How Superheroes Are Teaching Hollywood To Be Honest With Itself

Director James Gunn shows that better blockbusters make it easy to complain about the bad ones.

A long Facebook post written by director James Gunn in response to disparaging remarks made at the Oscars about superhero movies is being taken up across social media as a sort of middle-brow cri di coeur. Gunn’s argument can be boiled down to this: Say what you will about Marvel blockbusters, but many of them are made with just as much care as the films winning awards. This is a reasonable point, but it deserves to be vivisected.

Let’s start from this premise: Guardians of the Galaxy was excellent. Given that Gunn clearly took enormous care coaxing moving performances from not only skinny Pratt, but also a digital raccoon, and a WWE star, that’s impressive. In point of fact, that’s considerably more impressive than coaxing a great performance from Michael Keaton, who has always been a great actor.

Gunn benefits by that cherry-picked comparison, but it gets hard to meaningfully juxtapose prestige films and superhero movies when so many of the actors are the same and so many of the plots are – in essence, if not in detail – similar. The Imitation Game, for instance, was a film about a man with an amazing natural ability with numbers and a weakness in regards to women (not liking them) who saves the world. It was Iron Man with an Oxbridge accent. And Benedict Cumberbatch, nominated for that role, will be playing Dr. Strange in an upcoming Marvel film that will – in all likelihood – be good.

The revolving door in which prestige actors change into spandex both confuses the argument against superhero movies and makes it abundantly clear why Hollywood likes to criticize them. When Dan Gilroy, playing the role of both cliched auteur and strawman, complained at the Oscars that the industry had been submerged by a “tsunami of superhero films,” he was complaining about sameness while referencing lesser offenders. Whatever creative merit they may lack, the Marvel films are crafted as individuated products whereas plenty of Hollywood films are not. Talking about superhero movies is an easy way to talk about movies made by craven studio execs without talking about movies made by craven studio execs.

Does Gilroy hate comic book movies? Probably not. His wife starred in two. What he seems to hate is the “that worked, let’s do it again” school of filmmaking. Fair enough.

But who’s guilty when it comes to making paint-by-numbers blockbusters, the guys behind Transformers, that Die Hard Goes to Russia flop, the accurately named Expendables franchise, the re-makers of The Purge, and every other Hollywood exec quietly targeting an Asian audience with dialogue designed to fit in subtitles. Marvel isn’t doing that (yet), but Pirates of the Caribbean 5 is sailing this way.

Gunn is right to stand up for his process and his movie. He’s also painted himself into a corner. When he stops taking care with his work, his argument won’t hold water-soluble paint. Hopefully that day is still far off.