At The Movies - The Future Of The Cinema
By Jordan Bosch
Avengers: Endgame is not the final movie of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
But you could argue it really should be. Its’ titanic scale, mountains upon mountains of fanservice, and resolution to years of build-up are on a level I can’t fathom a future movie topping, and it brings closure to some of the major characters this universe has been following for over a decade. It feels like a journey come to a worthy end.
That’s not to say I want the MCU to end necessarily. In fact I feel it’s been at its best these last few years through films like the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, Thor: Ragnarok, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and of course, Endgame -so the future looks bright at least from a film quality standpoint.
However I’ll acknowledge that if they did cease production it would be the althier for Hollywood itself. It would at least give Disney one less tool to rule the global box office with.
The ubiquity of Disney within the Hollywood, and by extent, worldwide film industry is extremely daunting. It should be obvious why the monopoly Disney’s gradually edging towards is a terrible thing for popular cinema, but it’s equally obvious why the general public would prefer to conveniently ignore it in favour of enjoying the content Disney creates. Because it is good content! In addition to the Marvel movies, the Star Wars franchise under Disney’s umbrella has flourished greatly (except for Solo), Pixar movies are still quite good, and Disney Feature Animation has been knocking it out of the park more often than not.
The only weak spot has been the live-action remakes, and those make so much money purely off of millennial nostalgia that Disney doesn’t care that they suck. The acquisition of Twentieth Century Fox throws a wrench into things sure, given it’s a more versatile studio than any of the aforementioned subsidiaries; but Disney’s likely going to streamline their output to the most recognizable properties and hire talented people to helm them so that they too will most likely be fine.
One company having this much media control is unprecedented. Of the ten highest grossing movies of all time, eight are now Disney properties, including all of the top five. And the ethical conundrum of continuing to partake in this gross capitalistic excess by paying for these products I’m not alone in struggling with nor am I fit to diagnose.
Perhaps David Mitchell was onto something in Cloud Atlas when he envisioned a future where the Disney brand has replaced the very concept of movies themselves.
But even if you believe that Disney is a good guy and that all of this will amount to something better, it’s still a strange new world we’re entering in the business of big entertainment.
You’re forced to wonder what the future of Hollywood looks like with this status quo in place and how much it will affect the larger realm of film.
In her video essay, “The Death of the Hollywood Musical”, Lindsay Ellis used the rise and decline of the grand Hollywood musical phenomenon of the 1960s to illustrate how the industry tries to chase trends even after they’ve receded in public opinion. In a way we’re seeing that now with the current pattern of studio blockbusters. Less are being produced for more money compared to twenty or thirty years ago where there was much more variety in big-budget productions.
The month of May 2019, formerly a hotspot of competition, has only two major studio releases: Pokémon: Detective Pikachu and Aladdin.
There are a number of probable factors for this, one likely being a fear of challenging the behemoth of Avengers: Endgame from the end of April, but it also speaks to a less interesting cinematic market.
Pikachu, for its merits, tells a very generic story; Aladdin tells exactly a story most of us have already seen -Endgame is the most unique of the recent blockbusters, but even it has to acquiesce to certain expectations of modern superhero media. And of course it’s worth noting that all of these are based on existing intellectual properties -as is just about every big budget movie slated to come out until the end of the year.
At least for the near future, it’s hard not to presume that original blockbusters are a thing of the past; and any that do break through will be moderate sleeper hits that still won’t stand much chance competing with the heavyweights.
Disney recently released their slate for the next eight years and post-2021 there are no new movies in development that aren’t untitled Star Wars, Marvel, Avatar, or live-action remake films. That’s not to say they won’t happen (at the very least, Pixar and Disney Feature Animation will continue trying new things); the original idea in big budget filmmaking won’t vanish entirely, but they will be fewer and far between.
And it’s worrisome. It stagnates Hollywood. Creatively, it’s limiting and doesn’t allow for much risk - which certainly lets studio heads rest easier, but it’s forgetting all the risks that have paid off in the past.
I really wish we could have a Back to the Future or a Ghostbusters in the modern movie landscape, but it’s extremely unlikely. Because we’re locked in the system, and because a lot of modern tentpole summer movies do well with audiences, Hollywood thinks they know what we want when really a lot of the time we’re merely taking what we can get.
Quality aside, a big reason almost every superhero movie is a hit has less to do with the individual viewers’ interest in the genre or the particular movie, as it is the limited options available.
