Superheroes and the Myth of the Modern Blockbuster

Is the modern blockbuster not getting the credit it really deserves?

Brendan Agnew

Contributor

Large-scale entertainment and seriously good film-making have no business being mutually exclusive.

It’s odd how this mindset has pervaded our culture over the years, but it’s undeniably become a mistaken assumption among large swaths of the general movie-going audience that entertainment doesn’t have much business being a seriously good film. The “I just want to turn my brain off” line of reasoning. Obviously this is wrong, but on the flip side, film enthusiasts, critics, and Oscar voters seem to have gotten it into their heads that a movie can’t be “seriously” good if it’s also wildly entertaining.

And that’s ridiculous.

It’s also a fairly recent development. Looking back into Hollywood’s history, elaborate spectacle and expensive entertainment was not only every bit as common (especially during the Golden Age of cinema) but there was once even a version of the modern Best Picture Oscar that went to the most impressive productions. And I’m not talking about Citizen Kane or The Third Man or Vertigo, but films with huge budgets, broad archetypal characters, larger-than-life movie stars, fantastical elements, and spectacle to spare. Films of this sort (the good ones, of course) weren’t just successful, but also very highly thought-of, and many get named today as seminal classics of the medium. King Kong. The Adventures of Robin Hood. Ben-Hur. Star Wars. Raiders of the Lost Ark. To say nothing of countless westerns (basically that era’s equivalent of the comic book movie) over the decades.

Do we see a “brainless popcorn film” among those? Heck, even as late as the 80′s it seems like we had higher expectations for and better recognition of blockbuster entertainment – some people forget, but Raiders was a Best Picture nominee. Yes, that Raiders. A pulp throwback of a movie with snakes, skeleton-filled tombs, and two-fisted archaeology where Nazis get shredded by propellers and have their faces melted by God. Best Picture nominee.

Now it seems like there’s a widening chasm between what’s recognized as a movie that’s “safe” to heap tons of artistic praise on and a movie that intends to make money. Case in point: the way the Academy has been turning up its nose at genre/blockbuster fare over the past decade or so. We all remember the bewildered outcry when The Dark Knight didn’t get any sort of Oscar recognition, and even The Lord of the Rings trilogy only scored anything more than technical awards with the final installment. And that was a trilogy of films that not only got near-universal acclaim, but were based on a work of classic literature and so had built-in reason as being “safe” to take somewhat seriously.

And now one of the best films I’ve seen in theaters this year is The Avengers. No, not because I have some sort of life-long love for the characters (I don’t, more a Spidey and Batman guy myself), but because it’s an incredibly well-crafted movie APART from being a gloriously entertaining thrill-ride that made boatloads of cash. But there’s still an air of hesitation when praising the film, because it’s “only” a good action flick, because it’s “only” a summer blockbuster meant for mass consumption, because it’s “only” a silly comic book movie about monsters and superheros and aliens and robots.

But, should that really matter? The film has great pacing, a tight script, perfect escalation of action/tension/stakes, a finale that (literally) throws down the gauntlet to every other superhero movie ever made, AND is 100% character-driven from beginning to end. Remove the word “superhero” from that last sentence, and you have a description of a great movie in any genre.

So why do we marginalize the quality – or need for it – in this “type” of movie at all? Well, to answer that, we’ll have to look a bit closer at Hollywood’s history. Just bear with me…

Hey, remember the 70′s? Actually, you do, even if you weren’t alive during the decade, because it changed movie-making forever. Many critics, especially of the old guard, refer to this as the “last great decade of cinema” and for good reason. With the collapse of the studio system in the 60′s (thanks to the proliferation of TV and too many costly flops in attempting to compete with it), the business was desperate to turn a profit. So newer blood like Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and career mavericks like Stanley Kubrick and Mel Brooks (and MANY others including Woody Allen, Brian De Palma, Roman Polanski… you get the idea) were suddenly getting money thrown at them. The studios were giving financing to ideas that never would have been given so much support under the “old model” – if they’d been greenlit at all. In return the studios (and audiences) got A Clockwork Orange, The Godfather/The Godfather Part II, Jaws, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Taxi Driver and of course, STAR WARS.

It was an unprecedented confluence of talent, resources, passion, and experimentation, breaking free from the chains of Old Hollywood just short years after Hollywood itself had become free of the restrictive (and often arbitrary) Hays Code. The Supreme Court ruled in 1952 that movies were protected under the First Amendment because they qualified as Art. This was a huge step in legitimizing the medium, the first time it had been recognized this way, and led to Hollywood challenging the Hays Code and its eventual dismantling in 1968. Meaning that directors had near-unprecedented creative freedom to push the social and artistic boundary as well as financing for dream projects.

