Cinema as (more than) spectacle

As I watch more and more varied movies over the years, I find myself engaging in film in a more active and critical manner, and thinking more deeply about cinema as an art form: film as a means of communication, of inspiration, of introspection. I’ve begun to ask more of film as a consumer, and doing so has brought me to a point where, although I still enjoy many films of a wide array of genres, I’m starting to form some fairly strong opinions about some of them. One such is the superhero film, a genre that’s exploded across the cinematic landscape in the last ten years or so and that’s the focus of some especially polarised thoughts, from myself as well as from those more closely associated with the motion picture industry. A few days ago, my Facebook feed delivered an article about a recent clash of directorial opinions between Jodie Foster and James Gunn on this very topic, which is what spurred me to consider my subjectivity about superhero films (and also large cinematic franchises in general) more deeply; I thought it might make an interesting topic for me to muse about here.

The core of the clash seems to revolve around that nebulous concept musicians often refer to as soul. Basically, Foster has made the fairly blunt claim that the lack of soul in comic book and superhero movies is leading such movies to ruin Hollywood, that “$200 million movies about superheroes” and CGI and “spectacle” are not the reason why she got into movie-making:

Going to the movies has become like a theme park. Studios making bad content in order to appeal to the masses and shareholders is like fracking; you get the best return right now but you wreck the earth… I feel like I make movies because there are things I have to say in order to figure out who I am or my place in the world, or for me to evolve as a person.

Gunn’s response was respectful, but defensive:

I think Foster looks at film in an old-fashioned way where spectacle film can’t be thought-provoking. It’s often true but not always. Her belief system is pretty common and isn’t totally without basis. I say not without basis because most studio franchise films are quite soulless, and that is a real danger to the future of movies. But there are also quite a few exceptions…

For my part, I tend to agree with Foster (as, indeed, Gunn does at least to a certain extent). Although Gunn has noble goals that he’s clearly trying to push for in his own filmmaking – his Guardians of the Galaxy films have sought to explore fairly fresh new ground as regards superhero films, and I have a lot of time for that, even while the advertisement of a future third incarnation starts to make me wonder just how much more new ground can be broken – it feels rather disturbingly like he’s pleading #notallmen in movie form. In a very gentle and respectful manner, true, but he’s engaging in special pleading nonetheless. Honestly, it’s quite alright to accept that there are films which manage to rise above the failings of a genre while still pointing out the failings and problems of the genre as a whole. I’m sure that Foster didn’t intend for every single comic book movie to fall under the broader banner of her statement, and as Gunn says, there are quite a few exceptions. But I do agree with Foster in thinking there’s a larger problem with an excessive dominance of superhero and comic book films (and in fairness, large tentpole franchises in general) in cinema right now, a more substantial negative effect that’s flowing on to impact upon the variety of film and the nature of cinema as a popular genre.

Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when a smaller proportion of the cinematic library was built within comic book universes, it felt like the average superhero film tended to have more to say, and asked more important questions. The very first X-Men film, for example. There was a good deal of SFX porn in it, of course, but it also broke ground in that it sought not to focus upon the superhumanity of the characters, but upon their humanity instead; it sought to remind us never to forget our own responsibilities to the different and the isolated, and illustrated the inestimable value of human connection. But now, the X-Men franchise has spiderwebbed out into at least ten films (three focusing on Wolverine alone – dear Christ, cats, isn’t there any other character in the Xniverse that has interesting stories to tell?), and the franchise seems to me to have in large parts forgotten (with occasional exceptions, such as last year’s Logan, an in parts truly beautiful and harrowing exploration of the end of Wolverine’s story) what deeper meaning it’s supposed to be exploring, and even when it does attempt to explore those deeper questions, it largely tends to chew over old food in doing so. And even if Captain America (2011) and Iron Man (2008) did have interesting issues to explore in innovative ways, one imagines that by Iron Man 3 (2013) those issues have faded into the background.

In all fairness, I shouldn’t pick so hard on Marvel here; DC were slower to the market, but they’ve been picking up steam lately too and are only stuffing more superheroes into the already groaning-at-the-seams arena. 29 live-action films in the last ten years from Marvel alone and another seven coming next year; add DC into the mix and you have Spiderman and Doctor Strange and Superman and Thor and Captain America and Green Lantern and Batman and Wonder Woman and Iron Man and Deadpool and Wolverine and the other X-Men, and soon Aquaman and Black Panther too, all swarming over each other like crabs in a bucket, grabbing their share of punters’ money while not stopping very often to think about, well, thinking. Cerebrality, perspective, introspection, originality. The cinematic superhero mania is running the risk of turning even itself into the cinematic equivalent of Mills & Boon. Bubblegum for the brain is fun, and pure escapism absolutely has its place, but the dedication of such huge amounts of studio money to the bubblegum industry leaves little room for the production of more psychologically nourishing fare that the cinemagoer can spend more time digesting.

