Is Avengers: Endgame one of the worst blockbuster movies ever made? Should it even be called a movie in the first place? In a blistering critique exploring the final instalments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the culture that allowed these stupendous productions to prosper, critic Luke Buckmaster raises important questions about the current state of cinema – and what lies ahead for the medium of motion pictures.
As I observed the gods of the Marvel Cinematic Universe stomping across the big screen in Avengers: Endgame, each of these titans representing their own endless continuum of brand affiliations and corporate raison d’etre, the cacophonous tableau in front of me was contrasted by a stillness inside. During what alcoholics call a moment of clarity – to borrow words spoken by Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction– revelation dawned that this is what popular culture means in 2019. Endgame and its predecessor, the equally and intensely mediocre Avengers: Infinity War, are the defining cultural texts of our time.
I came to this conclusion as I watched the hero of the first MCU movie team up with the heroes of the sixth, seventh and 13th films, to assist characters from the 11th, 14th and 20th, in order to defeat the villain of the 19th and 22nd, with assistance from the heroine from the 21st and the sidekicks from the third. Or something like that. A Marvel superfan might claim those numbers don’t add up – but that’s OK. Just rearrange them until they form an acceptable pattern and pretend that the first iteration I wrote never existed.
To do so would be taking inspiration from the directors (Anthony and Joe Russo) and the screenwriters (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely). They present a narrative in which something, or someone, is inevitable until it is not, and someone, or something, can’t be undone until it can. Instead of creatively addressing the ellipsis they bunged onto the end of Infinity War, robbing audiences of a conclusion while having the gall to instruct them ‘not to spoil the secrets,’ they simply hit a button marked “time travel.” Thus everything can be undone, redone, whatever. It is the equal worst plot development in a superhero movie since Christopher Reeves span the earth backwards in the original Superman.
What hope remains for the ravaged, apocalyptic state of modern cinema?
Imagine if all storytellers had this kind of disregard for their own fans, and indeed for their own creations. No word ever spoken and no deed ever committed on screen would ever be worth anything. That’s actually a pretty good way to look at Infinity War and Endgame: in these films nothing is ever worth anything; not even grief.
Just as Donald Trump’s presidency shows there’s no bottom in American politics, only various kinds of falling, these onerous and intellectually lazy blockbusters – which serve up plates of visual gibberish and laugh at the very idea of concepts such as narrative efficiency – prove the studio has no nadir. Nothing it won’t stoop to.
What do these productions mean in the scheme of things? What do they say about the current times? Why do fanboys and even critics (of all people) sing their praises? What stylistic form could the modern superhero movie have taken, had it emerged as a genuine film movement? What hope remains for the ravaged, apocalyptic state of modern cinema?
A new era of advertising
Discussing the increasingly rampant commercialisation in movies, the great critic Pauline Kael noted, in 1965, that “movies are constructed with product tie-ins worked into their structure,” citing everything from mattresses and stoves to toothpaste, airlines and whiskey. The companies advertised in movies return the favour, she explained, by featuring the movie in their own advertisements, blurring the line between mediums that previously at least appeared to hold obvious distinctions. Kael continued:
“Even without produce tie-ins, modern-dress movies look just like ads and sell the advertising way of life. This is one of the reasons why our movies seem so slickly unreal: they look like the TV commercials that nobody believes…
“We’re sending ourselves up. We are reaching the point at which the purveyors don’t care about anything but how to sell and the buyers buy because they don’t give a damn. When there is no respect on either side, commerce is a dirty word.”
You don’t need me to tell you that the current moment in history is a strange one for many reasons. Innumerable reasons, perhaps, and growing by the day, expanding like the proverbial never-ending packet of Tim-Tams, full of weird flavours and strange deviations on formula. Pick your topic: Trump and the era of post-truth; La La Land and the glitch in the matrix; social media and end of privacy; Siri and the beginning of the robot revolution; Brexit and the fracturing of the modern world; etcetera etcetera etcetera.