So what does all that have to do with the current state of blockbusters? Well, everyone got a little spoiled by the 70′s. After movies like Star Wars and Jaws made Hollywood an enticing investment, multinational corporations bought up the companies, leading to a return of the all-powerful studio system, just in a different form. These companies had found a new highly-profitable demographic in the teenage market, and had gotten a taste of the massive profits that this market could bring in. They wanted a reliable way of repeating that success, and in the wake of becoming economically powerful again, they had the control to start building it from formula. And since not every director-driven auteur project was a success, they didn’t feel the need to constantly seek out auteurs for their mega-productions, rather safe and visually-interesting film-makers that could be counted on to play by the studios’ rules.

This is more or less where the current model of big-budget film-making comes from – studio-driven mega-producers (like Joel Silver, Jerry Bruckheimer, etc.) backing high-profile properties driven by mega-popular movies stars and special effects first, story second, and a director’s vision a distant third. This is where the Tony Scotts and Michael Bays and Brett Ratners became the names of blockbuster cinema, and while some still managed to make great films (sometimes by accident, in the case of Bay’s The Rock) or turned out to be great directors in their own right (like Scott), the director-driven visionary blockbuster had morphed into something else.

The studio-driven formula popcorn film.

I seriously think this is where our modern conception of large-scale entertainment comes from. Critics, film historians, enthusiasts, students, and voting members of the Academy (largely actors) remembered the time when Hollywood EARNED its successes by taking creative gambles with cinematic pioneers, making movies that pushed the boundaries, and this new version of the blockbuster is a shallow reflection of that time. Audiences still craved huge productions for their theatrical escapism, and so still flocked to see blockbusters even though they might not have been as bold or revolutionary (and, indeed, as good) as they had been for a few years. This seems to have put both “sides” at odds with one another, one group sneering at the taste of those they see enabling Hollywood’s bloated and safe approach, the other scoffing at the idea that there has to be anything stimulating behind sweeping visuals or gunfights or explosions.

But this really doesn’t have to be the case. While it’s a shame that it’s not the rule, we still see studios throw large sums of money at directors for odd projects. Spielberg never went away, but there are new voices getting courted as well. In the wake of The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson got a Titanic-sized budget for a 3-hour long period remake of King Kong, something he’d been wanting to make for years and not exactly the safest of best. WB enticed Christopher Nolan back for a Dark Knight sequel by throwing $160 million and a prime July release date for his long-gestating Inception. And in my first article on WhatCulture! I mentioned Warner’s enthusiastic backing of Pacific Rim, Guillermo Del Toro’s crazy “giant monsters vs. giant mechs” sci-fi epic.

And I’d wear my fingers to the bone if I tried to include all the pioneers of animation that have pushed the envelope at Disney or especially Pixar, with modern takes on classical material or bold new ideas.

But even when adapting or sequelizing we’ve still seen a few creative risks. The entire Harry Potter series could have by-the-numbers fluff, but instead multiple directors got to take a stab at bringing something new to the table, meaning we got to see Spanish filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron and first-time director David Yates help turn the franchise into something truly legendary. Christopher Nolan got to push the boundaries of what a summer blockbuster could be with The Dark Knight because Warner Bros. felt secure that the Batman franchise would make money regardless – yes it was a calculation on their part, it gave us a hell of a film.

And of course there’s The Avengers, and the brilliant decision to give the directing reins to Joss Whedon. Nerd icon though he may be, Whedon was hardly what you would call a “safe bet” – primarily a TV show-runner whose last two shows had been cancelled, whose one feature film was a box office disappointment. There were definitely safer directors to give nearly a quarter-billion dollars and the history of your franchise. And while Marvel’s superhero team-up was guaranteed to be successful, it was the amount of creative freedom given to a talented and genre-savvy director that helped make it the third highest-grossing film of all time.

Because of that, Marvel not only asked him back for a sequel but made him architect of the entire second phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Quite a jump for a guy who 10 years ago couldn’t keep his space western on the air.

So there’s still real talent and greatness and daring to be found even in the profit-driven age of modern blockbusters. It may sound like a case of “take what you can get” but there’s something to be said for praising genuine quality when its found, whatever form it takes. Audiences have shown this year that they DO know how to reward quality and ignore schlock. We don’t have to belittle someone’s taste just because they don’t demand much from a movie, but we can, and we should acknowledge it when it’s delivered to is.

Just because a movie is big and loud doesn’t mean it HAS to be dumb, and the smart ones shouldn’t be looked down on just because they have some profitable trappings. At times they’re necessary, they’re often enjoyable, and that should never be looked down on in a movie.