Friday, May 3, 2019

The Last Blockbuster

Blockbuster film sequels used to be liabilities. Now, they’re an essential part of any large motion picture studio’s long-term success. 

Over the last 20 years – since the turn of the century - Hollywood has garnered a significant portion of this success by creating hundred-million-dollar blockbuster franchises based on pop culture icons. 

Yet the era of the blockbuster may have peaked with the release of Avengers: Endgame. It’s an audacious proposition, since the film is on track to become the highest grossing movie ever. But times are changing, and so is the entertainment industry.

If Endgame represents the peak achievement of its genre, popular films will still be made in coming years and lucrative franchises will persist, but the reach of these productions is likely to be increasingly limited by economic and societal factors. 

Growth in the video game industry (which matched the U.S. film industry for revenues in 2018) as well as the presence of online streaming services have permanently disrupted film production, distribution and marketing models of the past century.  

Starting with the motion picture adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (2001-2003), two decades of movie blockbusters have made unprecedented use of cultural and commercial content that wasn’t initially created for the big screen, but for novels, television shows, toys, and comic books.    

This long list need not be revisited at great length, but it includes Transformers, Bladerunner, Twilight Saga, Hunger Games, Chronicles of Narnia, Star Trek, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Hobbit, et al. 

These franchises, however, are not in the same league as the juggernaut known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which, since the advent of the first Iron Man in 2008, has grown to dominate pop culture like nothing before or since: 22 movies comprising a consolidated, reasonably coherent epic mythology for the new century.    

By one evaluative model, which would measure total box office receipts, production and artistic innovation, and cultural resonance, we can identify three high points in history of movie blockbusters: The Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983), The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) and the two most recent Avengers films, Infinity War and Endgame (2018-19). 

These franchises earned billions of dollars in worldwide receipts and produced the highest grossing films during the years they were released, excepting The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001, and Endgame, which just arrived in theaters, but had surpassed $1 billion worldwide at the time of this writing (05/01). 

In the case of production and artistic innovation, note the breakthrough special effects of the original Star Wars trilogy, the digital wizardry that brought Middle Earth to life (Gollum, my precious), and the fact that Infinity War and Endgame represent the first time that Hollywood feature films were shot entirely using IMAX digital cameras. There are many more examples, but for sake of brevity, these three will suffice.

Cultural resonance is a catch-all term used to get at not just a film’s popularity but how it speaks to audiences, contextually and historically. If box office receipts represent the span, or width, of a film’s influence on society, cultural resonance is the depth of that influence. 

Part of Star Wars’ success resulted from its appeal to myth. The idea that technology and magic could exist alongside one another was novel, and because the hero’s journey - a term borrowed from philosopher Joseph Campbell - was integral to the original film’s plot, it connoted ancient, pervasive and recurring cultural notions of identity and purpose. 

As a result, this coming-of-age fairy tale fantasy about space travel and sci-fi samurai changed films and film-making forever, while making later blockbusters possible, including Lord of the Rings (LotR) and The Avengers.

The cultural resonance of LotR requires little (if any) qualification. Author J.R.R. Tolkien created a modern English myth that achieved global popularity and became a template for a unique form of genre fiction after it was published in the mid-20th century.

One can hardly imagine the millennial pop culture landscape without LotR. Middle Earth has a gravity all its own, and holds in its orbit a vast constellation of books, movies, music, games and art. 

The triumphant film adaptations of Tolkien’s books tapped a deep vein in Western culture’s collective consciousness. And as observed earlier, tapping the vein yielded an unprecedented proliferation of films based on numerous pop culture sources

But there was none to equal LotR’s cultural resonance until the MCU got underway.                

There are many reasons for the unique success of the MCU films, not the least of which is the financing and production resources of Disney, Marvel’s parent company. 

Another factor is the remarkable consistency and quality of casting, which gave the films recognizability and star-power in a crowded media landscape.  

But perhaps most important is the fact that the MCU films draw on a great legacy of story, a legacy created by generations of artists and writers working in an industry that, until recently, was considered second-tier to “serious” art. 

This legacy of story, which – in the MCU’s case - originated with the earliest Captain America comic books in the 1940s, is itself linked to an even older tradition of story exemplified in the ancient tale of Gilgamesh, the poetry of Homer and Hesiod, and the epic verse of John Milton and William Blake - all works which spoke of powerful beings having adventures and doing battle in a moral universe governed by gods.

This is the secret behind the success of these films and the stories they tell: We like them because we always have. Movie producers will try to repeat Marvel’s success; DC will focus its scattered efforts into some cinematic distillation, but the result is unlikely to have the coherence of the MCU. 

When the final chapter in the nine-part Star Wars Saga is released into theaters this December, it will conclude a story that captivated a worldwide audience for several generations. In its place will remain a larger, denser, and arguably less accessible "expanded universe" of related films, books, television and games.        

The MCU will go on as well, with a new canon of films brought from page to screen. And even as video games and streaming services vie for more and more of the public’s attention, it will be obvious to all concerned that movies are here to stay. 

Avengers: Endgame may be the last film of its kind, but it isn’t the end.