Pop Culture Heresy: Marvel Studios Is Awful, Part 3 — My Likely Unpopular and Misunderstood Review of BLACK PANTHER (or, The Marvel Cinematic Formula)

For anyone who is curious (though I doubt it): the reason I haven’t put up anything in the last several months is I’ve been suffering from Mitchellesque writer’s block and Shinji Ikari-level clinical depression. Along with that combination, there’s the job I’m actually paid to do and that takes priority over my hobbies. I write largely out of personal interest and, as much as I’d like to be paid for it, I’d rather put out something that feels right to me — even if it takes some time — since I’m doing it for free anyway.

The issue I had, to discuss the Marvel Cinematic Formula, was how to frame the subject. Previous attempts had either been too long or too dry in execution for my own liking. Thankfully, with the release of Black Panther, I’ve been given just what was needed…

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Japan’s answer to Charlie Brown. God help us all

It doesn’t surprise me that the film had such an emphatic reaction among audiences, but that isn’t because it’s a Marvel movie. Unlike the increasingly interchangeable, mediocre spectacles that is their oeuvre — a live-action adaptation of T’Challa, the Black Panther of Wakanda, holds far more cultural significance somewhat similarly to Wonder Woman. I absolutely get all the hyperbolic praise, unlike every other release from Marvel these days, as the cast and setting are an extreme rarity in the world of big budget studio films run and almost entirely populated by white dudes.

However, I didn’t love Black Panther like others have despite my fondness of King T’Challa and his home (it’s the only fictional location I’d want to live in!). Though, to my surprise, it was a far less annoying and disappointing experience — I actually ended up enjoying myself from time to time. I’d go as far to say it’s closer to my favorite (Captain America: Winter Soldier) than my least favorite Marvel movie (a two-way tie between Iron Man 2 and Age of Ultron). It’s nonetheless hampered by the Marvel formula which is (aggravatingly) adhered to a slavish degree, despite not needing to anymore, and makes a few perplexing creative decisions as a result. Of course, that would involve going a bit more in-depth…

*THERE BE SPOILERS, FROM HERE ON*

The most distracting element of Black Panther overall, and I’m sure this may sound confusing to some (or many), is that it comes off like the second entry of a trilogy than its initial chapter. Despite taking place chronologically right after the events of Captain America: Civil War — there are aspects of the narrative, especially characterization, done less as an introduction to the material than as a reintroduction.

A portion of the main cast — Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), M’Baku (Winston Duke), and Zuri (Forrest Whitaker) — feel as if their character arcs began in a non-existent previous film, with many of the events relating to them in this film acting as pay-off. We’re told that Nakia and T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) are former romantic partners, for example, but it’s never adequately explained why they broke up. More importantly, the performances by Nyong’o and Boseman don’t indicate a strained relationship — they’re charmingly adorable around one another — so why not just omit the detail entirely? It could be argued that’s giving the characters these internal lives outside of the events of the film, but that’s hard to believe when the characters — explicitly through conversation — keep bringing up the importance of those past events in relation to a current one. Then there are the motivations of W’Kabi having occurred off-screen but driving him throughout, to the point of betraying T’Challa, as well as how both T’Challa and M’Baku are inferred to be frenemies but never elaborated upon despite being integral to the third act.

Zuri, however, is the most egregious given he’s introduced within this film as a surrogate father figure (was Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s hot mom not enough? I mean, Rene Russo was one of the best things about Thor 2…) but is killed midway through the film and assumes you should somehow care. Much like Quicksilver in Age of Ultron, I wondered why they involved him at all if he wasn’t going to be sufficiently developed as a person and simply killed off to artificially ramp up tension. He’s as underdeveloped and pointless as Whitaker was in Rogue One — the film’s cast is already overstuffed for a first installment and I’d of preferred they held off on using him altogether. He’s definitely not Obi-Won Kenobi from A New Hope and there could’ve been some much-needed breathing room without his presence.

