There isn’t just a note of resignation in New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott’s review of “Avengers: Infinity War”; instead, it’s a whole symphony.
“This synergistic expression of the corporate interests of Marvel Studios and the Walt Disney Company . . . has come to be less a creative or commercial undertaking than an immutable fact of life, like sex or the weather or capitalism itself,” Scott writes mournfully, adding that “the Disney-Marvel combination is a giant machine that manufactures maximum consent. The cosmos is theirs. The rest of us just live in it.”
We do seem to exist in an era of critic-proof movies, if the point of criticism is to help readers decide whether to buy a ticket to a given film. But though Scott is absolutely right that Marvel “provides grist for the kind of think pieces that spar with one another,” there’s still virtue in wading into the debate over a giant blockbuster movie. However homogeneous mass culture can make the world feel, it also gives critics an unusually broad sense of what audiences are responding to in a work and how they read a movie. And by meeting moviegoers where they are, critics have opportunities to talk to our readers about big issues in a more penetrating way than is possible in our current political deadlock.
First, it’s worth noting something that often gets lost in conversations about blockbusters. There’s always someone who feels left out of the consensus of at least lukewarm approval that coalesces around giant blockbusters. A well-written and well-argued review that explains why a critic thinks a movie just doesn’t work can be especially valuable to a reader who leaves the multiplex baffled by what they’ve just seen and unsure why everyone else is reacting the way they are.
My pieces on “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” obviously had no impact on the movie’s $1.3 billion global box-office haul. But they’re some of the criticism I am most glad to have written, because I heard from so many readers that the essays helped them to crystallize their feelings of unease about the movie. Even if critics sometimes feel like we can’t be heard over the roar of people rushing to proclaim their fidelity to movies like “Avengers: Infinity War,” we should be reassured that our arguments get through to the moviegoers who crave them most.
Writing serious criticism of blockbusters is also a useful way to measure the distance between what critics want and what audiences want from their entertainments. It can absolutely be irksome, as Scott suggests, to be grumbled at by people who see critics as killjoys out to ruin a good time, or people who think too hard about movies. But I’ve generally found that if I can get past the barbs, there’s real value in looking at the reasons why the parts of a blockbuster that didn’t work for me worked for someone else.
The Canto Bight casino sequence in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” didn’t work for me, but the response to it helped me understand what had drawn readers to the character of Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran). I think that “Avengers: Infinity War” suffers from functioning more as a sequence of scenes designed to put characters from the far-flung corners of the franchise together than as a coherent movie, but that aspect of the film is also a reminder of the long-standing use and appeal of crossover events in comics.
These differences between some fans’ feelings and mine don’t change my opinion about what makes a movie good. But recognizing them does help me write in a way that I hope will allow me to reach even people with different expectations or priorities for a franchise movie. If a major part of Marvel movies going forward is going to be juxtaposing characters from different parts of the universe, then I want those encounters to bring out the sharpest distinction between characters’ worldviews and powers. If “Star Wars” wants to expand our sense of the galaxy, then I want it to happen in a way that’s as smart and grounded as the franchise has shown itself capable of being.
And nowhere is it more useful for me to look at the gaps that sometimes open up between me and a blockbuster’s most passionate defenders than on the questions of a film’s politics. Big franchises can demonstrate the extent to which our politics are aspirational, driven by our need to identify with characters and see our dreams reflected back at us. “Captain America: Civil War,” for example, marries Captain America’s (Chris Evans) decency to a position rooted in emotion rather than careful consideration of the outcomes. Our positive responses to his character can reveal that we’re quicker to follow personalities than specific policies, or to grant trust to individuals that we might be unwise to place in institutions.
Of course, sometimes the dueling think pieces that follow a movie may be more thoughtful than the movie itself, lending the film a depth it doesn’t possess. “Black Panther” is a good example. But that’s a small issue compared to the pleasures of seeing old debates framed in new ways that allow them to reach new audiences.
The trouble with a school of criticism that rates contemporary American pop culture purely on whether a piece of art is woke or problematic isn’t that this type of writing is political. It’s that this school of criticism strips pop culture of its unique power to break us out of rote argumentative beats and political mindsets, and to allow us to see our political dilemmas and perhaps even our own beliefs in a fresh light.
So yes, there’s no question that we all live in Marvel’s galaxy, in Disney’s cosmos, in the grip of Netflix’s distribution machine with all the attendant problems for the future of independent pop culture they suggest. But if the Marvel movies have hammered home one message again and again, it’s that, against all odds, it is still possible for plucky, independent thinkers to make a difference. Critics can surrender to Thanos (Josh Brolin) and head off to cover corners of the galaxy where things feel free. But we can keep pushing and prodding the Big Bads, too.