Welcome back to the Powerwolf Mailbag! Today we discuss tentpoles and indie films. What would it take to topple Marvel? Is the low budget box office success story dead? Read below for The Powerwolf’s absolutely undisputable answers, (then dispute them in the comments section).
Yo Mr. Wolf,
I am totally, totally pumped for Captain America: Civil War. Marvel’s movie run has been un-friggin-stop-able at the point. Is there anything that can stop them? They’ve got Spider-Man back in the fold, and are almost a decade ahead of DC in terms of building a shared cinematic universe. What would it take for the titan to fall? What do they need to do to fail? When do you think comic book movies will hit critical mass and start to bomb?
Greetings Mr. Renn,
The feeling is mutual, and with reports that Civil War is testing as possibly Marvel’s best film yet*, I don’t think you’ll have to worry that their decline will be starting this summer. Doomsday prophets have been predicting the end of the superhero genre since it took off, and I’ve seen a lot of click-bait garbage professing that Marvel is ready to jump the shark, but I don’t buy it. Their movies are only getting better, and they keep changing the formula every time it feels like it’s about to get stale.
But you didn’t ask me why Marvel movies are great. You asked me what it would take to destroy them! Here are a list of things that might do the trick.
1. KEVIN FEIGE QUITS: It’s impossible to say how much of the MCU’s success can be attributed to the leadership of head Producer and President of Marvel Studios, but it’s probably a lot. The man comes across as amicable and politically savvy, and absolutely gets what’s great about the properties he manages. I suspect that Feige is the reason that Marvel Studios rarely makes the same mistakes twice, and why they continuously double down on their successes. It was rumored for a while that he was approaching burnout, and might disappear after Phase 3 ended. However there’s reason to believe that a lot of that was due to dissatisfaction with his boss, Marvel CEO and Trump Supporter Ike Perlmutter, who has since been removed from the equation. Still, if Feige decided to move on, and somebody without such a perfect handle on the situation was put in charge, the Marvel movies would very likely lose the edge that’s kept them relevant and fresh.
2. THE MOVIES GET TOO BIG: Anybody familiar with Marvel comic Mega Events, knows that when your story gets too big, stuff often starts getting convoluted, ridiculous, and frankly quite banal. (See the original Civil War or Ultimatum lines). Often, the intimate and character driven spin-offs to these events are more coherent and emotional, because they have a fixed protagonist and clear emotional stakes. Age of Ultron, a movie with six protagonists and four major additions to the fold absolutely tested the boundaries of how much you could cram in a coherent narrative, and many feel it was lessened because of it. There is serious concern that Captain America: Civil War will suffer the same fate. It has just as many characters, plus introduces Black Panther and Spider-Man to the MCU! Then there’s the matter of the Avengers: Infinity War movies (part 1 and 2) reportedly featuring 68 characters! Fortunately, word on the street is that the Russo brothers are keeping the focus on Cap really well for Civil War, and all signs point to them taking seriously the challenge of keeping the emotional stakes at the forefront of their massive Avengers sequels. Infinity War could be Marvel’s most epic success yet, or the epic letdown that signals their decline.
3. RECASTING REMOVES WHAT’S SPECIAL: Look, Downey and the Chrises (™ for band name pending) won’t be around forever. Never mind their mantles being passed. If Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, and The Odinson are going to continue to be players in the Marvel movie sandbox, eventually they’re going to need to be recast. This is tough to imagine, much less accept. Marvel’s casting has historically been almost flawless, and these actors have defined the live action incarnations of these characters in a way that’s going to be hard to follow. Whether or not a younger actor could play Tony Stark isn’t really the point. Of course they could, and they might even be able to ape what’s great about Downey Jr. while bringing something new to the table. But recasting Tony isn’t the same as recasting Rhodey (sorry Terrence) or Bruce Banner (sorry not sorry Norton. Ruffalo owns it!). RDJ, Chris Evans, and Chris Hemsworth ARE the MCU. They’re the glue that holds together this now groundbreaking, sprawling continuity. Whether or not the universe will ever feel the same with some “impostors” in their place is to be determined, but it’s certainly a huge hurdle to clear with possibly dire ramifications if it doesn’t work out.