Speaking of artificially ramping up tension: Black Panther is a prime example of how Marvel films make their protagonists far too powerful and seemingly invulnerable — causing so many of the action sequences to become redundant as result. The filmmakers seem aware of this, to some degree, and have to contrive ways in which the character is made vulnerable in order to experience adversity of any kind. The film literally starts out with T’Challa dropping in from the sky and neutralizing a bunch of Boko Haram members, which would’ve been fun or amusing if it wasn’t done so effortlessly on his part. Their bullets just bounce off his suit like small pellets, with no sense of impact whatsoever, and makes one wonder if there’s ever going to be a viable threat for him to face.

Well, he does — in a very forced way.

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It’s telling the two best fights involve a ceremonial death match wherein T’Challa — apparently granted superhuman strength and speed from a mystical plant — has to depower himself with a concoction for combat to be on equal footing. Just think about that for a moment; if T’Challa didn’t handicap himself, there is no doubt he’d win without issue and the ceremony would be unnecessary in the first place. I get these are larger-than-life characters who have epic conflicts but, goddamn, you want them to be naturally vulnerable on some level so they can be challenged and persevere. This problem is exacerbated when Shuri (Letitia Wright), who is basically Q to T’Challa’s James Bond as well as his teen sister, gives him a new suit that is more advanced and powerful than his previous one. Along with also being bulletproof, it all fits within a necklace as nanomachines and has a defensive shockwave function after absorbing enough kinetic energy. Like, couldn’t they have those added features and made it less bulletproof, just to entertain the possibility he could be killed if he got too reckless? If it wasn’t for the fact vibranium just so happened to be stored and transported by some pseudoscientific mechanism that made their super-suits malfunction, the final confrontation between T’Challa and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) would’ve just been them hitting each other continuously with no progress being made either way. Gee, that would’ve been totally fucking dull!

I’ve been noticing this about the Marvel films for a while now and probably why I lack much of any emotional investment in the characters or events. I mean, why care when you know these people won’t be significantly harmed or even die? Sure, they’ll kill off supporting cast members and the villain-of-the-week to make it seem like shit’s gotten real but never one of the heroes. They treated War Machine being blown out of the sky in Civil War as if it was this momentous occasion…except he didn’t die, simply injured and shown to be recovering just fine. Even after falling hundreds of feet back to earth, in a broken metal shell that likely would’ve further injured than protect him. When characters are put into a truly dangerous situation that requires them to be unconventional in approach, like in Iron Man 3, the ending will likely involve a deus ex machina that renders it moot. Well, that and having it done as a ludicrous battle instead of a more subtle confrontation that isn’t entirely predicated on fisticuffs. It’s impossible to be surprised or excited anymore when you’re given almost no curveballs whatsoever.

The best compliment I can give the film is that, like both Guardians of the Galaxy installments, it is far more self-contained than anything else under the Marvel Studios brand. Outside of referencing the death of T’Chaka (played by father-son team John and Atandwa Kani — which was a brilliant casting choice) from Civil War and a post-credits scene with a Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) cameo, everything that happens in the film is specific to Black Panther as a character and his world. It isn’t like Spider-Man: Homecoming where they bring in Michael fucking Keaton as the antagonist and waste a potentially interesting plotline involving him as a corrupt surrogate father figure, all so Robert Downey Jr. can take up a third of the run time to remind us Iron Man exists (as if we needed that — and we really don’t). One can only hope it continues this trajectory and the sequels won’t end up being one half of another character’s movie or just another ensemble piece like, well, Civil War.

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Groot had all the best lines!

