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Superheroes: A Crisis of Overproduction
Marvel's latest blockbuster demonstrates how the growing concentration of intellectual property in fewer hands is affecting art and entertainment.

It’s hard to think of a more gigantic movie than Avengers: Infinity War, the latest from Marvel Studios. It has a gigantic cast, gigantic action set-pieces, gigantic universe-ending stakes, and gigantic marketing hype as “the most ambitious crossover event in history.” Its success is unquestioned, as it smashed numerous box office records in its first week alone. But the movie’s ambition has little to do with any filmmaker’s artistic vision; it is entirely a result of the cold economic forces of monopolization in the industry.

The movie conglomerates all of the major intellectual property owned by the Disney subsidiary, including whole franchises such as the Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, into a super-franchise. Depending on how you count, there are twenty-three “main” characters, many of which have blockbuster franchises of their own. All things considered, the filmmakers gave it a good go, considering the challenge of juggling so many storylines. Their skill is demonstrated in their ability to maintain our engagement with multiple characters while choreographing action sequences cleanly, although somewhat conventionally, interspersing emotional drama with well-timed humor.

But no matter how entertaining individual moments in the movie may be, the overarching premise imposes demands that even the most creative directors would find impossible to cope with. If the filmmakers could have freely chosen based on the art and craft of storytelling without the external monetary motives imposed by the studio, it’s hard to imagine they would have jammed that many major characters into 2 hours and 40 minutes.

Such an arrangement presents a barrier for audiences. Only the most hardcore fan of the franchise’s predecessors can fully keep up. Someone even made a 17-minute-long YouTube video to help newbies catch up on “Every Marvel Movie Up To Infinity War,” titled “CRAM IT!” But artificially catching up with plot mechanics is no substitute for the experience of actually watching the previous films. Most characters only get a brief scene to delve into their emotional cores, and the poignancy of those moments will be totally lost on those who haven’t already spent tens of hours with these characters.

Imbalance in pacing and character development is also a problem, as some major characters are reduced to conveying exposition and ferrying plot points from A to B. Reversals of fortune and changes of heart whiz by in an instant.

Avengers: Infinity War CharactersThe excess of main superhero characters had a negative effect on the plot and overall impact of the movie.

More glaringly, although each cast member wears a distinct, colorful costume, many of the characters feel interchangeable. In a genre so reliant on archetypes, there are only so many to go around. When there are two Loveable Rogues, two Aliens-Who-Don’t-Understand-Human-Customs, three Stoic Leaders facing hard choices, four—or is it five? six?—Loyal Sidekicks, and an endless number of wisecrackers dropping similar one-liners, is it any wonder if it all starts to blend together? Even the circumstances repeat: there are no fewer than three characters faced with the tough choice of killing a loved one for the sake of a greater good.

In the greatest works of theater, literature, and film, each character is endowed with a luminous individuality. Though we connect with them deeply, we are made to feel that their inner thoughts, deepest hopes, and fears can’t be replicated any more than a person’s birthmark. This applies not only to “highbrow” works but also to the greatest blockbusters. For example, it’s hard to imagine a second Han Solo or Sarah Connor.

In contrast, the interchangeability of characters in Infinity War, the way in which even their time in the spotlight is precisely quantified into discrete units, persistently reminds us that they are merely commodities. As Marx explained, the “commodity-form” performs a peculiar operation: it strips every object of its unique attributes until it can no longer be identified as something with intrinsic qualities, reducing it merely to a discrete unit of generalized human labor. And though they may lose much in color and light, they gain the one sacred right guaranteed by capitalism: the right to be exchanged in some quantifiable relation with any other commodity on the market.

Like other commodities, these characters, the products of collective physical and mental labor, change hands all the time through the sale of rights and mergers and are transformed into capital. According to the Financial Times, “Walt Disney has made acquiring valuable intellectual property central to its strategy . . . And in the past few years has acquired Marvel Studios ($4.2bn) . . . and Lucasfilm ($4bn) bringing Iron Man, Captain America, and Han Solo under the same roof as Mickey Mouse and Tinkerbell.”

