Saturday, April 11, 2020

Has the Marvel Cinematic Universe ruined the movies?

There is a lot of talk going around that the Marvel superhero universe has ruined the film industry and movies in general. The basics talking points seem to be that they have overtaken the industry with films that lack depth or artistry, have budgets so high they leave nothing left for smaller films, take over multiplexes and cinemas in general so no other films can be shown and cater to the lowest common denominator of film goer.

There are some good observations in there but I'm not sure they add up to Marvel Studios having "ruined" cinema as we know it any more than the sci-fi rush after Star Wars, any number of the horror eras we have survived or the big western fads of times past. There is also an argument to be made they are more a sign of the changing habits of the average movie goer, who now has other things vying for their attention like streaming services and the sudden rise in high quality TV shows.

We have been here before and survived but this time there is new technology and new ways to watch things that rival the arrival of television on the scene in the 50s. Marvel movies have a long, interconnected series of films now behind them which more to come. This is more like a TV model than a film model, which traditionally had sequels that did not have to follow a storyline throughout. (See the James Bond series, for example.) Marvel movies are forged in comic book fandom, a group of people notoriously hard to please and meticulous in their opinions of what is or isn't canon in a series. Most of the properties in the films have many decades of history behind them and any changes or mistakes are debated endlessly among fans. It limits what they can do with a story. On the streaming side of things,  services like Netflix offer very high end productions and no real limitations on the content they offer. In many ways they are much freer than the film world with its hierarchy, studio controls and rating system and they take full advantage of that.

Money for smaller independent directors has been moving to online platforms where they have money and more freedom while the cineplexes are selling spectacle and HUGE stories that would have impossible to pull off even 15 years ago. So independent and middle range films are without a doubt being squeezed out of the big venues and with many repertory theatres already closed for a decade now, streaming has started to scoop them up. This does rob us of seeing these projects in a communal setting on a large screen, but it has given us another way to see them at least. The average ticket price now is ridiculously high and while we cry and moan that Herzog's latest documentary can't get shown on the big screen, the truth is - not many of us would pay that price to see it larger than life anymore.

Marvel films overall are not bad films by any definition. In fact, many are fantastic, visually exciting with compelling characters even if the plots are complicated in some ways but pretty generic in many others. Even some of the worst of them are entertaining and the best are inspiring and affecting millions of viewers, except perhaps the strictly art house set. Many of the same things can be said about the Star Wars franchise, though those films seem to be in their own world, pun intended.

Are they a fad? Well a decade plus into it... maybe. But it's a long term fad and to Marvel's credit they are not just churning out sequels of the latest popular films like we used to get. Instead they are putting a large effort into each one, trying to make them as different in tone and scale to keep them for getting too repetitive even if they don't always succeed. The budgets are, however, the roof and there is something to be said abut making 100 smaller films less effects driven than one 600 million dollar Affinity War movie. It would be nice to see some of that cash go to ideas that don't need to break a billion to be a hit. There are still smaller films that manage to break out and rule the box office from time to time which shows the audience is there for new and more grounded (or totally off the wall) films to be shown.

I am sure a day will come when the public is tired of spectacle and goes into something else, something more personal and smaller. This sort of happened in the 70s when films were slower and more personal even as the trend started giving into the blockbuster phenomenon. Until then, the films we used look for are now on TV, computers and other devices in various forms, unhindered by time limits and getting bigger budgets than ever was allotted to them for the big screen. I say we can enjoy them both and be aware that the entertainment landscape has changed not because Marvel is an evil supervillain but because WE (the general filmgoing public, that is) have changed the terrain with our viewing habits and need for convenience over shared experience. Not sure where it will end up but we do have some say in where and how we spend out money. That might not be enough to beat market forces currently in play, but in some ways we gained some things while losing other things and blaming superhero movies for all of these changes seems simplistic and ignores everything else going on around them. I guess the moral is to support the films we love, wherever they are found.

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