Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Marvel

The tentpole test

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

How do you release blockbusters like clockwork and still make each one seem special? It’s an issue that the movie industry is anxious to solve, and there’s a lot riding on the outcome. When I saw The Phantom Menace nearly two decades ago, there was an electric sense of excitement in the theater: we were pinching ourselves over the fact that we were about to see see the opening crawl for a new Star Wars movie on the big screen. That air of expectancy diminished for the two prequels that followed, and not only because they weren’t very good. There’s a big difference, after all, between the accumulated anticipation of sixteen years and one in which the installments are only a few years apart. The decade that elapsed between Revenge of the Sith and The Force Awakens was enough to ramp it up again, as if fan excitement were a battery that recovers some of its charge after it’s allowed to rest for a while. In the past, when we’ve watched a new chapter in a beloved franchise, our experience hasn’t just been shaped by the movie itself, but by the sudden release of energy that has been bottled up for so long. That kind of prolonged wait can prevent us from honestly evaluating the result—I wasn’t the only one who initially thought that The Phantom Menace had lived up to my expectations—but that isn’t necessarily a mistake. A tentpole picture is named for the support that it offers to the rest of the studio, but it also plays a central role in the lives of fans, which have been going on long before the film starts and will continue after it ends. As Robert Frost once wrote about a different tent, it’s “loosely bound / By countless silken ties of love and thought / to every thing on earth the compass round.”

When you have too many tentpoles coming out in rapid succession, however, the outcome—if I can switch metaphors yet again—is a kind of wave interference that can lead to a weakening of the overall system. On Christmas Eve, I went to see Rogue One, which was preceded by what felt like a dozen trailers. One was for Spider-Man: Homecoming, which left me with a perplexing feeling of indifference. I’m not the only one to observe that the constant onslaught of Marvel movies makes each installment feel less interesting, but in the case of Spider-Man, we actually have a baseline for comparison. Two baselines, really. I can’t defend every moment of the three Sam Raimi films, but there’s no question that each of those movies felt like an event. There was even enough residual excitement lingering after the franchise was rebooted to make me see The Amazing Spider-Man in the theater, and even its sequel felt, for better or worse, like a major movie. (I wonder sometimes if audiences can sense the pressure when a studio has a lot riding on a particular film: even a mediocre movie can seem significant if a company has tethered all its hopes to it.) Spider-Man: Homecoming, by contrast, feels like just one more component in the Marvel machine, and not even a particularly significant one. It has the effect of diminishing a superhero who ought to be at the heart of any universe in which he appears, relegating one of the two or three most successful comic book characters of all time to a supporting role in a larger universe. And because we still remember how central he was to no fewer than two previous franchises, it feels like a demotion, as if Spider-Man were an employee who had left the company, came back, and is now reporting to Iron Man.

Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War

It isn’t that I’m all that emotionally invested in the future of Spider-Man, but it’s a useful case study for what it tells us about the pitfalls of these films, which can take something that once felt like a milestone and reduce it to a midseason episode of an ongoing television series. What’s funny, of course, is that the attitude we’re now being asked to take toward these movies is actually closer to the way in which they were originally conceived. The word “episode” is right there in the title of every Star Wars movie, which George Lucas saw as an homage to classic serials, with one installment following another on a weekly basis. Superhero films, obviously, are based on comic books, which are cranked out by the month. The fact that audiences once had to wait for years between movies may turn out to have been a historical artifact caused by technological limitations and corporate inertia. Maybe the logical way to view these films is, in fact, in semiannual installments, as younger viewers are no doubt growing up to expect. In years to come, the extended gaps between these movies in prior decades will seem like a structural quirk, rather than an inherent feature of how we relate to them. This transition may not be as meaningful as, say, the shift from silent films to the talkies, but they imply a similar change in the way we relate to the film onscreen. Blockbusters used to be released with years of anticipation baked into the response from moviegoers, which is no longer something that can be taken for granted. It’s a loss, in its way, to fan culture, which had to learn how to sustain itself during the dry periods between films, but it also implies that the movies themselves face a new set of challenges.

