be pursuing world building not through post-credits stingers, but through plot and character. In the past, teasing how awful big bad Thanos is ahead of the Avengers battling him in Infinity War would have been done through a menacing post-credits scene, as in both Avengers films to date. Instead Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 uses character as a tool to explore the world at large.

Nebula’s seething rage is, rather than just a weak excuse for an antagonist’s arc, actually grounded in character, explaining to Sean Gunn’s loveable space pirate Kraglin that Thanos would pit his daughters, her and Gamora, against each other, and replace a part of her body with machine each time she failed – and she failed every time. It’s effective. Thanos’ menace is developed, and you feel sympathy for Nebula, something Marvel has historically failed to do well for its antagnoists. Her parting promise – to kill her father – not only foreshadows the events of Infinity War, but also hints at the conclusion of a fully formed arc for her character.

In the high-school-set Spider-Man: Homecoming, the stakes quite rightly feel smaller. The inexperienced wall-crawler gets his chance to save the day not with the galaxy at risk, but with an equipment shipment owned by Iron Man alter-ego and billionaire inventor Tony Stark hanging in the balance. While such a clear metaphor for widespread change in the MCU might be a little on the nose, the set-up is effective at plaing the film at street level while also hinting at overall changes to the structure of the universe.

Stark gifting Peter a new (and oh so shiny) suit is a key set piece at the end of the film, whereas in 2015's Ant-Man’s Hope Pym inheriting her mother’s own miniaturising suit it is relegated to a teaser. Peter’s decision to turn it down not only completes Peter’s transition past seeking the approval of Stark’s unwitting father figure, but it also leaves the Avengers in an as-yet unknown state, still fragmented and incomplete after the events of 2016’s Civil War. To anticipate Spider-Man joining the Avengers proper is to anticipate the forming of the team as a whole – keeping our collective breath held until we stump up for tickets to Infinity War.

With this happy marriage of the macro and the micro, individual stories are suddenly taking precedence in the MCU, rather than being lost in the rush to signpost the foundations for the next instalment in the franchise. It’s a refreshingly filmic approach, and one which is long overdue. To suggest that Marvel is hesitant to overinflate Infinity War too early is supported by their refusal to share the footage of the film screened to audiences at the D23 and San Diego Comic Con events in recent weeks. Instead, the limelight is staying firmly on this November’s Thor: Ragnarok, and next February’s Black Panther.

Stan Lee, at the end of his Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 post credits scene, cries, “I’ve got so many more stories to tell!”, a hopeful counterpoint to a weary Captain America asking “How many more of these are there?” at the end of Homecoming. With Disney having planned-out new MCU releases all the way into 2020, entries in the highest-grossing franchise of all time won’t slow any time soon. We can, at least, hope that they continue their recent trend of combining writerly craft with blockbuster bombast. While the resulting lack of gratuitousness in Marvel’s storytelling might frustrate in the short term, fans would do well to bear in mind Captain America’s call for patience.