May 3rd 2018 | 12:01pm | Luke Buckmaster
Avengers movie number 5,027 recently arrived in cinemas, delivering the shiny costumes and scenery-destroying spectacle to which we have become accustomed. It’s possible I may have got that figure slightly wrong, though by this point in time everybody other than superfans have surely lost count. One might say that what the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies lack in quality they make up for in quantity, if that weren’t such a terrible way of looking at things – as if we had all the time in the world to hang out with Tony Stark and his pals.
And boy, as Avengers: Infinity War reminds us, the wealthy business magnate sure does have a lot of friends. That is not to say this latest cacophony is his film, any more than it is Spider-Man’s or Dr Strange’s or Black Panther’s or Black Widow’s, or any of the costumed crusaders flying in and out of the frame.
As it turns out, the film belongs to all and none of them. There are far too many comic book characters in it (76, according to Chris Hemsworth) for directors Anthony and Joe Russo to do any justice. Instead, they opt for a showreel approach, cramming bits and bobs in from various franchises: a splash of Spider-Man’s web-slinging here, a short visit to Wakanda there. The existence of this many superheroes makes the film pure catnip for many fans.
At least one elder statesman of blockbuster sci-fi, however, isn’t drinking the Kool-Aid. James Cameron, who is currently going through the entertaining ‘outspoken cranky dude with nothing to lose’ phase of his career, last week spoke out against the never-ending supply of Avengers movies.
“I’m hoping we’ll start getting Avenger fatigue here pretty soon,” the director of classics such as Terminator and Aliens said, while promoting a new documentary series about science fiction. “Not that I don’t love the movies. It’s just, come on guys, there are other stories to tell besides hyper-gonadal males without families doing death-defying things for two hours and wrecking cities in the process. It’s like, oy!”
Before we examine Cameron’s comments, a grain or two of salt must be factored into this discussion. The biggest, most tooth-breaking of them is the fact that the veteran filmmaker is currently making not one, two, three, but four (!!) sequels to his 2009 epic Avatar. Despite its whopping $2.7 billion box office haul, the film left virtually no cultural footprint, as Scott Mendelson from Forbes observed in 2014. This makes those upcoming instalments perhaps the most striking example in history of sequels nobody asked for, wanted, or – at least for the time being – care about.
So when Cameron condemns Hollywood for making too many sequels… Well, James, you know there are other stories to tell besides ones about lanky blue aliens running around in a forest, right? It’s like, oy!
The director does of course have a point when he says there are other science fiction stories to tell outside the Marvel Comics Universe movies. But assuming he’s talking about his kind of movies – i.e. movies with budgets as large as a small nation’s annual GDP – how can risk-averse Hollywood studios be convinced to finance them?
In 2012, Disney’s swords-and-sandals-in-space epic John Carter arrived in cinemas, costing around a quarter of a billion dollars. The film had some serious bona fides, based on a seminal science fiction text (Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel A Princess Of Mars) and marking the first live-action feature from filmmaker Andrew Stanton (director of WALL-E). It is an intelligent and thrillingly old fashioned adventure with a great sense of scale and spectacle. It also became one of the biggest flops in cinema history, putting the studio out of pocket to the tune of around $200 million.
A couple of years later, Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel somehow convinced 20th Century Fox to hand him $125 million to make an experimental art film: the under-rated and intensely cerebral video game adaptation Assassin’s Creed. It also flopped. While these attempts to kick-start new sci-fi franchises failed, the Avengers movies continued to pound the competition, Hulk Smash style. Their various directors threaded elements of other MCU storylines into every instalment, so each film provided an advertisement for the next.
Given that blockbuster filmmaking today is characterised by a combination of excess and caution, how does one still deliver original, thought-provoking sci-fi movies that also cost a bomb?
It helps if your name is Christopher Nolan, whose mind-bending movies include Inception and Interstellar. Directors can also use a cunning technique recently deployed by Ridley Scott. It is a kind of intellectual bait-and-switch: get audiences believing they will be returning to something old, when in fact they will be experiencing something new. This is what I appreciate most about Scott’s recent films Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. They don’t merely extend the Alien universe, but take it to legitimately different and interesting places. Scott also scored a win in 2015 with the hugely successful Matt-Damon-stranded-in space adventure, The Martian. No doubt it helps to get movies over the line if you’re friends with Matt Damon, too.
And of course, it helps if your name is James Cameron. This is why Cameron’s comments about the Avengers movies felt so ill-advised. Not because the director didn’t have a point, but because he did – and, with four Avatar movies in the works, he is clearly part of the problem.