Are franchise blockbusters dumbing down cinema?

Last week, Simon Pegg caused a stir when he implied that cinema has been "infantilised". Like most media circuses, this one turned out to be an exaggeration and Pegg's more detailed explanation is well worth a read. Whatever Pegg's actual views, he is not alone in expressing this sentiment that cinema is dominated by adolescent fantasies at the expense of real art. This argument is as old as cinema itself but I want to examine this claim in regards to recent cinema trends, because in Pegg's own words: “Sometimes it’s good to look at the state of the union and make sure we’re getting the best we can get.”

The trend in cinema currently blamed for infantilising the medium is what I call the “franchise blockbuster”. This includes the Marvel and DC super-hero shared universes, but also the trend to bring back expired film franchises (Star Wars, Mad Max, Jurassic Park, etc) or start new franchises using works popular in other mediums (The Hunger Games, Mission Impossible, etc).

I partially agree and partially disagree with the idea that this trend has dumbed down cinema or excluded films of greater artistic metric. Although it is true that there was a brief period where artistic movies were the most commercially successful (Tax Driver, The Godfather, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, etc) this period only lasted a few years between Easy Rider in 1969 and Raging Bull in 1980. It is also important to remember that this period occurred between the collapse of one dominant commercial model in Hollywood, the studio system, and the rise of a new one, the modern blockbuster which begins with Star Wars.

Franchise blockbusters are only the most recent form of the blockbuster and I disagree with the accusation that these films are dumbing down cinema. Most often this accusation is usually aimed at sci-fi films or comic book adaptations because these are the highest profile franchise blockbusters. This argument implies that sci-fi or superhero films can never be clever or tackle important real world issues, when there are many counter examples. Sci-fi films such as Elysium or District 9 and superhero films such as Super have used the conventions of their respective genres as a prism to explore real world issues.

Science fiction films have always lent themselves to spectacle and spectacle has always dominated the box office, because film is a visual medium. There is a view summarised by Pegg that: “the more spectacle becomes the driving creative priority, the less thoughtful or challenging the films can become.”

I do not believe this is true, as spectacle based blockbusters can also be very artistic such as films like Alien, Apocalypse Now and Blade Runner. It is not a valid reading of film history to claim that the blockbusters of the 1980s destroyed the artistic credibility of the 1970s, they just changed it.

It should also be remembered creating great art was not a priority in the period before blockbusters came along in the late 1970s. In the 40s, 50s and 60s there were a lot of generic studio films, most of which have been forgotten because they were generic. One reasons why three decades look so good in retrospect is because we only remember the good films. There was no golden age of artistic integrity which we should go back to, and the idea that there was needs to be resisted.

That said I do think the desire to be innovative, challenging and emotional has been pushed out of cinema. The main reason for this is because studios are becoming more risk averse and not chancing innovative or challenging films because they could lose money. This is manifesting itself in the dominance of franchise blockbusters. As cinema goers, we are getting a lot of the same types of film over and over again which is making cinema more boring.

I do not think that franchise blockbusters are themselves to blame for cinema becoming more boring. The current wave for films tied into existing franchises are just a wave or artistic movement like any other, muscle men action movies in the 1980s or melodramas in the 1950s. The wave will break, no artistic movement lasts forever.

However there are two trends in modern cinema which I find collectively troubling. They are that cinema is becoming more boring and more franchise blockbusters are being made. The artistic movement of franchise blockbusters has produced as many good films as any other cinema movement, Guardians of the Galaxy, Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are as good as any blockbuster from the 1980s or 1990s and some films such as Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy have had both complex plots and explored complex characters in a subtle way.

The only reason that franchise blockbusters are making cinema more boring is that our cinema diet consists only of franchise blockbusters. Eventually audiences will get bored of franchise blockbusters (I predict this happen somewhere around the time of the Aquaman film) and cinema goers will stop paying to see them. When the fun has gone out of franchise blockbusters and they all become generic, this will end the movement, just as too many dull action movies like Collateral Damage killed the muscle men films. This natural process of artistic movements rising and falling will continue and another new type of blockbuster will take its place. This is not something to be worried about. If you do not like a fashion simply wait, it will change.

The excessively risk averse nature of studios could mean that cinema becomes so dominated by franchised blockbusters that the audience for cinema disappears almost completely. This will most likely happen when audiences are lured away by some other medium, such as video streaming services. It happened before - in the 1960s, the studio system was so reluctant to embrace counter culture that they kept making the same generic pictures they had been making since the 1940s. Film audiences were put off by the old fashioned Hollywood products and lured away by TV, where shows like the Monkey were reflecting cultural changes. Audience could abandon the cinema complete if the studios continue to make franchise blockbusters long after everyone is sick of them.

If this were to happen, it would be a significant event in cinema history, and we might get a brief period of creativity like we did the 1970s after the fall of the studio system and before the rise of the modern blockbusters. However, the process of movements rising and falling will continue and any artistic period will not last long before a new commercial model exerts itself.

Franchise blockbusters are a victim of the changing circumstances, namely studio's risk aversion, and not the cause of them. If cinephiles really do get bored of them then franchise blockbusters will go away as no artistic movement lasts forever. The one thing all artistic movements have in common is their belief that they are special, transcendent and permanent, when in reality they all end. Periods of change between artistic movements are the most interesting and the most creative. They are when certainties are questioned and possibilities open up. However these periods are always brief and commercial models reassert themselves quickly.

Film fans have always worried about cinema becoming too much of a spectacle and not being artistic enough. I do not think movies are dumbing down. They are just changing and they will change again in the future.