It’s also a little unfair of Gunn, I think, to suggest that Foster’s taking a binary, either-or cinematic approach in which spectacle and introspection are purely incompatible. In the first place, Foster herself has had some involvement with introspective spectacle cinema. Contact (1997), for instance, and Elysium (2013), both saw her in major roles and were both differing degrees of spectacle coupled with a strong human element and some pretty deep introspection. And in the second place, there has been blockbuster and spectacle cinema even in the last ten years that’s also been deeply thought-provoking. Snowpiercer (2013) was a spectacular and shocking example. Interstellar (2014) was another, a space odyssey epic with mind-blowing imagery but also an entirely human story that I think might be one of the best science-fiction films of all time. Arrival (2016), which I’ve raved about here before. My partner and I were also lucky enough to catch Colossal (2016) in the cinema: a strange but glorious piece of left-field art, a touching, sweet, dark, and unbelievably original take on the classic kaijū movie. (And the fact that Colossal only had a very limited release and only pulled $4 million at the box office means that from a purely financial viewpoint, it’d be considered as a failure by the standards of most major studios.)

I suppose that’s where this brushes against a moral raw nerve for me: the consideration of films as successes or failures on the basis of box office success alone. That’s what’s made me start to ask the same question that Foster does: isn’t cinema, like all artistic endeavours, supposed to be a little less frigidly capitalistic than it seems to have become? What room is there in modern cinema for loftier goals when the major studios are rapidly increasing their focus on developing old franchises at the expense of taking greater financial risks with works that truly seek to expand the bounds of the art? Even in the franchise-building stakes, I recall reading not long ago that even the record US$2.79 billion taken at the box office by Avatar (2009), the technically groundbreaking and imaginatively vast (if in story a little derivative – I don’t remember where I first heard the description of it as basically FernGully meets Dances with Wolves IN SPAAAAAAAACE, though for my part I’m quite okay with that) film that James Cameron wants to follow up with four sequels, seems like it still won’t guarantee their future beyond the third instalment. Cameron seeks not only to entertain, but also to develop the technology and technique of filmmaking as an art and method. In filming Avatar 2 he’s had to invent an entire field of techniques for underwater motion-capture, for instance, and also sank millions of his own personal dollars into visiting the world’s deepest ocean trench – in part, to capture information and film he might be able to use in the more ocean-focused Avatar 2. But Fox Studios is hedging their bets hard even with the director of cinema history’s two highest-grossing films (the other being Titanic (1997)), despite the fact that even within a highly capitalistic mindset, one would think that Cameron should be a pretty safe bet.

Moreover, both Titanic and Avatar should be exemplars for the studios of the idea that successful melding of spectacle, introspection, and originality is not only what results in great films that we’ll remember for decades, but it’s what results in serious dough for the studios, too. Both Titanic and Avatar were stories strongly driven by character and humanity even while standing against a visually spectacular backdrop. If one goes back further, historical box-office successes tend to show the same pattern. The Sound of Music (1965), for example. E.T. (1982). Jurassic Park (1993). Gone with the Wind (1939). Lord of the Rings (2001-2003), whose enormous success still hasn’t kicked off any rush of cinematic high fantasy (Game of Thrones notwithstanding), and there’s plenty more that could be done in that genre to expand it beyond the sword-and-sorcery outings of earlier fantasy cinema. Even Star Wars (1977), the film that spawned the granddaddy of all franchises. Yet among those grand tentpole franchises, with lots of explosions and CG effects to ooh and aah at but often pretty forgettable stories, these others are proportionally – and becoming moreso – few and rarefied.

And that’s what leads me to worry, are studios – and not just Marvel and DC, but film studios across the board – largely starting to give up on making new stories with both spectacle and humanity because they’ve realised that mere spectacle is enough? (Christ knows Disney isn’t even making a secret of that any more, with much of their output at the moment comprising live-action retreads of films they’ve already had their greatest financial successes with, which seems to me altogether too much like a sculptor making a perfect replica of Michelangelo’s David and expecting to get as many visitors as the original.) I truly hope this isn’t the case, and even yesterday I was given another spark of optimism (which made me consider eating some of my words here) by Disney’s trailer for their upcoming adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time, a book I have fond memories of from my childhood. I suppose it’s just that – like Foster – I see some worrying trends at the moment that show no apparent signs of slowing, and they’re making me fear for the future diversity of an imaginative and thoughtful popular cinema. There are times I’m happy with bubblegum for the brain, but I still like a thick meaty peppered steak of a movie too.

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