When The Guardian’s arthouse critic said that we see Marvel films due to corporate “bullying”.
To coincide with the release of Captain America: Civil War, The Guardian carried out a very interesting experiment that entailed sending Chuck Bowen, a critic of whom is well-versed in arthouse pictures, into the less familiar depths of the mainstream via a screening of the high-budget blockbuster. It was a premise that intrigued me and, acknowledging that this individual’s perspective will quite blatantly influence what he is searching for in a movie, I proceeded to read the entire article (Link to article “Captain America: Civil War – how I was bludgeoned by a blockbuster”)
Before I go into what I thought, I want to establish that I have been an audience of both ends of this ‘cinematic spectrum’, if you want to create a pretentious name for it. Two of my top twenty all-time favourite films are The Graduate and, more recently, Birdman. They are two movies that, like a lot of their fellow arthouse brethren, are not only brilliant in their use of the medium to create imagery and situation that conveys deeper meaning, but also the story that is being told on the surface. Admittedly, this summarised opinion of arthouse is one which would infuriate any critic that spends their career studying and critiquing it. Anyway, at the same time, I am also an unashamed admirer of Marvel Studios. I think that they have a solid creative process that has, even in their weaker offerings, successfully prioritised the elements of character and narrative over the equally impressive action and effects that so many blockbusters – well, mainly those bloody ‘Transborers’ – have abused to just create a compilation of explosions and destruction without any true motivation or meaning.
With that out of the way, as a person who enjoys embracing the best in both of these very different cinematic entities, I was disappointed to see that this arthouse critic failed to find close-to-no positive aspects in Captain America: Civil War which, to myself and many critics – review-collecting site Rotten Tomatoes has it currently holding a 90% critic rating – is quite possibly Marvel’s best picture yet. Now, in the opening paragraph, Bowen does establish that he doesn’t “enjoy disliking nearly every movie that makes a significant amount of money.” He isn’t just witch-hunting the mainstream. Also, a few paragraphs down, he admits “I’ve liked some Marvel films,” proceeding to reference Ant-Man and Deadpool for their uniqueness – well, Deadpool’s technically a Marvel property distributed by Fox but, still, he’s made a couple of nice choices there.
However, with the first sentence of the second paragraph, “Mainstream audiences don’t want to hear about alternatives to Marvel, Star Wars or Pixar (all owned by Disney),” whilst I can sympathise and agree there is some truth within that statement, I don’t think it can be quite simply nailed down like that. First of all, he makes this point by pinning it all to Disney-owned companies which, whilst they are all very successful, they are anything but the only mainstream studio in the business. Whilst they most likely know that and assumed the reader would to, I still can’t ignore that this one sentence inaccurately claims that audiences don’t want alternatives to those three entities, in spite acknowledging the other mainstream studios still would have made the point.
More importantly, the complexity of basic human individuality means that it is very hard to mark out any definitive mainstream audience. Whilst the blockbuster does get a lot of attention, particularly with the superhero or sci-fi genres, there is a considerable majority that doesn’t enjoy those types of films. Repeat viewings is something that, thanks to nerds like myself, most likely contributes a lot to stuffing the pockets of Marvel. True, without repeat viewings, they would still make a lot of money. However, whilst there is around three-to-four superhero movies a year, other genres such as horrors, comedies and straight-dramas usually have to compete with at least twenty or so other movies of the same genre a year. If you combine the profits made from every other film that is released in a year, which is not a comic-book movie, the figures would probably dwarf the superheroes’ shared bank account. Every genre has an audience, but a comic-book movie has significantly less rivals to compete with than other genres, leading to so much of their audience’s coin being concentrated onto one film.
Moving on, as we’ve got an article to get through and I haven’t got passed second paragraph, it is towards the end of this paragraph that my main issue with the article begins to surface. Bowen discusses how “audiences still desire a feeling of inclusion at the movies,” feeling obliged to “buy a ticket to see this Disney super-production, or be out of the loop.” I can agree with this idea. With Star Wars: The Force Awakens, where Disney did capitalise on an already-present sense of it being a major ‘event film’, if you hadn’t seen it, there was a sense of being “out of the loop.” However, later on the article, it soon becomes apparent that this point was a seed for an over-riding argument that I disagree with.
Apologies to anyone who desired an argument that breaks down the article chronologically but, at the end of the article, following an anecdote about a woman saying “Well, there’s next one coming” after the now famous post-credit scene, Bowen concludes with “Pauline Kael once wondered if blockbusters were “inheriting” audiences, but that idea doesn’t quite apply anymore. Instead, they’re bullying us.” This implication of a much more malicious and sinister intention is where I can no longer agree. Like any business, Disney aims to make money. Like any movie corporation, Disney makes movies and then advertises them via trailers, posters, and merchandise. In the case of Marvel, they have also developed the tradition of a post-credit scene. With all these marketing efforts, they are simply advertising the movie’s brand, premise and imagery like with any other movie or any other company, saying “come see our movie.” It is manipulative, but I struggle to see how “bullying” can be attached to this.
