February 29, 2024

Fifty years ago, the release of two movies — “Jaws” in 1975, and “Star Wars” in 1977 — changed movies, America, and the world, not just by giving rise to “the blockbuster mentality” but by ushering in the cinematic age of all-popcorn-all-the-time. There had been antecedents, of course. In hindsight, much of our fantasy culture sprung from the loins of J.R.R. Tolkien. And there was a film that preceded “Jaws” and “Star Wars” that I think had just about as great an influence on movie culture: “The Exorcist.” That said, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are inarguably the transcendant game-changers of the second half of the Hollywood century. That’s a fact that justifiably became a mythology.

In many ways, the Age of Marvel is also a mythology, one that’s often been thought of as a ramped-up sequel to the Lucas/Spielberg revolution. Not that the rise of comic-book-movie culture happened overnight. It took place gradually, over the decades, kicking off in 1978 with “Superman,” building through the ’80s with the “Superman” sequels and, in 1989, the next-level marketing juggernaut that was Tim Burton’s “Batman” and its scattered sequels, then hitting a new plateau of centrality in 2002, with the release of “Spider-Man.” By the mid-2000s, it felt like we were swimming in comic-book movies — but how quaint that feeling now seems considering that even then, we had no idea what we were in for.

On May 2, 2008, Paramount released “Iron Man,” the first entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and depending on your point-of-view that date was either the Hollywood answer to Christmas or the end of cinema as we knew it. The world after the Marvel takeover was, in certain basic ways, a lot like the post-Lucas/Spielberg world: a shiny new galaxy of escapism, of feel-good fantasy engineered to seduce your eyeballs and melt down your brain.

But there’s a difference in how we think of the two eras. By the mid-’80s, when the addictive culture of technologically driven movie junk food had taken over, no one fantasized about putting that genie back in the bottle. There’s no way that we were ever going back to a world before “Jaws” and “Star Wars,” Sly and Arnold, “Top Gun” and “Flashdance.” But because comic-book movies, in their intertangled sprawl, are such a specific genre, the idea that they might one day actually go away, leaving movies free to be whatever they were before, retains a potent hold on a great many viewers.

The Marvel movie-making machine, as captured in Tatiana Siegel’s startling Variety cover story, is now in a moment of breakdown. The gears and cogs are coming loose; the numbers aren’t measuring up; the era of Peak Superhero may finally be past its peak. And, of course, this is really about something larger than mismanagement, mediocre sequels, or the legal morass of Jonathan Majors. If this week’s upcoming Marvel movie — entitled, almost fatefully, “The Marvels” — turns out to be the box-office disappointment that early tracking indicates it may be, it will top off a perception (fair or unfair; I’d call it fair) that the audience, overwhelmed on the big and small screen by Marvel entertainment product, is growing weary of that product. The fan enthusiasm isn’t on life support (yet), but the original thrill is (mostly) gone.

Seasoned moviegoers know in their bones that all genres have their day, that every movie form ultimately comes and goes. Nothing can last forever, and that includes the MCU (and yes, fans, I’m aware that we still have James Gunn’s DC). So if we’re now entering the early stages of the endgame, what comes next? Many consider the MCU to have been a blight on movies, a virus of processed storytelling and CGI overkill that invaded mainstream cinema and toxified it from the inside out. It poisoned the crop. If the Age of Marvel is over, can the movies recover?

We’re at a moment, symbolized by everything from the epochal success of “Oppenheimer” to the eloquent anti-Marvel sentiments of Martin Scorsese, when people are pining for a return to what movies used to be. A return to movies for adults, with supple scripts, great acting, and true human drama, experienced as communal events in movie theaters. Awards season, with its token plethora of movies that are just like that, always summons the nostalgia for a time when movies were the art form of our time.

But let’s be honest. That ethos, while it’s still hanging in there (it lives every time you see a great movie), wasn’t threatened only by Marvel. The body blows began way before that. Our whole culture of escapism, of movies as dehumanized effect-laden fantasy, has been entrenched for far too long.

If you want a preview of what movies could turn into after the Age of Marvel, look no further than the monster success of “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” a silly-scary horror trifle that became as big as it did because it’s based on a video game that’s bigger than movies. Video-game films have historically sputtered, but this year the makers of “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” got it right, and the makers of “Five Nights at Freddy’s” did too — at least, commercially. The infiltration of video games into the hearts, minds, and reflexes of young people is a process that’s been building for decades (just like the rise of comic-book movies). Could we only now, finally, be entering the sweet spot of video-game cinema? If so, it would make the Age of Marvel look like the Italian Renaissance.

The real problem isn’t, and never has been, “the junk that Hollywood makes” (as if we were all being force-fed). It’s the junk that Hollywood makes because audiences vote for those movies with their ticket dollars. That’s the way that movies have always worked, never more so than in the era of zappy populist escapism ushered in by Lucas and Spielberg. That legacy was fully in place when the MCU was just a gleam in Kevin Feige’s eye. It will still be in place when the MCU fades. The question is: Can movies back off not just from comic books but from the narcotic lure of compulsive fantasy, and return to something that looks more like the real world? Can moviegoers vote for that? If not, we’re all but fated to replace superhero spectacle with something that’s equally lacking in nourishment.

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