The Universes Are Expanding

On Film / The Daily — May 22, 2018
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Here comes the season of superheroes, super heists, super dinosaurs, and Superfly. Not that repertory theaters and independent distributors won’t be offering welcome counter-programming, of course, but like it or not, these super-movies are global events, and there’s no getting around them. That’s why writers have recently been grappling with their impact not only on cinematic narrative but also on perennial issues within our cultural discourse.

Tracing the history of the blockbuster in this week’s New Yorker, Stephen Metcalf doesn’t come right out and call Marvel’s comic book adaptations, the Star Wars franchise, and other neighboring cinematic universes dehumanizing, but that’s the gist of his argument. The star system built up during Hollywood’s golden age carried on thriving right on through the VHS years of the 1980s, but it’s given way, Metcalf argues, to a system in which branded characters are the draw—and the actors who play them are expendable. “There was no separating [William] Powell from Nick Charles, or Humphrey Bogart from Sam Spade. Is there any connecting Batman to—fill in the blank?” Metcalf warns that this hardly bodes well for popular cinema, at the very least because “a minimal standard of human relatability is not being met, on a routine basis, in the medium’s most dominant genre. People who are nothing like us rescuing a world that is nothing like ours is not a recipe for artistic renewal.”

It is a recipe, though, for a lot of big-picture thinking. One of the meatiest Daily entries of the year so far is the one that began gathering reviews of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther when it opened way back in early February. Long after critics had reviewed it as a movie and moved on to the following week’s releases, political commentators, literary and art critics, and just about everyone else took up their respective analyses of Black Panther as a milestone of contemporary culture. And, we’re happy to report, the conversation continues.

In the current issue of Artforum, artist and writer Hannah Black considers the ways that the “struggle between the two Black Panthers, Killmonger and T’Challa, allegorizes a tension between insurrectionist and reformist politics.” And in this month’s Cinema Issue of the New York Review of Books, actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith celebrates the potential Black Panther represents. Cautiously, though: “We won’t know how long it will take for a Latino superhero or an Asian superhero to have a movie, or a woman of color superhero to have her own movie, or if and when a trans superhero will walk the world stage with the grace and power of the Black Panther. . . . But anyway. Wakanda Forever! For now.”

As part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Black Panther is, however great, like all the other movies in the franchise in at least one respect, argues Gerry Canavan in frieze. “MCU films are by now primarily advertisements for future MCU films.” They may be “the best comics adaptations of all time” in that “they have perfectly replicated, in cinematic form, the perpetually delayed gratification of open-ended comics narratives.” But “MCU films are not about characters, choices, consequences; they are only ever about the permanent extension of the MCU itself as a franchise.” In that sense, they hark back to one of the earliest narrative strategies in cinema. Taken together, they’re one big super-serial.

At Salon, Keith A. Spencer sees a more sinister strategy at work. Drawing on charts and deep cut references, he argues that “superhero movies . . . are necessary to the perpetuation of neoliberal capitalism.” Some may find it difficult to imagine that neoliberal capitalism wouldn’t be doing just fine no matter what sort of movies were being made.

In a similar vein, but with a more complex argument, Palmer Rampell, writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books, sees in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One “an apologia for corporate artwork.” Rampell points to what he reads as a case being made in the movie in favor of the pending merger of AT&T and Time Warner. That’s pretty specific, but not at all uninteresting.

Politics aside, albeit not entirely, Nick Pinkerton, writing in the current issue of Film Comment, argues that “Spielberg’s movie exemplifies an aesthetic of pop-culture decoupage,” an aesthetic of “the junk-pile jumble of accumulated mass-manufactured character properties at the end of pop history—the aesthetic of glut.”

And now, we can have the glut wash over us just about any time of the year. With new episodes of the perpetually open-ended super-serial coming at us every couple of weeks, there is no single blockbuster season anymore. And for Bilge Ebiri, as a film critic for the Village Voice, this results in a year-round submission to “the constant, bludgeoning promise of repeated apocalyptic devastation. . . . I feel like I’m living in the midst of an ongoing cataclysm, one in which CGI images of a ruined world have joined forces with constant headlines about rogue nuclear states and a dying planet to produce a sense of numb, dead-eyed helplessness.”

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