To be fair, Disney, which controls both the Marvel and Star Wars franchises, has clearly thought a lot about this problem, and they’ve hit on approaches that seem to work pretty well. With the Marvel Universe, this means pitching most of the films at a level at which they’re just good enough, but no more, while investing real energy every few years into a movie that is first among equals. This leads to a lot of fairly mediocre installments, but also to the occasional Captain America: Civil War, which I think is the best Marvel movie yet—it pulls off the impossible task of updating us on a dozen important characters while also creating real emotional stakes in the process, which is even more difficult than it looks. Rogue One, which I also liked a lot, takes a slightly different tack. For most of the first half, I was skeptical of how heavily it was leaning on its predecessors, but by the end, I was on board, and for exactly the same reason. This is a movie that depends on our knowledge of the prior films for its full impact, but it does so with intelligence and ingenuity, and there’s a real satisfaction in how neatly it aligns with and enhances the original Star Wars, while also having the consideration to close itself off at the end. (A lot of the credit for this may be due to Tony Gilroy, the screenwriter and unbilled co-director, who pulled off much of the same feat when he structured much of The Bourne Ultimatum to take place during gaps in The Bourne Supremacy.) Relying on nostalgia is a clever way to compensate for the reduced buildup between movies, as if Rogue One were drawing on the goodwill that Star Wars built up and hasn’t dissipated, like a flywheel that serves as an uninterruptible power supply. Star Wars isn’t just a tentpole, but a source of energy. And it might just be powerful enough to keep the whole machine running forever.

Strange currencies

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Doctor Strange

Last Monday, I took a break. I don’t normally take much time off, but I wanted to tune out of election coverage on what I feared, implausibly but correctly, might be the last entirely happy day I’d have for the next four years. My book project was in good shape, I’d finished a decent draft of a short story, and I had nothing else pressing to hold my attention. So I lit out. I treated myself to a Lyft ride into Chicago, where I dropped into two of my favorite used bookstores—Bookman’s Corner and Booklegger’s—and spent about twenty bucks. Then I took a train to the River East Theater on Illinois Street, where I met up with my wife to catch Doctor Strange, which was the first movie we’d seen together on the big screen since The Force Awakens. Afterward, we headed home just in time to put our daughter, who had spent the day with her grandparents, to bed. And if I lay out the context in such detail, it’s because I have a feeling that this is how most people in this country go to the movies. After a young adulthood in which I turned up at my local cineplex or art house theater at least once a week to see whatever blockbuster or critical darling was currently in the reviews, along with countless revivals, I’ve settled down into a routine in which I’m more likely to see two or three movies each year with my daughter and a couple of others for myself. This places me squarely in the mainstream of most moviegoers: according to a recent survey, the average American sees five movies a year, and I seem likely to hit that number exactly.

Which is both remarkable and kind of unsurprising. Hollywood releases about six hundred movies every year, a significant percentage of which are trying to appeal to as many demographic quadrants as possible. Yet even The Force Awakens, which sold over a hundred million tickets domestically, was seen by something less than a third of all Americans, even before you take multiple viewings into account. To convince the average adult to go to the movies five times in a single calendar year, you need a wide range of product, only a fraction of which is likely to entice any given individual to buy a ticket. Inevitably, however, the people who write professionally about the movies from both the artistic and business angles are inclined to try to make sense of the slate as a whole. Film critics may review two or three movies every week and go to even more—and they have to see everything, not just what appeals to their own tastes. As I learned during my own stint as a working critic, it’s a situation that has a way of altering your expectations: you realize how many movies are simply mediocre and forgettable, and you start to relish anything out of the ordinary, however misguided it might be. Needless to say, this isn’t how your typical moviegoer sees it. Someone who watches a hundred and fifty movies every year for free might as well belong to a different species as someone who pays to see fewer than five, but they have no choice but to try to understand each other, at least if we’re going to take criticism seriously from either side.

