"The Marvel Industrial Complex," A Response

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So, this piece by James Rocchi, titled “The Marvel Industrial Complex,” is the big film-writer discussion piece of the day; so it’s incumbent that I weigh in on it even though my basic thoughts can be pretty handily summarized: I don’t agree with a lot of the overall premise and think that a certain amount of misreading the text (re: the movies) is involved in a few too many of his conclusions, but Rocchi is a really sharp, smart guy and the piece is exceptionally well-argued – to the point that, while it’s tempting to dismiss it out of hand as the same old “film critic rails against empty blockbusters” narrative re-skinned with a topical/clickable superhero theme (although it sort-of unavoidably is exactly that) it’s just not proper to do so.


The thing that tends to stick with me about pieces like this is that, once they move on from the criticisms specific to the topic at hand (example: It’s hard to argue that the demands of globalism requiring good/evil conflicts to be ever further removed from any relevant real-world context isn’t creatively/narratively stifling, even for superhero movies) it all starts to descend into pointing out enduring truisms and insisting (against somewhat overwhelming evidence) that they are somehow “worse” in the present context, ergo:

YES, big-budget blockbuster movies tend to forego depth, texture and edge in their quest to appeal to the broadest possible audience… but somehow this fact that has existed since the Silent Era becomes exponentially worse because the broadly-sketched caricatures of Good and Evil are now wearing capes instead of cowboy hats (or badges, or pirate outfits, or whatever.)

YES, film writers who earn their clicks in the digital salt-mine by breathlessly publishing pieces about Infinity Stones and Continuity and whatever other easter-eggs Marvel peppers their films with (guilty) are effectively engaging in free marketing for the studios… but somehow this is MUCH more grievous a journalistic sin than handing studios free publicity by reporting on celebrity “news” (i.e. “What!? [Actress] said something provocative and headline-grabby? And it just happens to be the same week her new movie comes out!??”) in decades past?

YES, for the pricetag of one AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON you could make a dozen romantic comedies, or workplace dramas, or important message-pieces; and the more studios are able to rely on big-ticket features the less inclined they’ll be to spread the resources. That’s a shame, but it’s always been a shame. But the idea that if the “Marvel Boom” had never happened Hollywood would be spending it’s money on less expensive, more nourishing (or, at least, more diversely-targeted) fare is ridiculous on its face – the money would simply be going to blockbusters just as big, just as bloated and just as “empty” but about different subjects, like scifi actioners (the 90s) buddy-cops (80s) natural disasters (70s) Biblical Tales (60s) or WWII (50s.)

Eventually, even the best-intentioned versions of this line of thinking transform into the film-genre version of white music journos railing against hip-hop amid its ascendence; wherein legitimate criticism/analysis would inevitably devolve into a stream of asinine assertions that the violence (“I shot a man in Reno…”) misogyny (“Baby it’s cold outside…”) and winking nods to real-life criminality (“Jailhouse rock”) in white popular-music was somehow less objectionable than the modern variations on the same coming out of Terrifying Young Black Men.

And while I don’t know enough of Mr. Rocchi’s background to even think about placing him decidedly in this particular camp, I can’t help but be reminded in reading the piece again of similar dire contemplations by so many other critics; and in regards to those… well, I’m not someone who likes to armchair-diagnose the psyches of others, but in those cases (again, not necessarily including this current subject) it always ends up reading like personal resentment at professional alienation. Not saying it always is, just my read.

What I mean is, it’s hard not to read takedown after takedown of this particular genre (and this particular studio – I have a sneaking suspicion that many critics are aching for an excuse to throw support behind the fandom-enraging but supposedly more “filmmaker driven” DC Universe movies) at this particular moment in time and not begin to ask if it really is about an ingrained bias against the genre; and while I don’t think that’s the general case I think it’s part of the equation. The fact is, you can draw a direct line down the middle of all of professional film criticism (usually but not always generationally) between folks who, in addition to being cinephiles, also came up with the rest of the “geek ephemera” as part of their cultural development and those who… didn’t.

