I don’t hate all Marvel movies, I promise. But as an aspiring film (and culture, whatever that means) writer, it’s not what I want to write about. I’d prefer to be commissioned to write positive re-evaluations of twentieth-century films on major anniversaries, essays about visual effects in Indian cinema, or think-pieces about how we watch movies. These are the exceptions, the ones I somehow tricked editors into believing in to some degree. And it’s not just me. If you pay attention closely to Film Twitter or Letterboxd, you might recognize the pattern: blockbuster drops, some say its good, some say its bad; meanwhile, someone like Sean Gilman writes a piece of profundity, like his “After the End: Fruit Chan and the Decline of Hong Kong Cinema,” that quickly succumbs within a day or so because something as dumb as “Free Guy” releases (and because nobody read the piece in the first place).
Other than my amazing editor at Boston Hassle for whom I write regularly, I can’t find a home for the non-mainstream pieces that I actually care for—my “thought pieces.” A few bouts with imposter syndrome later, I wondered if it was just me. Am I a bad writer? Am I a bad film critic? Should I stick to thinking about religion?
I tested this theory—albeit subconsciously—by pitching pieces about movies I wouldn’t normally want to cover. Growing tired of rejections, I pitched three pieces related to the elephant that just won’t leave the room: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. All three were accepted with relative urgency. All three are generously paid gigs.
Thankfully, the issue wasn’t with my writing (at least, this will continue to be my humble assumption); regretfully, this doesn’t solve the problem.
Marvel, Disney, and the larger entertainment ecosystem dependent on franchized intellectual property control the box office, cultural discourse, and sometimes even politics. As a former Chimes editor, I understand. Let’s say an online magazine can afford three film-related commissions a week. It makes more financial sense to go for the “discourse drivers,” the movies whose coverage could feasibly meet ad revenue expectations: Marvel and their blue-beam in-the-sky cousins. Essays like mine on European widescreen and queer film aesthetics end up the pitiable and numerous remnant.
Even more disappointing than what this means for my dim prospects to be a successful film writer, this looks pretty damning on North American artistic consumption.
Our streaming services find themselves cornered into labeling everything foreign into one nice and neat “genre” usually titled “foreign” or “international” despite the fact that a Spanish gang movie and a Cantonese romance have almost nothing in common. And while things seem to be changing slowly, even post-Parasite (2019), a 2020 survey found that 54 percent of American adults think it’s “too hard to read subtitles.” According to the same poll, the least popular genre was “foreign.” They explain, “[Internationally produced, non-English language movies have] a net favorability (the share who felt favorably minus the share who felt unfavorably) of minus 25.” And it’s not just non-English language movies either. Of the ten highest-grossing movies of all time, Avatar (2009) and Titanic (1997) are the only ones not a sequel to already existing intellectual property; and they’re both made by the same director!
The Catholic-agonistic novelist Graham Greene distinguished between his “novels” and his “entertainments.” What he considered novels included the likes of The End of the Affair and The Power and the Glory. His entertainments were mostly James Bond-type spy-thrillers based on his time in MI6. He didn’t hate these books or anything. He wrote a bunch of them! But they had a different purpose: mindless entertainment. But that’s not quite true. As a former member of MI6, his books about spies and love of country can’t be dismissed the way he would like. They have a rich, sometimes subversive political imagination.
To extend Greene’s analogy to cinema, we live in a world so flooded by “entertainments” that the “novels” are drowning. Independent cinema gets smaller and smaller everyday, with giant blockbusters eating all the screens at the multiplex. And like Greene’s spy books, they pretend to be about nothing: “pure entertainment.”