4. THE NEW HEROES SUCK: Marvel’s success has come from their ability to take major risks and invest in their universe for the long haul. They released Guardians of the Galaxy in the same year as the sequel to Cap, and they released freaking Ant-Man the same year as their sequel to Avengers. So far, they’re batting 1000, but if Downey and the Chrises do need to disappear after Phase 3, they’re going to need a full team of heroes to replace them. How well Tom Holland’s version of Spider-Man is received and how well Sony plays with Marvel in the future is absolutely key. Also coming down the pike are Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, and The Inhumans. It’s possible that Marvel could withstand a couple of these projects not being well received, but any more and there will be a bleak future for the rotating team of Avengers.
5. DC, FOX, AND SONY POISON THE WATER: Remember the dueling video Game franchises, Guitar Hero and Rock Band? Remember how Harmonix played the slow game, promoting quality and backwards compatibility of their franchise while Activation pumped out iteration after diminishing iteration until the whole genre just tanked? I’m not concerned about “audience fatigue” as long as the comic book genre maintains a level of quality and originality, but as Marvel ensures that superheroics are a viable market, DC, Fox, and Sony have quietly increased their quota to jump on the bandwagon. And none of these companies have proven capable of learning from their past mistakes or understanding the appeal of their franchises. Man of Steel was depressing and grossly over-masculine? Let’s double down on that, and give our entire franchise to a director that thinks violence and lack of color means “mature.” X-Men (2000) was a hit? Let’s use that same director, with the same bland, pleather, Matrix-derivative aesthetic for our 2016 X-Men film! Spider-Man 3 was derided and required a reboot because the studio mandated too much to be crammed into its plot? Let’s do the same thing to Amazing Spider-Man 2, and then focus test its tone into oblivion!! So yeah. Oversaturation is one thing, but if the general audience is disappointed by superheroics more often than not, they’ll likely take it out on the whole genre.
None of these possible eventualities will ensure a quick death for Marvel Studios, but they’re certainly challenges that will have to be faced and overcome if they plan to continue their success story unhindered. I’m not sure when the bottom will drop out on their pattern of surprise hit after slightly less surprising hit, but you can be damn sure I’ll enjoy the ride until it does!
In 1976, the movie Rocky was made for just under $1M. Last year, the movie Creed was made for $35M. Based on inflation, the movie Rocky would have been made for about $9.59M. Both have about the same US box office. Do you think the days of making an affordable movie, with a decent box office are gone? Or why didn’t Creed’s box office pull the same value per dollar? Maybe it is too soon to discount Creed, but it does make one wonder.
Hail Mama, Mother of Film,
The short answer is fortunately “no.”
What’s funny about using Creed as an example, is that I think if it wasn’t a sequel to a known franchise, I think it could have been made on Rocky‘s budget and been just as good. This isn’t a judgment on Ryan Coogler’s use of funds. His film looks great. Certainly better than Rocky did aesthetically, and he uses his talent well. But sequels just cost more. (Rocky II had a budget of $7M.) The talent knows what they’re worth and demand more, and the general feeling is that the audience demands something “bigger” or at least “more polished.”
Contrast this to The VVitch, which just last month raked in $21.5M on a budget of $3.5M. I’ll note Room as a recent contrast to the horror genre. It was less of a box office success, only doubling a $13M budget, but its Oscar nominations are proof that small(ish) movies are still being made and noticed.
There will always be a place for low budget films of quality to make money. Today we have more ways to distribute movies for profit than ever before. While the road to the box office may be slightly more circuitous than it used to be, and competition for attention is more fierce, the rare gems still have the potential to get made and make their way to the top. With relatively inexpensive HD cameras and drones, there are now more ways to make professional looking films than there ever was in history. And I have faith that there is no shortage of passionate aspiring auteurs out there that are trying to get noticed by doing a lot with very very little.
The film industry can be fickle, myopic and all over the place in its focus. Today it is leaning more and more towards massive budget tentpole films than ever before. Box office results aren’t even the whole story, since movies like The Avengers are being increasingly being made to sell not just toys, but other movies! These movies are often blamed for “ruining cinema,” and they certainly garner attention. But their existence will never preclude something like Once (2007) from coming along for $160,000, making $23M internationally, spawn a Broadway musical. and then remind everyone in Hollywood not to forget about the little guys.
Thanks again for dropping by The Powerwolf’s Mailbag. Remember to send us your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know what you think about tentpoles, low-budget darlings, and more in the comments section.