"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.

Anyway…

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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TV Recap: AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D – Season 2 Episode 20: "SCARS"

Here’s three things I don’t often get to say about AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D, all three of which apply to this overally pretty terrific installment:

“I didn’t see that coming.”
“I’m glad I didn’t see that coming.”
“I don’t know who/what that’s supposed to be.”
SPOILERS (including AGE OF ULTRON) after the jump…
Though it’s played coy with the reveals and teases, AGENTS’ second season has spent a solid chunk of it’s time setting up what looked like a decent if fairly predictable scenario to lead into yet another new status-quo – either for next season or (some suspect) for CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (next year) and THE INHUMANS (2019). While it still seems like pipe-laying for those films is very much a part of the game plan, “Scars” served to blow the “predictable” part to kingdom come; once more establishing that this offbeat little series has quietly managed to become the most consistently surprising corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
To wit: Season 3 has had two overarching plotlines that revealed themselves in full around the midpoint and have merged as we hit the final stretch. Plotline 1: Agent Skye is actually an Inhuman -specifically the daughter of the leader/protector of a secret Inhuman community. Plotline 2: There’s a secondary, better-armed would-be S.H.I.E.L.D relaunch that doesn’t think Coulson is fit to be Director. Plotline 3: Coulson is keeping a second set of secrets from his own team, something called “Theta Protocol.”
Plotline 3, revealed in full as “Scars” opens, turns out to be our innevitable tie-in to AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON: “Theta Protocol” refers to Coulson having kept a spare Hellicarrier gassed-up and ready should Nick Fury need it, and said “need” arises when Fury used it to evacuate civilians during Ultron’s doomsday gambit – which strengthens my position last week that at least some AGENTS OF S.H.I.EL.D characters should’ve been on the ship in the movie, if for no other reason than the right kind of cheap pop.
But it’s Plotline’s 1 and 2 that still came front and center, and for awhile looked to be heading in a pretty obvious direction: “Real S.H.I.E.L.D” would turn out to be hostile to the existance of The Inhumans, triggering a conflict (exacerbated by Raina, who’s been using her newfound future-telling powers to undermine Skye’s mother Jaiying as leader of this branch of Inhumans) that would either mirror, spill-over into or even trigger the events of CIVIL WAR. Simple, effective, and in-keeping with Marvel’s no-longer-secret goal of the INHUMANS as a franchise filling in the missing X-MEN spots in their Universe.
And for most of it’s running time, “Scars” kept up the appearance of following exactly that path: No sooner had Coulson leveraged his role in thwarting Ultron into convincing Gonzales to integrate the two S.H.I.E.L.Ds (Gonzales and his brain trust becoming the new Security Council, Coulson remaining director) than did the Inhumans plot threaten to make things complicated all over again: Team Gonzales has figured out how to track Gordon the teleporter back to Afterlife (Jaiying’s Inhuman retreat) and want to move on them – one of S.H.I.E.L.D’s functions, you’ll remember, being “indexing” superhumans and keeping tabs on them. Furthermore, Gonzales himself wants to be the one to have a sit-down with Jaiying, not the “compromised” Coulson. 
Meanwhile, Raina is suspiciously warning that if anyone from S.H.I.E.L.D is allowed to meet Jaiying, a war is going to break out. Oh, and the “mystery item” in The Icarus’ cargo hold? It’s some kind of ancient Kree weapon whose existence terrifies The Inhumans. And so, the stage is set…
…and then everything goes in totally direction. Short version: Gonzales really does come in peace – but that doesn’t mean Raina wasn’t telling the truth! Jaiying – whom, you’ll remember, was tortured and (literally) butchered by one of HYDRA’s more unapologetically Nazi-descended adherents – turns out to have very strong feelings about the idea of making lists of “different” people, and not only does she kill Gonzales and wound herself to feign self-defense. And that’s after she’s already sent Skye’s dad Calvin into S.H.I.E.L.D’s “custody” having already downed multiple vials of the chemicals that give him his Mr, Hyde powers.

Very unexpected and well-executed, as twists go (though it becomes slightly less-so when you consider something needed to go wrong with Jaiying in order for Skye to come back to the team for Season 3) – it’s nice to see things inverted so profoundly and still work out narratively. We’re still getting the expected S.H.I.E.L.D/Inhumans fight with the expected people caught up in the middle, but on significantly different terms than were imagined beforehand.