Tilda Swinton and Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange

So what does this have to do with Doctor Strange? Quite a lot, I think. I had originally hoped to write about it here last week, before the election made it hard to think about anything else, and there was a time when I wasn’t even sure whether I’d devote a post to it at all. Yet I’ve become intrigued precisely by the way it has faded in my imagination. In the moment, I liked it a lot. It stars five actors whom I’m happy to see in anything, and it actually gives two or three of them something interesting to do. When I broke it down in my head, its scenes fell into three categories. About of a third were watchable in the usual Marvel way, which takes pride in being pretty good, but not great; another third achieved something like high camp; and the last third were genuinely visionary, with some of the most striking visual effects I’ve ever seen. There are scenes in Doctor Strange that get as close as a movie possibly can to the look and feel of a dream, with elaborate geometric patterns and cityscapes that break down and reform themselves before our eyes. It left me wondering how they did it. But it didn’t stick in my head in the way that Inception, its obvious inspiration, still does. In part, it’s because it uses digital rather than practical effects: an homage to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s famous hallway fight scene only reminds us of how much more effective—and respectful of gravity—it was to stage it right in the camera. And even the most amazing sequences are chases or showdowns that amount to interchangeable components. The story halts for them, and they could be inserted at any point into any version of the script.

As a result, it left me with a highlight reel of memories that is basically identical to the trailer. But a movie that was wholly as weird and as distinctive as the best scenes in Doctor Strange would never have made it into theaters. It would be fundamentally out of keeping with the basic premise of the Marvel Universe, which is that no one movie can stick out from the rest, and nothing can occur that is so meaningful that it interferes with the smooth production of films being shot simultaneously by other directors. The story, ideally, should be about as little as possible, while still creating the illusion that the stakes are infinite—which leads inexorably to diminishing returns. (When you read the early space opera stories of writers like John W. Campbell, you realize that once the heroes can casually span entire galaxies, it means that nothing matters whatsoever. And the same thing happens in the Marvel films.) Doctor Strange works because it keeps its weirdness hermetically sealed off from the rest: as long as we’re watching those scenes, we’re transported into a freakier, more exhilarating film, only to be returned to the safe beats of the formula as quickly and antiseptically as possible. There’s nothing wrong with the screenplay, except to the extent that there’s something wrong with every script written according to the usual specifications. The result has flashes of something extraordinary, but it’s scaled back for the audience members who see only five movies a year. It’s big and distinctive enough to assure you that you’ve gotten your money’s worth, but not so unusual that it makes you question what you bought with it. It’s Benedict Cumberbatch with an American accent. And it’s exactly as good as that sounds.

Written by nevalalee

November 15, 2016 at 8:27 am

Pictures at an exhibition

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Silhouette by Kara Walker

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What piece of art has actually stopped you in your tracks?”

“All art constantly aspires toward the condition of music,” Walter Pater famously said, but these days, it seems more accurate to say that all art aspires toward the condition of advertising. There’s always been a dialogue between the two, of course, and it runs in both directions, with commercials and print ads picking up on advances in the fine arts, even as artists begin to utilize techniques initially developed on Madison Avenue. Advertising is a particularly ruthless medium—you have only a few seconds to grab the viewer’s attention—and the combination of quick turnover, rapid feedback, and intense financial pressure allows innovations to be adapted and refined with blinding speed, at least within a certain narrow range. (There’s a real sense in which the hard lessons that Jim Henson, say, learned while shooting commercials for Wilkins Coffee are what made Sesame Street so successful.) The difference today is that the push for virality—the need to attract eyeballs in brutal competition with countless potential diversions—has superseded all other considerations, including the ability to grow and maintain an audience. When thousands of “content providers” are fighting for our time on equal terms, there’s no particular reason to remain loyal to any one of them. Everything is an ad now, and it’s selling nothing but itself.