The other best compliment I can give the film is that, unlike both Guardians of the Galaxy installments, the interpersonal banter between characters is more naturalistic. It lacks this eager-to-please, overly quippy approach that just gets grating and feels as if written by a teenager who just learned the concept of “self-aware humor.” Certainly helps that T’Challa and his family, including Killmonger, actually come off as a family due to how they act towards each other. They don’t need to vocally remind us, in a patronizing fashion, that they’re “family” even when all their behavior indicates the exact opposite. There’s an attempt at subtlety that is best exemplified by the criminally underutilized M’Baku (and, by extension, Winston Duke) after his initial macho posturing and begrudging defeat in the first ceremonial duel. Having saved T’Challa when mortally wounded in a similar bout with Killmonger which, along with having yielded to him in combat before (due to a compliment nonetheless), suggests a deeper connection — he’s surprisingly casual, no bluster whatsoever, when speaking to him or other members of his family as if he’s known them personally for years. Despite the antagonism present in his mannerisms, it is difficult to not think he and T’Challa are the best of friends in an odd way. If there was just another scene explaining why he chose to assist T’Challa against Killmonger with the rest of his tribe, rather than being another deus ex machina, would’ve made it the movie’s biggest highlight. It falls short, of course, but remains the most interesting interpersonal dynamic presented in the whole narrative.

Though it’d be remiss to not admit that Erik Killmonger is the closest Marvel Studios has gotten in creating a consistently dimensional villain for any of these movies. He’s still nowhere near as good as Wilson Fisk was in the first season of Daredevil (I’m pretty sure no one else can be, at this point) — but at least he’s given grievances that, unlike Ivan Vanko in Iron Man 2, are presented as legitimate throughout. Even T’Challa outright admits that the guy has a point and he did kind of win despite dying, given his own cousin’s change of heart. It’s always nice to have some hint of moral grayness in stories that are otherwise far too black-and-white, because it’s verisimilitudinous than cartoonish and reminds you the “hero/villain” dynamic is often an issue of perspective than a law of nature.

It’s just unfortunate that so much of his background, per usual, isn’t shown to us as much as told. Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) does an info-dump explaining he was in the military and how it prepared him to take over Wakanda — but I was wondering why, y’know, they didn’t use flashbacks to get the same information across visually. Marvel Studios seems to only use such a helpful storytelling device with chagrin and would rather have characters literally spell things out for the audience, though no one talks that way even when informing someone else in reality. So, what? They’ll have a dream sequence where Killmonger talks to his late father, but not remember his experiences in the military? If they did, it’d of been a great way of reaffirming why he thinks starting a worldwide race war is the best route for social revolution. It’s too bad that, unfortunately taking a note from Luke Cage, the film bends a knee to respectability politics by the end. T’Challa chooses to be more diplomatic in his approach, while never entertaining the idea that revealing Wakanda to the world — especially mostly white, neocolonialist nations — might still end up reacting with hostility and violence.

There’s another problem though: Erik Killmonger shouldn’t have been the first antagonist for a Black Panther movie. As I had stated earlier, this film would’ve worked better as a second installment and stand by that. The main antagonist should’ve been Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) but, more importantly, they should’ve adapted the Reginald Hudlin-written and John Romita, Jr.-illustrated comicbook storyline — “Who is the Black Panther?”

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[Cue the BET series theme song]

I’m sure it wouldn’t happen, given how much Marvel Studios goes out of its way to not call out racism — which makes so much of its “progressive” cred come off as disingenuous — and the storyline involves a cadre of white supervillains lead by a totally racist Klaue to invade and take over Wakanda. This is all done on behalf of national Western interests, including France and Belgium, known for their colonialist pasts (or neocolonialist present) as well as the Vatican. I shit thee not, that is the actual premise and it’d of been magnificent live-action cinema. But, again, Marvel Studios likes to play it too safe and scared to imagine ever doing anything even slightly challenging — even their depiction of Ulysses Klaue is one that leaves any hint of being a white supremacist to a couple lines and the fact he’s an Afrikaner now (you know why…). Sure, he calls Killmonger a “savage” at one point despite knowing he’s Wakandan — suggesting he believes them to be too primitive to “deserve” their scientific advancements — but it’s completely tangential to what’s essentially a familial conflict. Also, like far too many Marvel villains, he gets killed off after barely being used.

