An Angry Open Letter to Marvel Films:
Marvel is known primarily for one thing: superheros with problems. This innovation may seem like a minor twist on a familiar formula but I can assure you it is supremely important. Before Stan Lee’s wife Joan suggested he take one more crack at comics before quitting, resulting in The Fantastic Four, superheros were in trouble. The sub-HUAC hearings on the influence of Films, TV, Radio and Comic Books conducted in 1953, spurred on by angry parents groups and a bottom-feeder opportunist named Dr. Frederick Wertham, sent the industry into a panic. Comic Books needed to be reeled in, white-washed, and made to conform. This resulted in a lost decade for the comics, like Springsteen in the 90s. The end of the decade would see revitalization in DC relaunching The Flash and starting up the Justice League of America. Sales were good, the furor over the content of comics was dying down, and the Silver Age of Comics began. We got Spider-man, The Hulk, Captain America back from the dead. We got the sainted Jack Kirby, we got Steve Ditko, we got a lot to be grateful for if you were alive at the time and into funny books and a lineage to discover if you were born many decades later. But this superheros with problems thing is important because it inspired you to dream. Before then superheros were the gods who came in to protect, to clean up the mess, to set things right. Now they served to inspire. They said that everybody has problems. Even if you could pick up a bus or climb walls or were bullet-proof it didn’t mean life was any easier. Life is a never-ending battle and no matter your advantages you will fail at it, feel lost and confused, be overwhelmed. But you pick yourself up dammit and you keep going. It’s a cheesy sentiment but a true one.
So today I found out Edgar Wright will not be directing the upcoming Ant-Man movie. Why should you care? Because it represents the public death of the ingenuity Marvel Comics built its reputation on. It represents yet another example of corporate greed and number crunching ruling our modern world. I assure you this is not Lee-worthy hyperbole. The suits have won and, as always, it is the children who will suffer. Let me explain a bit.
Edgar Wright is a rare creature in this modern state of cinema. He is a true original who openly acknowledges a huge debt to his inspirations. He is a writer and director who studies cinema with the deepest of passions and he turns this into truly great films with the help of his truly great collaborators. Watching his films you get the sense of someone who understands the immensity of creating a film out of nothing and the obligation to the form that picking up a camera entails. The fact that his films are so funny speaks to this respect, he gives you a great night out at the cinema. He gives you a full meal of a film where so many others are happy to treat you to cotton candy. And you are always rewarded for going back and watching his films again, not just for the Easter eggs of hidden omens and foreshadowings and the fine details which take up every inch of the frame but in the way that all great art awards reconsideration: the films grow with you. Watch Shaun of the Dead at 23 and you can see some of you in there. Watch it at 33 and you see who you were and how little you understood. Watch it at 43, 53, 63 and it’ll mean something different to you then too but it will also entertain you, again and again. The same can be said for all of his films and you have my word for it as a cinema obsessive. I’m not saying my opinion is more valid than yours, just that I’m currently reading The Major Film Theories in preparation to read Sergei Eisenstein’s Film Form and you are not because you are not obsessed with movies. That’s neither a good or a bad thing, I’m just saying I am honestly in love with cinema and I know a thing or two about it. You should feel sorry for me.
Here’s where the problem is: movies are not widgets. This has been a problem for a very long time. Widgets are the term used in business to stand in for whatever product you are selling. It’s also the name of an environmentally conscious cartoon character from the early 90’s. But in business you employ strategies to sell your widgets. If your particular widget is, say, dish soap and you produce a type of dish soap that irradiates dish wear and poisons your consumers then you are in a bit of bother. You can turn your widget around, however, by making it of a particular quality or at least make it so it doesn’t kill people. If your widget doesn’t kill people and at the same time gets even tough caked on grease stains out of dinner wear then you are on your way to success! But movies aren’t widgets or dish soap. Movies are dreams. And some dreams won’t appeal to absolutely everyone in the world. Most don’t, in fact. But Marvel is in the business of appealing to absolutely everyone, even though a mere decade or two ago they were in the business of selling nerd stuff to nerds. I should know, I’m one of those nerds. And I was delighted to see the X-men and Spider-man get their due on the big screen. But keep in mind these are adaptations. Superheros belong to the comics form, they owe it their life in fact. There is no requirement, nor validation, to be found in becoming a widget. Think of a song you love. Do you want to see a movie version of the song? No, you don’t. Because you can hum the tune and it means something to you even apart from the intention of the songwriter. But for some reason audiences seem to be clamoring for these superhero songs to become superhero movies and I ask why when you could, theoretically mind you, read the damn books these movies are being made from. There you will find exactly how the stories were told because that’s where they were told to begin with. And despite the fact that there are words and pictures there for you they are only given life by your imagination. And as a former superhero obsessive I can tell you that superheros live quite comfortably in your imagination. They’re friends to the lonely and misunderstood.
