Posted by:
Lawrence Napoli

The Future of Hollywood Entertainment through The Avengers' Eyes


Guess What?  It’s Still Good and Still Worth Your Money

A Meta-Review of The Avengers

By: Lawrence Napoli



Here we are, faithful, three weeks removed from the release of The Avengers and (hopefully) you have all subjected yourselves to the unmitigated joy and undeniable fun that can be found within.  Our three part podcast discussion covers the major bullet points of what generally worked and what may have fallen short, so please refer to that for any specifics (spoiler free, of course!).  This article seeks to solidify my opinions, observe this film’s affects despite its short history and project what it all means for Hollywood, adaptations, the comic book industry and the future of entertaining us all: the nameless, faceless consumers.

The Avengers is a text book lesson in summer blockbuster movie production and a helpful refresher course in “Making IP adaptations work on celluloid.”  The likes of Paul Thomas Anderson and Uwe Boll should take note.  This film’s hype rivaled the coming of a new Star Wars trilogy, thus the margin for error was fairly small as the shrieks of fanboys are not easily silenced thanks to the internet.  The Avengers is a film that is equal to the task by incorporating a hefty amount of character development with a fairly simple (some would argue as “cookie-cutter”) plot while using an intimidating amount of CG to make the impossible look and feel real.  It is true that every director doesn’t have access to Mickey Mouse’s wallet, but it really wasn’t the massive set pieces, explosions, CG aliens, and wowing visual effects that made this film great.  It was really about the characters themselves and the performances that conveyed a natural chemistry, camaraderie and oft overlooked believability of such iconic personalities in close proximity to each other.  Every Avenger is connected and relevant.  Every Avenger has screen time.  Although some were overused (Hawkeye) and some may have been underused (Captain America), no Avenger was left behind as balance was clearly on Joss Whedon’s mind at every stage of this film’s production.  The action constantly escalates, the comedy eases the pace, and the dénouement combined with the final reveal not only satisfies the viewer, it compels him or her to maintain a vested interest in the future fiction of this franchise. 

Sounds like a pretty good time right?  Unfortunately, the other constant in life besides death and taxes are haters, and even a film like The Avengers has a couple of curious instances of marquee level criticism that caught my attention.  The first has to be the rather tepid review this film received in Entertainment Weekly.  I am not so self indulgent as to criticize another film review (I won’t even acknowledge the writer’s name), but the references and plot synopsis within said article are inaccurate to the extent that I question whether the writer actually saw the film as opposed to forming an opinion out of rough cuts and press releases.  Entertaining opinion is what we do ladies and gentlemen, but realizing that everyone on the Internet, reading magazines and watching TV are having their opinions formed by these featured observations is a fact that ought to demand a level of professionalism beyond flippant whimsy.  Please everyone, express your opinions, but for those in the media I must add that we must get beyond the “what” and express the “why.”  This is what allows even a negative review or opinion for a film to be valuable to the reader beyond turning them off to the film entirely.  For instance, I do feel that Joss Whedon went to the CG well once too often for the effects and action sequences in The Avengers which added to its plastic visual style and overall absurdity of what was actually happening onscreen.  That was the “what” and by itself represents a basic, but negative observation that might turn readers off to CG heavy films.  However, the scale of danger to the planet within the story demands an equally epic nature to the grandiosity of the effects that simply cannot be expressed practically with wire work and pyro.  That was the “why” which seeks to justify a necessary evil in the final product because fireworks for explosions just aren’t going to cut it.  Thus, any viewers who may prefer a little less CG in their films are tipped off, but if they are drawn to plots that are dangerously planetary, their interests may be peaked.

The next was the well publicized feud Samuel L. Jackson had with a certain film reviewer from the New York Times for producing an unimpressed opinion of The Avengers.  Once Sam started firing his displeasure over the article via Twitter, many were quick to defend the reviewer for simply expressing an opinion.  At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter which side you personally agree with because both were expressing their feelings in an industry where doing so gets you paid.  I found it odd and somewhat refreshing to see a major media entity to not simply get down on its knees for the summer juggernaut that is The Avengers because the unwritten rule is: the larger the media conglomerate, the higher the probability for it to acquiesce to anything resembling positive reception so as to maximize profit by conforming to the mainstream.  The remarkable thing about this entire confrontation is that in this day and age, with the technology Americans have at our disposal, an actual dialogue can result once something is written, recorded or filmed and then distributed by the media machine.  Social media generates intrigue because it is an active way to digest information by giving the consumer an opportunity to respond.

