I know that Marvel Studios honcho Kevin Feige has better things to do — like continuing his Thanos-like campaign to take over the movie world — than copy off my homework, but sometimes I do have the paranoid sensation that he’s looking over my shoulder.
It’s as though he’s peeking at my top 10 lists, taking note of the talent he finds there, and dragging them into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
One minute, Tilda Swinton is in Michael Clayton, the next she’s a bald Buddhist-ish kung fu priestess in Dr. Strange.
Kumail Nanjiani, who made The Big Sick, my favorite comedy of 2017, has just been drafted to star in some Marvel Cinematic Universe thing called The Eternals. He’ll star alongside Angelina Jolie, who follows Swinton and Brie Larson and Benicio Del Toro and Robert Redford through the powerful pneumatic tube that sucks Oscar winners into the MCU.
It’s as though Marvel — acting on the growing commercial power brought on by its successful 22-movie Avengers cycle — is pursuing its own version of Thanos’ infamous population-reducing scheme. Only this one targets top moviemaking talent. One minute they’re thanking the Academy and then — snap! — they’ve vanished into the MCU.
Endgame cost a reported $400 million to make. That’s enough for 20 Michael Claytons. And will likely make a couple billion, on top of the billion that Captain Marvel has already made this year. It should put Marvel’s Avengers cycle haul at over $20 billion. It’s all confirmation that Marvel has become the kind of golden goose so long sought by an industry that, since its founding, had been at the mercy of the whims of notoriously fickle audiences.
In Hollywood, nobody knows anything, one of the industry’s wise men once said.
But Feige, it seems, knows enough.
Good Marvel movies would make a billion. Mediocre Marvel movies also make billions because they are part of an essential narrative chain, and are therefore required viewing.
Thus have Feige and Marvel achieved unprecedented commercial success, and by extension an unprecedented and Medici-like control over swaths of the industry’s moviemaking population and machinery. And at this moment of triumph, it’s worth pausing to think about the movies that have vanished, displaced by the resources (budgets, screens, stars) now commanded by the dominant superhero paradigm Marvel has perfected and made permanent. And let’s not totally put this on the MCU — there’s the DC Universe and the Star Wars franchises, just to name two more, among other juggernauts.
I pondered this when I read that Jolie and Nanjiani will be directed in The Eternals by Chloe Zhao, whose last movie, The Rider, was — wait for it! — on my top-10 list last year. I liked it so much that I rang her up, and we talked about other movies she wanted to make. Tops among them — a biopic about the amazing life of Bass Reeves, an African American who escaped slavery and became a federal marshal who specialized in tracking fugitives (including his own son!) into Indian country. We talked about Reeves being a sort of real-life Rooster Cogburn, we talked about True Grit and how amazing it would be to see Denzel Washington (or Chadwick Boseman or Michael B. Jordan) do something like that.
Will this movie ever be made, now that Marvel has made Zhao an offer she can’t refuse?
How many movies have been displaced at the multiplex by the rise of the Superhero Age?
What have we lost in Feige’s version of The Snap?
I wrote a piece last month on the writer-directors who’ve had to take their game to Netflix, because, they say, Hollywood doesn’t want mid-budget movies, especially for adult audiences.
History suggests there is truth to that. You can get a rough gauge of how much things have changed by looking back to the dawn of industrial superhero recycling, which I would date to Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992). In 1990, for instance, six of the top seven movies were Home Alone, Ghost, Dances With Wolves, Pretty Woman, The Hunt for Red October, and Total Recall. The top 20 also included Presumed Innocent, Days of Thunder, Misery, and Edward Scissorhands. Even the sequels in the top 20 were spandex-free — Die Hard 2, Back to the Future III, Godfather III, and Another 48 Hrs.
And though the Avengers series is wrapped, Marvel is of course pressing on with new ventures. Endgame hinted at half a dozen new directions. Feige has said there will be another Dr. Strange, an all-Asian superhero movie called Shang Chi, and new characters and properties will be leveraged to provide content for Disney’s new streaming services, reportedly including Elisabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch. (Of course, Marvel tried getting into the streaming business with Netflix, but all of those series — from the critically acclaimed Jessica Jones to the critically reviled Iron Fist — have been canceled.)
Well, say fanboys, what of it? The market has spoken, and majority rules. Marvel movies are a bastion of happy, shared experience and communal fun at a time when the culture is increasingly balkanized. Feige and Marvel use their Thanos-ian power for good. They tap Ryan Coogler to make Black Panther, or Anna Boden to codirect Captain Marvel, and make sure that Hollywood’s most prominent projects are inclusive and diverse.
The stories celebrate innovation and invention (Tony Stark/Iron Man) and loyalty courage and friendship (Captain America) and probe the moral complexities of leadership (Black Panther). Sometimes they are even funny (Thor, on a good day).
And Zhao, after laboring for years in the low-wage realm of indie film, is entitled to her big payday. She didn’t have to take the job. Some don’t. Ava DuVernay declined an offer to join the MCU, saying she wanted more control of her own personal projects, and didn’t want her work subject to Marvel’s corporate board of story supervisors.
And no one says you can’t do the One for Them, One for Me thing that Hollywood stars have done for years.
Waititi made Thor: Ragnarok, and now he’s making some weird WWII movie about a kid whose imaginary friend is Hitler (it’s called Jojo Rabbit, and Waititi, who plays the Fuhrer, tweeted a picture of himself on set, writing, “What better way to insult Hitler than having him portrayed by a Polynesian Jew?"). Still, as I think about how much I want to see Zhao’s Bass Reeves movie, and how vastly less — full disclosure — I want to see The Eternals, I wonder about how many potentially great movies have been snapped away forever. The number is unknowable, because it’s hard to count movies that haven’t been made, and probably never will be. But it’s surely substantial, and there’s no time warp to bring them back.
Meanwhile, Feige and Marvel rumble on, using Thanos-ian language to describe what’s to come. Feige doesn’t like to use words like trilogy, because, why should there be only three Iron Man movies? He likes to talk about Phases.
Iron Man, released way back in 2008, was Phase One. Endgame was the end of Phase 3. The move to streaming is part of Phase Four. I wonder what goes into (gulp) Phase Five. Maybe everyone who does not read comic books will be converted into Cheez Whiz and drizzled over the pretzel nuggets of everyone in theaters to watch Iron Man 4, starring Ryan Gosling.
Truth is, Phase Five will be whatever Marvel wants it to be.