But now Marvel can no longer exist under the smoke cloud of being the house that dreams built. It’s marketing for the widgets that have taken over, these gigantic cookie-cutter widgets that can play all around the world because everyone all around the world understands explosions and who the good guys and the bad guys are. And I am certain that a seemingly nice yet sociopathic suit-wearing representative from Evil Corporation starts with a D ends with a for god’s sake Y could sit me down and calmly, yet sociopathically, explain to me the necessities of the marketplace and that decisions like this are carefully weighed and that what’s good for the company and good for the investors and good for everything except the dreams that fueled the place means sometimes making hard decisions. They could explain that they own the characters and can do with them what they please. That they are free, much freer than you or I in all ways, to lead the company down the path of success, turning everything into widgets because that is what this futile rant is all about. If they, The They, Them, The Man, can finally wrestle the beast of cinema to the ground, take out any and all edges, and reduce the visual and emotional intelligence of we, the audience, to a level only readable under a microscope, then the They, the Them, the Man can make films that any idiot could make. And we would be grateful to them for it. We, voting with our dollar, have asked The Man to lobotomize us, to lower our expectations, to get super-psyched for bland, mediocre, not-too-bad. Then the pressure is off to actually make grand, exciting, transcendent cinema. Then they, the Them, don’t have to hold up their end of the bargain to actually entertain us. Because being able to entertain the masses takes an insane amount of passion and dedication to craft. It takes love and selflessness. It takes what Edgar Wright has to make great movies and they don’t want to do that and they are the ones holding the purse strings. They want your children to be as dull as possible, to not dream big, so that they will swallow their garbage, buy their garbage, and act like any good little widget should act: in line with the company’s best interests.
Look, if you have made it this far through this thing then you must not be reading this on your phone and I congratulate you for not looking at your phone. Stop looking at your phone by the way. Don’t worry about the state of cinema, you don’t have to. It’s like climate change, it’ll only destroy your great-grandchildren’s lives and who cares about them anyway? You’ll be too waylaid by dementia to even know who the hell those people are at the foot of your hospitol bed. All I can say is that this is a bad thing and it marks a win for the bad guys, keeping in mind that I don’t know the specifics and I can only speculate but that’s all it seems people can do nowadays anyway. What really infuriates me is that they wasted a great artists time and time is everything to artists big and small. They wasted an original voice’s time, seven years of development, only to say no, we want a cookie-cutter, we want a widget. And so what? Like I said before, it’s their characters, their money, so they should have it their way right? Why are we all so quick to take the Them’s side nowadays? When did we stop using the term nowadays? But the They, the Them, the Man, in Hollywood terms, only is ever selling you one thing: the new. You know that feeling you get when a new movies comes out and you just have to get to the theater to see it? Or more accurately your kids actually did well on their spelling test and so they are dragging you to a first showing of one of these damn movies as per your arrangement? Well do me a favor and wait. Just wait. Teach your kids and remind yourself that patience is a virtue. Remember the insanity around the opening of The Dark Knight, how you were dying to see it, needed to see it, couldn’t wait to see it? Well now it’s on HBO, uncut and for free. You can even DVR it and watch it at your convenience. So do me a favor and say no to the furor of the new, at least for a little while, because the Them’s are not only going to be giving us the crappy Ant-Man movie we assumed would have been made anyway, but they took time away from a great artist who could have spent that time working on something that we would have actually been entertained by. Because it’s the artists, now, who have to take up the entire burden of production because the Thems just want widgets. And while you’re waiting for that new movie you can’t wait to see pop up for free on the HBO or wherever how about you take a look through your Netflix and Hulu accounts for some great older movies, movies that will move you, thrill you, and entertain you. There’s a lot of them there and believe me they don’t make them like they used to, unless we’re talking about Nuri Bilge Ceylan because that guy is amazing and I’m glad he won the Palme d’or. You could watch one of his movies. Or Chinatown. Or the Cornetto Trilogy, or Jaws…in fact, just go watch Jaws. Everything seems better after you watch Jaws again. Or Shaun of the Dead.
It’s weird watching Easy Rider now, at 31, in 2014. I just keep thinking, “this was an option?” In the 60’s you could just…fuck off? Either as a person or as a filmmaker? I mean, I dig it…I’m hip. I dont’ come to denigrate a classic man. I’ve just had the experience of living, to my mind, a good bit of life as a cinephile, hopefully a cineaste, without having seen a seminal piece of New American Cinema. You know, when things were real heavy. I dig. But what’s striking me funny is the recognition of the work of young hungry film makers across the gulf of decades. The energy, I mean. The vibes.