Let’s take a look at some of the cold, hard facts in regards to The Avengers and in Hollywood land, the only facts that matter are dollars.  With an initial budget of $220 million dollars, this film is the kind of production that is looking to print its own money, but if it misses, jobs will be lost, careers will be tarnished and stock prices could take a dip.  The Avengers proceeded to set the all time record in money made in its (domestic) debut weekend to the tune of just over $207 million dollars, effectively making back its budget in less than a week.  Globally, the film has already made over $1 billion dollars and it’s only been out for 3 weeks in this country.  Even at this early point, one can say in full confidence that this film is an absolute commercial success.  Some are even making claims that it could challenge the all time cinematic money king: Avatar, but it appears even these super heroes are not immune to the law of 50% diminishing returns at the box office.  Weekend #2 yielded a gross of $103 million while weekend #3 generated $55 million.  Sure, this film is still raking in the cash and is still number one at the box office, but its rate of intake is sputtering worse than a Dodge Neon, and it’s a long road to the $3 billion dollar mark.  Still, it doesn’t take an MBA to interpret these kind of numbers as a globally positive reception for this product, and it doesn’t require the reanimation of Nostradamus to predict that the Disney/Marvel alliance will continue to expand its roster of superhero films knowing full well that regardless of their individual performances, the true pay day exists years later when even more characters are drawn into the super film Avengers 2 or whatever they wind up calling it.  This film will continue to be profitable for as long as theatres decide to keep screening it.  If they are smart, they’ll have at least 1 screen reserved for it for the whole summer.

So what does this all mean for the future of cinematic entertainment?  Well, the immediate future sees a record setting run for The Avengers which proves that people sincerely enjoy this type of entertainment regardless of their familiarity with the source material.  It also means that the only other film that has a realistic shot at challenging this phenomenon, The Dark Knight Rises, has a very difficult task ahead of it with no Heath Ledger incident to artificially boost its exposure.  There are a number of reasons why TDKR WILL NOT match, let alone exceed, The Avengers at the box office, and some involve Anne Hathaway as Catwoman and Joseph-Gordon Levitt as NOT Robin, NOT Nightwing or NOT Jean-Paul Valley/Azrael.  However, the big reasons why we should crown The Avengers as the box office king of 2012 right now are far more obvious.  TDKR gets released awfully late in the summer season on July 20th, it cuts right in the middle of The Amazing Spider-Man’s run (released on July 4th’s weekend) and last, but not least, involves the end of the trilogy, franchise and gathering of all the fine actors attached to Chris Nolan’s reinvention of DC’s most valued asset.  We’ve seen so many Easter Eggs at the end of these types of films that suggest the possibility of more around the corner that we’ve taken them for granted.  How can Chris Nolan possibly satisfy the audience when we know that no matter what happens onscreen, the story is done?  Whether additional sequels are green-lit for these kinds of productions is not important.  It is the hope (false or otherwise) of the possibility for a further evolution of the story that adds that extra level of interest to it.  Of course, this only works if the movie was actually good and has little to no affect for the ones that we’d like to forget.  Did anyone really care that it looked like “Africa wouldn’t allow” Alan Quartermain to remain deceased at the end of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)?  

The long term future of Hollywood entertainment is somewhat alarming in that certain industry trends will have an impact on the quality of its product without reducing the cost to the audience.  The telling of stories involves the construction and application of ideas, and the only way to get those thoughts out of people’s minds is through good writing.  You’ve all seen a significant downturn in the quality of this element in Hollywood films, so should it be to no one’s surprise that Hollywood has all but deferred to the comic book industry to be the engine for nearly 100% of its action/adventure/sci-fi films?  It was smart and mutually beneficial for Buena Vista to acquire Marvel, but how smart is it to simply own the rights to an established success without being thorough in the proper adaptation of said license? 