Digital media (which of course includes film and television) is only one of a seemingly infinite number of fields being contemporised, or “disrupted.” However in the context of this article, or whatever you want to call it – a screed, an essay, a brain bubble, an adverse reaction to CGI-slathered mediocrity, some kind of Howard Bealian monologue that won’t stop – it is necessary to begin with such context-setting. It is necessary because, in this brave new world of upheaval and convergence, great change comes with the ability (perhaps even the need) to rethink previously held assumptions and develop new labels and definitions.
Infinity War and Endgame are elephantine slabs of advertising, obviously, representing an era of advertising and brand management on an unprecedented scale.
I might be tempted to describe Infinity War and Endgame as a couple of the worst and most ideologically vacuous blockbuster movies ever made – except I’m no longer sure they should even be called movies in the first place.
They are elephantine slabs of advertising, obviously, representing an era of advertising and brand management on an unprecedented scale. They extend the core ideas in the above quote from Kael, from the realm of the cautionary (Kael’s world) to the domain of the dystopian (ours). But we’ll get into movies as advertisements, and the language we use to describe them as advertisements also, in a moment.
Here’s why Infinity War and Endgame aren’t movies
There is a word to describe, as dictionary.com puts it, “each of the separate instalments into which a serialised story or radio or television programme is divided.” That word is “episode.” There are also words to describe productions that depict the interconnected lives of many characters, in ways like Infinity War and Endgame– i.e. melodramatically, with extremely thin characterisation and backstories developed in previous productions. Those words are “soap opera.”
So we can all agree that Infinity War and Endgame are episodes of a soap opera. In other words, television. Just as movies can be made for small screens (any Netflix original film, for instance), TV can be – and often is – exhibited in theatrical spaces.
Regarding these two productions as TV soap operas doesn’t necessarily mean they are “good” or “bad”, given some soap operas (such as Game of Thrones) can be well constructed and excitingly staged. But it does provide a framework so we can at least think about reassessing what these kinds of motion picture experiences really are and the sorts of language we use to describe them.
Some of you are reading this thinking: so what? Of course they’re soap operas. As somebody who has written film reviews for over two decades, however – including critiques of most MCU movies – I can assure you that even the most obvious and logical conclusions can be met with howls of incredulity and white hot rage by members of the fan base, who are prone to interpret even vague criticism of beloved properties as an insult to their very way of life.
Blockbusters are ads, and ads are blockbusters
The above comments from Kael were published over half a century ago. You could say that those words – exploring how, as Kael puts it earlier in her essay, society “can no longer distinguish the ad from the entertainment” – are these days both more accurate than ever and kind of quaint. Both statements are true.
During advertisements screened in cinemas before features begin, of local businesses and movie trailers and the like, viewers shuffle in their seats and impatiently await the main event. But then, as the closing credits roll out for a Marvel Comic Universe movie, huge swathes of the audience do something quite strange. They remain seated and anxiously await the scene inserted after the credits conclude. This scene is as much an advertisement as any vision of choctops or any coming attraction. And yet Marvel fans cannot wait to get to it; one of the reasons they bought a ticket in the first place is to watch this commercial.
You could say Kael’s statements are quaint, because they presuppose that “the ad” and “the entertainment” can be different things. An outspoken voice on this subject is the influential French theorist Jean Baudrillard, who began his 1994 essay Absolute Advertising, Ground Zero Advertising by roaring out of the gates with the following declaration: “Today what we are experiencing is the absorption of all virtual modes of expression into that of advertising.” In Baudrillard’s view, advertising “effaces any support and any depth,” signifying a “reabsorption of everything into the surface” and “plunges us into this stupified, hyperreal euphoria that we could not exchange for anything else.”
The same people who are deeply skeptical of politicians regard motion pictures with an “accept the film on its own terms” mentality.
