At the time of writing, the latest entry into the MCU (or Marvel Cinematic Universe), Avengers: Infinity War, is smashing box office records like the Hulk smashes through…well, pretty much anything in his path.
None of this is especially surprising, given both the MCU’s box office and critical reception thus far, as well as all of the hype surrounding the third Avengers film.
What’s becoming increasingly clear is that we’re well and truly in the era of the tent pole blockbuster, big budget movies racking up big numbers at the box office, and breaking numerous records in the process.
However, the reverse is, sadly, also true, with some recent high profile ‘failures’: where films performed below their predicted box office takings. This is enough, it seems, to be regarded as having failed in the age of the billion dollar gross.
Amidst all of the talk about which films will make however much money, and which records will or won’t be broken, there is a danger that we’re missing an important question: is this a good thing for the film industry, and for its audiences?
Of course, at this point we have to acknowledge that the film industry is just that: a business, and businesses need to make a profit to survive. Some might say that if studios earn millions from their blockbuster franchises, it allows them to channel these profits (at least in part) into smaller, less commercial fare.
Now, I’m not one of these people that thinks blockbuster automatically equals lowbrow entertainment. Not only am I a fan (especially of comic book adaptations), I think these films are subject to unfair and elitist criticism from some quarters. A great film is a great film, no matter the genre.
There have been a number of intelligent, thought provoking blockbusters in recent years, films that combine action thrills with weight themes. The Dark Knight trilogy, Captain America: Civil War and The Planet of the Apes reboot are just a few examples.
What does concern me is how, more than ever, what makes a film a success, is how much money it makes, rather than its creative and artistic value. Even whether it’s actually any good.
My fear is that we’re in danger of treating films like commodities. Yes, films need money, both in order to get made and in order to justify that budget. Surely though, that can’t be the primary goal of any film?
A film isn’t a product in the manner of a chocolate bar, a soft drink or a mobile phone. Good art should carry messages, and be made with a sense of creative vision, even if it is intended for a mass audience.
To aim for the bottom line at the expense of creativity is to run the risk of producing cookie-cutter films, made according to a template, designed to minimise risk and maximise profit.
Whether any multi million dollar film can ever be described as risk free is debatable, when even seemingly sure fire hits don’t do well. Situations like that, though, only increase the likelihood of films that look like they’ve been assembled on a production line, made to tick boxes by risk averse studios.
The problem isn’t blockbuster films, or big, crowd-pleasing franchises. The problem is when these films are made primarily with profit in mind, resulting in features that will very likely make their budgets back – and then some. Films that will break box offices, but won’t stretch the mind.
The price will be things like diversity of content, artistic merit and daring, creative voices that defy mainstream classifications. When that happens, we’ll all be counting the cost.