The Oscars don’t matter. The Emmys don’t matter. San Diego Comic-Con is all that matters.
As someone who spends at least three months of every year thinking and writing about the award-worthy films that become grist for the Oscar race, it pained me to write the previous sentence. But it’s true. Today I want to talk about why that truth is great, why it’s bad, and why that’s different from how things were just fifteen years ago.
First, the great part. Let’s face it, a lot of comic-based stories are fun. Some of you know San Diego Comic-Con just finished yesterday. If it had a properly televised thing, like a four-hour Sunday-night broadcast pieced together from four days of convention footage and broadcast for us dinosaurs that don’t want to sift through sites (hint, hint guys), its ratings would have far exceeded the Oscars and Emmys. Oh, and about half of it would have looked like this. (I’m just going to leave these here, because some of them are kind of awesome.)
(By the way, how annoying is it when the trailer is preceded by a commercial? I’m already watching a commercial guys!)
Double dose for my Cumberbitches!
This ties together the last two into the rest of Marvel’s Netflix brand:
Wait, they’re trying King Arthur again? Okay, whatever…
This isn’t a real trailer, but I like the old-school-ness of this spy style:
Uh and this
That TV telecast, this year, would have also included highlights of sessions with: the all-African American Black Panther cast and director, the Justice League cast, the Luke Cage cast, the Spider-Man Homecoming cast, the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 cast, the Wonder Woman cast, some of the Game of Thrones cast, Conan O’Brien hanging with DC’s five big directors (Snyder, Jenkins, Famuyiwa, Wan, Affleck), a group of ass-kicking women superheroes, the Rocky Horror Picture Show cast, the Suicide Squad cast, the Dr. Strange cast, the Orphan Black cast, the Aliens 30th anniversary (they got everyone including Cameron and Weaver), a special Star Trek 50th anniversary reunion panel (including Shatner, Spiner, other biggies), and The Walking Dead and Fear of the Walking Dead. Plus the Thor Ragnarok mini-doc, the Planet Hulk implications, Berkeley Breathed, Kevin Smith, Stan Lee, Star Trek Discovery, American Gods, Dirk Gently, Legion, Vikings, Agents of SHIELD, Pokemon Go, and Henry Cavill pranking Will Smith. Not bad; not nothing.
Now the less-than-great part.
The Oscars and (less so) the Emmys cater to a quality-loving niche; the San Diego Comic-Con caters to fans of blockbusters. The eclipsing of one by the other says something dismaying about art and global capitalism. But it also says something oddly heartening about The Past versus The Future, and Scott Beggs’ post about The Possible is required reading. Go ahead; I’ll be here when you finish. I love Beggs’ piece, now let’s historicize it a bit to explain how stardom, in particular, has changed.
Anyone who still remembers any part of the 20th century? When the only major comic-book movies, ever, were about Superman and Batman? Each of those famously fizzled in their fourth installments, in 1987 and 1997 respectively. One of the reasons Batman and Robin failed so spectacularly was because of a brand-new website (What’s a website? Back then half of America didn’t know the answer to that question) begun by Harry Knowles called aint-it-cool-news.com, which took the film to task for its Bat-nipples, its cheesy set design, and its mugging stars, chiefly George Clooney and Arnold Schwarzenegger, throwing away any gravitas the franchise and its lead character ever had.
Almost twenty years later, this is Harry Knowles’ world. We just live in it. And we post comments on sites like io9 and Indiewire. The Knowles-esque fans have had their revenge. And so have the studios, in their own way, on the star-actors who ran Hollywood in the ancient era of 15 years ago. Back then, the ten biggest stars – Hanks, Cruise, Jim Carrey, Will Smith, and six others you can look up yourself – commonly worked for what was known as a “20 against 20 deal,” meaning $20,000,000 “against” 20% of the film’s profits, whichever wound up being higher. And because they got that, the next ten biggest stars worked for just a little less. And 1990s films rarely cost than $100m, meaning big stars were usually paid more than one-fifth of the film’s budget (that would be laughable today). And so when a film, like, say, Fight Club (1999) cost $63m and earned $37m at the US box office, one of the first culprits became Brad Pitt and his $17.5m salary, and heads rolled at Fox (and yes, they did). Absolutely zero actors during the Obama administration have gotten a “20 against 20” deal, with the lone exception of Robert Downey Jr., a Comic-Con regular.