This isn’t a new idea, and I’ve written about it here at length before. What really interests me, though, is how even the most successful examples of storytelling are judged by how effectively they point to some undefined future product. The Marvel movies are essentially commercials or trailers for the idea of a superhero film: every installment builds to a big, meaningless battle that serves as a preview for the confrontation in an upcoming sequel, and we know that nothing can ever truly upset the status quo when the studio’s slate of tentpole releases has already been announced well into the next decade. They aren’t bad films, but they’re just ever so slightly better than they have to be, and I don’t have much of an interest in seeing any more. (Man of Steel has plenty of problems, but at least it represents an actual point of view and an attempt to work through its considerable confusions, and I’d sooner watch it again than The Avengers.) Marvel is fortunate enough to possess one of the few brands capable of maintaining an audience, and it’s petrified at the thought of losing it with anything so upsetting as a genuine surprise. And you can’t blame anyone involved. As Christopher McQuarrie aptly puts it, everyone in Hollywood is “terribly lost and desperately in need of help,” and the last thing Marvel or Disney wants is to turn one of the last reliable franchises into anything less than a predictable stream of cash flows. The pop culture pundits who criticize it—many of whom may not have jobs this time next year—should be so lucky.

Untitled Film Still #30 by Cindy Sherman

But it’s unclear where this leaves the rest of us, especially with the question of how to catch the viewer’s eye while inspiring an engagement that lasts. The human brain is wired in such a way that the images or ideas that seize its attention most easily aren’t likely to retain it over the long term: the quicker the impression, the sooner it evaporates, perhaps because it naturally appeals to our most superficial impulses. Which only means that it’s worth taking a close look at works of art that both capture our interest and reward it. It’s like going to an art gallery. You wander from room to room, glancing at most of the exhibits for just a few seconds, but every now and then, you see something that won’t let go. Usually, it only manages to intrigue you for the minute it takes to read the explanatory text beside it, but occasionally, the impression it makes is a lasting one. Speaking from personal experience, I can think of two revelatory moments in which a glimpse of a picture out of the corner of my eye led to a lifelong obsession. One was Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills; the other was the silhouette work of Kara Walker. They could hardly be more different, but both succeed because they evoke something to which we instinctively respond—movie archetypes and clichés in Sherman’s case, classic children’s illustrations in Walker’s—and then force us to question why they appealed to us in the first place.

And they manage to have it both ways to an extent that most artists would have reason to envy. Sherman’s film stills both parody and exploit the attitudes that they meticulously reconstruct: they wouldn’t be nearly as effective if they didn’t also serve as pin-ups for readers of Art in America. Similarly, Walker’s cutouts fill us with a kind of uneasy nostalgia for the picture books we read growing up, even as they investigate the darkest subjects imaginable. (They also raise fascinating questions about intentionality. Sherman, like David Lynch, can come across as a naif in interviews, while Walker is closer to Michael Haneke, an artist who is nothing if not completely aware of how each effect was achieved.) That strange combination of surface appeal and paradoxical depth may be the most promising angle of attack that artists currently have. You could say much the same about Vijith Assar’s recent piece for McSweeney’s about ambiguous grammar, which starts out as the kind of viral article that we all love to pass around—the animated graphics, the prepackaged nuggets of insight—only to end on a sweet sucker punch. The future of art may lie in forms that seize on the tools of virality while making us think twice about why we’re tempted to click the share button. And it requires artists of unbelievable virtuosity, who are able to exactly replicate the conditions of viral success while infusing them with a white-hot irony. It isn’t easy, but nothing worth doing ever is. This is the game we’re all playing, like it or not, and the artists who are most likely to survive are the ones who can catch the eye while also burrowing into the brain.

The poster problem

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Avengers: Age of Ultron

Three years ago, while reviewing The Avengers soon after its opening weekend, I made the following remarks, which seem to have held up fairly well:

This is a movie that comes across as a triumph more of assemblage and marketing than of storytelling: you want to cheer, not for the director or the heroes, but for the executives at Marvel who brought it all off. Joss Whedon does a nice, resourceful job of putting the pieces together, but we’re left with the sense of a director gamely doing his best with the hand he’s been dealt, which is an odd thing to say for a movie that someone paid $200 million to make. Whedon has been saddled with at least two heroes too many…so that a lot of the film, probably too much, is spent slotting all the components into place.

