I can remember the exact moment that I decided rampant, crass commercialism had overtaken the movie industry. It was when I saw Return of the Jedi in 1983. I had turned 18 and that coming fall was headed to New York University to study film, so I was smack dab in the process of transitioning from movie fan to student of cinema, so the timing for such a thought was exactly right, and I continued on that trajectory.
I had previously been obsessed with Star Wars and loved Empire Strikes Back. Hell, I even enjoyed the Star Wars Holiday Special when it first aired and that didn’t cause me to have the same reaction as I did to Return of the Jedi, but that’s the difference five years can make, especially five years at that particular stretch of time. And my views on the Star Wars series or other film properties in which marketing is of equal or greater concern to storytelling haven’t left that trajectory.
But obviously, back in the 80s, there were no social networks to air this opinion. Hell, there weren’t really even zines. All there was were other people in the same room who could hear that opinion. Mostly it stopped there. And that really gave a good context for the importance of my opinion about Star Wars movies.
The things that have changed about the world since weren’t necessarily expected. No one imagined that entertainment media was going to engulf so much of our daily lives and be so inescapable that when a film director like Martin Scorsese offered a brief, disparaging opinion about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it would take up so much of our headspace and cause such hurt feelings. He said that they were “not cinema” and compared them to a theme park.
And no one would have expected this situation would repeat itself not just once with Francis Ford Coppola — who called them “despicable” — but twice with Ken Loach. Who’s next? Peter Bogdanovich? Sidney Lumet? Oh, wait, Lumet’s dead. Surely he has some old, obscure quote someone can dig up and get angry about, though. Doesn’t everyone?
Scorsese and Coppola’s statements were more about quality and value in proclaiming that MCU movies were not “cinema.” You can debate the intellectual and artistic qualities that make something “cinema,” but that’s always going to be a matter of opinion. What was sad wasn’t the reactions of fans, but of actual, kind of whiny, heartbroken movie professionals like James Gunn, crestfallen that along with the millions of dollars they were paid to make these films, they hadn’t also achieved the respect of elder directors.
But Loach’s criticism – and some of the other Marvel Cinematic Universe Hate – was almost a political one and harder to shake. “It’s about making a commodity which will make a profit for a big corporation,” Loach said. “They’re a cynical exercise. They’re market exercise and it has nothing to do with the art of cinema.”
In other words, he views them as commercials.
His words are particularly jarring when I consider that the MCU movies have cost nearly $5 billion to make and brought in over $22 billion — and from what I’ve seen, MCU fans do love to talk about this aspect of the movies. And that’s not even counting the merchandising of the movies. In a world still bedeviled by extreme poverty and inequality, with climate disaster already affecting the most impoverished, and an outlandish rate of income inequality in the supposedly more developed countries like our own, I find those numbers appalling and reflective of the corporate aspect that Loach raises.
Consider also that Asia is now the biggest market for Hollywood studio movies, particularly China which generated $7.9 billion in ticket sales in 2017. As Hollywood has begun catering to that market more and more, the movies have shown more of the rollercoaster quality that Scorsese derided. So many of the movies that are being argued over with this issue weren’t even made with the American audience wholly in mind. Does the opinion of anyone in the west really matter in this argument, at least to the already-wealthy execs pocketing their millions in profit? Though there is much to admire about the current generation of young people, one thing that mystifies me is their forthright stance against corporations in so many aspects of their lives, except in their entertainment. These corporations are often embraced because they have bought their way into youth culture to an unparalleled degree.
And so I tend to mostly agree with Loach, but I also acknowledge that there are aspects of these that are impossible for persons of a certain age to see. Crass commercial creations can still inspire people on a personal level to make their own art, and with young people, I do see the MCU movies doing exactly that. Do I wish they were as obsessed with films like Border or Vox Lux instead? Sure. But they’re not, and there is the possibility that their own efforts of creativity will set at least some of them on a journey that will bring them to those works, and many others, and that they won’t just plant themselves in what the MCU has to offer and never progress beyond those.
And while I might share a commonality with Loach’s views, I’d also widen the scope far beyond the MCU to include numerous major studio American movies, probably the majority. Americans love to be diverted from reality in their entertainment and not since World War II has there been an era where diversion seems so necessary.
All this makes me think back to some of the critics’ reactions to Star Wars that I saw as a kid, dismissing it as juvenile fluff. At the age of 12 and pretty much the target of the original Star Wars film, I obviously thought those critics were wrong. But I wasn’t inundated with their opinions all day long, nor what other people thought about their opinions. Because of the way communications technology worked, none of it mattered.
It was the same when Annie Hall won the Oscar instead of Star Wars. I was a bit disappointed when I watched the awards that night, but the next day, I just went on with my life. And I didn’t give much thought to what certain members of the Academy thought of this life-transforming movie called Star Wars, let alone take it as a personal insult. Again, none of it mattered.
But now we live in a 24-hour news cycle that stirs outrage as a way to keep the news alive, to keep people clicking and sharing. Our president thrives on this business model. So do the owners of entertainment properties. Outrage is as good as any other publicity because it keeps people talking online and creates hashtags. It turns our anger, our personal defense mechanisms, our hurt at feeling looked-down upon, into marketing plans. That’s why entertainment journalists ask aging film directors what they think about these movies that the kids love. They know the response they’re going to get, both from the directors and the audience. And the entertainment property moguls will love them for it.
Which makes it sound an awful lot like Ken Loach described it. Everything, literally everything, is about marketing these days. And everything, literally everything, is about money these days. It’s just that the MCU films are about lots of money. Billions of dollars. But if you like them, it really doesn’t matter what aging film directors think. It’s just an opinion. And despite the constant lesson of the online world, and of social media, opinions are worth far less than a dime a dozen. We have made it so.
There are so many other things to get angry about, and dealing with them requires much more than worthless opinions. It requires action. Let your entertainment remain your entertainment. Your happy place. That’s what it’s for. Martin Scorsese’s brief opinion shouldn’t be enough to take that away from you. Nor should mine. Your entertainment wasn’t meant to be a hill for you to die on, nor one to slaughter anyone else on. It’s just a place to be.