Of course, the studios still spend lavishly, just not on stars. Most, perhaps all, of the movies that you heard about from this year’s Comic-Con carried a price tag in nine figures. It’s kind of strange to remember that in 1997, only two films cost more than $100m to make; Batman and Robin and a film you may have heard of called Titanic. The former should have benefitted from the last-minute release-date change of the latter; instead, one sank like it had hit an iceberg, and one, ahem, didn’t. The success of the latter, compared to the former, seemed to “prove” that with good special effects and a good story, you didn’t really need stars (add up Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet’s total pre-Titanic box office grosses, and the number is less than $60m).
Did anyone heed this lesson? Yeah: Fox, making X-Men (2000); Sony, making Spider-Man (2002); and Warner Bros., beginning the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises. In direct violation of what was then conventional wisdom, they assembled blockbuster-sized budgets without hiring any of Hollywood’s fifty or so highest-paid star-actors, betting on “right for the part” actors who could look enough like the characters and, you know, actually act on the level of the Ian McKellens of the world. This only seems obvious in retrospect. Literary adaptations, and here we include comic books, were almost never a big-budget thing in the 1990s. “Right for the part” came along at exactly the right time to save the studios’ bacon.
I lumped Sony into that last paragraph, but to sign Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man (he wasn’t a Top 50 star then, but he was probably in the Top 100) Sony promised him a deal that paid him increasingly more, up to something like $18m for Spider-Man 3. Welcome to the real reason he wasn’t in the fourth Spider-Man film, and the real reason NOBODY, Robert Downey Jr. excepted, is getting that kind of money anymore. Better to sign unknowns like Tom Holland or Chris Hemsworth or Henry Cavill and let the brand do the work. And yes, the acting is often strong, or else we wouldn’t be having this conversation at all. But when I see all the strong actors who posed this weekend for the following photo, cheesing it up for the cameras as part of the Marvel family, I wonder how happy they really are. I guess I shouldn’t feel sorry for them, right?
What’s changed in this century is that actors can no longer expect to “slum it” in a comic book film only to get the big payoffs later. No, the comic book films are the payoffs. When Chadwick Boseman, after outstanding performances in 42 and Get On Up, signs some crazily frugal nine-picture deal to play Black Panther, it’s not because he’s gonna become Denzel Washington on the side. You can’t become Denzel anymore. When Brie Larson, months after winning an Oscar, negotiates to play Captain Marvel, she’s not going to work for Marvel for a while and then become Julia Roberts. Boseman and Larson and Mark Ruffalo and a lot of other talented actors will, of course, also make art films outside of comic-book-world. They’re just not going to make the kind of mid-budget adult-targeted movies that Mel Gibson and Robin Williams and Jodie Foster routinely made 20 years ago. They may win (more) Oscars or Emmys. But Comic-Con represents their real careers. Ben Affleck knows this, that’s why even after conquering the town with Argo he’s got Batman tight in his Bat-grip (starring and directing indefinitely). Will Smith knows this. Benedict Cumberbatch knows this. Ryan Reynolds knows this. And they also know, eyeing Downey, that you never know.
Technically, especially in comedy and horror, some would-be blockbusters aren’t actually comic book movies. But comics are the straw that stirs the drink. And the line is getting fuzzier anyway: at Comic-Con 2016, besides old favorites like Star Wars and Star Trek, the following brands put in appearances (with stars at the convention): Blair Witch, King Kong, Fantastic Beasts (J.K. Rowling’s newest), Game of Thrones, Snowden, Sonic the Hedgehog, Sausage Party, Aliens, Pokemon Go, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show?! If you respond that some of these brands also have comic books that were eventually made of them, that only proves my point: comic-book-ness metastasizes over Hollywood and everything else.
For the inside-baseball among you, I realize there’s a bit of chatter right now about DC versus Marvel right now: who won the Comic Con? I’d say the larger point is that despite the clear failures of Batman v Superman, it’s not just Marvel’s game anymore. Right now we’re at the peak of the comic-book era, and it’s a peak that just keeps going and going. Perhaps moviemaking will return to something like the 1990s, perhaps it won’t. I sound like I’m complaining, but as a diehard comic reader from the 1980s, I have to admit that, stars or no stars, I mostly like the way this has turned out.
However, where this is all going is that for an era that prioritizes The Possible, we seem to have fewer and fewer possibilities. Comic-book-y stories are usually white-male-oriented and rather predictable, a sort of endless recycling of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero of a Thousand Faces” myth. I realize that these movie myths have very belatedly expanded to include women and black people. It’s great to tell young non-white-male-children that they can play in this ultimate playground. But we also need more playgrounds. In the 1990s, we could rely on expensive-yet-plucky stars to take outrageous chances – that’s what made possible movies like Three Kings, Pulp Fiction, Good Will Hunting, and yeah, Fight Club. Sure, a well-written season of The Defenders would be great, but it can’t quite make up for those films’ absence. ‘Nuff said.