Applying these sort of concepts to discussions about silly popcorn movies buttressed by hugely elaborate marketing campaigns is perhaps a little easy. And yet it is bizarre how little the public seem to contemplate these matters or view what their behaviour means in the scheme of things. The same people who are deeply skeptical of politicians – because they know their words are lines of dialogue intended to ideologically persuade them, and to sell something that often doesn’t exist – regard motion pictures (from companies such as Disney, which any politician would kill to have the influence of) with an “accept the film on its own terms” mentality. This, in the words of the critic Armond White, is the same as saying that we should accept the film as it is advertised.
In the so-called “post-truth” era, Infinity War and Endgame are cultural monoliths, embodying like few other productions the disintegration of meaning into information. They arrive at a period in history synonymous with great cynicism towards our political leaders and utter complacency towards our cultural leaders – if that term can apply to the bigwigs in boardrooms at companies like Disney, whose decisions profoundly affect many aspects of society including the messages that inspire our children. In the words of the beloved TV presenter Fred Rogers: “children deserve better.”
The idiotic grip of spoiler-paranoia
This obsession with information at the cost of meaning is reflected in the childish attitude towards spoilers that has become de rigueur since the turn of the century. Whenever an MCU event movie like Infinity War or Endgame rolls into town, its creators inevitably preface its release by making public statements calling for people to ‘not reveal the secrets.’ Or, in the case of the 22nd MCU movie, #dontspoiltheendgame. They need to emphasise the supposed value of the information their blockbusters contain because if they don’t, they risk exposing their emptiness.
We all enjoy a good twist, and of course one should not reveal significant plot developments for the hell of it. The buzz experienced from plot reveals, however, is too often prioritised over the long-lasting satisfaction gleaned from a great story well told.
Recent years have seen a distorted emphasis on ‘what’ over ‘how’ and ‘why’: a focus on the contents of a text over other elements that enrich and complicate the experience – such as technique, construction, themes and ideology. The rise of recap culture, comprised of articles that most often function as little more than reminders of what the viewer has just watched, exacerbate this.
The reason great directors become great, and are remembered and cherished, is not so much because of the stories they told but the manner with which they told them. In short: content never trumps form. And yet company lackeys such as Anthony and Joe Russo try to convince us that the opposite is true. To say that fans take the bait is to put it very lightly.
Psychology professor Nicholas Christensen, an academic from the University of California, has been studying the relationship between spoilers and viewer satisfaction for years. He says that “what we found, remarkably, was that if you spoil stories, they (viewers) actually enjoy them more. Spoilers were actually enhancers…people watch these movies more than once happily and often with increasing pleasure…the point is we’re not really watching these things for the ending.” Here’s more information about his findings.
The anonymous style of MCU movies
The synthesis of form and content is what makes great films thrilling. Alfred Hitchcock for instance, had an amazing ability to take ideas lingering in subtext and find ways to visualise them. In Strangers on a Train he reflected on the theme of crisscrossing through a range of clever images, to use one of many films as an example. It is for this reason that Ang Lee’s 2003 film Hulk is the most important – and sadly overlooked – Marvel movie ever made: because it proposes a blueprint, informed by the visual structure of comic books, for how superhero movies could have had a unique cinematic style.
Through inventive use of split-screen images and transitions, Lee embraces the box-like composition of the printed comic book, and turns it into a feast – of frames within frames and various windows into reality. There are many bad things about Hulk, including a weightless performance from Eric Bana in the lead role and an obscene amount of tedious waffle blabbered by the characters. But if filmmakers had expanded on its ideas, the modern superhero movie might have had an aesthetic bedrock and at least the beginning of a style to call its own – comparable to the sharp angles and distorted landscapes of German Expressionism, say, or the continuity-breaking editing techniques of the French New Wave.
