Began this months ago, before the Scorsese/Marvel kerfuffle. The disgust hasn’t worn off and I’m right as always, so I added everything after the first break and here you go. –wa.
The new slate of ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ fantasy and TV series was announced this summer at San Diego Comic-Con, an annual industrial trade show (i.e. advertisement). Thousands of fans attended a panel to see a series of logos pop up on a screen for just over an hour while the lead actors in each show looked happy to have Disney jobs.
When the MCU first spun up, I guessed that its target audience was a mix of middle-aged comics fans and their children. And the films were, to a degree now unfashionable to point out, naked nostalgia plays: their initial sales pitch was nothing more than ‘We finally have the FX capability and industrial integration to adapt the comics of your youth.’ Superseding the comics was the inevitable result (the goal) of the films’ commercial success, so it’s easy to forget that the Marvel movies are adaptations and remakes, each with more or less ‘creative vision’ coming from the writers/directors rather than the C-suite. They say no one has original ideas in Hollywood anymore, and Kevin Feige and Marvel had the (not unprecedented) gall to pass off their formulaic, derivative, repetitive films as ‘mythology,’ i.e. ‘Risk-free retreads and exploitations, but young people won’t notice and old people won’t care.’
The MCU was certainly an impressive endeavour — the press is happy to go along with this angle since there’s nothing to say about the films’ aesthetics — but it was and is, ultimately, little different from Game of Thrones: an international industrial-scale attempt to make yet more Streaming Video Content out of an existing, well-known Media Property. ‘See Iron Man come to life onscreen! Watch the ultimate battle with Thanos…in Technicolor! See King’s Landing buuuuuurn…in amazing 3-D!!’
It’s unfashionable to complain, just as it’s unfashionable to mention ‘the means of production.’
Ten years and 20+ films on, the Marvel films are buttons labeled PUSH TO MAKE MONEY, and the buttons themselves have a fandom — while the room at the trade show was full of the usual continuity nerds and starstruck obsessives, it’s certain that most viewers have never even heard of at least some of this upcoming batch of comics adaptations. (Shang-Chi? The Eternals?) There are young adults, now, who’ve been fans of the Marvel movies for half their lives; they feel nostalgia too, but it only goes back to the first Iron Man movie. It really is like that.
Those people — the New Believers, a large part of the target audience for the next slate of Marvel movies/TV shows — imprinted on the Marvel films early, and have come to understand them, along with Star Wars and perhaps the Harry Potter movies, as…how cinematic storytelling works. In other words, their formative cinematic experiences have been anxious attempts to Do Justice to the Source Material (big asterisk here for Rian Johnson’s iconoclastic/ironic The Last Jedi) while Updating the Demographics to appeal to a Modern Global Audience, i.e. without offending Chinese money.
‘Kids today’ think that ‘easter eggs’ hidden in frame are there for storytelling rather than advertising purposes; they see to it, with their Youtube search patterns, that looking on Google for ‘nameOfFilm scene’ will turn up fight scenes foremost. They’ve never known Hollywood as a laboratory for experimental storytelling. They know what to expect, they know ‘The Snap’ will be undone, they know characters die only when their actors’ contracts are up, if then.
(Would it be cynical to point out that the Comic-Con announcements read like a ‘Locating New Market Opportunities’ whitepaper? I wouldn’t dare — though cynicism is certainly in fashion, at least until the Chinese run the FCC.)
I was 20 years old during the perfect cinematic storm of 1998-99. Think about this.
1998: Run Lola Run, Dark City, There’s Something About Mary, The Big Lebowski, The Truman Show, The Thin Red Line, Out of Sight, Rushmore, Pleasantville, Babe, Bulworth, Shakespeare in Love, The Spanish Prisoner…
1999: Three Kings, Eyes Wide Shut, The Iron Giant, Office Space, The Matrix, American Beauty, The Blair Witch Project, Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, The Sixth Sense, Magnolia, The Talented Mr Ripley, 10 Things I Hate About You, The Straight Story, Galaxy Quest, Election, Dogma, The Limey, The Virgin Suicides…
Notice anything there? Of those 30+ films, just a third are adaptations (of ‘literature’) — and none of them are franchise pictures, though The Matrix would become one. What an outpouring of creativity, of artistic goddamn risk! In those days I was at the movie theater every week, because every week there was something new to try — and you didn’t have to work to find it.
What are the interesting American films of 2019 that anyone except devoted cineastes heard of? Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? Midsommar? The Lighthouse? Joker?
I’m not in touch with art cinema anymore. But 20 years ago you didn’t have to be.
The greatest trick Marvel — excuse me, Disney — ever pulled is convincing the world that turning ordinary superhero comics into ordinary action films is an aesthetic feat rather than a corporate-industrial one. The sad thing is that we’ve already seen what happens when a generation of kids grow up believing it — grow up, in other words, rooting for money. I work with loads of them at my day job (Greater Boston tech startup, yadda yadda). They have no idea that grownup films are possible anymore, precisely because capital has convinced them otherwise. And like all young people who grow up thinking age (‘uncool’) is an affliction, they don’t yet want to know. They will eventually, of course, but by then it won’t matter.
A sane culture would teach the value of artistic risk, rather than repeating contemptibly stupid mantras like ‘Everything is a remix.’ That was a big theme when I was in grad school, y’know — not coincidentally just at the moment when DJs were becoming stars, even on the academic circuit. (DJ Spooky was the curiosity du jour.) It’s simply not true, though, but even if it were, it would be enough for the kids I work with — for any young people, who someday will rule the world — to believe otherwise.
The Marvel movies make it harder, not easier, for children to join the adult world — not merely because they’re bad, but because they make it harder to recognize what’s good. They set terms of understanding and experience which are bad for whatever our souls are metaphors for.