At some point, Marvel Studios will end up in the same situation as Captain Amazing in Mystery Men where — due to all their decent villains being put out of commission — they’ll end up having to grasp at straws and just bring back the Average Joe version of Helmut Zemo or Tim Blake Nelson as The Leader (bet you don’t remember that!).

The welcome improvements certainly make it one of the better movies in the studio’s catalogue but they’re nonetheless marginal improvements — the same ones in Thor: Ragnarok that are attributed all this hyperbolic praise that’s downright misleading when considered further. Oh, Hela brings up Odin’s dark imperialist, bloodlust-driven past and her grievances for being locked away? It’d of been nice — just like with Killmonger — to actually see that as flashbacks than just pay lip-service. It’s always lip-service. There’s a saying that actions speak louder than words and that perfectly explains the ultimate problem with these films; so much of the plot and characterization isn’t driven by the subtleties of behavior and interpersonal interaction, in its many varieties — but almost entirely by what comes out of a character’s mouth. You have to assume what these films are supposedly about not based on the events that occur and the physical actions taken by characters, but because someone stated it outright.

I can’t be the only one who notices all this, right? That the concrete actions taking place in these movies are almost entirely about these characters either having extended exposition-laden dialogue or punching things ‘cause reasons? I’m pretty sure Alfred Hitchcock had a lot of events happen in his movies and rarely ever involved info-dump monologues or long bouts of pugilism. Drama, throughout its existence, had characters involved in numerous activities where neither verbose exchanges nor feats of combat occurred. Much like watching Game of Thrones or any of the overly-talky HBO dramas — you can’t help but wonder if these audio-visual mediums have regressed in form. It’s turning films and televised/streaming series, both which tend to lack and transcend the limitations of traditional drama, into glorified stage productions. Worst of all, they’re starting to feel like the same glorified stage production.

It’s probably why the Phase 1 releases were my favorite (except for one film) over those that followed, and I’ll explain why next time…

[Originally posted on 5/8/18 @ Medium.com]

Pop Culture Heresy: Marvel Studios Is Awful, Part 2 — Anti-Social Commentary

Within Marvel Studios’ catalogue, Captain America: Winter Soldier is one I consider to be their best. The reason being that it managed to be about something of import — in fact, it was about many things of import. It wasn’t just a bunch of gaudily-dressed crime-fighters who talked in Whedonesque quips while fighting a villain who does villainous things ‘cause reasons. The film dealt with the dubious morality of warfare in modern times, the increasing prevalence of a surveillance state (“This isn’t freedom, this is fear.”), that soldiers are treated as expendable commodities by bellicose politicians with nothing to lose and everything to gain, that democratic institutions have been slowly sabotaged by the interests of disaster capitalists, and (more relevant than ever before) how we’ve let fascist ideology continue and grow in the shadows by acting as if it ceased to exist long ago.

All of that is far more meaningful than anything in the other films, an overglorified series of bells and whistles with little else on their mind (even when claiming otherwise like Guardians of the Galaxy’s supposed theme of “family” — but I’ll go into that another time). That the narrative was centered on Captain America made it more profound because he represents the United States at its most ideal and optimistic. After having slept through so many decades he finds himself lost and confused by the cynicism, deceit, and opportunism that is prevalent in our socio-political landscape presently. The fact he was not around to keep it from happening, being quite literally frozen in time, gnaws at his conscious and what drives his actions throughout the plot. He may’ve not been able to stop it then but, by God, he was going to now

It was why I looked forward to Luke Cage as much as I did. If there’s any superhero that needed a live-action adaptation with this kind of social commentary, it would be Luke Cage. He’s a proud black man who is bulletproof and, gee, isn’t that topical? I was more than ready for a neo-blaxploitation series where someone of a marginalized group used their newfound powers to fight back against racist cops and the businessmen who profited from their suffering. To put it another way: I wanted to see the physical embodiment of the Black Lives Matter movement on-screen. If Captain America represented the U.S. as a nation at its best, Luke Cage could represent the need for social upheaval when the U.S. fails as a nation.

