Resistance is futile. Free will is a fallacy. We are mere puppets whose strings run all the way to Burbank; where folks like Alan Horn, Kathleen Kennedy, and Kevin Feige sit in their surely profligate offices, manipulating our fervent geekishness as if we were some inferior species completely submissive to and dependent on their merchandise-friendly output. I mean, we are, if social media tracking and opening-weekend numbers are sufficient measuring sticks for such acquiescence. There are just enough conglomerates to keep the business of mainstream filmmaking/distributing an oligopoly. But in any modern oligopoly there’s one seller a cut above the rest. There’s an apex predator and then there’s a small group of vultures circling above until the opportune moment comes along for them to pick at the scraps. Walt Disney Studios is that apex predator right now.
This is not your grandfather’s Disney. This Disney has Pixar, Hollywood’s most bankable entity for two decades now. This Disney has fucking STAR WARS. Perhaps most notably, this Disney has Marvel studios. Much to the chagrin of failed screenwriters turned pretentious journalists –the types who claim to have seen all 30 Kurosawa films and refer to anything slightly unconventional in its narrative or look as “Malickian”- Marvel Studios’ recipe has proven itself effective on both commercial and artistic levels. The movies in this shared universe blend unapologetic fanfare with spectacular action, garnished with just enough storytelling merit and self-aware humor to make even those inherently cynical viewers crack a smile (even if they won’t admit it).
It’s working. Captain America: Civil War has grossed $1.1B worldwide and counting. The Avengers, the initial columniation of Marvel’s evil plan, made $1.5B and currently sits as the 5th biggest movie of all-time. For fuck’s sake, Guardians of the Galaxy, an offbeat film based on a group of characters not even a decade old in print only known by the most dedicated Marvel fanatics, made more money in the states than Man of Steel. All three of those Marvel movies sit above a 90% on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. For all the conventional wisdom about franchises eventually capsizing and bitter thinkpieces about something called “superhero fatigue” that only actually exists in WordPress drafts, Marvel keeps increasing its market share. It keeps adding top-of-the-line acting talent as if doing so was the 4th law of physics.
The kindling for this cyber rant reared its beautiful face yesterday when Brie Larson (fresh of her Oscar for Room) was reported by Variety to be in talks to become Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers, arguably the most well-known female hero in the Marvel oeuvre. The initial reactions from fans and journalists were predictably varying. Someone is out there right now tweeting about how awesome it is to see such a great actress join the franchise as such an iconic character. Someone else is calling this likely casting predictable and therefore boring. Someone is probably even pitching a piece to IndieWire about how the system forces talented performers to compromise their art in order to blah blah blah. Did you know: Every time a great actor signs on for a role in a superhero movie, a freelancer disperses into thin air like the victims of the uber-blue Oscar Isaac in X-Men: Apocalypse.
In case you can’t tell, I’ve had it up to here with the way prominent writers (whose words can influence) talk about modern film. There are actual people who get paid actual money to write actual things arguing that just because the main character wears a cape there’s somehow intrinsically less artistic value in play than in a “prestige” film. To both assume and have the audacity to publish a story saying that James Gunn and his crew or The Russo bros and their crew somehow don’t put in the careful thought/effort into their work that, say, Richard Linklater puts into his is not only journalism putrid enough to make even the English teacher supervising the school paper quiver, but it also implies a horribly pompous mindset that continues to plague discussion of film with its dividing lines. If you don’t like these too-big-to-fail franchises, you’re a hipster. If you do, you’re sheep. This is a binary that shouldn’t exist given the plethora of wildly different but equally worthy films being made in this era. But this binary does exists.
I hope I’m not coming off as the contentious fanboy who trolls comment sections, a type that exists in drones and is equally responsible for the aforementioned binary as the credentialed journos who grind my gears. That is NOT me. In fact, I’m not really a “fanboy” at all. I’ve read maybe four or five comic books in my life. My affection for superheroes stems directly from being a 23 year-old cinephile who grew up during the golden age of comic book movies. I couldn’t personally care less if a film diverts from the history of these characters in print. But I do care about the movies being good, and care about them being recognized as such when they are (without any sort of “it’s good for a popcorn movie” type asterisk). Personal anecdote, over.