I like where this is going, and it should make for a heck of a Season Finale next week… with the exception of the “Ward and still-evil Agent 33 kidnapped Bobbi” plot, which still isn’t interesting and feels too blatantly of existing mainly to launch the already-announced Bobbi/Hunter spin-off series next year. But, maybe that storyline will surprise us, too.

PARTING THOUGHTS

  • Joss Whedon has lately been pretty open about how he’s not really onboard with the idea of Coulson’s still-living-ness being acknowledged in the movies. Since he’s no longer the guiding hand of THE AVENGERS going forward, however, 
  • No, I have no idea what the shape-shifting Kree rock thing in the cargo hold actually is. At the very least, its design and behavior doesn’t line up with any relic/object/etc I’m familiar with from the comics’ Universe – but, then again, considering they wound up hiding The Infinity Stones inside various other relics throughout the series, it really could be anything.
  • The whole through-line of “May thinks of Skye as surrogate daughter” has paid off a lot better than I think anyone could’ve anticipated.
  • Jaiying explains that while Terrigen Mist is not harmful to humans, The Inhumans (or her branch of them, at least) use artificially-grown Terrigen Crystals to which exposure is lethal because it contains trace elements of Diviner Metal. This A.) Feels like a pretty-good indicator that the cache of still-missing “pure” crystals will end up being triggered to “power-up” all or most of Earth’s Inhuman population to kickstart the plot of either CIVIL WAR, INHUMANS or both; and B.) Is not a plot-hole – Tripp died because a piece of Diviner shrapnel hit his chest, not from the Mist being released.
  • Re: The possibility of a CIVIL WAR lead-in: The CW comic had the push to register powered-persons kicked-off by a superhero brawl setting off an explosion in a populated area. Some kind of “Terrigen Bomb” going off and creating hundreds of thousands of newly-powered people all at once (likely resulting in chaos and plenty of injury/death even beyond an explosion) would likely have the same effect. Keep in mind that it’s a (minor but highlighted) plot-point in AGE OF ULTRON that Captain America sees enhanced people like the Maximoff twins as largely indistinguishable from his own situation.
  • Skye calls them “Inhumans” for the first time, saying it’s their “ancient” name. This would seem to confirm that the more familiar “Royal Family” characters are either not believed present anymore or not known this sect.
  • While acknowledging that it’s likely a budget thing, I’ll be really happy if Mr. Hyde goes full Hulk-out in the finale.

NEXT WEEK:
“S.O.S” teases Skye vs May plus everyone vs everyone else, in what I’m guessing will end on some sort of cliffhanger – even though a Season 3 renewal hasn’t been officially announced, everyone involved has been talking like it’s a given (I can’t see Disney not letting the series run to a syndication-friendly length) and even if it doesn’t happen the Mockingbird/Hunter spin-off is already in the cards.

ALL-NEW GAME OVERTHINKER – "Nintendo – WTF???"

Okay guys, here’s the deal:

Yes, The Game OverThinker (aka me) is back in an all-new, all-different incarnation at ScrewAttack. You can watch the first episode on YouTube now (direct link to SA once there is one.)

This show and a second top-secret series will be running on alternating weekends for several weeks heading into Summer. Will there be more after that? Well, we want that to happen – but whether or not it does is at least in part up to YOU; since things can really only stick around if people want them to.

That’s where you folks come in…

If you like the new show, liked the old show, like my other shows, want me to keep producing content in general, here’s how you can help: Watch the show. Like/favorite/etc it. Tweet it. Facebook it. Share to every social media spot you post to. Send it to as many friends, family, colleagues, associates, enemies, whatever and ask them to ALSO like/favorite/tweet/facebook etc it. Hell, if you want to tell ScrewAttack that you like the show and want to keep seeing more of it, I bet that’s a good idea, too!

I’m proud of this new series, I want it to succeed, and I need it to not just do well – I need it to blow the hell up 🙂

So, please – help me blow this thing up, huh?


P.S. If you’re a fan of my other work and would like to show support for that as well, there’s still always The MovieBob Patreon

TV Recap: AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D – Season 2 Episode 19: "THE DIRTY HALF DOZEN"

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Much of “THE DIRTY HALF DOZEN” is predicated on a pair of ideas that I’m not sure have even half as much truth in them as AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D seems to think they do. Firstly: That at this point, people are still expecting/demanding this series to drop everything and bend over backwards to reference whatever is currently happening in the Marvel movies. Secondly: That there’s enough lingering nostalgia for the series’ Season 1 incarnation that a contrived re-grouping of The Original Team Arrangement will be a big pop.