Instead we got the cinematic equivalent of McDonald’s: homogenised goop intended for everyone. In the entertaining Thor: Ragnarok, which plays out with an appealing party vibe, Taika Waititi did about as much as a filmmaker can (read: is allowed to) when it comes to infusing an MCU film with a director’s personality. It wasn’t all that much – mostly a small comedic supporting character played by Waititi himself, and the sprinkling of some zany elements – but it was enough to remind us of what has been lost in blockbuster superhero moviemaking: the invigorating feeling one gets when watching a film inseparable from the personality of its creator.
The anonymous streamlined ‘style’ of the MCU franchise has been finessed over several years and reaches its machine-tooled epitomisation in Endgame. Rarely if ever have films of any kind felt so devoid of human presence. Endgamehas no sense of soul, no feeling that a real person exists behind the wheel. You could remove the names of the directors from the credits of every MCU movie and nobody would give a damn – especially not the studio that bankrolls them.
The disintegration of critical voices
In another world, the critical populace might have presented a vaguely united front when Infinity War and Endgame arrived, pointing out the various ways that these monstrous productions ridicule many decades of film language development. From their preference for screensavers over cinematic composition, for histrionic mumbo-jumbo over thoughtful dialogue, for key art over mise en scene, for serialisation over resolution, for committee decisions over individual artistic choices, for branded sound stages over interesting sets, for meaningless showdowns over interpersonal dynamics, and on and on and on we go. Perhaps even, critics could also have included some consideration of the socio-economic circumstances that allow productions like these to catch on in such a way.
Instead the reaction of most reviewers, as we saw with Infinity War and are seeing again with Endgame, formed a spectacle every bit as meaningless as the movies themselves. But even if the critics had seen some common ground and howled in unison, would it have made the slightest difference? For blockbusters as big as Infinity War and Endgame, the giants stomping across our cultural landscape, a good score on Rotten Tomatoes is an added bonus; a nice garnish. In the face of their marketing might, film criticism has been reduced to the equivalent of salad dressing. Considering the quality of the reviews (we’ll get to that in a moment) it is a perfectly reasonable response to say: good riddance. To hell with criticism.
The films that do benefit from positive critiques are often the kinds of productions most people are less interested in reading about. If I tweet a link to a riveting indie drama I’ve recently seen, for example, then tweet a link to a so-so Marvel Comics Universe film, and briefly describe my thoughts on each, hoping that audiences will feel compelled to read the full review, ten times as many people (conservatively speaking) will click on the latter. If my reading of the indie film is along the lines of ‘good but not great’, or ‘so-so’, or ‘it’s complicated’, then the disparity between those numbers will increase even further – to the point where editors might begin to wonder why they commission writing about indie dramas in the first place.
Superhero movies almost always only propose only two visions of the future: the end of the world, or the saving of it by the hand of a god-like entity.
In recent years in particular, comedy has emerged as a viable form of political journalism. Comedians such as John Oliver and Trevor Noah use their craft as a way of scrutinizing power; keeping authorities and people of influence accountable. A superior kind of screen criticism culture renaissance might take seriously its ability to scrutinize power, or at least to include in its remit some skepticism of vested interests, media conglomerates and mighty timeworn institutions. More often than not the DNA of these companies is infused into the art.
Instead, critics and audiences alike are wowed by displays of ostentatious spectacle and lap up stories about powerful people spouting capitalist fallacies. Mary Poppins Returns (79% on Rotten Tomatoes) for instance reiterates the rubbish idea put forward by the banks: that if you save a little money you will one day have enough to buy a house. Steven Spielberg’s period piece The Post (88% on Rotten Tomatoes) rewrites history from a power-fetishising perspective, pretending that the true hero of its story wasn’t the whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, but a socialite played by Meryl Streep who bravely decided to put down her martini glass to fulfil her duties as a newspaper publisher.
These films are relevant in this discussion because superhero movies are part of this – not just an infatuation with affluence, but a reflection of the myths of neoliberalism. In an excellent essay published on Salon, Keith A. Spencer argues that “superhero movies, and their increasingly expensive productions and complicated universes, are more than just reflective of our world: They are necessary to the perpetuation of neoliberal capitalism.”
