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Is David Fincher Right About Marvel Studios’ Lack Of Sustenance?

Are we looking for art in all the wrong places?
By  · Published on October 18th, 2017

Are we looking for art in all the wrong places?

Marvel movies have become a shorthand for everything wrong with Hollywood. Depending on who you ask they’re the reason for movie studios’ lack of creativity, they’re why fewer films are marketed towards adults and the reason why adults stopped going to theaters. Critics often lump Marvel movies with financially successful but critically panned titles like Transformers: The Last Knight or Batman v. Superman. If you know your big budget movies then you know why these comparisons are off base, however, the sentiment comes through loud and clear: Marvel movies are artless popcorn flicks.

If there was a Mount Rushmore for modern filmmakers, David Fincher would likely be on it; cinephiles will be deconstructing his work for the next century. Fincher is currently making the rounds promoting his great new Netflix series, Mindhunter, and a recent statement he made about Marvel is making the rounds. In an audio excerpt captured by Yellow King Film Boy, Fincher calls out Marvel’s “lack of sustenance.”

“Look, there’s a very large talent pool of people who are- don’t feel there’s much for them in terms of sustenance working for Marvel. And I think that if we can make a playground for them that is thoughtful, adult, interesting, complex, challenging stories and figure out ways to pull them into it, there’s a chance at something that isn’t lassoed and hogtied by three acts. And there’s something else that doesn’t have to be 22-minute half hour or have a cliffhanger. I think it is an exciting time.”

Fincher’s statement barely qualifies as smack talk but it does speak to the popular notion that Marvel movies are cinema’s version of empty calories. Accepting this argument as true raises some interesting questions. Mainly, why must these films lack sustenance? Do tentpole franchises inevitably sap creativity and originality out of filmmakers? And if the Marvel films lack sustenance, are studio demands too restrictive for directors to make “art” or is the studio’s goal to serve their audience junk food?

Will the studio’s demands stifle their talent?

Taika Waititi’s 2014 vampire mockumentary, What We Do in the Shadows, took a silly concept and transformed it into the modern day This is Spinal Tap. The film features unforgettable characters and infinitely quotable dialogue and will go down as a bonafide cult classic. In 2015, Ryan Coogler jumped on the spin-off train and took the Rocky series for a ride. Coogler’s film Creed took audiences by surprise by fitting perfectly into the Rocky canon while also functioning as a great standalone movie. It’s difficult for me to believe that filmmakers as talented as Waititi, Coogler, and Rian Johnson (on The Last Jedi) won’t infuse some sustenance into their film’s characters, plots, and themes. All three men have already found ways to subvert genre tropes, overcome low expectations and deliver films that appeal to mainstream audiences and film snobs.

Is Marvel’s goal to serve up junk food?

The Marvel movie gravy train can fly off the rails as quickly as any other disappointing blockbuster series. Before James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy hit theaters in 2014, there were legitimate concerns about audiences not buying into the film’s quirky premise. In hindsight, Guardians looks like a no-brainer but things could have easily went down in flames. Guardians works because James Gunn is a passionate filmmaker with original ideas who knows how to write a killer screenplay. And Guardians found success because Marvel allowed Gunn to play to his strengths.

In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Gunn takes a large cast of characters, gives them their own arcs, and makes the audience care about all of them (including a couple of blue-skinned villains). Most movies with casts half the size of Guardians’ fail to flesh out more than one character and clearly convey their script’s themes. Gunn doesn’t just pull these tasks off, he makes doing so look easy when it’s clearly not easy. Warner Bros.’ stab at the genre, Suicide Squad, fizzled out despite featuring a Will Smith performance, Harley Quinn’s debut, and the always popular character, The Joker.

A blockbuster film shouldn’t have to be as joyless as The Dark Knight to be considered a work of art. There is still a ridiculous level of technical artistry that goes into crafting Marvel’s brand of popcorn flick. Granted, Marvel movies aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s unfair to use them as the default terminology for big-budget drivel. Perhaps years down the road, when comic book movies have gone the way of the western, people will look back and appreciate the craftsmanship behind the films that defined a pop culture era. Maybe then, the best Marvel movies will earn a place alongside some movies with sustenance.

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