How Blockbusters Are Born; or why the Royal Baby is a lot like Comic-Con
Yesterday, my Twitter feed was chock full of endless sniping from cooler-than-thou film fans, quick to criticism the inane, news-free media speculation about the imminent arrival of the Royal Baby. And yet only 24 hours earler, those same tweeters were indulging in exactly the same inane, news-free speculation over non-events at a certain industry showcase event in San Diego.
It takes real coginitive dissonance not to see that coverage of Comic-Con is scarcely more robust or meaningful than silver-spoon nappy blather. In both cases, it is a triumph of hype over substance. My disdain for Comic-Con isn’t exactly a secret: I’ve written about it before. Yet the coincidence of timing reveals uncanny similarities with the way the royal birth has been treated.
See, Hollywood studios are a lot like the Royal Family. They thrive on loyalty through continuity: safe, reliable, full of pageantry. The lineage of the House of Windsor has its corollary in the lineage of today’s Marvel movies – a clean through-line that awards anticipation to new films based not on their individual merit but on the hope that they will continue what has gone before. I’ve just read that an in-character appearance at Comic-Con by Tom Hiddleston as Loki created the kind of pandemonium usually reserved for royalty… which is especially apt, as I can imagine Hiddleston one day being asked to play Prince William.
And just as Hollywood thrives on repetition (and Slate has just published an insightful piece explaining just how well-oiled the formula has become ) the Royal Family does much the same thing. Instead of hero’s journeys and three-act arcs, they have private education, a stint in the military and a Royal Wedding to look forward to. The story, essentially, stays the same.
The problem, of course, is that it makes criticism very difficult. Success is in-built, and whatever the individual failings of the individual (Iron Man 2, Prince Harry) the system is bigger. That’s why the propaganda begins at birth. The Sun has rebranded itself as The Son for one day only, but there are various film websites that could just as easily rename themselves after studios and nobody would bat an eyelid.
As the Jesuits once observed, “give us a fanboy for a weekend in San Diego, and he’s ours for life.” Perceptions are coloured by what goes before. Misdemeanors by a Royal prince will be forgiven because we can remember when we ‘ooh’d and ah’d’ over them. Similarly, no number of “rotten” reviews will prevent the fanboys going to see the latest blockbuster on opening weekend because they recall the cool-as-fuck trailer or the Hall H panel’s promise of epic-ness.
The problem doesn’t exist only at Comic-Con, of course; it’s endemic to modern film culture. As a film writer, I am regularly asked to post clips or poster images or other items of marketing collateral. I never do, because it has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the film. I’m a critic: I critique, which means waiting for the finished product. The real news in cinema seldom has to do with the blockbusters but the under-the-radar gems that explode only on impact – the Reservoir Dogs or the Mementos of this world. In contrast, those clips and posters are Hollywood’s equivalent of the baby photo: cute, faintly interesting, but hardly the stuff to build a career reporting on.
I’m lucky, though, that this website doesn’t pay my bills; others rely on this crap for their income. Today’s pro-bloggers increasingly resemble the BBC’s royal correspondent, Nicholas Witchell, a fawning, obsequious toadie left to stand outside waiting for someone to genuflect to. Remember: Witchell used to be a journalist, too.
So whether we’re talking about Whedon or Windsor, we’ve become a captive, uncritical audience that is so hungry for news it will publish whatever morsels are given via official channels and fill the rest of the vacuum with noise. Really, is there any real difference between asking “What’s the baby’s name?” and “What’s the next Avengers movie called?” Maybe it’s time to split the difference and call the baby Prince Ultron.