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What Luke Cage Should’ve Been

Except that wasn’t the case at all. It was something far worse — an ode to respectability politics. But what, exactly, are “respectability politics”? As described by the Wikipedia page on the topic:

“[A]ttempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values as being continuous, and compatible, with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for what they see as its failure to accept difference[…]was practiced as a way of attempting to consciously set aside and undermine cultural and moral practices thought to be disrespected by wider society, especially in the context of the family and good manners.”

In essence, it is about those among the marginalized (black individuals in this case) trying to appease the more privileged and affluent of society (who are almost entirely white) rather than challenging and perhaps changing mainstream social values for the benefit of all. It is the assumption that the marginalized are still marginalized not due to economic or political roadblocks based on discrimination but because of their own behavior. That an unwillingness to not just assimilate and behave no differently to mainstream sensibilities (even when they’re outdated horseshit traditionalized by those who’ve never suffered a day in their lives) is the source of further oppression, not those who had been responsible for such going on centuries now. Obviously, it’s quite appealing to many right-wingers and centrists who just so happen to be white — alleviating responsibility and admittance of a system skewed in their favor…

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What Luke Cage Actually Is

It’s not because the show starts off with the titular character taking issue with another black individual using the N-word, a legitimate grievance given its historical usage, but that does set a precedence. So many scenes involve older individuals speaking condescendingly to youths about “responsibility” that goes beyond simple intergenerational tensions. There’s this notion that those youths take part in criminal activities not because it may be their only way out of poverty, next to joining the NBA or becoming a rap/hip-hop star, but as a lifestyle choice. That, somehow, they’d become doctors or politicians or CEOs if they just rejected any form of criminality and “worked hard.” Nevermind how many actually get stuck “working hard” at several dead-end jobs at once in order to barely pay for food and shelter until the end of their miserable life. Though Luke Cage does the same during the series — he’s not “uppity” about it and doesn’t complain. There’s something incredibly naïve about all its finger-wagging by ignoring such real-life scenarios. It dismisses the myriad of disadvantages that community has faced and still faces whenever it’s inconvenient, pushing this disingenuous idea of meritocracy that white people love so goddamn much these days. An idea that, as of yet, has never been explained to me properly or consistently as to what does or does not constitute as “merit” — probably because human beings are biased in favor of behaviors they personally prize (or, more accurately, are socially conditioned to prize).

This is reflected in how Luke Cage is portrayed as a character, with the show going out of its way to make him as inoffensive and good-natured as possible. It reminds me of how a friend brought up his problem with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in the form of Sidney Poitier’s John Prentice, as he was without flaw or vice and didn’t feel like a real person. That it made the whole conflict involving his soon-to-be in-laws less meaningful because they’re given no reason to dislike him other than he’s a black man. Like many in-laws they could use any reason to dismiss their daughter’s fiance, the fact he is black would enable them to hide their racial prejudices behind “reasonable concerns” whenever flaws became apparent. I disagreed with my friend then but I’m definitely in agreement now after this show. Luke Cage isn’t only well-spoken and well-read and always personable, but had a holy man for a father and was a cop prior to his false imprisonment (you can’t have really committed a crime and still be a good person, apparently, unless you’re Ant-Man). In flashbacks, he’s shown as completely unlike all the other stereotypical black criminals incarcerated with him and better for it. When ending up a fugitive on the run, given opportunities anyone else in the same situation would take, he refuses to do anything morally questionable in the slightest to make his life easier.

