Avengers: Infinity War is going to make a lot of money. If you are doubtful of everything else that will occur in 2018, at least you can be secure in your knowledge of this one small detail. It remains to be seen if it will be the biggest film of the year, surpassing Black Panther, and if it will break the top five highest grossing films of all time, a possibility that seems more certain with each passing day. Fans seem to like it, critics seem at the very least pretty warm on the movie, and Bob Iger and Kevin Feige will get bonuses big enough to fund those ivory back-scratchers they’ve had their eye on. It’s been a decade since the Marvel Cinematic Universe took its first steps in Hollywood, inspiring conversations over the risks of the project. Who would want to see a big-budget superhero film based on a minor character (at least to mainstream audiences) with a washed up recovering addict in the lead role? Of course, we all know how that story ends.
We’re getting on average about three Marvel films a year. DC seem to be aiming for one or two a year, depending on how their chaotic strategy unfolds. Fox are still pushing the X-Men stories as far as they can go until Disney’s acquisition goes forward, and Sony are desperately trying to will a Spider-Man extended universe with all their might. Soon, Netflix will have their own superhero property, thanks to their purchase of Mark Millar’s back-catalogue. There are more projects in development, with heroes big and small, so it seems like every studio wants a slice of the superhero pie. A trend was established and so everyone else will follow.
This is nothing new. You could reasonably argue that Hollywood was built on this phenomenon. One studio makes something that everyone loves, and the others rush to replicate the success. It happened with horror in the Golden Age, we saw it with Westerns and musicals and essentially the entire Summer blockbuster mould post-Jaws and Star Wars. One year after Tim Burton’s Batman made superhero cinema a viable creative and commercial genre, Disney rushed out Dick Tracy to keep up with the fad. The past decade of blockbuster cinema is simply the history of the industry perfected: Now, the movies are all at the very least pretty good, they command immense audience loyalty, and there’s enough variety in the familiar formula to keep it from going stale.
It didn’t take long for the post-Infinity War conversation to turn to whether superhero films are ruining Hollywood or not. Seldom is this debate a civil one, as tempers flare and some on each side take the question a little too seriously. As with most things in pop culture, the issue isn’t an either/or matter because audiences aren’t a monolith with unchanging opinions. We say we want fewer remakes and sequels, but we still turn out in droves for the stuff we’re familiar with. Every few months or so, we wonder if superhero fatigue will finally hit but then more records are broken at the box office and audiences clamour for more. We argue over these films, but the passion behind those fights is seldom just about the caped crusaders: We wonder what this all means for film in general. Is it really a bad thing?
For the record, I don’t think superhero movies are going to destroy Hollywood or our current era of film-making. I’m not especially passionate about the genre, although I have my moments, but it’s one with obvious upsides. Still, for all its popularity and influence, I can’t say I think its power is an exclusively positive one.
First, the good stuff. Superhero films go hand in hand with epic scale, and the past few years of the genre have seen some of its most inventive and esoteric storytelling. As staid as the formula can be, it’s hard to deny that some creators have done incredible work within those narrow boundaries. Who would have thought that one of the bleakest and most emotionally resonant neo-Westerns of the past decade would have been a Wolverine movie? Even as recently as five years ago, films of Wonder Woman and Black Panther seemed inconceivable, and now they’re the safest bets in town as well as some of the most unique narratives we have on this scale.
The superhero mould provides a degree of security too. After decades of studio heads and producers claiming that mass audiences would never pay to see a majority black blockbuster, Black Panther proved them wrong and then some. It wasn’t just a superhero movie with a black cast: It was a passionately black movie with an Afrofuturist aesthetic and stridently anti-colonialist themes that made over $1.2bn worldwide. That movie probably wouldn’t have happened without the safety net of the Marvel brand, if only because Hollywood hates anything it perceives to be the slightest risk. Disney and Marvel let Ryan Coogler craft that world, albeit within the near-iconic structure of the modern superhero narrative, and the result was one of the most radical works in the medium. We barely see movies like that with even the tiniest budgets getting some studio clout: The fact that Marvel and Disney were putting down 9-figures to get Black Panther made is a minor miracle. Even if you hate superhero films, this point should be respected and supported, because how often do we get stuff like that? If this inspires a slew of copycat stories, or at least more studios willing to invest in stories that aren’t dominated by whiteness, then how can we lose?
Scott Derrickson, the director of Doctor Strange, sent out a tweet claiming, ‘There are more movies available to anyone right now in both theaters and at home, than in any past decade in cinema history. Superhero movies ain’t ruining shit.’ I get where he’s coming from, and I wouldn’t expect a director on Marvel’s books to say otherwise. Still, I think it’s naive, at best, to assume that the domination of this genre hasn’t had some kind of negative effect on the business at large. Remember, this is a model built by multi-billion dollar corporations who have a notorious stranglehold not just on what films are made but which ones are screened.
In order to screen something like the latest Avengers film, cinemas must promise the distributors that they will show the film a minimum number of times a day, and usually on specific screens. If you’re a 21 film multiplex, you’re probably going to be showing it upwards of 12 times a day, maybe more. If you’re the local arthouse with 2 or 3 screens, the chances are you still have to show that film several times a day on the biggest screen you have. A lot of arthouse and indie cinemas rely heavily on the sales those big films bring in. They keep the lights on for more experimental and low-budget programming. You may wonder why the cinema where you see all your Oscar favourites is showing Infinity War four times a day while the new Claire Denis film is on once a day for a week. Studios are aware of this system and take advantage of it. Yes, supply and demand comes into it, and I’m sure more people want to see Thanos than Juliette Binoche, but art should be about more than capitalism.
I have a major problem with one of the biggest, most powerful and notorious corporations on the planet being cheered on as the true heroes of art, as if superheroes are the scrappy underdogs in this fight. Studios chase the big dollars, and right now, that’s with superheroes, which means they’re probably not going to put bigger money into those smaller projects. Annihilation was a critically acclaimed sci-fi film with heavy amounts of special effects and seemed like the kind of mid-budget fare a studio could do well with, but it was never going to make billions, so it got dumped by its studio. We’re in the midst of a serious dearth of mid-budget cinema, with the costs between low and high-priced films growing ever larger. Unless you’re an Oscar favourite or going outside of the major studio system, your chances are slim.
Your other option is Netflix, and while the streaming service has certainly opened many doors in terms of indie distribution, I have a hard time swallowing yet another corporate power claiming their status as underdog. Netflix’s model for world domination is built on completely eliminating cinemas from the equation, yet we’re told we should be blindly grateful for its platform. Why should smaller budget films with less mainstream appeal be expected to just go directly to streaming and bypass cinemas altogether? Why are they less worthy of that right? Cinema is in danger of becoming a blockbuster-only experience, and nobody wins in those circumstances.
Superhero cinema and its blockbuster mould offers many interesting opportunities for film-makers, but we still live in a system where those chances are primarily given to the same white dudes who have been defining the genre since its origins. Marvel is still dragging its feet over hiring more women to direct its films, and the typical on-screen hero is still a Chris. Progress remains maddeningly incremental, and when this is increasingly becoming the only game in town, we can do little but loudly demand better until it happens.
I generally liked Avengers: Infinity War. I’m not as invested in the MCU as some people I know, and for those who had been greatly anticipating this climax, I hope they got what they needed from it. The sheer ambition of it was admirable, but my great hope remains that said ambition can be spread more evenly across the medium, to those whose daring ideas and challenges to power need it the most. Superhero cinema won’t destroy Hollywood, but the system keeping it at the top will make the roads steeper for everyone else to climb.