When I wrote “The Marvel-Industrial Complex” at the invitation of Movie Mezzanine a few weeks ago, it was just supposed to be a thinkpiece with some actual thought behind it, as well as a way of talking about some of the more disquieting corporate and cultural infrastructures that either prop up the Marvel films or that, in many ways, the Marvel films themselves prop up. There were many responses to the piece—some polite and some not, some well-thought-out and some not—and I wanted to answer some of the more vocal questions asked about the piece, as well as address some of the criticisms leveled at it.
To speak against the success of Marvel films or to speak against them in a review is, it seems, to be accused of having “an agenda.” Well, if I have an agenda as a reviewer, I’m clearly not especially clever at keeping track of it, having given Avengers: Age of Ultron a one-star review but Captain America: The Winter Soldier four stars and three stars to Guardians of the Galaxy. So I clearly don’t dislike all the Marvel movies, nor do I dislike all comic-book movies.
What I do dislike is seeing the economy of moviemaking being pushed into resembling our current winner-take-all economy (about which more later), and also seeing the Marvel Machine spend more effort on cross-merchandising and carpet-bombing with advertisements than they do on telling a clear, coherent story. (I’m still waiting for an explanation of where that lake was in Age of Ultron and what Thor was doing splashing around in it looking tortured and great.) And I don’t like the mix of military and messianic themes in some of the Marvel films, and the fact that I happened to enjoy the whackadoo blow-’em-up fun of Battleship doesn’t negate that. Whatever you think of Battleship, it at least made a serious effort to show characters wounded or killed by war, while Avengers: Age of Ultron focuses on a dog running onto a flying ambulance to underline for the audience that every civilian was safe from the science-fiction destruction. One of those is very much a more realistic approach to depicting the result of catastrophic battles than the other; those are facts, not matters of taste.
When I discussed the economics of the Marvel films, many people were mystified by what seemed like my naïveté: Didn’t I know that these big, huge films were what made it possible for studios to keep the lights on and make little movies? I know a lot of people say that, but in this specific case, I know it’s not true. Look at the release slate Disney shared at CinemaCon, stretching from now to 2017: Take out the Marvel films, the Star Wars films, the films based on existing Disney properties like Tomorrowland and Alice in Wonderland, and you’re left with two live-action dramas (one adapted from a book) with big-ticket talent (Chris Pine, Tom Hanks, and Steven Spielberg as examples), a few original high-cost animated films (Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, Zootopia, Moana), and a remake of an anime film from 1995.
Now, please point me to the smaller films that Disney is financing with their riches from The Avengers and Captain America: Civil War, because they’re clearly not on that slate. Bigger movies don’t pay for the small ones anymore; big movies pay for even bigger ones, ones that are easier to sell abroad and that require explosions more than dialogue. I grew up in the Reagan years—reading comics with my siblings in between anxieties about nuclear destruction—and have lived in that time’s long, dark shadow of deregulation and free-market mania that plays out like a never-ending victory celebration for people who won a long time ago; if anything, we’re still paying for it now. So telling me that if audiences support Marvel movies we’ll get smaller dramas or comedies or even smaller genre films sounds like a variation on what I’ve heard in one form or another since I was 10: Just give more money to the people who already have it, and eventually nice things will happen for you. Or, more succinctly: It sounds like bullshit. (With that said, I do respect and am interested in things like the Netflix/Daredevil deal, as that lowers costs substantively; not every Marvel story can be, or should be, a mega-million affair designed to open on 4,000 screens.)
As for the money of merchandising Marvel, I know that many people don’t object to having things made in China; they’re cheaper than domestic manufacture, in many cases, and in other cases, there’s not even the infrastructure for America to make those things at all, never mind compete. But we don’t paint microwaves red, white and blue and say they represent the best of America; we don’t tell little girls they should dream of growing up to be strong, confident, kick-ass microwaves. Voting with your dollar is hard, to be sure, but waving it as a green flag of perpetual surrender to the way things are can be much, much worse. (Also, if you’re a parent whose kids are Avengers-mad, please note that the Lego Marvel sets are a) all made in democracies, b) predicated on imagination and not gender-based, and finally c) licensed separately from the films. Barring sudden capitulation on the part of Fox studios, it’ll be years, perhaps decades, before we see The Avengers and X-Men team up on screen, but your kids can do that on the living room floor right now.)
