There's Nothing Wrong With Loving Blockbusters
Thoughts on Richard Donner's Passing and "Black Widow"
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Rule #1: Voicing an opinion on Marvel films is almost always a trap.
Saying that you’re a “Marvel fan” is like saying your favorite band is the one with the most popular song on the radio, while despairing over the superhero genre’s grip on movies is a sign to the Internet that you’re out of date, “over the hill.”
Stephen Dorff recently found himself trending on Twitter when he said Black Widow looks like “garbage” and “a bad video game.” I always love seeing Dorff in the news - an old school, vape-smoking working actor who occasionally turns in a transcendent performance (see: Somewhere, “True Detective” Season 3). Asking him for his opinion on Marvel films is an easy way to grab a headline, as it’s not surprising what he’ll say.
Similarly, Martin Scorsese - star of the Fran Lebowitz documentary “Pretend It’s A City” and occasional film director - doubled down on his criticism of Marvel films. His declaration that the Iron Man movies were “not cinema” earned tut-tuts from the Internet crowd who know Taxi Driver primarily as that film that inspired Joker.
The opposing faction to the Scorseses and Dorffs of the world are not just fans but superfans - those who treat loving superhero films like it’s a personality, or a team they’re playing for. These are not the casual fans who watch the occasional trailer breakdown, but the toxic Twitter mob. The same sovereign citizens of the Internet who beat the drum about Zack Snyder’s mythical director’s cut of Justice League until someone at WB threw up their hands and acquiesced. The same ones who clown on any cinephile dissenter who doesn’t view their beloved franchises with the same respect they do.
I find both sides of this debate pretty funny, stuck in the middle of the silliest culture war in a year of silly culture wars.
Isn’t there a middle ground? Isn’t it possible to enjoy these films for what they are - not high art, nor the death of it?
I’m not asking critics or fans to “shut your brain off” - merely asking them to acknowledge the frame. View these films in context.
I employ the same level of cognitive dissonance when watching a film made under the studio system of old Hollywood. I can appreciate the sharp script of George Cukor’s 1939 film The Women (credited to the great Anita Loos) while acknowledging that it was a film made by committee, and it was cast with the available day players under contract at MGM. Many of the greatest films of all time - Casablanca, Wizard of Oz - are far outside what we would define “auteur” cinema.
Scorsese lived in perhaps the only time when Hollywood threw money at big budget risk-takers with few caveats, as studios chased the success of counterculture hits like Easy Rider. The revolution of ‘70s cinema yielded a disproportionate amount of masterworks, but we can’t forget that it was fueled by audience demand. The children of the ‘60s were hungry for works that flouted the standards of cookie-cutter Hollywood. They wanted more moral ambiguity, less showtunes - more Midnight Cowboy, less Hello, Dolly! This generation anointed stars like Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman - not matinee idols but method actors. Scorsese was able to demand final cut, and convey his pure artistic vision.
But it was also audience demand for more films like Star Wars and Jaws that paved the way for the crowd-pleasers of the ‘80s…
The ‘80s is typically viewed as a time of more generic filmmaking - perhaps a closer analogue to our current times than ‘30s and ‘40s Hollywood. Rather than giving renegade producers like Robert Evans (the one-time Paramount studio head who shepherded The Godfather and Chinatown) greenlight power, corporations and parent companies started to run the show. Coca-Cola bought Columbia Pictures, then quickly sold it off again (sound familar?)
It would be a mistake to discount the merits of filmmaking in the ‘80s, just as it’s impossible to separate Marvel films from their hold on the cultural consciousness. A hit is a hit for a reason (especially when it’s a record-breaking streak of hits, as is the case for Kevin Feige and Marvel).
For example, let’s look at how two of the most influential critics of all time reacted to 1981’s hit Raiders of the Lost Ark. In her review, Pauline Kael lamented the artificiality of the modern blockbuster. “It’s all fantasy. There isn’t a human being on the screen,” she wrote, and “there’s no exhilaration in this dumb, motor excitement.”
In his four-star review, Roger Ebert countered, “Spielberg is not trying here for human insights and emotional complexity; he finds those in other films, but in "Raiders" he wants to do two things: make a great entertainment, and stick it to the Nazis.”
On the this matter, I tend to side more with Ebert - who regularly passed out four-star reviews to summer popcorn flicks. He believes that making an Indiana Jones film uses a different set of skills than making Saving Private Ryan - but both still require skills, and one does not counteract the other.
The late Richard Donner (who passed away last week at age 91) had a hand in many of the studio products of the ‘80s. He directed the original Superman, The Goonies, The Omen, and four Lethal Weapon films. Beyond the nostalgia factor, I would argue that these are films worth re-examining. They spoke to a moment in time - a time when the good guys replaced antiheroes (see: Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent), or action films were being pushed to comical extremes (see: the amount of rockets launched from helicopters in Lethal Weapon).