Walt Disney Logo at the Stock Market

This trend towards monopolization in cinematic intellectual property is an indispensable precondition for a movie such as Infinity War. A mere decade ago, in those idyllic times of slightly-less-concentrated monopolies, such a premise could not even be conceived. Combine this with the fierce, though thus far unsuccessful, competition waged by Marvel’s rival, DC Extended Universe, and the result is an arms race of expanding casts, one-upmanship, and spectacular climaxes with tediously predictable universe-destroying stakes.

The broader film industry is also top-heavy, with the “proliferation of so-called ‘tentpoles’—big-budget franchise movies that generate so much revenue they can support a studio’s entire year of production.” Block-booked across many screens, they crowd out not just small indie films, but even second-tier blockbusters. As Newsweek wryly put it, “There is no middle class in moviemaking—only the few blockbusters, then everything else.”

Despite Infinity War‘s financial success, reviewers have already commented on a growing trend of “sequel-fatigue” among franchises. On the surface, the profits are rolling in, and audiences continue to grow. But the truth is that the shrinking moviegoing public is more thoroughly dominated by fewer titles and find enjoyment harder to get. Interestingly, statistics show that sequels often make more money than the original, yet audiences consistently rate them as less enjoyable.

As a medium, movies are caught between contradictory trends. As capitalism speeds up the treadmill and gives us less free time, TV series that can be consumed in shorter chunks or binge-watched when time allows, streamed online, is increasingly the format of choice. Infinity War emulates this convention. As critic Richard Brody put it, “it only resembles a movie. It comes off not even as a single drama, as a self-contained and internally structured narrative, but, rather, as a big-screen, two-and-a-half-hour variant on a single episode in a television series.” But the film medium has the inherent limitation that it does not facilitate continuity across “episodes,” so this approach can never replicate the leisurely pace and expansive narratives of TV or comic books. Marvel’s constant drive towards profitable gigantism comes into irreconcilable conflict with the restricted limits of the form.

Thanos character Avengers: Infinity WarAntagonist Thanos’s Malthusian instincts are explained by the need to reduce the cast for the movie’s sequel.

Fittingly, the character with the most personality in the film is the monomaniac antagonist Thanos, who wipes out half of our heroes by turning them into ash. He reasons that, by cleansing the universe of half its life, balance will be restored within its limited resources. This seems a tad excessive—we’re talking about the infinite universe here, after all—surely there is room enough for everyone? But the filmmakers’ evident empathy with Thanos is easy to understand. Who can blame them for harboring Malthusian ruthlessness towards their own creations when they are saddled with such an impossible premise? Eliminating half the leads with a snap of a finger certainly makes filming the sequel much easier—and provides the added benefit of shocking audiences who aren’t used to superheroes dying.

The climax, however, isn’t as groundbreaking as it first seems. The screenwriters swear in interviews that these deaths are real and not a trick. But a cursory search shows many of the offed characters already have sequels contracted, because, in the final analysis, money talks. Spider-Man: Homecoming generated $200.1 million in profit; $358.9 million for the two Guardians of the Galaxy films; for Black Panther, a projected $460M. It is hard to buy that these heroes will stay dead.

The filmmakers are therefore caught in a vicious circle. Too many characters and their job becomes impossible. But get rid of too many, and there will be no incentive for the studio to make more films. The artists become slaves to the medium, the content a slave to the form.

Let us imagine, instead, a film industry with its immense resources under the democratic control of a workers’ state. Intellectual properties, fleshed out over decades by the labor of generations of artists, will no longer be the private property of a tiny clique of monopoly capitalists, no longer an alien force that overpowers the very artists who created them. In such a world, art and entertainment will once again regain their infinite individuality and variety. Talented filmmakers will no longer have to apply their skills on subjects that present them with unmanageable demands that curb their creativity. The socialist future we fight for is not merely a transformation in economic terms—it will have a profound impact also in culture and entertainment.

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