ENDGAME: You love it. But..
I’m sure AVENGERS ENDGAME is great. You all seem to love it. But there is a bigger picture at work in terms of tone and trend. And the movie misanthrope in me could not help taking note. Consider this is a state of the union address. I am concerned about the lack of good old fashioned, family friendly, harmless, pacey FUN on film. Everyone Grows up. Everyone Moves on. But one should never forget to have FUN. Is there a danger that Marvel are going down that ‘darker’, dour, duller road? It’s worth playing devil’s advocate, in the nicest possible way.
For all the franchises, brands and so on? Despite the universal acclaim for ENDGAME? There just seems a bit of heart, soul and FUN missing: my alternative infinity stone ingredients for action/adventure/fantasy cinema since Iron Man launched the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ in 2008 and thereby arguably reinvented blockbusting escapism.
I do not want a 3 hour bloated self indulgent meditation on mortality / mortality from a comic book movie. Go there in places/hints: of course, like any fairy tale should. Have magic, mystery, menace, stakes! But fantasy fun should remain just that and a comic book movie should, whilst borrowing odd hints from more serious fare and pointing kids towards ultimately more mature themes and sophisticated art, somehow have its own vision of a self contained window to optimistic joy.
These things should bounce along and feel friendly, inviting, warm, optimistic. Or why bother, at all? One may as well settle for the daily trawl through the dreary dross of UK soap opera, whereby (Coronation Street, excepted), the criminal underclass of feral violence is the community norm; occasional gang war armistice brought solely by some elderly cast member being written out with a disease of the week (dementia, cancer, mix of both?). cf: Eastenders, Emmerdale.
Filmmakers should of course be able to experiment and one should not settle for mediocrity in story or scope simply because the brand is child-like or comic book inspired. I do understand! I grew up, as did so many of us now, on the 80s-90s evolution of the art form. Technology, imagery, boundaries. They were changing. And yet, still harnessed by both foot in the past and genuinely original visions for the future.
Examples? Burton era Batman films, via Spielberg and Lucas’ Star Wars and Indiana Jones epics, punctuated by the rise of the muscle bound action hero (Arnie, Sly, Bruce et al) and a third way renaissance in 007 (the Brosnan years, pre Daniel Craig).
Both Burton’s Batman and Spielberg’s Indiana Jones contain a visual tech of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. There are, of course, ‘dark’ moments and even some horror visuals. Melting faces! Killer Balloons! Yet they remain fairly harmless pantomimes for the family that simply invite the budding film fan to probe the art form further should they so wish.
I was not forced to watch a director try and turn a Bond, Batman, Dr Jones or any other pulp hero of the 80s/90s into a ACTUAL Citizen Kane! That would have been hubristic pretension and been called out as such. Rightly so!
One can look at the influence of Casablanca’s Rick Blaine on Indiana Jones /Han Solo. Or trace the German impressionistic heritage of Christopher Walken’s look and style in Burton’s Batman Returns (whose script was written with a satirical wit by Daniel Waters).
You could even go so far as seeking Powell and Pressburger beneath your Scorsese/DePalma/Coppola epics. But there was no obligation to do so and neither was there expectation of that, because the influences and tributes were blended, seamlessly, into new and original visions that, even at the most ‘dark’ or ‘gritty’ were still, somehow, ‘fun’! Cinema knew its limitations. And so did we!
Spielberg of course matured and would give us the likes of Schindler’s List and Amistad. But he did not balk at delivering popcorn entertainment after that, either. We still got his Jurassic Park sequel and more Indiana Jones and a Minority Report. And though the quality might vary, he at no stage tries to impose one template on the other.
Indiana Jones does not rescue the day in Saving Private Ryan. But neither do dinosaurs take on mass genocide or slavery (well they do today, it seems: FALLEN KINGDOM..just..oh don’t get me started!). Spielberg, kind of like a modern Shakespeare, entertains and impresses, consistently, but to order and classification, by genre.