On some level, I pity those who get vocally frustrated when these movies do well and continue to add the best in the business to their respective rosters. Loathing something so prevalent must be tiring, and not just because of the internet. You go the grocery store and you’re likely to see Captain America on some food packaging. Watch the news at all during the summer and you’ll be bombarded with an influx of TV spots for various film franchises. There are some very bad superhero movies. We’ve had two this year already. But Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and X-Men: Apocalypse aren’t bad because they’re about superheroes. They’re plain bad. They just happen to be about superheroes. In fact, part of the reason those two movies struggled to resonate is because they so obviously tried break the loose mold Marvel Studios has created. Then again, Deadpool took a strap-on to that mold and bashed it into pieces on its way to $763M and warm reception. I know nothing and very few read my words. Don’t listen to me. I can be a jaundiced asshole online without shifting the pendulum. That’s not the case for someone who writes for a prominent publication. With great power comes gr- okay, that’s too easy.
As the Marvel Cinematic Universe pushes into “Phase 3”, it’s added a tremendous amount of acting talent to its already prolific armory. I’d like to run through some of the recent additions, for no other reason than to laugh to myself thinking about the folks who are genuinely bothered by franchise filmmaking.
Let’s start with Black Panther, the upcoming (February, 2018) take on the first notable African-American superhero, whom we saw Chadwick Boseman portray to general acclaim in Captain America: Civil War. Ryan Coogler is directing and co-writing. The most exciting young filmmaker in the game, Coogler has shown the ability to find the naked, human element in his characters; whether in the poetically ominous Fruitvale Station or the inspirational Creed. His regular collaborator Michael B. Jordan (there’s Wallace, String) is attached to the film, reportedly as a villain. Lupita Nyong’o will play a “love interest”. Coogler, Boseman, Jordan, Nyong’o. That’s an awful lot of young black talent for a film in a genre that’s been a punching bag when it comes to diversity in film. To make matters worse for the self-serving old white journalists (and young white tweeters) who love to blast old white industry vets when it’s convenient, Coogler has publicly called this his “most personal film”.
How about that Doctor Strange cast? There’s Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead, but also Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor, Oscar nominee Rachel McAdams, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mads Mikkelsen, and TILDA MOTHERFUCKING SWINTON. Marvel has been met with criticism for casting Swinton, a white female, as the Ancient One (a historically Asian male character). I find this hilarious, since the Ancient One has been called a racist character for years. So we went from the Ancient One being a problematic Asian character, to it being problematic that a white lady is playing the problematic Asian character. Everything is problematic. The amount of times I’ve read the word “problematic” over the last three years is problematic. We’re problem addicts when it comes to using the word “problematic”.
Spider-Man: Homecoming stars Tom Holland as the title character and will feature Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey deserves back-end points on every MCU movie, by the way). It also features Marisa Tomei as Aunt May and, if reports prove true, Michael Keaton as the villain (probably some iteration of The Vulture). This is music to my ears. Keaton, who should’ve won an Oscar for Birdman, a film harshly critical of what these franchises do to talent, will be putting on a bird costume and flying around trying to kill Spider-Man. Fucking beautiful (coming from someone who LOVED Birdman).
Thor: Ragnarok is set to have quite the cast as well. Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddelston, Anthony Hopkins, and Idris Elba all return. We’ll also see Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk. But here’s the real kicker. Cate Blanchett -the queen herself, the most prolific actress of her generation- will be playing the villain Hela. Jeff Goldblum, whose presence makes everything more enjoyable, is attached as well. Karl Urban, Tessa Thompson. Quite the posse of players for this one.
I’ll conclude by, in essence, admitting that the joke’s on me. Despite this 1,600 word rant about hollow film coverage, I read all of it because I’m obsessed. Page views drive the van. As far as AdSense goes, if I click on an article and am blown away by its nuanced look at something it’s the same damn thing as me gagging at the first use of the term “popcorn movie” and closing my browser. Pompous prose may be the bane of my existence but at least it’s part of my existence.