Geoff Johns rose to the top of DC’s food chain by reinvigorating the Green Lantern comic books with fresh and edgy writing.  He all but single-handedly made that character second to Batman in terms of popularity.  He also was a co-producer for the Green Lantern film adaptation and so he shares a direct responsibility for that extremely poor production.  How on Earth could such a successful alpha male in the comic book industry allow his “adoptive baby” to be kidnapped like that?  At last year’s New York City Comicon, I was waiting in line to meet Amanda Conner and a few of her associates were discussing comic adaptations in general and her husband’s experience with the atrociously made Jonah Hex adaptation in particular.  To which Amanda Conner stated, “You don’t handle Hollywood.  Hollywood handles you,” which sums up the problem quite perfectly.  Studios only care about the name of whatever license they’ve purchased.  They don’t care about story, character and the boundaries established by both as evidenced by the fact that Hollywood productions rarely involve comic book creators during actual productions beyond the role of “consultants” which really shouldn’t apply because they are being ignored.  If Hollywood is too lazy to produce the next Die Hard, Terminator, or Alien (all of which originated from Hollywood during the 80s and early 90s) then they should subcontract entire productions to the comic book industry all together because clearly, Hollywood directors, writers and producers haven’t a clue despite thinking they have some unquestionable authority over anything that requires pointing a camera at.  This industry trend is only going to get worse because Hollywood doesn’t care about “doing it right.”  Even deplorable films like Green Lantern, Jonah Hex and LXG make enough profits in rental, retail and global ticket sales for the concept of “quality” to be completely null and void. 

The other troubling trend I see in Hollywood is how globalization has seeped into its bloodstream like malaria and is causing the outsourcing of the last great American industry.  Twenty or so years ago American studios couldn’t care less about global ticket sales at the box office because a film’s performance in the domestic market was the benchmark for all the deals that get made on the studio’s behalf in terms of distribution and licensing.  Today, the international market is more important, and we have the economic rise of China to thank for that.  Business is a numbers game, and like any other business, Hollywood seeks to constantly increase profits.  There are more non-Americans than there are Americans in the world so why should Hollywood seek to limit its audience?  It is an economic model that is eerily similar to Nintendo’s marketing and production of the Wii (a game system that clearly caters to non-gamers as opposed to gamers).  We see shades of Hollywood’s preference for the international market in the fact that Europe got to see The Avengers on April 26th of this year (more than a week before the US).  We see hints of Hollywood’s desire to exploit the international market in the fact that Disney is making Iron Man 3 as a 50% co-production with DMG Entertainment, a Chinese production company.   It remains to be seen how the shifting focus to the international market will affect the quality of Hollywood films here at home, but if we take every other American business that has done so to maximize profits, the future doesn’t seem pleasant.  For example, it practically took the entire American economy to melt down before our auto industry started making cars that we actually wanted to buy.  Iron Man 3 is going to be the next significant step in this process and will greatly determine the extent to which China influences Hollywood for the foreseeable future. (Editor's Note: China recently purchased AMC Theaters - American Made Matt).

The Avengers is a movie that is an experiment in super-filmmaking that has its sights set on profits much larger than even the most gullible American markets can provide.  It’s the kind of fanboy adaptation that has me excited to see more characters and larger crossovers, but it also makes me wonder that in the interest of maximum economic efficiency if I will ever see an adaptation of Superman through the eyes of an entirely Chinese production company.  How far removed is Iron Man from Superman to non-comic book industry professionals and fans?  Something about that last thought seems all too wrong, not because Superman himself is considered an American (he’s not, he’s Kryptonian), but the idea of Superman, truth, justice, so on and so forth IS American and the possibility of selling that idea out to China, on top of everything else, is stomach turning.  I constantly lobby for higher quality in the production of Hollywood films in my reviews, but never once did it occur to me with the ever decreasing sales in the domestic market that Hollywood could give America the finger and relocate overseas, until this moment.  Sure, a lot of doomsday scenarios would have to play out in the business world for that to happen, but the paranoid conspiracy theorist in me gravitates to the extreme negative.  The future seems bright for Hollywood, but its potential to “flame on” is equaled by its potential to flameout here in the US of A, leaving the rest of us out in the cold.