Discussing how superheroes inevitably save the day, but almost never meaningfully alter the fabric of society, Spencer writes:
“The superheroes’ work may save lives, but it never inherently changes the relationships of production: If the people are poor, they’re likely to stay poor. They don’t participate in redistributive politics except to attack the sort of universally detested social relationships about which there is broad consensus –for instance, slavery. Superheroes can’t and won’t save the middle class.”
By presenting stupefying spectacle and Campbellian stories of heroes with incredible powers, companies such as Disney present a fantasy of characters rebelling against evil forces in alternate worlds, but rarely encourage audiences to take a moral stance against wickedness in the real world, or even to pursue positive change of any kind. In reality such change is usually the result of a collective of people working together for a common cause – not from the sole, drastic actions of the powerful elite, i.e. all the principal characters in Endgame.
Superhero movies almost always propose only two visions of the future: the end of the world, or the saving of it by the hand of a god-like entity (or entities). Continues Spencer: “By providing these two poles and these two poles only, neoliberalism traps its subjects by repeating the myth that the future will consist of either A) more neoliberalism, managed by figurative supermen, or B) the apocalypse.”
We are moths heading towards the light, entranced by that big and beautiful thing that effaces any support and any depth. That – to borrow Baudrillard’s words – signifies a reabsorption of everything into the surface. That plunges us into hyperreal euphoria we could not exchange for anything else.
Advertisements of advertisements
The truth of the matter, though some critics might not like to admit it, is that when we review productions like Infinity War and Endgame, we are reviewing advertisements. Big, glaring, grotesque advertisements (thank god advertisements can be well made, and thank god watching trash can be so enjoyable). Rather than understanding that, and perhaps adapting use of language accordingly, most reviewers are cheerfully oblivious and happy to contribute their work as grist for the mill.
If you surf through the kind of quotes that typify reviews of tentpole releases, full of dumb marketing speak and embarrassing hyperbole, what you clearly see are advertisements of advertisements. Infinity War for example was “peak superhero entertainment,” “historic spectacle” and “the most Marvel movie that Marvel has ever Marveled.” This cacophony of loud voices is part of an endless continuum that, like these movies, has no end and no beginning. Also no purpose – other than to keep pumping out information at the cost of meaning, spinning the wheels of a machine bogged down in a cultural and critical quagmire.
Marvel Comic Universe superfans are among of the most passionate readers of film criticism in the current times.
The quotes I sourced for the sentence above were all taken, quickly and without much thought, from the Avengers: Infinity War page on Rotten Tomatoes, a site that barely pretends to adhere to any degree of quality control. Before we continue, here’s a sample of what some of the earliest reviews have had to say about Endgame. I haven’t included links, because nobody should be rewarded for pumping out this sort of starry-eyed dross – the kind of comments you might expect to hear in vox pop interviews with superfans gassed up on nitrous oxide. Steel yourself for Endgame, folks, because:
- “We haven’t seen anything like this before in franchise movie-making”
- “[O]ne of the most ambitious, entertaining, emotional, and stunning blockbusters we’ve ever seen”
- “Everything you’ve ever dreamed a Marvel movie could be”
- “It’s everything a fan could want”
- “Delivers on all fronts”
- “The triumphant crescendo to the biggest film journey that has ever graced cinemas”
- “An emotional roller coaster I cannot wait to ride again”
- “All of these Marvel movies are so much more than just 10+ years of entertainment – they’re family”
- “An undeniable triumph for Marvel”
- “A Marvel miracle”
On Rotten Tomatoes all the reviewers are lumped together in the same space, crusty old dudes, deep thinkers and unweaned fanboys alike, the dinosaurs of printed media positioned next to blogs with no more than a dozen readers. As if the New Yorker (which Kael used to write for) and Fanboynation.com were comparably robust or informed outlets. They are not, of course, but with so much information blasting at us from so many directions, few people have the time or the inclination to discern something as quaint as ‘credibility’ or bona fides (which is not the same as saying veteran critics are not seduced by stupefying spectacle. They certainly are).
