The Power, The Glory, The Marketing: Why Marvel Studios Rules the Big Screen

Yet another cinematic auteur — Francis Ford Coppola — has inveighed against Marvel Studios for using a “single prototype” to produce a generic product that is predictable, stereotypical, formulaic, and otherwise lacking in the adventurousness and verve that makes cinema great.

In this he joins Martin Scorsese, who declaimed in a New York Times essay that Marvel’s big-screen output as not actually even being cinema, lacking in character development, lacking in art, and lacking in risk or surprise.

Even blockbuster schlockmeister Roland Emmrich — of all people, he of “Independence Day” and, ahem, “Moonfall” — is getting on the train, stating that Marvel is “ruining our industry” by creating little more than … schlocky blockbusters?

On one level, these sages of cinema are right on the money.

Marvel is using a single prototype; is crowding out no-name, risk-taking cinema, at least at the big studio level; and no, no, no, it is not making cinema — the unique, auteur-driven works of motion-media literature that Scorsese yearns for — at all.

And therein lies its genius.

Scorcese describes the Marvel superhero flicks as “worldwide audiovisual entertainment,” and which is a lot of words, and generally accurate, but misses the actual point.    

Marvel Studios is, more specifically, making comic books. 

Rather, they’ve transposed the medium of comic books into large-scale motion media. Right down to the frenetic pacing, dynamic framing, anything-goes narratives, and melodramatic character development.

They’ve taken the magic of the spectacular two-page splash — the unbounded terrain of the imagination, wherein Jack Kirby and his peers created universes, birthed gods and goddesses, destroyed planets and unleashed monstrosities! — and blown it up to IMAX scale.

They’ve taken the minute detail of the inset panel, the emotional nuance that is the classic Marvel calling card — the troubled hero, the complex ubermensch, the vulnerable paladin, the flawed heroine — and turned it into the intimate little cut scenes and close-ups of Steve Rogers (AKA Captain America) experiencing the emotional travail of saying farewell forever to his true love; of Carol Danvers, the spectacular, cosmic-powered Captain Marvel, questioning her competence and self-worth; of Peter Parker, Spider-Man, weeping over his dead Aunt May and all his efforts to do good come to, apparently, naught.

They’ve taken the logic of comic-book worldbuilding — that is, a total lack of logic; anything can be retconned into existence, anyone resurrected, any plot device justifiable as long as it advances character arcs and can be written into the expedient physics of the anything-goes comic book universe — and gone all in.

It doesn’t matter what they do. It doesn’t matter what they write. Captain America can walk around with a shoe on his head, and it would work just fine if it can be presented with panache, or self-effacing humor, or a dollop of internally coherent comic-book backstory or technobabble.

Hell, they can stuff the entire Avengers team into a shawarma shop for a late night snack after defeating an alien invasion led by a rebellious Norse trickster god — oh wait, in fact, they did exactly that.

Even the Easter eggs in the movie credits are textbook pop-culture marketing. They’re the 3D glasses or the flexidisc album insert in the magazine, the prize in the box of Crackerjacks, the comic strip that comes with every package of Bazooka Joe bubblegum, the legendary Pokémon card tucked into the trading-card three pack. 

No, they’re better than all that, because those Easter egg end-credit scenes ensure continuity. Comic books are serialized pop-cultural mass media. They’re always teasing the next issue. There’s always a cliffhanger. That sense of anticipation is delicious torment.

Marvel Studios flipped that up to the big screen, and it’s a marketing triumph. 

(And it’s something their nearest attempt at a rival, the DC Extended Universe coming out of Warner, sucks super hard at. DC is not making comics on the big screen — they’re trying to make actual movies, and they’re lumpy, dire, awkward, and discontinuous hack jobs. I guess the only one that really worked — “Shazam!” — was pretty much a comic book on the big screen, and not trying to be anything else. It was quite great as such things go. But it’s all catch-up, and uphill at that, for DC.)

Marvel is playing a canny game. They know the medium, they know their audience, and they happen to be sitting on a lot of great IP that millions of kids, who are now adults, grew up on.

