Archive for November 23, 2022

A thought

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , on November 23, 2022 by dcairns

Anthony Mackie said it, then Quentin Tarantino parrotted it on his podcast.

Audiences now go to see superheroes, not movie stars. OK. It’s a somewhat unfalsifiable statement — we can say that’s approximately or mostly true, not absolutely true. There’s a lot of truth IN it.

One definition of a star is “someone who will open a film.” The film might go on to flop but at least people will turn up on opening weekend to see if they like it. The Mackie-Tarantino hypothesis is that people will now turn up to see Captain America, but not necessarily to see Chris Evans if they don’t like the sound of his latest vehicle.

It’s possible that audiences could be repelled even from Captain America if the colourful piece of I.P. were placed in a novel and unattractive new context, such as CAPTAIN AMERICA GOES TO THE LAVATORY, but it’s not something that’s going to happen so we needn’t concern ourselves with it. The character is permanently fused to a certain kind of entertainment and so the punter knows exactly the kind of thing s/he is going to get.

The thought that struck me is that the studios responsible for the Marvel and DC “cinematic universes” have, in a sense, recaptured the power they had before Olivia DeHavilland made her bid for freedom. Back when there WERE stars, in the 1940s, the movie studios more or less owned them. There were a few independents, like Cary Grant, but in order to become stars, most aspirants signed longterm contracts with the studios and had to do as they were told. Refusing a project meant going on suspension, which meant your contract was extended by the amount of time the refused film would have taken to shoot. So, essentially, a star had to take the jobs offered or else potentially stay under contract forever. And when your contract was up for renewal, maybe the studio had the right to renew it built into their original contract, and unless your career was looking VERY secure, you might be reluctant to strike out in search of sound stage pastures new.

So, in effect, the studios used to own their stars.

Now they own, or have a deal for the use of, their I.P.

You can make Captain America do whatever you want. And you can recast him at will, as we have seen with the Hulk-shaped revolving door at Universal/Disney. Having Michael Keaton or Christian Bayle as Batman is equivalent to having Dick Sprang or Carmine Infantino drawing him in the comics: the fans appreciate each incarnation and can tell the difference, but it’s all Batman, which is the main thing.

We have cycled back to the kind of slave-owning the majors used to enjoy, only now, just as the sets may be digital constructs rather than physical objects, the stars aren’t flesh-and-blood at all, but inventions, name + costume + backstory + powers.

One could, of course, get into a debate about whether the old stars were strictly speaking people at all — they were IMAGES, certainly, based on or around people. They had names, often assumed; they admittedly changed costumes more than Superman, who has only two main ones; they had their own backstories, often quite as fictional as Peter Parker’s; they had powers, but we called those “star quality.”

Hitchcock said he envied Walt Disney, who, if he were dissatisfied with his leading man, could physically tear him to pieces. One has to imagine that Jack Warner, that old vaudevillian crook, would see something to envy in the modern studio’s ability to hold the copyright of its stars, a whole indentured firmament of them.

(Kudos to Mackie for actually daring to say something interesting: I hold the admittedly cranky view that the press should never interview anyone who has a film coming out, since people in that position are contractually forbidden to say anything honest.)