“All is changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.”
– W.B. Yeats
I watched Wonder Woman a few weeks ago. It was pretty okay. It had a protagonist you could believe in, a straightforward plot and decent performances. I couldn’t smell too much in the way of studio interference or focus group moronity. As the end credits rolled, I sat in my seat patiently and waited for some sort of post/mid-credits teaser, as is now standard operating procedure for tentpole superhero flicks. I remained in my seat as the minutes rolled by. There was nothing. I felt impatience nibbling at me. And that’s when it hit me – I had been unwittingly trained to stay right where I was, like a prize poodle at a dog show. Totalitarian blockbusters had me by the balls.
A new world order of cinema is upon us; Marvel, DC, Legendary Pictures’s forthcoming monster mash, Universal Studios and their depressingly-named Dark Universe, all shoving their monolithic IP down our gullets, like geese being overfed to make foie gras. Our multiplexes are now dominated by linked universes and franchises milked to the point of dehydration. Studios oversee gargantuan masterplans which stretch out over the years, a nightmarish celluloid dystopia, like Stalin’s five-year plan only with less starvation and more action figures and cereal tie-ins. There will be a new Star Wars film every year until further notice. Avatar will have four sequels. Transformers has a fifth installment in cinemas with more on the way, Ridley Scott wants to make another three Alien movies. An idea becomes a production line. Our bellies become pink and swollen as we gorge ourselves on the filmic feast.
Once upon a time, a film would come out. If it made enough of a critical or commercial splash, it would get a sequel. Nowadays, however, it doesn’t matter whether or not the end product is good or successful, you’re going to get a follow-up anyway. Totalitarian blockbusters are a business plan, and business plans take time. The democracy of viewership is no longer relevant, squished like a bug by the tyranny of big business. Witness the one-two punch of awfulness that was Batman v Superman, followed months later by Suicide Squad. Both films were botched, bloated and banjaxed.
Out of sheer human decency, the steamroller juggernaut should have been decommissioned ages ago, but with the bitter determination that only comes with adherence to free market capitalism, the studios flung some more money at the wall and trudged bitterly on. Wonder Woman (a decent film, but by no means the saviour of superhero movies that some are holding it up to be) was the third roll of the dice for DC, and this time the odds erred in their favour. But the worst is yet to come. The Flash, scheduled for release next year, is already in pre-production hell. We can look forward to more of this going forward.
The Mummy, the opening shot in a hail of bombardment that will be the Dark Universe, has opened to uniformly shitty reviews and middling box office. This will change nothing. Films are now made for foreign markets, where financial shortfalls can be made up for. The ensuing problem here is that studios then need to tailor content to those same foreign markets, each with their cultural norms and taboos, in such a way that will not confuse or offend anyone, anywhere, in any capacity. Witty, inventive blockbusters give way to generic, cookie-cutter dross that challenges no-one and pastes vapid smiles across the faces of all who bear witness to it.
Totalitarian blockbusters are even pummelling us into submission with their marketing. Remember the good old days when a film would have just one trailer? Now there is the pre-teaser, followed by the teaser, followed by the Trailer, followed by the Second Trailer, followed by a Final Trailer, all of which show all the best bits of a film and ruins any element of surprise or discovery for an audience. This is all accompanied by countless ‘listicles’ (another plague of our time) across the internet, poring over every second of footage in forensic detail.
Filmmaking has always been a business. Capital is required up front to make films and producers and studios are always looking at the bottom line. If art happens along the way then that’s a delightful little bonus, but it isn’t the endgame. The endgame is bums on seats. But the clusterfuck matrix of internet piracy, iterative new ways to consume entertainment and streaming giants like Netflix now means that modern cinema exists in a schism: monolithic triple-A blockbusters, critically acclaimed indie darlings and the wild west frontier that is Netflix, where compelling cinematic experiences are now reduced to staring at a small glowing rectangle while you take a shit.
It isn’t that these movies are necessarily terrible (Wonder Woman felt, at the very least, like the fruits of people who were trying their best), but the business model is spinning out of control and the fatigue is already setting in. Marvel is so scared that people won’t go and see the new Spider-man movie that they’ve given Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man centre stage in it, because Hey Don’t We All Just Love Some RDJ? Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 had a total of five (fucking five) post-credit sequences, all of which veered between insubstantial and irrelevant. Black Panther isn’t out until next year but we’ve already seen the first of many, many teaser trailers, which allow gushing fanboys to host exhaustive reaction videos, draining the lifeblood of enthusiasm from our veins as every last morsel of footage is sucked dry.
I love movies. I love going to the cinema. But the totalitarian blockbuster is killing both. Any joy or poetry or nuance is getting phased out. These films all look the same. They all sound the same. They all feel the same. Nothing stands out other than whatever costume the hero or baddie happens to be wearing, and the time and money it takes to make these leviathans means that there is very little room for anything that isn’t a quirky DIY masterpiece or the latest must-see streaming TV sensation (and there are way too many of those fucking things already, but that’s another matter). Even if you don’t watch it, there are millions who will. Your abstinence changes nothing and your only hope is that someday the business model will collapse, in groaning agony, under its own weight before something new and fresh comes along. Until then, you will stay in your seat, and do as you are told.
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