Activism Not Entertainment
Hollywood being out of touch with your average American is hardly a new development. For decades now, when the need to drum up some sort of anti-establishment hysteria has presented itself, an easy target for conservatives young and old has been Hollywood. A place where people who wear clothing more expensive than your mortgage payment, and whose car's value exceeds your annual salary, seem to have no problem lecturing you on how privileged, problematic, and toxic you are.
All of this might have continued to be overlooked by the majority of people, if at the end of the day the product of these somewhat contemptible individuals' labor was, in itself, an entertaining escape from reality…even if you had to plug your nose while watching it. (Say what you will about Mel Gibson, the man knows how to write a script.)
Which brings me to the point of this piece, it seems that out of touch, or as the vernacular goes “woke“ writers and producers have almost universally crossed the proverbial line of ruining the entertainment value of their own movies in favor of delivering “needed” social justice messages.
The list of failures seems to grow with every studio release, terrible pictures like Wonder Woman 1984, the 355, the new Star Trek series almost in its entirety, and nearly every Marvel show released on Disney+ have emphasized delivering a social awareness or a political message over story structure, character development, and general entertainment value.
To say exactly where this started is complicated, it has been insidiously creeping in for years now, but I think I can point to one specific movie, and more to the point to a specific character, where the dam finally broke, when all sense of entertaining the audience to keep them coming back to consume the product was thrown out the window in favor of delivering a presentation of virtue signals and political ideology. That being the 2019 MCU release, Captain Marvel.
Consider Captain Marvel, a female human with supernatural powers fighting for an alien group of super soldiers. Juxtapose her with any other character in the Marvel cinematic universe… This character is not legitimately threatened by anything that happens to her. Her powers are limitless, in fact if you’ve seen the movie, the only thing which in any way limits her natural capability is some sort of artificial restraint placed on her by her male antagonist, a very clunky and painfully transparent reference to “the patriarchy”. Even when she disobeys orders, and makes decisions that are not in the best interest of the larger group, there really isn’t very much at stake. Literally the only thing holding back Captain Marvel from being able to do anything is she doesn’t realize how inherently awesome she already is. What kind of character arc is that, how can you find yourself rooting for her? There’s no chance at all that she will lose.
The Marvel cinematic universe has received much criticism for being formulaic, and much of that criticism is legitimate. The rest of the characters presented amongst the “good guys“ undergo some sort of arc to their character, or at the bare minimum face challenges that present the possibility of harm, or ultimate defeat.
Consider Iron Man, Tony Stark is cocky and arrogant, he doesn’t trust people quickly, and has to overcome that time and time again. Frankly, he is repeatedly unsuccessful. When ultimately he does defeat Thanos (whoops spoiler alert) at the end of the series, you find yourself rooting for this arrogant jerk because he has come a long way, suffered, lost, and remained resilient enough to fight back.
Captain Marvel on the other hand is so “overpowered” That she quickly dispatches enemies without any difficulty at all. It was as if the writers of the film were afraid to have a female heroine lose to any of the adversaries that attempted to stand in her way. As though any sign of vulnerability, or character flaw would undermine her capability to be a compelling protagonist. Nothing could be further from reality. The reason that so many people come to root for superheroes is because they are flawed, they do have imperfections, and their ability to overcome them is what makes them so relatable.
People can’t relate to perfect characters, people are flawed. People are imperfect beings that generally try to do the best they can in the face of adversity. So when the message is, if you fall down you can pick yourself back up with great determination and hard work… People relate to that message. No one in the world can relate to the notion that you are already perfect the way you are, and nothing needs to change, you just need society to stop restraining you… That’s not a relatable character, that’s the sort of fanatical and delusional character that would generally represent a villain, someone who you would like to see get their comeuppance because of their flawed view of themselves and the world surrounding them.
To make matters worse the producers, and particularly the actor, Brie Larson, who played Captain Marvel, have been completely unreceptive to feedback surrounding their film and her portrayal of the would-be Avenger. Everyone who has anything negative to say is either a troll, or an “ist” of some kind, or just can’t accept the idea of a “strong female hero“. I don’t doubt the existence of trolls, but otherwise nothing could be further from the truth. Cinema is full of strong and relatable female characters who audiences flock to see, Ripley from Alien Is one of my favorite action characters of the 80s. Think about Ripley though, her gender was almost immaterial to her character, she was a regular person that overcame unimaginable levels of adversity, she never possessed supernatural capability or skill. I would submit that she would’ve been much less popular if it turned out that the only reason the aliens kept trying to kill her was because they were males trying to hold her back. It seems to me if the only way you can justify any criticism of your work is to assume that others have some sort of inherent bias against you, that fundamentally you must know on some level that there is something flawed about what you are delivering.
I don’t expect this condition to improve anytime soon, my only hope is that box office flop after box office flop will eventually convince movie studios that they need to go in a different direction; simply put they won’t be able to blame Covid forever. Hopefully by then there will still be some stories left that can be told with what Hollywood used to be great at delivering; compelling characters, in interesting situations, with satisfying endings. Movies that emphasize the quality of the story, not the value of the message.