It’s not an episode without it’s charms (there’s a RAID-inspired long-take shootout sequence for Skye that probably rates as Chloe Bennett’s best action moment thus far) and it says something about how far the series has come that my reaction to an MCU tie-in episode is “Guys, everyone knows The Avengers are fighting a robot this weekend. Can we get back to the story at hand?;” but it’s distracting none the less.

SPOILERS and more after the jump…

Continuing from last week, Coulson’s S.H.I.E.L.D and “Real S.H.I.E.L.D” have set aside their differences (or so it seems) in order to drop the hammer on a HYDRA base where Dr. List is conducting experiments on abducted Inhumans (the ads are finally calling them that, at least) and also Deathlok as a “satellite program” of what Baron Strucker is up to over in AGE OF ULTRON. Skye wants to go help, her mother (Inhuman safe-space leader Jaiying) is against it for “let’s not let the world know we’re here” reasons.

The decision gets made for them when Raina, having figured out that her “nightmares” are actually the power to see the future, outs Skye as Jaiying and Calvin/Mr. Hyde’s daughter and reveals that she’s “supposed” to go help. And so we get an awkward “Season 1 reunion” middle-act wherein Ward rejoins Skye, Coulson, May, Fitz and Simmons on The Bus to go take on the bad guys and ruminate over how much their relationships have changed in the interim.

This is all well and good, and the “storm the base” stuff works in the scrappy, low-tech terms the series has by now mastered (again, Skye’s one-woman-army bit is a seasonal high point). Unfortunately, the tie-in stuff rears it’s head in a way that’s both annoyingly intrusive (so wait – all of S.H.I.E.L.D, random individual people and a bunch of The Avengers’ sidekicks/friends can know Coulson is alive… but just not The Avengers themselves for some reason?) and also not intrusive enough (Team Coulson is essentially doing pre-rinse for ULTRON’s pre-credits battle against Strucker, just in a less-expensive location with a less-expensive HYDRA guy.) I’m hesitant to mark things down too much here, because it feels like “What is Theta Protocol?” will be an ULTRON-fallout thing, but for now it’s all very awkward.

(Sidebar: Without spoiling, there’s an “All is lost… wait, no it’s not!” beat in the finale of AGE OF ULTRON where the Agents could’ve shown up for totally logical, sensible reasons; and it felt like a missed opportunity that they didn’t. I mean, if they wanted to leave out or “background detail” Coulson so as not to have to deal with that whole can of worms; some combination of May, Skye, Fitz, Simmons, Hunter, Bobbi, Mac, The Koenigs etc could’ve been onhand easily. It would’ve gotten a huge pop from the diehards in the audience while not affecting non-viewers one way or the other.)

On the other hand, the goings on do seem to introduce (re-introduce?) a new complication that could have pretty interesting implications: Since the return from break, the idea that some kind of dark switch has been flipped on Simmons’ moral compass has cropped up intermittently, but for awhile it seemed to be limited exclusively to her feelings about how to deal with Enhanced (“powered people”) threats… but that no longer seems to be the case: She inserts herself into the field mission with the expressed intent of revenge-killing Ward, but instead ends up murdering HYDRA lackey Sunil Bakshi instead – with Ward being aware of this and going on the run again.

That’s… interesting, if they do anything with it. I’m not sure I’m 100% sold on the idea of Simmons going “evil” somehow, but I’m interested to see them try it.

PARTING THOUGHTS:

  • I know I sound like a broken record here, but Ward still isn’t interesting. He only briefly became interesting once his Ken Doll blandness was revealed to be have been a cover in Season 1, it hasn’t carried over into his role as a general bad guy and this new idea that he’s angling for some kind of redemption arc (“returning” Agent 33 to S.H.I.E.L.D for her own good) isn’t helping either.
  • Glad to see the mystery of what The Icarus (Gonzales’ ship) is hiding in its cargo hold turn up again, if only because I like that I still have no clue what it actually is (Mar-Vell or The Abomination remain my hopes.)
  • Blowing up The Bus for good should’ve felt more substantive than it did. I get that it’s meant to be an ironic punchline to the “return of Season 1” thing, but it didn’t really land.

NEXT WEEK:
Yup. Surprising absolutely nobody, “SCARS” appears to be the beginning of Good S.H.I.E.L.D and Bad S.H.I.E.L.D coming to blows over how to respond to the existance of The Inhumans, who we’re finally calling that by name. This is the first real step in AGENTS’ first turn at laying foundations for events in the Cinematic Universe (re: establishing The Inhumans as the MCU’s X-Men/Mutants stand-in) rather than reacting to them, so it’s going to be telling to see show that goes.

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