We all knew, once, that silly action movie = silly action movie, even if a director snuck in a clever joke reference to their favoured cinema. You could enjoy the movies as they stood, or use the ongoing, ever growing library, as a way into more sophisticated and detailed explorations of the artform, from which you, in turn, could form your own ideas and vision. Genres can blend and tones may mix : I get it!
Shane Black was a master of that with the Lethal Weapon series: Mel Gibson’s Riggs one minute contemplating suicide; making us laugh the next..yet threaded through a pulp fiction verisimilitude. But that’s an exception rather than a rule and now over 30 years old.
We now live in a world whereby one could probably not get a Lethal Weapon greenlit as a project due to ‘inappropriate’ content and risks associated. Yet a kids’ film can end on a note of mass genocide of all their beloved super-heroes, via didactic contemplations on population control that (THANOS!). The more cute and Disney-fied we become in our branding; the more cultish and creepy the controls on language , sexuality and expression, all the while seeming to foster a darkly dour and truly misplaced tone and subtext? Irony.
So what changed? What happened? How did it come to this? The main thing is that filmmaking became more ambitious and yet also democratised and accessible, steadily, in the last 20 years. The scope of technology and what it could achieve through CGI meant that no visual image was too great a stretch.
And within that new playing field, we saw some truly inspirational and epic adventures. Peter Jackson gave us the historic accomplishment of the back to back Lord of the Rings films. George Lucas delivered his infamously over-earnest and tonally muddled yet still technologically wondrous Star Wars ‘prequels’. The Internet began to bloom. Barriers broke down. Anything was possible!
Sadly and in a kind of inverse proportion? A kind of limbo seemed to be the way forward. A tendency to relish and draw out the most personal of details about mortality and morality, without either the genuine common fight against a clearly defined enemy or a closure in accepting its defeat. A never-ending stalemate of self imposed uncertainty. Classification by class, creed, gender, sexuality: all of those seemed and indeed now SEEM to be on the ‘up’ rather than being eroded as divisions.
You can now quite easily and simply elect to fit into certain definitions and mix /merge/match. All the while never truly being encouraged to respect your past yet take the time to define and earn your most perfect future, all the while being told exactly the opposite. Our bar for the truly great and inspirational dropped very low indeed in society and culture and so it did, in film.
The previously ‘good’ became ‘great’. Incidental qualities such as length, theme, scope and referential echoes became, somehow, marks of genius in cinema? Very odd. Harry Potter, I concede, got kids reading. Great! But it really should have been consigned, by now, to some cozy BBC childrens’ television pre Christmas treat.
The fact that it is now revered as some kind of quasi political epic billion dollar behemoth with its own mythology? I just don’t get it. I have also, frequently, noted my love of THAT ‘Café in Florence’ ending to Dark Knight Rises from Director Christopher Nolan, due to its essential optimism and warmth of heart.
But it followed an overpraised Dark Knight movie of 2008. Indeed, my love of 2012’s ‘Rises’ Batman movie is a kind of rebellion against its immediate predecessor which is bizarrely now seen as some gold standard in storytelling. Come back, Joel Schumacher: all is forgiven!
Yes, 1997’s Batman and Robin is dross and indeed, it could be one of the turning points that set the bar for super-hero cinema quite so low in what constitutes ‘good’ let alone ‘great’ (ie it’s not as bad as THAT). But if one looks back to say one of the Schumacher Grisham adaptations (1994’s The Client?), it’s equally possible to see that he could indeed have delivered something just as satisfying as what Nolan produced, if not all the more so?
And that brings me full circle. Back to MARVEL. I did LOVE the decade worth of movies this studio gave us. But I did so, mostly, on the back of good will from 2008’s IRON MAN, where it all started. I even defend the much maligned IRON MAN 2 (2010). Those films know their limitations. Self contained, disposable FUN! Zappy pace, stunning visuals, upbeat scores and a joyous chemistry between all the players, led by the genius of Robert Downey Junior. The further away from that template that the Marvel brand has played? The stronger my inclination to lose all interest. It’s why I nodded off in CAPTAIN AMERICA: WINTER CIVIL WAR etc (guys, really: you are not Manchurian Candidate; it’s a sodding super-hero flick).