I can imagine being cynical about the filmography of a studio hand who had all the blockbuster potential of Spielberg with none of the prestige. However, Donner was able to find magic within the studio system - whether it was in casting actors with great chemistry (Glover, Gibson, and Pesci in the Lethal Weapon films) or capturing childlike wonder (the Spielberg-produced Goonies). Even when making Superman, a story that spanned galaxies, his priority was “verisimilitude.”
Conversely, it’s easy to love an auteur director like Scorsese, who revolutionized cinema and inspired generations because he always fought for a long leash from the film studios. However, even his “one for them” films like The Color of Money and Cape Fear speak to how a filmmaker can inject a spark into a studio product.
This is a long prologue to my point - that I enjoyed Black Widow. More than I expected to.
The Scarlett Johansson-starrer was my favorite non-Avengers Marvel film since Black Panther because it was a great example of the craft of blockbuster entertainment, of infusing some personality into established formula. Cate Shortland directed it like a Bond movie, with style and grit (very excited to see what she does next). The cast - David Harbour especially - were all game to play in the superhero sandbox. It even had Florence’s Pugh’s third or fourth star-making performance (Lady MacBeth, Little Drummer Girl, Midsommar, Little Woman - when can we call her a household name?). The fact that it was more standalone than other Marvel films just threw all the aspects of production that were just a bit better than they needed to be into relief.
My opinion of Marvel Studios’ recent foray into television mirrors my experience with Black Widow. I greatly enjoyed “WandaVision,” “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” and “Loki” because I took them for what they were - blockbuster TV. Within that framework, they are quality entertainment with very little competition on the same level.
I’ve seen a lot of hand-wringing about how television, so long the domain of the writer/showrunner, should be kept separate from the thrill rides of Marvel movies. However, if the quality of so-called adult prestige TV remains high and people tune in (see: “Mare of Easttown”), there’s no reason why the two can’t coexist. The same goes for films - if you want to see a resurgence of adult dramas, the best you can do is pay with your dollar. If the audience demands it, the scales will even out - there’s no way one genre will be on top until the end of film history.
One does not need to bash Marvel movies out of ideology, or for the sake of “cinema.” The films should be judged on their merits and flaws, but with some acknowledgment of what genre they belong to. Let’s compare apples to apples, not Avengers to Raging Bull.
Other Stray Thoughts
Luca (Disney Plus) was my favorite Pixar film in a minute precisely because was so simple and sweet. Definitely check it out if you have 90 minutes to spare.
I highly recommend Those Who Wish Me Dead (now On Demand) for those interested in indulging in some solid ‘90s action thrills. Also recommend No Sudden Move (HBO Max). Like many Soderbergh film, it’s more focused on aesthetics and style - but it’s one of his better exercises in years.
On music docs… Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (In Theaters and on Hulu) is essential viewing. Questlove pairs incredible unearthed footage of 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival with important context for the period. The Sparks Brothers (in Theaters and On Demand) clued me in to an entire secret history of music I knew nothing about through the very eccentric band of the Mael brothers.
The aforementioned “Pretend It’s A City” (Netflix) and “Stanley Tucci: Searching For Italy” (CNN) are my picks for best non-fiction comfort food this year.
For those seeking existential dread, you’ve no doubt heard of “Bo Burnham: Inside” (Netflix). So good I’m scared to watch again.
Let me know your thoughts on what I should cover in the next edition of “Burn the Reel” in the comments! Now in the words of Tom Cruise, let’s get back to the movies…
White, Adam, “Stephen Dorff: ‘I don’t want to be in Black Widow or one of those movies – I’m embarrassed for Scarlett!’ https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/stephen-dorff-interview-embattled-b1875322.html
Scorsese, Martin, “Martin Scorsese: I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain,” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/04/opinion/martin-scorsese-marvel.html
Kafka, Peter, “It never made sense for AT&T to buy WarnerMedia. Now it’s undoing its $100 billion deal.” https://www.vox.com/recode/2021/5/16/22439154/warner-media-discovery-hbo-max-att-streaming-netflix-merger
Ebert, Roger, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-raiders-of-the-lost-ark-1981
Kael, Pauline, “WHIPPED,” https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1981/06/15/whipped
Hipes, Patrick, “Richard Donner Dies: ‘Superman’, ‘Lethal Weapon’ And ‘The Goonies’ Director Was 91,” https://deadline.com/2021/07/richard-donner-dead-superman-lethal-weapon-director-1234786372/
Smith, Harrison, “Richard Donner, adaptable director of ‘Superman’ and ‘Lethal Weapon,’ dies at 91,” https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/richard-donner-dead/2021/07/06/c4912050-de63-11eb-9f54-7eee10b5fcd2_story.html