Marvel Comic Universe superfans are among the most passionate readers of film criticism in the current times. Whereas some readers (a diminishing number, it feels like) enjoy reading reviews that offer a different opinion to their own, understanding that this is a valuable exercise and not some kind of poison, the vast majority of MCU superfans consume reviews in order to have their own opinions validated, or to render the critic as a kind of cartoon villain to rebel against – their own (much less intimidating) Thanos. As A. S. Hamrah wrote the introduction to his recent book The Earth Dies Streaming:
“Today some of the most avid readers of film criticism are the fanboys who dwell in comments sections and on Twitter, eager to become enraged when film critics do not conform to their bizarre expectations about the reception of expensive blockbuster movies. Haters of the media in general, they eagerly participate in a tedious, predictable wrestling match, defending Superman and Iron Man and the franchise movies in which they appear from the people these fanboys consider the real haters, the critics.”
Are great film movements even possible anymore?
In the last decade and a half, blockbuster superheroes movies have gripped the global box office in a stranglehold. When was the last truly great film movement? A movement comparable to French New Wave, or Italian Neorealism, or German Expressionism, or Soviet Montage? Some obsessed with the current moment might recoil in disgust at those kind of words, retaliating with accusations that use of such labels constitutes evidence of pomposity or pretentiousness – and god curse the critic’s swinish face.
But these movements were, are, will always be the cool types of films, not the dorky ones. They are the movements that brimmed with electricity; that shook the foundations of cinema; that evolved the language of motion pictures; that entertained and thrilled and inspired and challenged us; that broke new ground; that dragged the cultural fuddy-duddies and hard hats kicking and screaming into the sunshine. They are the cinematic equivalent of staying up late, partying all night, having sex on the street.
The core business of the MCU franchise on the other hand is the delivery of mainstream cultural mores. The marketing wings of these mighty conglomerates are so clever and well resourced they have tricked audiences into believing that the cool thing is the thing in the cultural centre, engineered to appeal to virtually everybody at the same time.
What kind of culture allows this to happen? And is it possible for a great film movement to even exist in the West anymore? At this moment, inside the media of traditional film, the answer feels like no (particularly when one considers the reality of the distribution system, a grid largely locked up by the major players a long time ago) but the question is genuine. Last year I wrote about how Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse– a rare, excellent superhero movie – belongs to one of modern cinema’s most exciting movements. But application of the word “movement” was generous and mostly in relation to thematic patterns, paling in comparison to the great movements of the past.
The business people defeated the hippies
That is not to say that films cannot be exciting anymore. Of course they can. Not because the world of traditional cinema is still fundamentally forming, or fundamentally changing, but because the real world around us can be interpreted and understood in cinematic ways, making cinema a constantly fascinating space. As Lev Manovich wrote in the prologue to The Language of New Media: “A hundred years after cinema’s birth, cinematic ways of seeing the world, of structuring time, of narrating a story, of linking one experience to the next, have become the basic means by which computer users access and interact with all cultural data.”
The act of people gathering in masses to sit in front of two dimensional screens in order to passively experience a single narrative production will one day – nothing is surer – be considered archaic. It is quite possible that cinema’s greatest influence on society will not be through cinema itself but through, as Manovich put it, cinematic ways of seeing the world. It is entirely likely that the word “cinematic” will still be with us long after cinema itself, as we currently know it, has died.
Avengers: Endgame does, indeed, represent an endgame. It marks a point in history when we can look back on the New Hollywood ‘revolution’ of the 1970s and say, without a skerrick of doubt, that the business people defeated the hippies, as they were always going to.
That gutsy independent film now has little chance of even making it onto the schedule, let alone achieving popularity.