Other responses noted that what Marvel does by inducing a perpetual state of drooling anticipation over upcoming films is roughly the equivalent of the way studios used to leak factoids about the private lives of their stars. But this is akin to noting that being punched in the face is remarkably like being kicked in the face: Neither are ideal. Plus, the tabloid-celebrity complex is also running just as strong, if not stronger, today, and that’s hardly a good thing either. I don’t care about set leaks, speculation, rumors or conjecture about an unmade film: As a critic and audience member, I just want to see it when it’s done. The first weekend after Avengers 2 opened to weaker reviews and domestic box-office than its predecessor, that Monday saw the details of the entire cast of Captain America: Civil War released to the press. The next weekend, the film had a 59% box-office drop-off, greater than that of the 51% first-weekend drop-off The Avengers had; instead of pontificating on the implications of that fact, however, the movie “press” mostly preferred to speculate on which character Martin Freeman would play in Captain America 3. Then the following weekend, when Avengers 2 dropped off another 50%, movie “news” sites were flooded with “leaked” photos of scenes from Cap 3. You don’t have to call a pattern a conspiracy, but you do have to call a pattern a pattern.
I was asked if I was “old” and “bitter,” wondering if that might explain my positions. But I’m exactly as old as many of my fellow film scribes who have long surrendered to the Might of Marvel—in many cases confusing the fulfillment of wishes they had when they were 13 with the quality of a film they’re watching in their 40s. I loved The Vision when I was 13—he was a glum, soulful android with density-changing powers, so who didn’t?—but I can still, at 45, be able to recognize that his introduction and use in Avengers 2 is shabby, under-discussed, without much context and one more thing in a movie already groaning under a heavy load of plot lines and set-ups for future films and characters.
Perhaps I missed the political subtext of Captain America 2 and that it isn’t a status-quo film but rather a subversive one. Still, I can’t help but see that movie as one where good government-funded superwarriors (Captain America, Widow, Nick Fury, Falcon) stopped bad government-funded superwarriors, and it’s hard to see that as especially transgressive. (Nick Schager, at The Daily Beast, wrote a piece titled “How The Avengers seduced both Liberals and Conservatives“; what this suggests is not genius, but, rather, good product salesmanship: Go even-handed and empty-headed out into the marketplace; Captain America 2‘s security-state anxieties feel exactly like that.) And maybe the Marvel films aren’t politically infantilizing, but then again, plenty of other people have noticed and suggested that, too—Simon Pegg, for one. As he recently wrote: ”Recent developments in popular culture were arguably predicted by the French philosopher and cultural theorist, Jean Baudrillard in his book, America, in which he talks about the infantilization of society. Put simply, this is the idea that as a society, we are kept in a state of arrested development by dominant forces in order to keep us more pliant.”
As a side note, I don’t think it’s just the fact I was a comics reader in the ’80s that makes me think that the five most politically interesting comics ever written are from that era: Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Miracleman, The Dark Knight Returns and the standalone X-Men story God Loves, Man Kills. Each is inspired by the same Reagan/Thatcher Cold War-era concerns—corporate-led conservatism, politicized questions of faith and belonging, the further enrichment of the already rich and powerful who know what’s best for us—that are, when you think about it, the same concerns we have today but with 35 years of political inertia and deliberate effort behind them making them even more so, such a matter of fact that pitting fantasy against them is even more useless. It’s also worth noting that all the titles mentioned above, with one exception, will soon or already have been reprinted, revisited, inspired sequels or prequels bolted on and/or placed on the big screen, often even more neutered at the material’s expense for the cinema’s expanse.
I work as a film critic, and a lot of the time, that means being a consistent walking target. But as a film critic, I don’t give bad reviews to movies because it delights me or amuses me or scratches some malicious itch in my poisoned soul; it’s painful to write a bad review, because you want every movie to be at least good, if not transcendently great. In short, I want better. I think that audiences can, do, and should ask questions about the biggest phenomenon in our popular culture other than “How much is the 3:15 screening of Captain America: Civil War?” or “When does Jessica Jones drop on Netflix?” I think that yes, the Marvel movies have something to say about the times we live in and that those things, like the times we live in, do not always reflect well on us. As Tom Stoppard wrote in his play Jumpers, “if rationality were the criterion for things being allowed to exist, the world would be one gigantic field of soya beans!” And that would be awful. But a motion-picture industry based around nothing but blockbuster power-fantasies and urban destruction with neither end nor purpose would be awful, too, and Disney’s success with the Marvel films is making every studio in town try to replicate exactly that. (See, for example, this story about the Marvel-style “Writer’s Room” Paramount has assembled to work on new Transformers films; you can take a break to laugh at the idea those films will have, or need, writers.) I don’t want an end to the Marvel movies, like King Canute trying to hold back the sea; I just want them to be smarter, better, less expensive and all-consuming, and maybe offer something more to say about the way we live now other than what I’ve already been told by the past 35 years of politics, pop culture and history: “Buy, believe and behave.” In the ’80s, Spiderman told me that with great power comes great responsibility; Marvel Studios, via Disney, has money and power both, and we’ve given it to them; as consumers and critics, longtime fans and new arrivals, it’s now our responsibility to look at what that truly means and says about the Marvel movies, and why we watch them.