Over the past decade, we’ve been witness to something unprecedented in the history of film: the rise of the cinematic universe.
Pioneered by Marvel with their ever-expanding Avengers universe, this innovative and impressive model has been swiftly copied by others, and we’re already seeing attempts at DC’s Justice League universe, an expanded Star Wars, and even Harry Potter. While the success has certainly been varied, it would seem the standard is here to stay.
And here’re the reasons why that sucks.
Bigger Audiences Don’t Mean Better Movies
And while that goes without saying, the issue becomes especially apparent when movies become global phenomena in the way the MCU has become.
In his posts about the whitewashing of Doctor Strange, Evan brought up the case of film-critic-turned-writer C. Robert Cargill. In a podcast, Cargill discussed the whitewashing of “The Ancient One” and how the character of an old man from the Himalayas got turned into middle-aged woman from Scotland.
“The Ancient One… comes from a region of the world that is in a very weird political place. He originates from Tibet. So if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion [Chinese] people who think that that’s bullshit…”
-C. Robert Cargill, Double Toasted Podcast
While my co-author pointed out that the character of The Ancient One was set in Nepal, not Tibet, and while Cargill swiftly clarified that these were his thoughts, not Marvel’s, I do think he’s got a point. China has become a major consumer of western films, and the effects of that are already apparent.
2014’s Transformers 4: Age of Extinction surpassed Jame’s Cameron’s Avatar in Chinese theaters, and presently stands as the 4th highest-grossing film in the nation.
“The long and the short of it: Bay made a movie set and filmed in China, starring Chinese actors, using Chinese resources and pushing Chinese products, and in exchange, the movie gets a timely premiere across the country’s 18,000-plus movie screens.”
–Nash Jenkins, TIME Magazine, 2014
The remake of Red Dawn, originally based on the idea of a Chinese invasion of the US, was hastily changed to cast North Korea as the principal villain for fear of offending Chinese viewers. Because the US getting conquered by a country smaller than the state of Louisiana is somehow believable.
Now that’s not to say that Red Dawn would’ve been a good movie otherwise (it wouldn’t have)- just that it was made even more stupid in a greedy effort to rake in more cash. While we certainly didn’t lose a cinema classic in catering to political correctness, it does set a disturbing precedent for the future. Will films purposefully cut reference to Tibet, Taiwan, or the Uighurs? Will China’s despicable record on human rights and the environment be glossed over for box office sales?
And they’re not the only problem.
China, India, and Russia make up nearly 50% of the Hollywood market outside the US, and collectively have abysmal policies on a number of issues- gay rights being one of the foremost. Will we see gay characters or plot lines axed in favor of the some 7.7 billion dollars these countries represent? Will movies that do deal with this issues immediately have their funding lowered by the studios?
This might not sound like it’s related to the Marvel-model, but when your franchise becomes reliant on consistently hitting those opening-night numbers, the relationship is undeniable.
I’m just sayin’ that catering your movies to the whims of oppressive regimes probably isn’t the best indicator of artistic integrity, and on that note…
It Plays To The Lowest Common Denominator
Now you might be saying “Sure, giving in to censors abroad is bad, but the US and Canada alone represent billions of dollars worth of sales. These franchises can afford to take a hit in international theaters if they do well in North America!”
There’s a problem with that as well.
In order to pull in the obscene profits needed to sustain these franchises, studios simply can’t afford to take risks. There’s plenty of examples of this, but none better than that unholy ****-fest called Captain America: Winter Soldier.
This was supposed to be the movie that proved Marvel wasn’t just for kids. This was supposed to be a biting political thriller so good that it work as a stand alone film.
It absolutely didn’t.
Oh it made a tidy profit at the box office, there’s no arguing that. It’s just that the film itself was festering garbage.
Let me break it down:
The crux of the film was a classic “freedom versus security” argument, with the villains proposing to introduce Orwellian measures to keep the world “safe.” There was meant to be an obvious parallel between their evil machinations and the highly controversial acts of the US government- NSA data collection, the Patriot Act, and Obama’s drone program in particular.
Only what was “intended” to be a bold political statement got taken to such a ridiculous, melodramatic extreme (a computer’s ability to literally track the exact location of all seven billion human beings on earth) that any relevance to today’s world was completely lost.
Which, I suspect, was the whole plan.
Figures like Edward Snowden remain highly controversial in the US, and taking a bold stance brings with it the serious risk of provoking the some 50% who would disagree with it.