That’s not to say “superhero fatigue” is really a thing, as the studios producing the biggest entries in the genre have gotten a lot better at making good movies within the superhero framework (excepting Fox); Avengers: Endgame is currently one of my favourite movies of the year, and last years’ revolutionary Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is probably the best superhero movie of the decade. But it’s still a trend, and one that could benefit from some healthy opposition.
The opposition we do get usually comes in the form of movies catering to nostalgia. Because every so often we get a well-performing franchise reboot like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle or Fox’s Planet of the Apes trilogy, Hollywood leaps on that bandwagon producing dozens of other reboots of nostalgia properties purely because a fanbase exists. This year we can expect Men in Black International, Charlie’s Angels, Rambo: Last Blood, that godawful Sonic the Hedgehog movie, and yet another Terminator -and that’s not counting the Disney remakes, What Men Want, and Hellboy.
In the case of Universal, an attempt to cash in on that, as well as the success of the MCU model, led to the ridiculously short-lived Dark Universe -one of the biggest jokes in recent Hollywood history. But it speaks to the contemporary mindset of most of the blockbuster industry: Marvel did something unconventional successfully, and suddenly everyone has to mimic it –and none have done so to any degree of success.
This looks to be the pattern going forward, and with Disney steering the Hollywood ship it’s certain to be a while before we get back to a point where the blockbuster scene isn’t dominated by titanic franchise films. Like with those grandiose Hollywood musicals, it would take a series of commercial failures in a row to change the tide. Even then it may be hard for studios to take the hint –history’s shown them to often be slow on the uptake.
And that’s not even touching on the identity crisis movies are facing now in the age of digital media. Matt Zoller Seitz, in his terrific article “What’s Next: Avengers, MCU, Game of Thrones, and the Content Endgame”, pointed out how the lines between television and film have never been so b;urred, how they and most other video media forms have come to be defined as “content” -barely distinguishable from one another, and pointed to the highly episodic nature of the MCU and Game of Thrones’ increasingly cinematic scale over the last few years culminating in the simultaneous release of Endgame and the first feature-length episode of Thrones (“The Long Night”) as a watershed:
“One is a movie experience that takes many of its stylistic cues from television. The other is a television experience that strives to be thought of as cinematic. Both are mega-entertainments that are meant to be experienced on the largest screen possible (theatrical or home) in the presence of others. Both will ultimately be viewed on the handheld device… They’re just two more pieces in the content stream, bigger and shinier than all others, but ultimately things to discuss on social media, bond over, and quickly move beyond. The state of the art.”
With the omnipresence of streaming and the demand for immediacy and accessibility, television shows have upped their game exponentially to the point series like Thrones, The Walking Dead, Stranger Things, and The Handmaid’s Tale are as cinematic in scale as the movies in theatres. I remember watching Turn: Washington’s Spies a few years back, which was about a third tier AMC series, and being surprised to find its’ budget comparable to any period movie of the 1990s.
The two mediums are definitely merging, and unlike during the advent of television, movies can’t compete by merely bolstering the spectacle. Zoller Seitz predicts that eventually the stand-alone blockbuster will go extinct entirely and it will be the television model that emerges victorious –something I find it hard not to concede, though with the addendum that it may not be permanent.
Clearly, I wish this were not the case. I wish studios would invest more in riskier projects. I wish we could see more mid-budget superhero movies like Shazam! or the first Deadpool playing alongside original studio films akin to Sorry to Bother You, The Favourite, or something even crazier -rather than consolidate all resources within established franchises. I wish we could have big movies that don’t need to be franchises. And most of all, I wish that Disney would just stop getting their hands in everything and allow healthy competition to persist.
It’s not all hopeless though. There is a sliver of optimism for the future of Hollywood.
Currently, the fifth highest grossing movie of 2019 is Alita: Battle Angel, an effects-heavy sci-fi film based on a relatively unknown manga with no franchise connection. And in the number ten spot is Us, a movie that grossed over 250 million off of Jordan Peele’s name and reputation from his previous successful horror movie Get Out. These examples prove that large audiences do exist for unknown entities (and in the case of Alita, expensive unknown entities). They crave a kind of variety that superhero movies, reboots, and franchise films, for all their versatility, just do not offer.
And if the current studio heads don’t realize it, maybe the next generation of studio heads will. After all, they’re the ones in the cinemas.