A collapse in sight

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What does it take to make a universe implode? Marvel doesn’t want to know. Now owned by Disney, Marvel Studios’ Marvel Cinematic Universe passed $12 billion at the box-office in July, and its future is set out in seeming perpetuity. Most of us have only the dimmest idea what we’ll be doing on 5 July 2019, but Marvel are confident that we’ll be queuing for an as yet unmade SpiderMan film then.

Thor: Ragnarokis 2017’s third MCU instalment, and after a short gap Black Panther will usher in 2018. Presidents come and go, nations rise and fall, but superhero films, it’s presumed, continue forever. Thor: Ragnarokticks all the MCU’s strengths and weaknesses. It imports an unlikely indie filmmaker — here Taika Waititi, New Zealander director of What We Do In the Shadows— to add an engaging, hip sensibility between CGI fight scenes, much as Stan Lee’s Jewish New York patter grounded and leavened Jack Kirby’s cosmic art in the original 1960s comics.

Jeff Goldblum’s turn as supervillain the Grandmaster could be a night-club act from a smoky dive back then, and the film’s rootedness in its halfcentury old source extends beyond Lee’s inevitable cameo, to its Kirbyesque title lettering and design. Waititi’s film is fun and fast-paced. But it’s already less fresh than Thor: The DarkWorld (2013) or the two films, which really began Marvel Studios’ bonanza, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man(2008) and Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (2012). The former ran on Robert Downey Jr’s jittery riffs on his post-addiction persona, routines we’ve now been hearing for nearly a decade.


On the other hand, Whedon ingeniously expressed his love for the Avengers, made anarchic sparks fly from Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, and powered it all with a humane vision. Whedon, though, was part of the problem. “You don’t want to feel like Episode Two of anything. That’s a bad feeling,” he worried to Wired when Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) was released. But this was a sequel which began in the middle, and didn’t really end (a feeling the MCU’s teasing post-credits sequences perpetuate).

What’s more, Whedon had already introduced TV audiences to the comics concepts of connected universes and angst-ridden story-arcs with Buffy the Vampire Slayer 20 years ago. Russell T Davies’s 2005 Doctor Who reboot was among the shows which closely followed this example, gaining spin-off series and the tone of an endless, portentous saga. The Doctor was lost in the “Whoniverse” (James Bond was another veteran who’d soon be saddled with a leaden mythology in the otherwise excellent Skyfall).

Whedon quit Marvel in 2016, burnt-out. But he has since bitten the bullet to co-write and direct reshoots for Justice League, the stuttering DC Extended Universe’s attempt to replicate The Avengers’ success (with only Wonder Woman liked by anyone much, four otherwise glum films in). Twelve billion dollars buys plenty of imitators.

Marvel’s pre-Disney distributors, Paramount, have commissioned writer Akiva Goldsman to create a Transformers Cinematic Universe around an already witlessly derivative franchise.

Universal resurrected its 1930s horror properties for a Dark Universe which has already failed twice with Dracula Untold (2014) and Tom Cruise calamity The Mummy (2017). Bride of Frankenstein is next up for desecration. Disney meanwhile owns not just Marvel Studios, but Star Wars, and has scheduled the Star Wars Anthology to run in the fallow years between the original series.

The first release, Rogue One, was the most thrilling and romantic Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back. Co directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s removal from 2018 release Solo, though, shows the limitations of films made to make billions. These other floundering “universes” demonstrate the achievement of the MCU and its visionary instigator, Marvel Studios president and lifelong Marvel fan Kevin Feige.

The nimble scripts and character acting, which really animate its CGI, and its interconnections’ ingenuity, also vastly improve on the old Rocky, Rambo and Lethal Weapon franchises. They would never have let Lethal Weapon creator Shane Black get away with the wild tonal swerves of Ben Kingsley’s icon-undermining Mandarin in Iron Man 3.

On the other hand, Black’s female characters were scaled back because Disney doubted their merchandise potential. As Edgar Wright discovered when his long cherished Ant-manvision was nixed, these films are art up to a point. Twenty-first century technology has let superheroes fly gracefully from the comic-book page. But the cinema economy they dominate resembles the 1950s, when a desperate industry used Biblical epics and 3- D to lure audiences to spectacles they couldn’t see on TV. That effort was so hollow that Hollywood was on the point of collapse by the 1960s’ end. Today’s cinema-going feels equally unhealthy.

Disney/Marvel and Warner/DC are forward-planning their universes into 2019. Plans for when we’ve had enough of superheroes and star warriors seem considerably less advanced. Even cowboys bit the boxoffice dust in the end. And audiences aren’t being catered for in great numbers with anything else.

“We’re all trying to work out how we can connect God’s Own Country to the Marvel Cinematic Universe,” art-house distributor Artificial Eye’s Head of Theatrical Sales James King wryly states. “The way things are is putting all of our industrial eggs in one basket, and it’s not a safe basket. It’s not very healthy, and it’s not very interesting. Once fatigue sets in, and audiences have a bad experience watching Suicide Squad or whatever, that’s potentially someone who won’t go to the cinema next week, or next year.”

Though he blames Brexit’s temporary effect more than Batman, King has noticed a narrowing of audience tastes. “We’ve seen a change in the market this year. The types of films people are willing to see are less challenging. Even in the mainstream sector, Blade Runner 2049 is really under performing. It’s not the sort of easy escapism people are looking for. Audiences are becoming more conservative, and independent cinemas are becoming more conservative.They’re no longer taste-makers.

They’re showing La La Land (and Rogue One) when it already has multi-million-pound marketing. It’s a vicious circle.” When the Marvel Cinematic Universe makes $12 billion, Rogue One makes $1 billion, and even Universal’s derided The Mummy makes $400 million, what does everyone else make? Marvel and its imitators may wish to ponder not just the sudden collapse of the seemingly perennial Western in the 70s, but the fate of Marvel Comics itself. Lee and Kirby’s radical comics revolution in the 60s ran aground in the 70s.

Much fascinating work was still done. But sales haemorrhaged in part because of the Universe. Spider-Man swinging across the Manhattan skyline was exciting. Then the sky filled with superheroes, and interconnected storylines made new readers feel like they were entangled in Spider-Man’s web.

One day cinema’s universes, too, will collapse under their own groaning weight. When the only box-office certainty left becomes a black hole, let’s hope someone knows what to do next.

(The Independent)