If the early reactions to Age of Ultron are any indication, I could copy and paste this text and make it the centerpiece of a review of any Avengers movie, past or future. This isn’t to say that the latest installment—which I haven’t seen—might not be fine in its way. But even the franchise’s fans, of which I’m not really one, seem to admit that much of it consists of Whedon dealing with all those moving parts, and the extent of your enjoyment depends largely on how well you feel he pulls it off.

Whedon himself has indicated that he has less control over the process than he’d like. In a recent interview with Mental Floss, he says:

But it’s difficult because you’re living in franchise world—not just Marvel, but in most big films—where you can’t kill anyone, or anybody significant. And now I find myself with a huge crew of people and, although I’m not as bloodthirsty as some people like to pretend, I think it’s disingenuous to say we’re going to fight this great battle, but there’s not going to be any loss. So my feeling in these situations with Marvel is that if somebody has to be placed on the altar and sacrificed, I’ll let you guys decide if they stay there.

Which, when you think about it, is a startling statement to hear from one of Hollywood’s most powerful directors. But it accurately describes the situation. Any Avengers movie will always feel less like a story in itself than like a kind of anomalous weather pattern formed at the meeting point of several huge fronts: the plot, such as it is, emerges in the transition zone, and it’s dwarfed by the masses of air behind it. Marvel has made a specialty of exceeding audience expectations just ever so slightly, and given the gigantic marketing pressures involved, it’s a marvel that it works as well as it does.


It’s fair to ask, in fact, whether any movie with that poster—with no fewer than eight names above the title, most belonging to current or potential franchise bearers—could ever be more than an exercise in crowd control. In fact, there’s a telling counterexample, and it looks, as I’ve said elsewhere, increasingly impressive with time: Christopher Nolan’s Inception. As the years pass, Inception remains a model movie in many respects, but particularly when it comes to the problem of managing narrative complexity. Nolan picks his battles in fascinating ways: he’s telling a nested story with five or more levels of reality, and like Thomas Pynchon, he selectively simplifies the material wherever he can. There’s the fact, for instance, that once the logic of the plot has been explained, it unfolds more or less as we expect, without the twist or third-act betrayal that we’ve been trained to anticipate in most heist movies. The characters, with the exception of Cobb, are defined largely by their surfaces, with a specified role and a few identifying traits. Yet they don’t come off as thin or underdeveloped, and although the poster for Inception is even more packed than that for Age of Ultron, with nine names above the title, we don’t feel that the movie is scrambling to find room for everyone.

And a glance at the cast lists of these movies goes a long way toward explaining why. The Avengers has about fifty speaking parts; Age of Ultron has sixty; and Inception, incredibly, has only fifteen or so. Inception is, in fact, a remarkably underpopulated movie: aside from its leading actors, only a handful of other faces ever appear. Yet we don’t particularly notice this while watching. In all likelihood, there’s a threshold number of characters necessary for a movie to seem fully peopled—and to provide for enough interesting pairings—and any further increase doesn’t change our perception of the whole. If that’s the case, then it’s another shrewd simplification by Nolan, who gives us exactly the number of characters we need and no more. The Avengers movies operate on a different scale, of course: a movie full of superheroes needs some ordinary people for contrast, and there’s a greater need for extras when the stage is as big as the universe. (On paper, anyway. In practice, the stakes in a movie like this are always going to remain something of an abstraction, since we have eight more installments waiting in the wings.) But if Whedon had been more ruthless at paring down his cast at the margins, we might have ended up with a series of films that seemed, paradoxically, larger: each hero could have expanded to fill the space he or she deserved, rather than occupying one corner of a masterpiece of Photoshop.

Written by nevalalee

April 29, 2015 at 8:44 am

How is Starbucks like the Kardashians?

