With BLACK PANTHER set to break all kinds of box office records this weekend amidst unprecedented buzz and enormous critical acclaim, I was reminded of the back-and-forth between James Gunn and Jodie Foster right around the start of the year, when they expressed vastly different attitudes about the state of Hollywood and the kinds of movies it is producing.
Foster’s issue was with the bombastic nature of most studio product, and how, “Going to the movies has become like a theme park,” as she told Radio Times magazine in an interview. “Studios making bad content in order to appeal to the masses and shareholders is like fracking — you get the best return right now, but you wreck the earth. It’s ruining the viewing habits of the American population and then, ultimately the rest of the world. I don’t want to make $200 million movies about superheroes.”
Now that’s a fair point, and one that isn’t without merit, but before we start to dissect this, we need to hear from James Gunn, who of course has some personal feelings about the matter, considering he has directed two such movies for Marvel Studios — Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel, which have combined to gross over $1.6 billion worldwide. When informed of the two-time Oscar winner’s thoughts on the matter, Gunn took to Twitter to react.
“I think Foster looks at film in an old-fashioned way where spectacle film can’t be thought-provoking. It’s often true, but not always. Her belief system is pretty common and isn’t totally without basis,” he said in a series of six tweets. “I say not without basis because most studio franchise films are somewhat soulless — and that is a real danger to the future of movies. But there are also quite a few exceptions. For cinema to survive I believe spectacle films NEED to have a vision and heart they traditionally haven’t. And some of us are doing our best to move in that direction. Creating spectacle films that are innovative, humane, and thoughtful is what excites me about this job. But, to be fair, at least from Foster’s quotes, she seems to see filmmaking as something that’s primarily about her own personal growth. For me, that may be part of why I do this, but spending many millions of dollars on a film has to be about more than that — it’s communication — so my experience is merely one spoke on that wheel. But I respect Foster and her talent and what she’s done for films, and I appreciate her different way of looking at Hollywood’s landscape.”
Now, the thing I like most about this is how respectful Gunn was of Foster and her opinion, because, again, it’s not without merit. Going to the movies has become like going to a theme park, and the studios are acting like frackers in how they are treating the moviegoing audience. The current studio business model prioritizing tentpoles is dangerous, top-heavy, and probably doomed to fail. I’m firmly with Foster on this, and have been fairly vocal about that very thing in this space. I talked about it just two days ago, in fact.
Where I think she goes off track, though, and where Gunn certainly takes issue, is to make a blanket statement that condemns all superhero movies as the same kind of schlock that often pollutes our multiplexes. That, in fact, couldn’t be further from the truth. Exhibit A is the very thoughtful, very relevant Black Panther, which hit theaters last night. Ryan Coogler’s comic book movie has more depth and texture than most films that have nary a superhero, and not only does it strive to achieve something beyond the norm, but it succeeds with flying colors.
Last year, there were no less than seven superhero movies in theaters — eight if you count Power Rangers — and at least three of them were revered as having achieved something new, fresh and exciting… not just within the genre, but simply on their own as films. Wonder Woman was a groundbreaking example of feminine strength that irrefutably proved a woman could carry one of these big-budget pictures. Spider-Man: Homecoming was a relevant look at navigating high school and the perils of being a teenager. Logan was an elegiacal portrait of a fading hero who is given one last shot at redemption, with an Oscar-nominated screenplay to boot. I have plenty of respect for Jodie Foster, but to dismiss those three films on principal (not to mention plenty of other successful examples of the genre too numerous to list here), is to ignore greatness simply because of the package in which it arrives. It is the very definition of judging a book by its cover.
In the same interview in which she espoused these feelings on the superhero genre, Foster was asked if she would ever consider participating in one of these movies herself. Rather surprisingly, she said she would be open to it if it had “really complex psychology.” That’s a nice loophole she’s given herself, and one that I would venture applies to each of the three movies listed above. However, it also extends to plenty of other such films, including examples that I detested. For instance, I will be the first to tell you that Zack Snyder’s Superman movie, Man of Steel, is a complete and utter train wreck, but I will also acknowledge that, ham-fisted as it might be, it at least attempts to examine the psychology behind being alien, being more powerful than anyone else on the planet, and the concept of reluctant heroism. Those are some complex ideas to examine that, I would argue, a better director would have nailed, but I do give Snyder credit for trying.
Which is why I wonder if Foster was doing something of a bait and switch, or perhaps giving us an example of the old “Br’er Rabbit” ploy. By telling everyone that the genre is irredeemable, but that she would be open to being a part of it if there were enough complexities to a given story, it is entirely possible that she is covertly offering her services to helm one of these films so that she can somehow “redeem” the genre herself. In effect, by saying, “Please don’t throw me in the brier patch!” she’s actually hoping that this is exactly where the studios will send her.
It’s sort of ingenious, if you think about it. A better plan than most movie villains would concoct. And maybe that’s the whole point. But if we’re using Foster’s metaphor, and Black Panther is part of the theme park, then it’s one of the best rides — the kind that leaves you wanting more.