Characters you loved, as a kid, and thrill to see playing out on the big screen as an adult — in particular because Marvel, unlike its rivals, is spectacularly good at making its heroes relatable. Ordinary folks, with problems, plus powers and cosmic imbroglios.

I tell you, when it comes to pop-cultural spectacle, there is nothing finer than Bree Larsen’s Captain Marvel, come into her power, having banished her imposter syndrome, rocketing through the sky, the embodiment of the empowered feminist #girlboss archetype blown up to mythic scale, sheathed in glowing plasma, dazzlingly gorgeous and eyes aflame, dispatching a battalion of dark Kree battleships in high orbit around planet Earth like the unstoppable goddess she is.

This stuff works because people want to see themselves on that scale, and they experience that power, liberation, and ability to do right through her.

Scorsese said in his New York Times essay that the cinema he grew up with and learned to love “was about characters — the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.”

By implication, he suggests that Marvel’s big-screen spectacles lack such nuance of character, and in this — despite his otherwise accurate assertion that Marvel is not in general making cinema — he’s wrong.

Marvel is all about the characters, and their struggles, their human-ness, their flaws and sacrifices — along with their mythic-scale powers and glories. 

And as long as these characters remain interesting, relatable, sympathetic, a place to put our hopes, fears, needs and desires … Marvel is going to keep on winning.

It helps that they’re smart motion-media producers with money to burn. They get to cast Tony Leung — Tony Leung! — in a cheeseball kung-fu adventure full of quips and a dime-store pulp plotline, fill it up with epic cinematography and sweet fight-scene choreography right out of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” throw in some adorable/beneficent guardian beasts in a mystic hidden land, swirl in some affecting (and relatable!) family drama, and, bango!

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” was awesome!

With a superhero movie, especially from Marvel Studios, we get to deal with reality through a clear storytelling metaphor, marketed to a demographic that wants epic, modern-mythic escapism that’s relatable, funny, tragic, unironic, and continuously involving.

As for the end of auteur cinema, well, maybe … not.

There are more outlets for idiosyncratic, nuanced, wildly diverse storytelling than ever before. Streaming services abound. I’m quicker to blame corporate greed on the preponderance of blockbusters — but then again, what are we to make of the corporate-backed but may-as-well-be-indie political satire “Don’t Look Up” turning out to be Netflix’s second-biggest movie ever, and also a multiple Oscar nominee? 

Even the collapse of the in-theater revenue model, particularly among the multiplexes during the pandemic, may have been a false alarm. It seems like ticket sales are now rebounding? And there was that whole crypto/day-trader hedge-fund takedown that propped up AMC for another go?

Arthouse theaters are sticking around, too, despite the odds.

Here in San Francisco we lost a string of single-screen theaters, and Landmark just closed a premier indie-film destination downtown. But it still has another multiplex midtown at Opera Plaza; Alamo Drafthouse is hanging in there in the Mission; our resident movie palace, the Castro Theater, which comes complete with a mighty Wurlitzer played live before screenings, is getting a makeover and an added diet of live events; and the Balboa Theater, a three-screen gem way out by the Pacific Ocean in the Outer Richmond district, is positively thriving on a mix of retro screenings, current mainstream fare, and choice indie and foreign-cinema picks.

Could it be, that in the era of in-home immersive entertainment systems, people just like going out to the movies?

Where do you go to see movies in your town? Is there a local film festival at the nearest state university? Are you all screensharing the latest indie serial or foreign-cinema pickup on Netflix with your pals?

I’m not worried about cinema right now, on large screens or small — the tanking of Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” and Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel” notwithstanding, pandemic times are a pretty lousy moment to risk dropping your big-budget, story-driven spectacle. 

Nor, dear friends, am I weeping about Roland Emmerich not being able to sell his own bad blockbusters just because someone else is better at selling theirs.  

When it comes to blockbusters, Marvel Studios has the storytelling power, the IP glory, and they’ve totally nailed the marketing. Even at their schlockiest, they’re telling affecting tales about everyman and everywoman myth-figures that save lives and change the world. 

There are many things to despise about consumerist/commercialist capitalism, and the type of mass media that economic regime has produced. 

Earnest, IP-driven, purely escapist comic-book adventures on the big screen are not among them.

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J. Phantizorn

J. Phantizorn

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