Like other fans of Marvel, I see their movies because I want to. I enjoy them. They entertain me. I am not going because Disney is “bullying” me into it. I don’t feel an obligation and I certainly don’t feel that I am only going because I have been “inherited,” in spite of not even liking these movies that much. I have been “inherited” as I am engaged by the over-arching stories throughout these films and like spending time with these characters. With the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they have basically taken the format of an anthology TV series and applied it to the cinema. Each episode may have a different protagonist with their own independent story that works on its own merits, but it still all has a contribution to one over-arching story. This is my favourite TV series and, rather than half-heartedly thinking “fine then, I guess I should see it,” I am thinking “I can’t wait to see it.” Also, like any series, if there came a time when a few consecutive ‘episodes’ did start to turn a bit stale, I’d stop watching it. I’ll sympathise with Bowen’s opinion, but I refuse to be told that a corporation has manipulated mine.
Now, to Civil War itself. As Bowen does the same in his article, he states that “nothing was at stake.” Now, whilst his lack of investment in the franchise could understandably result in him not caring about the stakes, they are still there. One thing that most critics have agreed on is that the stakes of Civil War, as well as the motivations behind them, are clearly established. Examples, The Telegraph: “high-stakes,” Moviepilot: “the stakes are high,” Comicbookmovie.com: “the stakes are more personal than any Marvel film yet.” In those first twenty-five minutes, it is shown how the resulting destruction of The Avengers’ previous antics have caused mass paranoia amongst many people around the world and their governments. As a result, the United Nations wants to take the freedom that The Avengers have had away from them. Tony Stark confronts a woman whose son died, as a result of his previous actions, and Robert Downey Jr.’s performance alone makes it clear that Tony is clearly burdened by this loss at his hand. Meanwhile, the events of the previous Captain America instalment established that Steve Rodgers, a man who began as a proud patriot, has had his view of his country corrupted and so, naturally, he doesn’t trust an authority controlling him anymore. Twenty-five minutes in, tensions are arising between this ensemble of very powerful people and the direction and performances very clearly play this out.
Now, whilst I can appreciate that there is most likely lots of people who also didn’t click the stakes, Bowen writes how he overheard the context of Captain America: The Winter Solider through two apparently “bored” whispering children , of whom also seem to be able to understand the stakes better than him – I don’t know about you, but my over-talkative younger self was more keen to discuss what is going on in a film that I was enjoying. However, my main quarrel here is that it seems Bowen didn’t know the context, indicating that he may not have seen the previous instalments. Surely, when you are a professional critic sent to review the second sequel in a franchise, it only makes sense to see its predecessors in order to fairly judge how the latest one continues the narrative. The other Captain America movies, even for those who don’t follow all of the Marvel films, should be an obvious must-watch before its direct sequel, Captain America: Civil War. Also in the Telegraph review, critic Robbie Collin takes it a step further and throws in the two Avengers movies too, writing “to fully comprehend what’s at stake, you have to have sat through four more films.” Admittedly, The Guardian’s experimenting with what would happen if Bowen was sent to this one particular film. Yet, to go into a sequel, that inevitably builds on the previously-established story, and then wave “nothing was at stake” finger about, phrasing it as an objective problem with the film instead of simply “to me, nothing was at stake” as well, is a completely unfair judgement of the movie.
Even for the parts that Bowen interprets the audience enjoying, it can’t actually be the audience’s full enjoyment: it can only be that they are “occasionally grateful for a crumb of amusement.” The picture he paints throughout the review portrays a very bleak tone in the cinema which, in all fairness, has no opposing evidence to suggest it wasn’t. However, a writer, whether professional or amateur like myself, will always use exaggeration amongst their arsenal and the image of a depressed audience simply surviving through the film, before seeing the preview of what they’ll have to see next because they are a ‘bullied’ corporate slave seems a little bit over-the-top.
It is okay to take an opposing position to the general reception of a film. It is okay if your preference of arthouse over blockbuster may influence that. That is why this experiment was interesting. However, just because you didn’t think the movie was good, doesn’t mean that everyone else is flocking out to see it because Disney is “bullying” them to and neither is that backed up by the assumptions you made when looking around at the audience you watched it with. The full passage reads “The crowded room I saw the film with seemed numb after about an hour’s worth of running time had elapsed, occasionally grateful for a crumb of amusement.” Were they really “numb,” or simply engaged in the world of what they were watching, except for the jokes that made them laugh? I loved the film, yet that is how I probably appeared whilst watching it.
Don’t drag everyone down into your conspiracy that we all go to see these movies because we feel we have to. The last sentence is the most harrowing of them all: “you’re giving The Man back the money you sold most of your life away to obtain.” Mate, you went to see a film that you didn’t like. Honestly, it is true that, as Bowen also writes, “It’s part of the corporatization of everything.” But so is any movie in the modern industry. Arthouse films are usually still distributed through the bigger corporate studios and are largely responsible for elitist award ceremonies, such as The Oscars. As for giving back money to “The Man” in general, in order to do almost all leisure activities in life, you have to do that. Even family day-trip to the seaside requires a car from the multi-billion car manufacturers and petrol from the evil oil corporations. What’s the point in earning money that you can’t spend? It cost me £8 to see Captain America: Civil War. That’s not exactly my life wages, is it?
Chuck Bowen, I understand and accept that you didn’t like it. Just accept that others do.