Tuesday, May 05, 2015


Another critic (Jason Wilson) rather irked at the hegemony of superhero tentpoles. If you use the superhero tag in particular you'll find several linked articles analysing the rise of these films and this me-too strategy.

A quick summary follows of key points you can utilise to show your understanding of how (British and global) cinema functions ...

The line between film and TV has been rather blurred as epic series such as The Sopranos have largely replaced epic narrative cinema such as the 1970s Godfather movies. There are exceptions, such as the Lord of the Rings, Hunger Games and Harry Potter franchises, but all have been criticised for padding out the narratives, and cynically splitting narratives across films to generate more cash. If TV, sucking in many of the most talented actors and directors from the world of film, is generally better now at long-form narratives, then dumb, popcorn flicks like the Transformers franchise can be seen as a smart response. As I've blogged on, though, lets not entirely dismiss the complexity of superhero/CGI flicks - the permutations of the 'Marvel universe' are epically complex, and much work has been done by fans to pin down the narrative across the multiple movies and TV series.

Lets also not forget that its not just the big boys like Marvel (through Disney) who are seamlessly crossing between TV and cinema with films and series interacting; we also see this with Warp's This is England franchise.

As DVD sales have declined and home cinema gets ever more sophisticated, cinema has had to respond by making the cinematic experience more spectacular. The rise of CGI and SFX spectaculars is not new, but the utter stranglehold of CGI-led flicks, with the minimal-narrative of Michael Bay's various efforts, especially Transformers, the exemplar, certainly is. Of course, there is also the novel approach of NBC-Universal's Prima system, costing $35k to install then $500 a movie, smartly monetising high-end home cinema to a much greater extent than a Blu-Ray or DVD sale.

Another, linked, strand has been the rise of 3D, especially IMAX 3D. The vast expense of filming in this format has helped reinforce the global hegemony of the American  big six (7, if you count Lionsgate) studio conglomerates. Ticket prices can be twice as high, and the April 2015 announcement by Sky that it was cancelling its 3D channel (launched with much vertically and horizontally integrated fanfare with the premiere of Avatar) signals defeat for the TV industry's attempts to bring this into home cinema.

The spread of Dolby-equipped cinemas with digital projectors on the rise too has encouraged the CGI-spectacular to become the key strategy, with cinemas beyond the US now well equipped to showcase the technical virtues of the endless superhero flicks. With typical US share of the global box office of a tentpole film now dipping towards 40%, and falling, the big six producers are thinking more and more about the global audience when making production decisions. The relative dumbness of even 'epic' films like the Avengers sequel, bits of exposition and then yet another set-piece battle, can be viewed as a virtue in making it as accessible as possible to a culturally diverse global audience. As Hollywood producer Linda Obst argues, pre-awareness (from IP, or intellectual property, such as books, TV series, comic books, past films, video games, pop culture icons or historical figures) is what Hollywood studios are looking for more and more, to help ease the challenge of their distribution and marketing campaigns

Are the Avengers really saving the world if the sequels are inevitable? 
... we know that the contracts are already inked for two more Avengers films and a film each involving Captain America and Thor, all of which take place in the chronology of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” subsequent to this movie. 

Not even Ultron’s scheme can endanger the franchise — the fight is fixed.

Even if it weren’t, it’s hard to know how we would become invested in the fate of any of these characters. In the rare breaks between extended fight scenes and apocalyptic battles, there’s not much time for anything except exposition and the creation of a pretext for the next battle.
The script, the cast, and the narrative all wind up feeling like a gimcrack scaffolding for the real star of the film, the CGI.
In the last five years alone, we have seen two standalone studio movies each on Captain America, Batman, Iron Man, Thor, and Spider-man. Two each on superhero ensembles X-Men and The Avengers. One each for Green Lantern, the Green Hornet, Superman, Wolverine, Ghost Rider, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Judge Dredd.

Then there’s Kick-Ass, Kick-Ass 2, Scott Pilgrim, Big Hero 6, and non-superhero films also based on comics, like Snowpiercer. Add to all these films based on long-standing merch/comic tie-ins, like the Transformers series. There are already around 40 scheduled Hollywood superhero releases planned for the next five years, no doubt with more to come.

In the nigh-on apologetic round of interviews the Avengers stars have given in recent weeks, they repeated the only argument anyone can make for this avalanche of dross: in an age of diminishing overall production, this stuff makes money, keeps people employed, and keeps cinemas standing.

Like the peddlers of every other crap commodity – from corn-dogs to Coors – Hollywood is wont to insist that this is all demand-driven; the ongoing festival of tights is happening because the audience is resistant to subtler fare. This is ahistorical – audiences have embraced risky and challenging studio films in the past.

Risk is precisely what the studio system is now geared to eliminate. We get trite and shallow films because producers are unwilling to gamble on our intelligence. Often they are watched because teenagers still need an excuse to leave the house, and because, especially outside major metropolitan areas, or in the suburbs, there’s not much else on.

There’s also the unfortunate fact that there is a vibrant and living refutation to all this: television. Few could have predicted 15 years ago that major movie stars would one day make their bank in dumb movies so they could do more demanding work on the small screen. Here we are though, gearing up to watch Vince Vaughn in the second series of True Detective.

More tellingly, Hollywood has permanently lost talented filmmakers who, in an earlier era, would have worked in cinema. As a director, Jill Soloway moved from morally complex, spiky, funny, observational independent cinema (Afternoon Delight) into morally complex, spiky, funny, observational television (Transparent), creating a critical and popular success.

Auteurs who are no longer able to make a living in indies, and who want to address their audience as adults, are now finding a niche in on-demand services who charge half the price of a multiplex ticket for a month’s viewing. When the superhero bubble inevitably bursts, will Hollywood be able to lure any of them back?

Behold: the Marvel Avengers Assemble 3D experience
Finally, I entered the auditorium just in time to enjoy an anti-piracy commercial depicting an abandoned cinema wreathed in cobwebs, accompanied by a doomy John Hurt voiceover saying what a shame it would be if all the cinemas closed. Yeah, imagine that. I'd have to approximate the experience by punching myself in the kidneys and eating a £50 note each time I put on a DVD.

Then Marvel Avengers Assemble 3D began. Some scientists were worried about a glowing blue cube they kept underground, so Samuel L Jackson had turned up to make things easier by shouting at them. Then the cube went bonkers and spat out a bad guy called Loki, who looks like a cross between Withnail and the sort of grinning pervert who'd have sex with a fistful of Mattesson's liver pate in the window of an apartment overlooking a hospice bus stop. Then some vehicles raced around and everything blew up.

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