The solution is to simply take any real-world issue to such an absurd degree that no sane person of any persuasion would be against it. The problem with trying to please everything is that you can’t afford to offend anybody, and the result is a bland, forgettable product with no particular message or value.
I’m not saying that every movie has to be some dark, gritty, soul-searching squirm-fest, just that it should have the freedom to confront its audience. One of the greatest and most important elements of art is its ability to shock, surprise, and subvert- to challenge us as viewers.
But “challenge” has no place in the Marvel universe.
Gratifying Niche Audiences Is Just As Bad
“But what about Deadpool?” you may cry, “Sure, plenty of these movies soften themselves for mass consumption, and even The Wolverine was only PG-13, but what about Deadpool?! Isn’t it enough that the X-Men franchise gave us Deadpool?!”
Shut the **** up.
Playing to a niche audience is just as bad as playing to everyone. Deadpool, while funny and foul, has the exact same problem as any fluffy installation of the Marvel or X-Men universes. Deadpool didn’t ask anything of its audience- an audience who (for the most part) were already fans and looking to have an irreverent, 4th-wall busting, post-modernist breakdown of the superhero trope. For all the chuckles (and sure, there were plenty) it’s not a movie that was ever intended to be more than entertainment designed for easy consumption.
“But ye gods, Gordon! Does every movie have to be some lofty exploration of the human condition?”
Of course not. But I do think there oughta be more to it than just audience gratification. There should be something that makes a statement- no matter if it’s a small one. No matter if it’s one that I disagree with.
Oversaturation Drowns Out Quality
Marvel has its superhero universe, so dammit, DC wants one as well. Which means FOX ups it with the X-Men and Sony goes nuts with Spider-Man. Admittedly, there are some crazy legal reasons why companies have to keep pumping out superhero movies, but I think we can all agree that we’re well beyond that point. Take a look at the forecast for moves over the next decade (because apparently that’s something we can do now and nobody sees the problem with it) and you’ll see the same ****ing stories and tropes played out over and over and over.
Once upon a time superhero movies were a (comparative) rarity. That allowed us to explore the issues surrounding them in an intelligent, incisive way. We had our original X-Men, which managed to actually grapple with race issues (and not Hugh Jackmans huge jacked-man-bod).
Hellboy gave us a look at an entirely different side of the comic book world. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, while far from perfect, still gave us a deeply human look at the superhero ideal. That’s even more true for Pixar’s The Incredibles. Punisher: War Zone at least had the stones to try something fresh, and after almost thirty years, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm remains the single best Batman movie ever made.
For all their faults, there seemed to be a degree of sincerity and authenticity that simply doesn’t exist in the flashy, prepackaged flicks of today’s market. I believe that this is because they were, first and foremost, movies, not ****ing “installments”. They had to stand (and continue to do so) on their own merits, not borrowing from the momentum of their predecessors or the promise of their sequels. There wasn’t this almighty rush to pump the damn things out on a yearly basis and I truly do believe that the pressure to keep flooding the market is just as much to blame for the poor quality of these films as the need to cast a wide net.
We can debate the sustainability of it, but it is a lousy development from an artistic standard. Which brings us to our final point:
Not Everything Needs An Expanded Universe
It just doesn’t.
As difficult as it can be to say goodbye to a good story, that is nothing compared to the pain of having to watch an amazing narrative run into the ****ing ground. Wringing these stories for every single second of marketable entertainment doesn’t so much “dilute” them as bleed ’em dry, cannibalize the corpse, and establishes a bed-and-breakfast over the still-warm grave.
Consider The Godfather.
The Godfather is one of the most critically-acclaimed crime films of all time. We’re witness to what is essentially a Greek tragedy played out in the life of mob boss Michael Corleone. We see his struggle to do right by his family, saving them from ruin but corrupting himself in the same stroke. We see him stand as king of the underworld, successful but yet still alone. And we see his fall and ruin, leaving him- for all his efforts- isolated and destroyed.
Now imagine if everyone in The Godfather got a spin-off movie.
Fredo Coreleone in a show-biz comedy about casinos and prostitutes. Tom Hagen in a hard-hitting legal drama. Sunny Corleone slapping his way through an action film. Johnny Fontaine in his own musical. Hell, why not give the cake decorates in the the opening act their own baking series?
Well, maybe because that’s not the ****ing point. Maybe because The Godfather is not about the adventures of the individual characters but something deeper and infinitely more profound. Maybe because a Godfather franchise would obscure the core message of the films. Maybe- just maybe- everything doesn’t need an expanded universe!
So can we stop?
All images retrieved via Pinterest and Tumblr, fair use.