In August of 1986, my mother took me, a five-year-old tyke, to our local theater in Tampa to see Transformers: The Movie. This was the Avengers: Endgame of its day for children my age! Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating. The film, despite having a cult following now, was a financial disaster for investing company Hasbro, known primarily for its toys, as the film didn’t even make its budget back in box office receipts. But for hardcore enthusiasts of the television show, the movie was a big deal. Fans like me were seeing their robotic heroes, usually relegated to a small tube at home or in various coloring books, on the biggest screen possible.
Or so we thought. Many point to Bambi’s mother’s death as a scarring moment in children’s lives: Disney wisely not pulling any punches with its tale of beauty by showing the darker side of life. For me, Bambi’s mom was certainly a casualty but it didn’t affect me deeply because my young mind didn’t idolize Bambi’s mom or Bambi himself. To me, it took the death of a Transformer to open my eyes to all of life’s cruelties, and Transformers: The Movie opened those existential floodgates by literally slaughtering almost every single character from the Transformers television show in the first 10 minutes or so of the film’s running time.
And while five-year-old me learned a valuable lesson that even heroes can die in the year of our lord 1986, it was decades later, when I was (supposedly) more mature, that a more bitter lesson was learned: I had been had. I had been played by a corporation in order to sell toys. See, Hasbro wanted to introduce a new line of Transformers at the local toy store, and the only way they could do that was by getting rid of the original generation. How they chose to do that was through mind-boggling violence and sadness. Something that “traumatized a generation of kids”.
It is not every day that you find yourself at the mercy of a board room’s politics. And though I still regard Transformers: The Movie, and even the TV show, as important relics of my childhood (hell, I even think the movie is honestly really good through adult eyes when it comes down to it), I can see they were blatant attempts at the most cynical of commercialism: build the toy first, then tell the story. It is kind of the antithesis of storytelling, especially in the film medium, where “originality” is valued above all else and the “art” is put up on a pedestal.
The cynicism Transformers: The Movie bestowed on me, upon learning of the true nature of the Intellectual Property (hereby called IP for the remainder of this article) and its sales goals, stuck with me for a long time. It made me not trust what was in front of my eyes; films with merchandise potential became suspect; media inhaled by the masses was, for a time, seen as the pulse of the artless. I didn’t like what was being sold to me; I trusted “popular” filmmaking as much as I’d trust a used car salesman.
But around 2008, my cynicism changed. Two elements of pop culture entered my life in the movie-making world. For one, I got into horror on a more serious level. Though I grew up with Joe Bob Briggs teaching me about chainsaw fu on Saturday nights, 2008 was when I fell in love with horror. And not just “elevated” horror (a phrase I despise) that even critics would fawn over, but all kinds, from franchise fodder to low-budget fare. I saw the art behind it, the passion, the will-do attitude. Now, do many horror films go for the quick sequel to cash in on a hit (or to maximize box office profits with a nickel-and-dime budget): hell yes. But the essence of the genre was of a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” kind of rebellious filmmaking that also, under the blood and guts, had something to say about society.
The second element introduced to me in my life, on May 2nd, 2008 to be exact, would prove to be much more controversial, especially in the discussion of art and commerce. Iron Man, starring a hard-on-his-luck has-been of sorts in Robert Downey Jr, premiered and broke the doors open on the superhero genre. It not only grounded the comic-book-cum-celluloid-tale in some form of realism but it hinted at a larger universe characters could play in. And, of course, Marvel Studios, who initially needed major studio backing before breaking out on its own under the Disney flag in 2009, eventually developed that playground into the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), which for over a decade has swept the public away in awe and destroyed box office records.
But I can see where you are finding the irony in my love of the MCU, especially in comparison to the crass commercialism of Transformers: The Movie. Aren’t they the same thing, especially once Disney got involved in the venture? In some respects: yes. Disney tries to maximize its profits by merchandising the living hell out of its IP. This isn’t a Marvel only problem. Since the dawn of Steamboat Willie, Disney has made just about every product under the sun with its idol, the dynamic walking-talking Mouse, branded on them, not to mention anything released under their banner. Disney’s commercialism certainly has its detractors and has, at times, certainly affected its IP. Like Transformers: The Movie, some Disney products are conceived in the toy factory first.
The involvement of Disney leads to its own brand of consumer criticism when seen through an artist’s lens. And for many, the concept of IP itself has become a “that-which-shall-not-be-named” demon of creativity. And the MCU has only magnified that demon into a specter of doom for critics thanks to its ability to appeal to all four audience quadrants and overwhelm the marketplace. Will Disney take advantage of this pop-culture dominance with toys, cups, clothes, and iPhone cases? Without doubt. But what gets lost in the outrage over IP turning into cultural juggernauts is the artistry behind it.
The MCU is itself based on characters and environments from the Marvel Comic Universe, a world that existed long before Disney got its hooks in it. Starting as Timely Comics in 1939, revolutionary artists and writers like Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and Steve Ditko, to name a few, revolutionized the realm of comics with its expanded Marvel universe in the 1960s: a world where superheroes and everyday humans co-existed in one realm and often criss-crossed each other to expand their adventures. An entire legion of characters populated the Marvel world and for decades battled with DC Comics as the pinnacle of artistic achievement in the field.