Thusly, because it’s so much easier for that first group to “engage” with what happens to be the overwhelmingly dominant genre/movement, that gives them a professional advantage that is often seen as unearned or unjust to the point of real, tangible resentment: “I can break down the aesthetic through-line of Lars Von Trier’s entire post-Dogme95 output, but it won’t draw 1/20th the traffic of some brat explaining whose giant dead head that was in the goddamn space raccoon movie!?” Of course you’d be pissed, why wouldn’t you be pissed?

There’s always a certain amount of resentment, especially in journalism and art, at generational “movements” sweeping their predecessors aside; but it really bubbles up hardcore when said generational movement can be easily viewed as one singular “other” – the aforementioned blacklash against the rise of hip-hop was very much “about” resentment at the idea of the “youth rebellion” music-mantle passing from white rockers to Black rappers. (And no, this doesn’t mean anyone is being “called a racist” – take that back to Tumblr and express it through some FROZEN fan-art, please.)

Likewise, I think it’s not out of line to suggest that the Marvel/comic/superhero backlash is coming at least in part from a place of resentment that the center of the Film Fandom universe has shifted from the repertory theater/coffee shop/cocktail bar to the comic book store/internet/social media world; that the “heat” in the business of film-writing is now mainly on a generational subset of folks whose connection to film and criticism began with the build-up to (and group-therapy come-down from) THE PHANTOM MENACE, got supercharged by the unprecedented web-news presence of the LORD OF THE RINGS, HARRY POTTER, SPIDER-MAN and X-MEN series in the early-00s and has now found them as vanguards of The New Mainstream in what I guess we have to call The Marvel Age of Movies. Rocchi’s piece specifically namechecks Devin Faraci, who’s damn near the poster child for this evolution: A guy who turned commenting on film-geek gossip forums into a paying gig and now operates the ultra-influential cinephile tastemaker site Birth.Movies.Death.

It’s going to be interesting to see who “breaks” first here, the backlasher-critics or the thing they’re backlashing at. A lot of the consternation about “superhero fatigue” (or lack thereof) is predicated on the idea (fear, occasionally) that the genre is self-sustaining and ending-proof: If Marvel releases ONE dud, three more are always still already in production and one of them is bound to hit and stop the “slippery slope talk.” To a very real degree, Marvel’s real genius has been to recognize that the media landscape of the present day allows the same content-publishing approach they built a comics empire on to be translated into movies and TV shows – and that comics empire lasted from the early-60s all the way into the mid-90s before it hit serious turbulence. On the other hand, Warner Bros is betting the farm on BATMAN V SUPERMAN being massive and beloved enough to spur interest in a second, competing superhero universe; but if audiences react to the film as unevenly as they’ve responded to it’s marketing thus far… who knows? Could a failure that size be catastrophic enough to shake the whole industry out of it’s comic-book love affair?

I get the sense that pretty soon you’re going to see a concerted effort by “non geek” film press to simply ignore the genre outright, or at least to start treating the Marvel Universe productions the way it did James Bond movies for a good stretch; i.e. acknowledge that the built-in fanbase doesn’t care what they think, that the series can really only be properly reviewed against its other entries (see also: ROCKY II – V) and only acknowledging when something otherwise noteworthy occurs within (“Oh! Marvel finally did their female-led movie!”)

I’m not sure how feasible that is (the audience wants what it wants), and I also don’t think it’d be for the best. It’s certainly possible to be a film writer and not deal primarily with what’s actually happening or relevant in the present of the medium, but the best and the brightest of “real” film journalism doesn’t want to engage this genre in a deeper way (and I think that’s what Rocchi’s piece is sincerely trying to do, at least to begin with) on any level other than “This stuff isn’t worth my time and why don’t you care about how little I care!?” well, that’s going to be a loss for the genre and for the writers.

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