Such behavior, back in the 1950’s, would be given the underhanded compliment of “you’re a credit to your people, son.” Luke Cage feels less like a flesh-and-blood human being with both admirable and ignoble qualities than a ridiculously contrived paragon of virtue that no one in reality resembles and likely never will. Which is kind of weird, when considering how the other Defenders-related series do not have that same issue. Why is it that Matt Murdock can agonize over his bloodlust clashing with his Catholic morality and Jessica Jones can be a psychologically dysfunctional alcoholic due to mind-control trauma (equated with rape because of course it fucking is), but Luke Cage can’t have demons that tempt him or vulnerabilities that can compromise his principles on the same level? Maybe it’s because, on average, a white person having some personality or character flaw is tolerated and can make them seem more “complex” — but a black individual’s indiscretions are harshly scrutinized, despite being comparable to their white counterparts, to the point their behavior is heavily sanitized. That’s why the overrated and overused Tony Stark can be a vainglorious, self-involved, dishonest drunk who regularly makes an ass out of himself but still be “awesome” regardless. James Rhodes, on the other hand, is a bland tag-along who functions as a nagging hausfrau and damsel in distress at one point — due to doubting Stark whatsoever. Y’know, ’cause a man who gets shit-faced and urinates in his power-armor at a large party is someone who should be treated with nothing but credulity…

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I bet War Machine and Falcon never had to deal with this shit…

In fact, the whole show could be best described as “the credit to his people vs. the thug culture” in order to be almost sycophantic towards white police officers in the U.S. (“Blue Lives Matter!”) by rarely ever showing them in the wrong. There are but two openly racist white cops featured and only one of them is ever verbally acknowledged as such. The other? His comments are treated like verbal horseplay and, when revealed to be corrupt, ends up shown as a victim to a black criminal’s betrayal. There’s another scene where a black youth is brought in for questioning and beaten by an angry cop who is… also black. The most egregious instance is at the end of the season where Misty Knight is berated by a superior over a mistake she made and for not “trusting the system.” As wretched as it is that Misty’s superior is also a black woman, the fact such a statement is made while never acknowledging that same system disadvantages them as both black and female once was unforgivable.

We’re talking about a system where black individuals are incarcerated more often than their white counterparts for similar criminal activities, where (often white) cops use unwarranted lethal force on unarmed black individuals both young and old, and lets those same cops off the hook for such an abuse of power than sufficiently punished. Then there was that whole period where slavery was legal and encouraged (Thomas Jefferson sure loved it…also “freedom”!), then another hundred years of second-citizenhood via Jim Crow before the Civil Rights Movement. But, sure, just trust that system despite having failed that group time and time again. ’Cause it’ll work itself out eventually or something…right?

But then there’s this scene.

Where was this, for all that time? Why wasn’t this scene the entire attitude of the show? Method Man even references Trayvon Martin and connects it to the hoodies that Luke Cage wears throughout, becoming a symbol of solidarity among those in Harlem. It’s also the closest the show comes to being critical about the police and their tactics. Cops are mocked for harassing those in bullet-riddled hoodies (‘cause “they all look alike”) and ridiculed further by others displaying the attire proudly to them, a reminder they’re wasting time and effort chasing a framed man than the real culprit (it’s certainly happened before and even involved our current U.S. President — just look at the Central Park Five…).

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In case anyone forgot. Somehow.

The fact this was only one scene and not representative of the rest infuriated me, because it should be. This is a perfect example of how Marvel Studios employs diversity as a shield to cover up regressive attitudes, that they get their cake and eat it too without anyone noticing and making a fuss. They want to act like they’re “with it,” name-dropping prominent figures in African-American history and culture or having a character do a monologue about Biggie “Notorious B.I.G.” Smalls, but then turn around and demand we respect U.S. law enforcement the same way right-wing proponents of the Second Gulf War guilt-tripped others with “support the troops.”

Why does all of this bother me? Why do I care that much about any of this? Why not just ignore it all?

Ultimately, it’s the waste of talent and potential.