Now, those versed in comic history know that it isn’t a clean history. DC Comics, frontrunners of the superhero game with legends like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman appearing as early as the 1930s, treated their ideological brain trust with contempt. Only recently, 40 years after his death, is Bill Finger being recognized as co-creator of Batman. And the life of pain and misery Superman’s creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster went through can be an article of its own. Even back then, the concept of IP was used and abused by the powers that be.
But comic historians also know that there is a massive bridge between the creators and the suits in the upper offices. In fact, most comic artists and creators, to this day, fall victim to the corporate machine that runs them. History isn’t perfect for these brands. But what Marvel’s success founded itself on was one of artistry and storytelling: a need to tell an American-born tale of industry and wonder. The results were public intoxication and the need for more stories. And sure, a cuddly teddy bear or action figure for the young tyke at home that looked just like their hero.
The MCU in particular focuses on the artistry and magic of superhero storytelling first, emphasizing character and world-building long before its toy line. The storytelling apparatus of Marvel did not begin in 2009 with Disney’s acquisition of it but began decades earlier. Film studios did not always focus on this fact when pumping out generic, half-baked superhero fare in response to Superman: The Movie, Batman (1989), and X-Men’s worldwide appeal. There wasn’t a thorough vision for where Marvel should go and, as a result, a lot of bad, bad, BAD films were made.
As a result of this poisoning of these artistic waters, superheroes became cultural trash, much like how horror is perceived by the “real” film community. And while superheroes are, in 2020, considered trash for entirely different reasons, it took decades for Marvel, as well as other iconic comic franchises, some of whom are still trying to find their direction today, to right the ship. And righting the ship took going back to basics.
I suppose my point of all this is that we have come to a cultural point where artistry in the film world is dominated by snobbery. We are getting confused with the concept that making gobs of money, where supply happens to be meeting demand, is mutually exclusive to the essence of art. There is also a bizarre concept going around that IP in itself makes art void. But many forget that some of the greatest films ever made, often considered classics, came from existing properties like books. The concept of “original” is much more detailed and specific than people make it out to be. Marvel adapting a commercially successful COMIC book is virtually no different than a studio grabbing the rights to a hit novel like The Godfather.
The same goes for merchandising. Many now attempt to justify the “correct” way to spend money on a product forgetting that every business venture, no matter how “arty” it is, is trying to get your money. For example, the Criterion Collection recently released its Wong Kar-Wai box set to much acclaim. Film fans should be happy as Wong Kar-Wai is a fantastic filmmaker and Criterion provides exquisite collections of curated material. But remember, it costs you $140. Criterion isn’t giving this stuff away for free. You are purchasing a product. Yet Criterion is not in the debate regarding the existence of art and commerce. But spending $140 dollars on a box set should not be looked at any differently than buying a Rocket Raccoon T-shirt or a Black Panther Funko Pop.
In the end, both Marvel Studios and Criterion want to make money ON TOP of the art itself. Yet there is only moral outrage over profits from the bigger corporation when all film fans, snobs and norms alike, contribute to a profit-making machine regardless of what they see as true art. It can only lead one to determine that the difference is the perception of art itself and that consumers are spending the “right” money in the “right” place. This thinking automatically assumes that the IP of things like novels and history books is “true art” while equally original, albeit fantastical ideas, like comic books, are “lesser”.
This viewpoint is a bummer mostly because movies are, in the end, about entertainment. Hardly anyone makes entertainment without benefits: getting paid, getting accolades, getting famous; the starving artist is a myth. Some of these people who desire getting paid, getting accolades, and getting famous ALSO want the viewer to have fun. Once again, these are not mutually exclusive ideas. For some reason, there is a contingent out there who consider fun damnation and the death of culture. I say to that: boo-hoo.
Many debate the ethics of franchise movie-making and place blame once again on the IP machines that entertain literal billions. For example, some critics have told me that Disney should have used the money from a Marvel production to pay for all their laid-off employees. Is there a problem with massive budgets for films and entertainment in relation to the world’s poor? Of course. But Paramount spending $80 million on “the pictures that should be made instead” isn’t exactly contributing to the goodwill of the poor. Martin Scorsese spent the GDP of a small nation on The Irishman yet no one seems to raise the same objection. I guess if what you like is “true art” then the poor can be damned. That $250 million went to a good cause.
In conclusion, I was recently told that I lack objectivity because I have Marvel characters tattoed on my leg. You can see it here if you wish. This particular criticism later turned into full-on body-shaming, which I won’t go on about here as my personal feelings, while hurt, don’t enter this equation. What it opened my eyes up to was that many turn a blind eye to commercialism if it fits their bizarre definition of art. As I’ve stated above, many film snobs have bought their own bullshit that there is a true definition of art: they’ve decided what is legit and what isn’t and, even worse, they pine for something that doesn’t even exist. Their mythical movie “that should be made” is a concept, not a reality.
And I have Marvel art on my leg because the characters, who existed long before the films, have enchanted me since I was two years old and continue to do so on the big screen. That is a testament to the power of good storytelling and art itself: something that sustains you from a tender young age to the present day. Fans of superhero films and horror don’t blindly worship any shiny object put in front of them because the corporate deity demands it. Many can be objective in their criticism whilst still being fans of genre overall (like, for instance: I don’t really get the Hereditary hype and I think Avengers: Age of Ultron is a dumpster fire). However many will be blinded by popularity and ingrained bias and not see the artistry beneath in these genres. That’s a shame: you’re missing out.