And for that reason, I am not terribly excited by the prospect of enduring three hours of AVENGERS: ENDGAME. ‘When I became a man, I put away childish things’, said St Paul and that’s fine. What he did NOT say was ‘let’s TAKE childish things and impose a pretence at adult scope upon those outlets’. The joy is being sucked out yet the ultimate lack of adult, purposeful substance means it’s all for nothing. ENDGAME is not PETERLOO!
There is a sense that one is being prepped for an elongated and premature transfer of power, a changing of the guard and yet more sobering sombreness (or sombre sobriety?) from Marvel movies. The brand is now busily praising its own ‘ELEVEN YEAR JOURNEY!’ and ‘EPIC FINALE’ etc. Fine. But this is an AVENGERS movie. And it’s a 22 film cycle because a well oiled machine churned out product, often 2-3 times per year, to a certain formula, for a decade.
This is not a Biblical instruction film for Theology graduates. It’s not even Lord of the Rings, ending its epic ring cycle.
Yes, of course, even kids’ fairy tales need a threat, a hint of the dark. Even the fluffiest of rom-coms requires a sacrificial death (4 Weddings and a Funeral: features..a funeral!). I also cited the action hero four letter word fests that were the Schwarzenegger/Stallone/Willis greats: Die Hard, Terminator etc. Bloody, brutal, by no means suitable for kids and yet in their way? I’d argue, far less psychologically harmful than the despairing gloom engendered by last year’s INFINITY WAR?
As for killing a hero? NOT a spoiler to say that remains an option awaiting us in ENDGAME and maybe even defining the whole enterprise. Heroic sacrifice is of course more alluring than a pipe and slippers descent to old age and boredom from the ‘they all lived happily ever after’. I do understand.
But utility is everything. Vanity is nothing. Don’t be sad or morbid unless you REALLY have to and without some majestically feel good pay off IF you are indeed, still, within the safe realm of fantasy, sci-fi, comic book adaptation and the like. Otherwise you just become an adolescent, self indulgent, dramatised fan-fic on the big screen and you thereby throw a gauntlet (!) for fellow and future filmmakers to follow suit.
That mistake arguably hit Star Wars of late. Force Awakens was a nostalgia fest and fun but HAD to overreach with a botched ending for Han Solo, for its own sake and presumably, to appease Harrison Ford / the elongated history of the series? Cue Rian Johnson trying to ‘subvert expectations’ via The Last Jedi: which has some genuinely compelling ideas and images but also almost an hour of sheer filler that almost invited the kind of trolling scum set on destroying the brand. JJ Abrams is frantically TRYING to undo all that with this year’s Rise of Skywalker: may the force be with him!
I must stress that it’s not ALL doom and gloom, though. Trailers for MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL and HOBBS AND SHAW look like unabashed, shameless, genuinely family friendly FUN. And it looks like even James Bond has learned his lesson, as the premise for BOND 25, though featuring our hero initially away from active service, nonetheless has him back in action and without ANY reference as yet to personal vendettas or age or the end of him/the service..just save the world and have fun, James! So there IS hope out there. Not ALL Doom and Gloom!
Movies CAN get it right, on cue, to specification. It’s just such a shame that we have to go looking do hard and waiting so long amidst a legacy of cultural ambiguity. Cinema is in the Endgame, now. Fighting against extinction to Netflix and assorted other streamers. The least it can do is make us feel GOOD and within boundary brands designed for just that very task. Just sayin’, like?
And, spoiled or not..I genuinely hope that you all enjoy ENDGAME and I wish ALL involved with the film and its parent brand/franchises, the very best of luck, moving forward.