It is absurd how good the casting and technical aspects in some of the films and series are, to not only manage getting actors who are spot on in their roles but have an audio-visual flair that comes with the right editing, cinematography, lighting, etc. Yet it is usually done in service of narratives that are overblown, tensionless spectacles and are disingenuous enough to use in-house ads in the form of “references” or “Easter eggs.” They’ll entertain some good ideas that should be developed more but either toss them aside, forget about them entirely, or keep teasing at it like a carrot dangling at the end of a stick. They’ll pay lip service to more profound themes without actually exploring them in a substantial matter. They could be better, they certainly have the means, but they choose not to and that’s far worse than just being bad.

Speaking of which, for next time: I explain Marvel Studios formula, its overuse, and how it makes the films increasingly interchangeable and mediocre as a result.

[Originally posted on 11/25/17 @ Medium.com]

Pop Culture Heresy: Marvel Studios Is Awful, Part 1 — An Introduction

Several weekends back, I had the displeasure of watching The Defenders from Marvel Studios on Netflix. It had been a while since I watched a TV show or streaming series that left me furious due to its lack of quality. The writing, acting, lighting, cinematography, and fight choreography are so bad that it’s offensive to all the senses. But, to be honest, it wasn’t surprising it turned out terribly. Not just because of the travesties that were Daredevil’s second season (or at least the non-Punisher half) or Iron Fist — Marvel Studios has been awful for a while now.

Let me repeat that: Marvel Studios is awful. They have been for a long time already.

Online film reviewer Confused Matthew once had a video that, save for some particularly mean barbs directed at director James Gunn, was spot-on when it came to a lot of their dubious creative decisions and behind-the-scenes behavior. Unfortunately, he later took it down. Why? He hopped aboard the same bustling bandwagon that continues to beat the putrid, decaying dead horse that is Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Even as the flesh has fallen off the bone, almost threadbare at this point, after being angrily pummeled with a truncheon one too many times.

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Yep, looks about right…

I agree it’s not a good movie in the least — far, far from it — but part of me wants to be contrarian and defend it or the somewhat entertaining but still awful Suicide Squad. They’re not just failures that future filmmakers can learn from, but they’re memorable as failures. Marvel Studios’ overall output is both obsessively formulaic and so easily digestible that the films are becoming interchangeable with one another — they will not stand the test of time. To me, that’s worse than being bad. Mediocrity never warrants a second thought the way something truly amazing or haphazard does.

One might make the assumption that I must not like the comicbooks or had a hatred of Marvel Studios from the get-go, based on my current distaste with them. Well, you know what happens when you assume? It makes an ass out of you and me (but mostly you). I’m quite fond of the comics though I don’t follow them religiously like others do — I tend to prefer the non-superhero work you see from publishers like Image (seriously, read East of West or Black Science) or Oni Press (seriously, read The Sixth Gun or Letter 44)— and I love cinema even more. Having a father who worked in the film and television industry, reared on the stuff since I was born, has made me far more partial to that medium and the format that has been used for decades already. I’m always excited to see something new or interesting, something that hasn’t been done before, something that may make movies better as a medium both technically and creatively. If anything, I was ecstatic to see these comicbook characters come to life — the storytelling potential, making such material live-action, was unimaginable.

Thing is, though, Marvel Studios couldn’t give less of a shit about creative integrity or has any interest in evolving cinematic storytelling. Its interests are the same as every other creatively bankrupt, vapid studio executive in Hollywood: more money to line their already overflowing pockets and justify another unsustainably large budget for the next over-bloated, homogenized piece of fluff that no one will remember a decade or two from now. They’re continuing the worst kind of practices in the industry and, yet again, almost no one seems to notice this as they wear the rose-colored shades sold to them.

