Thursday, May 7, 2015

Rot the MCU

I have not seen Avengers: Age of Ultron. And I don't intend to. Not just because I hated the first one, or because Joss Whedon is an overrated hack, but because I despise everything this latest bucket of blockbuster cliches represents.

With rare exceptions, Marvel Studios produces execrable fluff that would fail on its own merits. Robert Downey Jr. played the one good Avenger in 2008's Iron Man, and has continued to play him in ever more inferior movies. Thor and Captain America, multi-million dollar productions that met lukewarm receptions, have gotten their own sequels simply out of the Avengers momentum. And the Hulk, despite netting a very fine performance from several actors, is still mostly just a supporting act in the larger MCU drama as the films around said actors are frequently cited as major missteps for the era of the superhero film, if cited at all. This all adds up to a worse record than a random sampling of indie horror movies.

The MCU attempts to graft the serialized model of comic books onto billion dollar blockbusters, which both makes a mockery of every deficit fetishist and ran out of creative steam four years ago. Even the stupid fun of Guardians of the Galaxy - which benefits from not having to go out of its way to acknowledge so many B-grade movies - drags at the end because of overwrought CGI and a ridiculous resolution where the characters kill the villain with the power of love. Daredevil avoids the usual pitfall by being a much smaller and focused serialized production. A character-driven urban crime drama that just happens to include a masked vigilante. The summer blockbuster model on which the rest of the MCU operates doesn't allow for that much development or even plot, so you get an ensemble cast quickly thrown together and the audience is just expected to know their motivations. And care.

Have no fear, some purple guy is here!

That's the biggest criticism often brushed off by defenders of this drek - that it's vapid popcorn fare. Something that usually gets movie snobs up in arms but far too many are willing to overlook it as long as it appeals to the shit they read before they graduated to real books. A review by an actual child called out Avengers: Another One for being jammed full of new characters with no development, and the first comment is by some self-important manbaby saying  "the movie was actually made for me: a middle-aged guy that grew up on comics books, and has enough disposable income to totally geek out and buy the movie, the toys, etc..." He goes on at nauseating length, displaying all the entitlement that's become expected in nerd circles these days, as they're infested with resentful, reactionary white dudes.

So naturally there's also been some hand-wringing over all the sexism in the MCU's latest cinematic excretion. Seriously, these rubes are surprised a product of Stan Lee's fetid imagination ain't all that progressive on the lady issue. That's the thing - no matter how much outcry for lady superheroes, the genre is too inherently misogynistic to ever produce anything but damsels and femme fatales. To do otherwise would mean evolving past a mindset where might makes right and then these movies would lose their core selling point.

Fantasy. Not in the spectacle or the "creative" interpretation of Norse mythology, but the fantasy of having enough power to simply reshape the world into what you want, often through explosions. The Transformers films, which are far more similar to Avengers than fussy Whedonites care to admit, was always hampered by the unrelatable CGI monstrosities representing your childhood toys. The MCU benefits from recognizably human ubermenchen - and a token female - who further present a variety of options for the stunted nerds will to power from magic hammers to 1940s steroids to a cross between Hank Rearden and Mega Man.

"Thank goodness for Rodimus Prime!"

But all of that is quickly becoming the grotesque norm across all of American culture. What really makes the MCU project objectionable is that it is the apotheosis of dumb consumption over artistic expression. The official Marvel Studios release schedule all but brags that they're just cranking out meaningless, interchangeable units to be gobbled up with as much thought and care as Twinkies. Market forces, the personal lord and savior of lackwit Americans, can't even slow down this juggernaut of vapidity as all it takes is a few cash cows to keep a legion of mediocrities shipping to the multiplex every summer - still no superheroines though, 'cause Catwoman was shit.

"What's the big deal?" some idiot may ask. "Blockbusters have always been dumb." But at least they used to mean it. For all it's ridiculousness, there was actual creative vision behind cheese-fests like Commando and Tango and Cash. The MCU, in contrast, is a soulless corporate exercise planned, developed, and even filmed by committee considering the copious use of post-production computer animation. And worst of all, it's gobbling up some of the best acting talent of today in years long contracts, from Robert Downey to Tom "Play Dracula Already" Hiddleston, as arc-less characters who exist in stasis for the benefit of maintaining a status quo necessary to draw in new viewers.

He is so much better than this...

And despite all the money these comic geek circle-jerks rake in, American cinema is still a sinking industry. Creative sectors are always the more unstable part of the economy but Hollywood has been on a continuous downward slope for years, owing both to the general recession as the general poverty of good film ideas. The MCU is a corporate accountant's approach to the problem, keep cranking out Product X on the assumption that people will pay for the new model every year, a plan that worked so well for the automotive industry that Detroit looks worse than Pripyat. And it's catching on - the forgettable Dracula Untold is already the launchpad for a "shared universe" of the old Universal Monsters. So is I, Frankenstein but even fewer people saw that awful dud. Money and time that could be going to something else is instead being spent on films that follow the business model of comic books, just because all the First World dweebs keep going to see Tony Stark grab his monkey.

It works for comic books because they're much cheaper to produce than a summer blockbuster. It's worked so far for the MCU because they've hit on a period where plenty of dumb Gen Xers and Millenials have enough disposable income to consume the same damn movie for over half a decade. But how long can that last? The video game industry, which is comparable in production costs, has staked its survival to franchises with yearly releases and they're perpetually losing money. Even successful development studios have to close up shop because their enormously successful Triple A product - retailing for sixty USD a pop - couldn't recoup their production costs.

How long until the same thing starts happening with the MCU? How much of the film industry will it kneecap in its inevitable death throes? No one with real problems weeps for Jeremy Renner losing a paycheck, but how are you going to escape the bad craziness of this empire in decline without some good movies?

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