Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
BART: Captain America: Civil War reflects the triumph of the comi-crats – the plutocrats of the superhero industry who have conquered the summer. But, as I watched the movie this weekend, I was also reminded that the ecosystem and aesthetics of superhero movies increasingly represent an industry entirely separate from movie-making itself. And one that is probably harmful to mainstream cinema.
FLEMING: Well, if it is ruining cinema, I’m sure having a helluva good time watching it burn. I thought Captain America: Civil War matched or bettered a superhero quality bar that was already high. Batman V Superman could have been better, but you can bet the Warner Bros guys and director Zack Snyder heeded the call and will find their stylistic stamp. Tapping the storytelling expertise of Batman Ben Affleck by making him exec producer on the Justice League movie was smart. And don’t get me started on Deadpool, which showed that there is room to roam in the R-rated terrain, turf that hasn’t been properly tapped since New Line’s Blade series with Wesley Snipes. And we got another X-Men with Bryan Singer coming. Tell me again how all this is bad?
BART: Sure, the comic-crats like to borrow the lexicon of filmmakers. In your interview with the Captain America-directing Russo brothers, Mike, they talked about their boyhood love of Truffaut and their dedication to storytelling. Kevin Feige, Marvel’s chief, describes how his filmmakers treat the original comic book narratives “like they’re sacred texts.” To his credit, however, he also says, “we’re all nervous about becoming too serious and pompous as this cinematic universe continues to grow.”
FLEMING: Those guys elevate the subject matter by respecting the comic book origins, but they are also being gracious. If it was the character Deadpool, and not Kevin Feige, discussing this sequence of successes without a flop, he’d probably be a lot more cocky and deservedly so. That guy just doesn’t miss. He launches risky new properties like Guardians Of The Galaxy and Ant-Man, and they are delightful. The momentum builds on itself and makes it easier, like using Civil War as a way to set up Spider-Man and Black Panther with showy turns, instead of having to start from scratch with stand-alone films.
BART: But Feige should be nervous. What the comic-crats are doing is shooting comic books and their bogus recycled brands, not movies. Their mega-spectacles are about special effects and violent stunts, not characters. Until superhero movies came along all the basic Hollywood genre – gangster films, Westerns, musicals, etc – were essentially about people, good guys and bad guys. Captain America isn’t a movie so much as it is a showroom for Marvel’s new vehicles – scores of them. I enjoyed meeting the new Spider-Man but what did this congenial teen have to do with the story? And filmgoers need not worry about the fate of their favorite characters: They have the best insurance policy available – the need for sequels.
FLEMING: Peter, I know this causes a sphincter-tightening reaction from you, but I think that the way you remember the ’70s as a golden age, we are right now in that kind of wheelhouse with superhero films. It took a long time to get here – I can still remember writing so often about Marvel movie properties in Weekly Variety — back when Marvel was bankrupt and there was no evidence these films would get made — that you once suggested I cut it out, after I made a whole column out of a Marvel project laundry list filled with a lot of the superheroes who’ve since become billion-dollar properties. I am not claiming to be smart; rather, it’s just that I have waited a long time for this, and clearly, so have filmmakers like Joe and Anthony Russo, James Gunn, Jon Favreau, Christopher Nolan, Tim Burton, Bryan Singer, Tim Miller and all the other guys who’ve had a hand in this renaissance. Now it’s up to Warner Bros and DC – and Black Panther director Ryan Coogler, Spider-Man: Homecoming director Jon Watts and Doctor Strange helmer Scott Derrickson — to live up to that estimable mantle. And whatever female director gets the Captain Marvel job. I love the frantic action style that the Russo Brothers put into that movie, all the humorous moments and the serious ones and the plot twists. In the hands of some directors, doing a movie with that many superheroes would have required name tags to keep them straight. That wasn’t a problem.
BART: To their credit, the Russo Brothers show flashes of deft humor about their characters. Robert Downey Jr. can be counted on as a resource for superhero irony. There’s none of the pretentious moralizing as that injected by Chris Nolan or Zack Snyder in their Superman operas. Still, let’s get real: The superhero genre has eaten up the resources of the movie industry (Captain America apparently cost $250 million) and sucked up the energy of the Hollywood studios. Sure, you can argue the comi-crats have kept the box offices humming and expanded the international audience, but what impact have they had on cinema? It’s not as if Marvel and Disney were channeling billions of dollars back into their art form or funding film schools. They are creating shareholder value – and their stockholders aren’t filmmakers. Did I enjoy Captain America: Civil War? Sure. But I can’t wait to see a real movie again.
FLEMING: They can be counted on to save fictional worlds, but the movie business? They’re going to need the help of auteurs to do that. It’s too much to ask of the spandex heroes. I remember being the father of little kids when Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Disney animated movie factory generated one 2D gem after another from The Lion King to The Little Mermaid and Beauty And The Beast, on down. We watched them hundreds of times, knew every song. This superhero golden age is a version of that for me. I was the one who quoted Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu lamenting the superhero fixation because it means that people don’t solve their own problems; they look for world-saving heroes to do it and since they don’t exist, that role falls to government and other institutions with partisan agendas helped when people get complacent and hero worship. That is a very intelligent analysis. But I still love these movies and they seem to be getting better and better.
BART: The judge in the Sumner Redstone trial has finally followed through on his threat to dismiss the lawsuit, which would be a contribution to society. As it has developed, the case has pointed up this basic paradox: The man who built a vast business empire by brilliantly manipulating the people and resources around him was ultimately entrapped by his own manipulations. There were just too many women, too many promises and too many power-grabbers around him – and not enough time. I knew Sumner Redstone pretty well – we usually had dinner every other month – and the one thing he was certain of was that he’d never run out of time. Sure he had intimations of mortality, but he was convinced he would defy them.
FLEMING: I hope he didn’t wrangle you into any orgies. My goodness, is this man a randy billionaire, or what, based on what I’ve read? If I make it to 92, I imagine my biggest desire will involve timely diaper changes. It somehow seems appropriate all this surfaces during the presidential run of Donald Trump, who helpfully tells us that he is a human tripod. I thought we were heading too far into a PC puritan-style world, with outrage over casting whitewashes and PC police demanding apologies and banishment for anyone who says anything provocative. But recent events with Trump stumping for his manhood and scrutiny over Redstone’s love life have me reconsidering. Presidential politics, and the boardroom of a major media corporation like Viacom, play out like an episode of Dynasty. Money! Sex! And all the machinations that go into people pretending to care about the health care of a guy worth $42 billion, but it seems there is also the issue of laying hands on a share of that dough they haven’t earned. This will be fodder for an HBO movie someday.
BART: In one respect, Redstone ran out of time many years ago. He was, in some ways, a character of the ’70s. Characters of the ’70s loved talking about deals and sex. In fact, every deal has a sexual subtext. The ’70s manners and mores have been resolutely banished in today’s corporate Hollywood. The two most intimate words in the politically correct CEO lexicon are “shareholder value.” I’ll admit it: I admired Sumner Redstone’s zest for life. But the judge did him and the rest of us a favor to throw the case out of court.