Are we in an age of Hollywood where we can’t value singular, standalone films?
Despite my best efforts at appearing to be above them, watching frivolous Marvel superhero films from time to time is a bit of guilty pleasure — as it is for many people. I shlepped through the vast majority of the episodes leading up to Avengers: Endgame, and bought into the glossy, monopolistic, and all-encompassing universe that Hollywood had meticulously curated. I’d even do the rather, I found, embarrassing thing of waiting at the end of the credits to watch the little epilogue, in which Marvel — that monolithic beast of Hollywood; film’s equivalent metonym of ‘The State’ — lay its breadcrumbs for future outings.
After Endgame I assumed that the whole MCU Universe concept was over, or at least that it would return to producing singular, one-off films. Apparently not. The twenty-three films leading up to and including Endgame are in fact only the first ‘saga’ of the MCU’s grand plan: making up the only the so-called ‘Infinity Saga’. On top of this, I recently heard that the next Spiderman — No Way From Home (I realise I’m sounding like a bit of a geek at this point, but there is a point to this) — will feature a ‘multi-verse’ and bring back the older versions of Spiderman: Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire. All the MCU does, it seems, is commit to a snowball effect of expansion. Depth and quality being replaced by breadth and continuity; as well as cameos and fan-pleasing. Its emotive aspects are purely based on size and, more importantly, familiarity. The breadcrumbs which are trailed throughout the copious numbers of films create only artificial epic-ness and emotion. Quantity rather than quality is what fuels the universe.
The truth is it wouldn’t actually matter if this was solely a Marvel trait. But the phenomenon, what I call ‘marvelisation’ — meaning the accumulative process by which subsequent films feed off the existence of their predecessors in what might be described as a positive feedback loop of increasing success — is being absorbed into our wider mentality about films. The impulse Hollywood has for remakes — be it Star Wars, Dune, The Matrix, Indiana Jones — is also symptomatic of the same thing. So too, arguably, was the continuity introduced into the Daniel Craig Bond films.
However, this isn’t just a top-down money-making process (although it is of course partly). What is more vexing is that, for the money-making machines to work, consumers must also feed into the cycle. Our threshold of what constitutes ‘epic cinema’ is now so high as a result, that a traditional stand-alone film just doesn’t quite cut it. To really invest in the characters, viewers think, it must be a trilogy at least. This has led to overstimulation, accompanied by greater and greater expectations for continuity and familiarity in Hollywood — a form of ED: emotional dysfunction, as opposed to the other thing… Further, it has led to a binary split in the film-making industry: the ‘continuity action films’ and then the ‘serious one-off Oscar films’ — and it’s become so clear that before you’ve even watched the film you can probably compartmentalise it into one of these two. When was the last time you saw a film with a convincing narrative of beginning, middle and end which was not designed for the worthy Oscar nomination board?
The significance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), therefore, isn’t just isolated. It marks a cultural shift in western film tastes. And this isn’t just to do with substance. We are clearly going through the ‘superhero’ phase in the same way that the 1970s went through the ‘Western’ phase. The change, however, is more fundamental. Weber famously postulated the notion that modernity would lead to a ‘rationalisation’ of society. This rationalisation would surmount to four constitutive parts: efficiency, calculability, technology, but also predictability. The latter element of modern ‘rational’ society is what is epitomised by Hollywood today. It reflects our desire for monotone familiarity: a social contract in which we compromise liberty for security (to put it into allegorical terms). Taken from this view, Marvel is the film equivalent of an authoritarian state. But it is an entity which is very much our own creation.