Superheroes Won’t Kill Cinema, Just Conversations About It

Apparently William Friedkin once again shot his mouth off about how “superhero movies have no humanity” yada yada yada film at 11. In finding out about his latest comments, I ended up in a long-winded debate on this topic with some friends and friends-of-friends on Facebook, and when I say “this topic” I mean the relative merits or qualities of superhero films and whether they’re ruining the medium. The thing is though, Friedkin (as with other filmmakers that have broached this topic in the past) is really talking about how Hollywood’s obsession with all-or-nothing, spend-money-to-make-money spectacle movies is drowning out opportunities for filmmakers like himself to make midrange, adult dramas. And the rub is that this is a wholly legitimate concern to have, and one that should be discussed at length… if we weren’t so busy arguing whether Avengers is a good movie or not.

To be fair, I will totally take some of the blame for the extremification of this discussion. I’ve repeatedly gotten defensive and argumentative in the name of the superhero films and mainstream cinema I enjoy, and last night’s Facebook debate was no different. And for folks on my side of the argument, this goes back to what I was saying yesterday regarding the “turn your brain off” people: just because other people have a negative/dismissive/superior attitude about something you like doesn’t mean you still can’t enjoy it, nor does it mean you are being judged for liking it. It’s something I sometimes lose sight of, in spite of all my attempts to be a reasonable voice in the critical conversation. But if someone is critical of something you like you react defensively, and while I don’t think I do that at the expense of other people’s perspectives very often I should still try and be more relaxed about other smart people having divergent opinions from my own.

However, the rest of the blame certainly falls with people like Friedkin and my more arthouse-inclined friends, who allow their personal distaste for these movies to merge with broader concerns about the current studio business model. What Friedkin (and Steven Soderbergh and Tony Gilroy and many others) is really concerned about is that the kind of movies he makes are not considered viable or useful by the mainstream film industry compared to big tentpoles, which at best has driven many filmmakers into the independent world for financing for their more mature, adult-oriented material. While I think this doomsaying over the state of mainstream moviemaking is a little premature and overblown* I can also understand the concern that studios don’t think non-blockbusters can regularly be considered as financially viable, despite lots of evidence to the contrary**. But unfortunately these concerns get buried under dismissive comments about popular movies, and people lay all of the blame for this current course of action at the feet of superhero films as if a) this business model hasn’t been building for the last 30 years and b) the Hollywood system wouldn’t just be making some other kind of trendy blockbuster if superheroes were less popular.

The fact is not enough people are going to talk about the disparity in greenlights/funding/marketing for medium-sized adult films if you keep packaging those concerns in a “superhero movies are trash for moronic children” context. And it’s worth noting the blockbuster obsession in Hollywood goes far beyond the superhero arms race. Indeed, I think Marvel movies tend to be better reviewed than most of their big-budget brethren, and yet they are always the first targets in these sorts of discussions, as if they alone are responsible for the likes of Friedkin not being able to get movies made. But this is a systemic industry issue, one that needs to be talked about beyond our personal preferences for movies. Whether you love or hate superhero movies, it’s worth questioning how and why movie studios prioritize certain films over others and whether this is limiting the variety of options at the multiplex. This is something that affects all of us, and we should all get past our personal grudges and defensiveness to make sure the future of film is a bright and multifaceted one.

*While these sorts of films might rely more on independent financing than they used to, there’s clearly plenty of that out there, as this fall includes movies like Sicario, Everest, Black Mass, Bridge of Spies, Steve Jobs, Spotlight, The Danish Girl, In The Heart Of The Sea, Carol, Joy and The Revenant, among others.

**Last year’s highest-grossing film was American Sniper, which cost $60 million and made $350 million domestic; Gone Girl cost $61 million and more than doubled its money domestically; Imitation Game made over $220 million worldwide on what I’m sure was a middling budget; American Hustle made $150 million in the US against a $40 million budget, etc etc; clearly there is an audience for adult-skewing dramatic material out there whether Hollywood admits it or not.

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3 Comments on “Superheroes Won’t Kill Cinema, Just Conversations About It”

  1. Andrew Geary says:

    What is lost is the fact that most adult dramas are about as bad as superhero and blockbuster films nowadays since they suffer from similar problems–bad characterization, cliched writing, obvious symbolism, etc. There are the systemic industry issues regarding why blockbusters are favored over adult dramas despite their potential to yield a profit, but there’s still the greater problem of why dramas and blockbusters are seemingly afflicted by similar, artistic ills.

    • brendanfh says:

      Yeah absolutely, quality is not more inherent in one genre or kind of film than the other. And I while I certainly expect a certain narrative/stylistic quality in superhero movies as much as anything else, there’s a certain point where pretentiousness goes too far.

      • Andrew Geary says:

        While I do think “adult dramas” have a greater potential to be great given their nature there are examples of genre films that do achieve greatness, doing more things that a lot of adult dramas merely try to attempt. I would like to see more adult dramas being made, but not if they end up being shit in the same ways superhero films are.


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