Dude? You don’t know what dude means? Dennis Hopper calls Jack Nicholson dude and he doesn’t know what he means by that. I grew up with dude. If the kids nowadays see this thing it’ll seem as ancient as pyramids. But dudes in their earlier to mid-twenties get it. The twenty something would recognize the youthful anarchistic motivation behind the “getting high for the first time scene”. What if we show someone turning on for the first time? I haven’t seen that in a movie before and it’s honest, man, it’ll really screw with the straights man.
I don’t know why it is that almost at the very moment a young man could, believably, refer to themselves as a young man, based on evidence no stronger than the numerical value of their age, that they must assert their baby manhood as something which holds roots as old and deep as the mightiest oaks. They have to let everyone, man, woman, and child-alike, that the experience and wisdom contained within their quivering balls, should be listened to, is relevant, means something. Logic dictates that wisdom come with a greater numerical value but limited experience believes that the fragility of the aged is as good a reason as any to disregard their wisdom.
We’ll just drive, man, and show things for what they are and we’ll contrast it with OUR music man! The music that will carry car commercials and oldies stations of the future. Here I would like to address the music and the legacy of Easy Rider. I will never experience these actors as young men. Meaning I will never remember the first time I heard “Born to be Wild” nor can I shake the knowledge of how these actors’ futures’ played out from the 2014 perspective. It’s the future and the past, man, all at once, embodied by these legendary actors and the music they got off too. It’s also the odd feeling of the music in Easy Rider being of a certain sonic quality that modern bands yearn to re-capture. Almost like I’m tied up in this whole thing too. Like my parents’ art and rallying cry of youth and ultimate fate reminds me of crap now that wants to be ‘authentic’. I don’t mean ‘crap’ as a value judgement, I mean ‘crap’ as in another word for stuff. I mean, how would I approach adding a value judgement to something so pop culturally revered and removed yet not so removed from me. I just mean the echo effects and the presence of the songs is very strong and upfront and seems a point of reference for bands nowadays who approach things more from a place of sonic reference than sonic certainty.
But back to the recognition of the young twenties something version of manhood. The scenes that feel improvised, and the scenes with more written-seeming dialogue, spring from the same source. The young man’s recognition is of the earnestness of inexperience and the social dynamic. Nicholson was cast as Nicholson, how the film looks at him seems to me the way his group of friends looked at him. Think about it, if you were in the situation of being in a group of friends that made films wouldn’t you want to cast your funny friend as the funny guy, the smartest guy as the smartest guy. Wouldn’t it be impossible for you, as a young inexperienced person who’s taking in too much at once to get caught up, be so enamored of the people who mean the world to you, the first real human connections that you choose, to be exhaustingly represented? Wouldn’t you like to push taboos by showing ‘them’ what it’s really like to be you? That’s the urgency of expression and rejection of norms so appealing to twenty something’s I recognize and I hope and imagine twenty something’s throughout the ages would also recognize. Is that the secret to posterity? Youthful abandon?
But back back again to the escapist element of this film, the thing that terrifies the old always: influence and possibility. Wouldn’t it be awesome to chuck everything? Think about it…
Failure. Oh dear God the most awful F-word. How do young men’s stories always resolve themselves? Failure, that’s how. Heavy, man. But look at the gorgeousness and gorgeousity of the nation around us. Look at the Earth. Look at it’s splendid treasures. They don’t mean anything to the doomsday prophet of youth that starts to speak up in our twenties. It’s all over. The world is dust because sooner or later, if we’re lucky, we get to be the sell-outs. There’s freedom in burning up and dying out young though. Ending it all in a fireball like a lazy lyric from some alt-90’s hit single. Not seeing beyond tomorrow engenders just such a lazy apocalyptic type certitude. And that’s the power of youth: certitude in the face of adversity that is in no way glamorous. Better to die a rock star than live as a person. If you’re going to die anyway, I mean.
Let me get a grip here man. Right now I’m indulging in my own kind of nostalgia. I’m currently watching the Atomic Brain episode of MST3K. They’re currently ripping apart a prime example of 50s sci-if exploitation, generously riffing on pop culture tropes from way before and way after Easy Rider. It feels like prime opportunity for me to wrap this up neatly. The kids in the short before the movie are trying to convince the adults of their point of view. Not all teenagers are delinquents, implores some square at the town meeting. We don’t want to punish all the youth, says some other square. I offer myself as a virgin sacrifice, says Crow T Robot. This is the short that precedes the Atomic Brain entitled ‘What about Juvenile Delinquency’. It’s an oddly appropriate follow up to Easy Rider, the thing they were rebelling against, the old tired interpretation of youth held in place by the demands of such strange short films and the censorship of the times. The youthful impulse is to destroy such things with unflinching frankness. The impulse of the later generation is to confront the thing and the reaction to it with sarcasm. And what I’ve taken from it all, in 2014, is that the young are always ten years dumber than they think they are.