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Kendall Jenner

Last month, it was announced that Kendall Jenner, one of the two youngest Kardashian girls, would become the new face of Estée Lauder. I expect that this surprised many viewers, like me, who were used to regarding Kendall and her sister Kylie as bit players in the ongoing Kardashian saga. Yet it’s only the culmination of a strategy that the show—and the family—has consciously pursued from the start, and the shrewdness it exhibits is part of the reason I find them so weirdly compelling. I should confess that I’ve kept only sporadic tabs on the Kardashians; I watched much of the first four seasons of Keeping Up With the Kardashians with one eye, usually while doing something else, but dropped it after it disappeared from Netflix. But I’m also married to a lovely, intelligent woman who has worked as a business journalist for more than a decade, and she’ll readily admit that she’s oddly obsessed by them, both as human beings and for the unexpected lessons they provide. At a time when cultural impact has been increasingly abstracted from the idea of any real content, the Kardashians are the ultimate case study: a purified model, like the Game of Life, of how faces and personalities can spread to all corners of the globe with minimal underlying substance.

And even that isn’t entirely fair to the Kardashians. To complain that Kim, for instance, became famous for doing nothing is to ignore the fact that we’ve always had celebrities who offered up little but their own attractiveness, and she brings plenty of assets to the table. Even more to the point is the fact that Keeping Up With the Kardashians is an exemplary work of its genre; after you spend an hour watching a really awful reality show, like I Wanna Marry Harry, you start to appreciate a series that at least cares enough to provide a slick, professional product. It’s often derided as a series about nothing, but that’s precisely the point: it’s an empty vessel that can accommodate whatever its subjects feel like highlighting or promoting at the time. These days, television is only one of many tubes through which people and products can enter our lives, but it remains the largest, at least in terms of the psychic space it colonizes, and the Kardashians recognize this, using their flagship show to introduce elements that will pay off in other media. In the past, this might have been a new fragrance or a book; now it’s a pair of human beings who are rapidly moving from the background into leading roles, with data indicating that Kylie now ranks as the most influential member of her family among teenage girls.

Kim Kardashian in Paper Magazine

The case of Kendall and Kylie is particularly interesting, because it shows how good the Kardashians are at leveraging their own familiarity. It reminds me a little of Starbucks, which has long embraced a model centered on its role as a third place, a location outside the home or office where customers naturally meet and converge. As soon as people are coming in for the coffee, the store’s physical location becomes a showroom where the company can unobtrusively push whatever else it likes—food, music, merchandise—to a captive, existing audience. Amazon and Uber follow much the same strategy, albeit at radically different stages in their development: once a customer base and distribution network exist, they can be used to deliver products or services that might have seemed unimaginable when the company began. In the case of the Kardashians, viewers may have tuned in initially for Kim, but over time, they’ve come to know Kendall and Kylie, who have become valuable properties in themselves by entering our awareness before we even knew it. Television is our real third place, as well as a distribution network of uncanny power, and the Kardashians have proven highly adept at using it.

This idea—that you can use an existing circle of awareness, whether it’s a store, a website, or a television show, to expand the range of the possible—feels like the fundamental branding insight of our time. You see it at work in the Marvel cinematic universe, which cleverly uses its established properties to introduce supporting characters, like Black Widow, who might later carry a franchise of their own. (At one point, there was a rumor that the third installment of The Avengers might feature only Iron Man and an entirely new cast, and the fact that it turned out to be unfounded doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t have worked.) It’s a process that functions best when it feels organic, with elements incorporated, emphasized, or discarded by trial and error, an approach to which the Starbucks model is especially suited; when it’s more calculated, as with DC’s belated attempt to create a comparable universe, it’s harder to pull it off. I don’t know if the Kardashians intended to put Kendall and Kylie front and center all along; my guess is the they probably didn’t. But once the pieces fell into place, they were more than ready to run with it. The Kardashians know, like Machiavelli, that to have a reputation for guile is really to have no guile at all, and they seem happy to be underestimated. And it’s no surprise if we see them, like Starbucks, on every corner.

Written by nevalalee

December 30, 2014 at 9:53 am

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