It isn’t just Confused Matthew, several others critics whose work I’ve enjoyed immensely over the years — that include Robert Chipman and the guys at RedLetterMedia — seem to soft-ball these Marvel movies than give the acerbic criticism that came with the aforementioned BvS or Suicide Squad or, well, any other movie. It’s as if their critical faculties had been overpowered by some form of powerful hypnotism, to become as gullible and rabidly consumeristic as gamers drunk on hype after another masturbatory E3 convention (but aren’t they all?). Like the AAA videogame industry and its underhanded methods, Marvel Studios knows how to condition an audience to become addicted in order to fork over money for each and every installment of theirs’ — no matter how middling or subpar it actually is — convinced that they want or even need it. This isn’t a revolutionary change in narrative structure, as wonderful as that’d be, but a modernized version of selling snake-oil. Do you know why con-men are called “con-men”? It’s because they make you feel confident enough to let your guard down and fall for their bullshit…

If you think that sounds far-fetched, I have some unfortunate news: you are already under the sway of advertising and may not even realize it.

We like to think advertisements don’t affect us, that having some product pushed onto us with a TV spot or internet pop-up or billboard is something we’re immune to, yet being inundated with enough ads still make people buy products they don’t want or need but nonetheless feel they should purchase anyway. What makes advertising so insidious is being ostensibly innocuous — all while planting seeds of interest into your subconscious. Maybe, after some time, you’ll have the sudden urge to eventually buy those products and not quite sure why you did. If you’re perceptive enough, you’ll recognize those ads had an effect and kick yourself a few times over it. Others lacking such observational skills, on the other hand, will convince themselves they “chose” to buy those products of their own “volition.” Much like a puppet who simply ignores the strings attached to them, avoiding the sad realization their individuality is just an illusion within this capitalistic society…

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“There are no strings on me!”

As Mad Men had pointed out several times, advertising firms have a keen eye for small details and their effectiveness along with an understanding of social psychology. They know what sells a product isn’t the product itself — it’s the sense of personal validation that comes from buying that product. Advertisements are meticulously crafted to invoke a sense of want or need, with use of certain imagery or subtle musical cues that make you feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside when thinking about that product. If not that? They’ll make you feel like a pathetic piece of shit for not having already bought it.

This That Mitchell and Webb Look sketch, from years back, summarizes it pretty well too:

That’s what makes me hate Marvel Studios: their films aren’t really films, not anymore anyway — they’re in-house ads that sell their next product under the ever-thinning veil of being entertainment. Much in the same way almost every U.S. military film, as once stated by David Sirota in Back to Our Future, effectively functions as pro-military propaganda in order for a production to be given any kind of consultation or support. It took me a while to notice because, like so many others, I wore those rose-colored shades. I fell head over heels for the hype. I chased that carrot dangling at the end of the stick and, at this point, it’s made me weary. I gave Marvel Studios the benefit of the doubt for years, I continued to give them leeway under the promise they’d take chances and yet they never have despite having every opportunity to do so. They have grown so successful that taking risks would still yield some kind of return, and would be somewhat refreshing, but they are far too craven to give up their method of endless iteration.

But that’s just the tip of this sordid iceberg!

I found it impossible to explain everything I find wrong with Marvel Studios within a single essay — the issues attached to them go beyond simply being avaricious or creatively lazy. Were those my only issues, I may as well talk about Michael Bay’s Transformers series but even those movies seem inconsequential compared to the damage Marvel Studios has done and still doing. It contributes to the lowering of standards for quality narrative and corroding the concept of self-contained storytelling.

Over the next few weeks (or months) — I will write one essay apiece detailing, convincingly I hope, a specific problem with Marvel Studios as an entity. While most will deal with their creative decisions, which can be downright stupefying, I will occasionally delve into the behind-the-scenes tomfoolery they’ve done that (for example) left us without an Edgar Wright-directed and -written Ant-Man. Much of which, to my dismay, I’ve barely heard from anyone else of note. Maybe they were too busy creaming their pants over Scarlett Johansson’s ass in skin-tight leather or something.

Next time? I’m talking about Luke Cage

[Originally posted on 10/28/17 @ Medium.com]