The film distribution grid was locked up a long time ago and in some respects has entered a death spiral. Cinemas need to screen blockbusters like Avengers to stay afloat, and distributors exploit this. If you want the big marquee movie, you need to agree to program a suite of other titles released by the same company. Pretty soon the program is full. That gutsy independent film – which was always going to be up against it – now has little chance of even making it onto the schedule, let alone achieving popularity.
Blockbuster event movies weren’t always like the candy-coloured, empty pap we’ve come to expect. The top three blockbusters of 1973, for example, were bona fide classics The Exorcist, The Sting and American Graffiti. The top three blockbusters of 1975 were Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. All six of those films told stories never brought to the cinema before, and most of them are damn good movies.
Last year, all bar one of the top 10 films at the global box office were sequels and spin-offs. The top five were Infinity War, Black Panther, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Incredibles 2 and Aquaman. The January release date of Black Panther (one of the better MCU movies) allowed a reasonably clear insight into how greatly MCU titles suck up attention at the box office. By the end of April, 735 films had been released in America, with Black Panther grossing more than a quarter of all of those films combined.
As reported in Forbes, last year at the American box office Disney won winter (Black Panther), spring (Infinity War) and summer (Incredibles 2). The MCU movies to date have grossed more than US$18.6 billion worldwide. Those kinds of numbers, constituting a massive black hole swallowed up by one kind of movie and one way of viewing the cinematic experience, should send a chill down the spine of appreciators of art, and in particular lovers of film.
To reiterare Kael’s words: we’re sending ourselves up. We are not just reaching the point at which the purveyors don’t care about anything but how to sell, and the buyers buy because they don’t give a damn; we have reached that point – and in fact we are well beyond it. The point where there is no respect on either side. Where commerce, like Kael said, has become a dirty word.
And yet, hope remains
And yet, sprouting from the ashes of the cinema, hope remains. In the first decade of motion pictures, from 1895 onwards, films were mostly novelties and sideshows – what author Thomas Gunning famously called “the cinema of attractions.” Most audiences didn’t recognise the technology’s amazing potential. Perhaps, in the cut and thrust of their day-to-day lives, they simply (and quite understandably) didn’t pay it much mind.
I believe that this period of infancy for traditional motion pictures is comparable to the current, nascent period in virtual reality, a technology that has been available to consumers on the mass market only for the last few years – making it (despite foundational work achieved in previous decades) a genuinely new artistic medium.
Generally speaking, the quality of VR content available today has a long way to go. But the trajectory is thrilling: baby steps forwards a vision of motion pictures prophesied by Morton Heilig in his great 1955 essay The Cinema of the Future– about a fully immersive medium that involves all our senses, not just a couple.
Virtual reality is the wild west, its future unknown, marked by great potential for success and great risk of failure. The language of VR filmmaking has barely even begun forming.
The gatekeepers and bigwigs in virtual reality filmmaking have barely found a way to make money from VR films at all – so they are a long way from locking up the distribution grid, or even understanding what that grid will look like. I mention the VR ecosystem because, when compared to the ravaged terrain of traditional cinema, the comparison couldn’t be starker. Virtual reality is the wild west, its future unknown, marked by great potential for success and great risk of failure. The language of VR filmmaking has barely even begun forming.
Traditional cinema, on the other hand, has companies such as Disney stomping like Thanos across a devastated landscape, determined to pillage everything that remains. The language of traditional film has fully evolved. Great movies (or TV shows, or soap operas) will continue to be made, of course, challenging us with different ways of cinematically observing the world, the medium, and ourselves.
But things will never be what they used to be. Unlike the titans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we won’t be able to flick a switch and jump back in time, or spin the world around like Superman. The apocalypse of the cinema is upon us, irrespective of whether it takes 30, or 60, or 100 years for the once mighty picture palace to crumble. Perhaps the silver lining is that, going forward, the great films – the films that challenge us, inspire us, and continue a meaningful dialogue with the languages and movements of the past – will taste so much sweeter.