Are Iron Man and Superman responsible for the death of cinema as we know it? Is too much of the corporate machine kryptonite for creativity?
For most of us, the term break provides a rare opportunity to get together with family members and argue about everything we usually avoid talking about. This year, it feels like there’s more to bicker about than most. So, let’s cross off politics and religion and go for something we can all agree on – that Marvel has killed cinema.
To be fair, rumours of cinema’s impending death have been circulating since Blockbuster first started renting VHS tapes. Most often, innovations on the viewing front have been absorbed as another way for studios to make money.
Take Labyrinth from 1986, starring a spiky-haired David Bowie. Deemed a flop on theatrical release, it was a smash on home video and is now considered a classic (even if Jim Henson never made another movie).
Big-budget films are as healthy as ever – which is fine, if comic-book movies are all you want.
The latest threat to cinema has been the advent of streaming and the smartphone. Despite televisions getting bigger (and flatter) than ever, it turns out most people are happy to watch films on a screen slightly smaller than a block of chocolate. Why go out to see a movie when you don’t even have to get out of bed? Lockdowns only accelerated this trend.
Unsurprisingly, panicked studios have leaned on big-budget spectacle and audiences’ fondness for what they already know – from Dr Strange in the Multiverse of Madness to Top Gun: Maverick, another Batman, Thor, Jurassic Park and Sonic the Hedgehog. There’s almost an air of surrender, as if to save a dying industry, studios mustn’t try anything new.
Except the industry isn’t dying. Cinema attendance is almost back to pre-pandemic numbers. Despite half as many films being released last year, takings were only down 20% on 2019. Big-budget films are as healthy as ever – which is fine, if comic-book movies are all you want.
Indie or arthouse films are vanishing. Put together on a shoestring budget, these are the sort of films where emerging directors have found their voice, pushed boundaries and unearthed new talent.
The biggest game in town risks becoming the only one.
The burst of creativity and experimentation that began with the New Hollywood movement – driven by luminaries like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg – and continued through the 90s and 2000s with Hal Hartley, Sofia Coppola and Wes Anderson – has all but burned out. Searchlight Pictures, the last bastion of indie cinema formerly known as Fox Searchlight has, like everything else, been hoovered up by Disney.
Where breakthrough indie directors once brought their unique vision to the mainstream, they are now absorbed by the Disney machine. Emerging directors such as Rian Johnson, Cate Shortland and Colin Trevorrow have been handed massive franchise productions where any idiosyncrasies are necessarily flattened out so that every new entry is much the same as the last – just as a Big Mac should taste the same, whichever ‘drive thru’ you visit.
Indie directors outside the Marvel system struggle to find distribution and land leading actors. In a viral tweet from earlier this year, director Rebecca Green said that every actor attached to her new film had dropped out in pre-production due to “Marvel, Netflix or TV opportunities”. The biggest game in town risks becoming the only one.
Until recently, many directors suggested that the streaming boom might actually benefit emerging filmmakers by widening the market. Instead, that extra bandwidth is being colonised by big-budget properties such as Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and even Hocus Pocus.
Alas, Marvel and DC have hit on the idea of the multiverse – where multiple iterations of the same character can exist side-by-side. Nostalgic for Michael Keaton’s version of Batman? You can have him and Robert Pattinson at the same time! Why settle for a single Spider-Man when seven will do?
As a critic, I know I’ve never received as much hate mail as when I’ve given a comic-book film a poor review. It’s telling that Andor, the most critically acclaimed of last year’s Star Wars crop, has been the least successful.
Marvel movies may not kill cinema, but they – and their Disney overlords – have fatally diminished it. The endpoint of pop culture capitalism looks weirdly like corporate communism, replacing freedom of choice with the bland conformity of the Soviet state. Perhaps it’s just another expression of the rising populism we see across the globe. Give the people want they want.