Guest Columnist Jim Slotek: Avengers Assembled!
Geoff Pevere is on assignment for CBC Radio and will be posting again next Friday. This week, after a fine appearance here last week, Jim Slotek gives us the inside info about why we want what we want….
It is a given this weekend that everyone wants to see The Avengers. It is, as they say, “trending” like a Geiger counter outside the Fukushima nuclear plant.
But it is more relevant to ask WHY everyone wants to see it.
This is not to diss The Avengers itself. I don’t give a duck a bad review for quacking, and director Joss Whedon mercifully brought his sense of humour to a $200 million film about men (and one woman) in tights, making it far more watchable than, say, Green Lantern. It’s about the kind of product The Avengers is, and why we “want” it.
Robert Downey Jr. was already having thoughts about “the machine” in 2008, when the first Iron Man movie came out. I’d had a one-on-one phone interview with him that went fairly normally. A week later, I participated in a “round table” interview in New York when he went rogue.
The look on his face was somewhat troubled, a look in retrospect similar to one I’d once seen on the face of Patrick Stewart (on a set visit to Star Trek: The Next Generation when it was in production but hadn’t yet aired). In both cases, accomplished but not crazy-famous actors were clearly having second thoughts about signing onto a franchise and the impending shitstorm.
Downey – who was smoking a cigarette in the Waldorf in defiance of New York municipal law – listened as some kid from a sci-fi blog asked about Downey’s cameo in The Incredible Hulk, in which Tony Stark and Gen. Ross (William Hurt) talked about “The Avengers Initiative.” (For four years, people have sat through the credits of Marvel films, waiting for an “Easter Egg” scene that would further tease The Avengers).
“You know,” Downey began, “big companies have a way of manipulating people. And they got you. Because we’re here at the Iron Man round table and we’re talking about another property. They asked me to go do a day in another movie and I’m like ‘Wow, is that in my contract too?’
“And it was, because they knew one person at every Iron Man table would ask about The Hulk, one person everywhere I go would ask about The Hulk, which is coming out this summer as we talk about this.
“Here’s the thing,” he said, “you’re asking because they wanted you to ask.”
“No,” the kid said, his head tilting like a puzzled dog, “I’m asking because I wanted to know.”
“But why did you want to know?” Downey asked. “We could spend the next 20 minutes going back and forth. Let’s talk about the f—ing truth. They made you want to know.”
Iron Man, at that time, was a Marvel Entertainment production distributed by Paramount, owned by media giant Viacom. Marvel has since been bought by Disney. So, two gigantic “competitors” and their respective subsidiaries are co-operating in The Avengers release – a clusterfuck of giant entertainment corporations.
“They’re smart. They’re a big company,” Downey said, speaking of Paramount/Viacom at the time. “They know what to do. ‘We’ve got RDJ!’ (Robert Downey Jr.). Hey, why not paint a big Thor on my forehead? What do I care? I just think it’s interesting to know how you’re being maneuvered.”
At the time I remember thinking, “Geez, if this is the kind of rant he can work up straight, what was he like when he was on drugs.”
But it was a rare admission from inside the machine (he knew the Avengers rollout plans pretty well by that point), and it had me thinking, to what extent “what we want” is a matter of choice in a corporate society.
A year earlier, I’d decided to do some math with the battle of the “3s” – Pirates Of The Caribbean 3 (I’d write out the whole title, but I already spent a combined seven-plus hours watching those crap movies – enough’s enough), Spider-Man 3 and Shrek 3. Each week I received a release from their respective studios claiming to be on a record number of screens, each erasing a record claimed by the competition the week before.
At the peak of this competition, the three mediocre films were on 30,000 screens simultaneously across North America. Only six other films were on more than 500.
It was a flashpoint of what basically goes on every summer. We think of the summer movie season as a deluge of movies, when in fact, choice at the multiplex actually goes down.
The spiel we always hear is that the market rules, and we vote with our dollars. If people buy it, it deserves to live. If they don’t, it deserves to die. A movie, a novel, a play, a song, a gadget, fast food, slow food, it doesn’t matter what.
Anyway, what I want to know is, if the free-market should rule everything for sale, from health care to air as the Fraser Institute would have it, why do our choices seem to get smaller as the corporate deliverymen get bigger and fewer?
We have a record number of screens in our multiplexes, showing fewer and fewer different movies (bet you can’t wait this summer for Battleship or Men In Black 3).
Why is there only essentially one kind of corn, peaches and cream, available anymore? (Diversity is considered bad business in factory farming, so many crops are monocultures). Why are the playlists of radio stations so limited? Apparently, it’s because that’s what we want. We want Trump, and Kardashian.
Of course, the marketplace is open to – let’s call it “suggestion” – about what gets watched or bought and what dies from neglect, quality notwithstanding.
In two decades, the Oscars have gone from a celebration of widely-seen good films – ie; movies for adults that make you think and feel and elicit adjectives other than “awesome!” – to a celebration of good movies that few have seen (mainly because theatres have devoted themselves almost exclusively to babysitting teenagers).
When the Academy expanded its Best Picture noms from five to 10, it was supposedly to allow box office hits into the party and generate more audience interest in the show. Instead, it mostly made room for more good, small movies that went mostly unseen.
Face it, if we really want something, there’ll be incessant commercials, huge billboards and ear-splitting trailers telling us so.
Post-script: Robert Downey Jr. now has a private jet and is never off-message anymore about The Avengers or Iron Man. Patrick Stewart has a knighthood and millions of dollars from the Star Trek: TNG and X-Men movies. All’s well that ends well.
Geoff Pevere returns next Friday
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An award-winning newspaper columnist, movie critic and comedy script-writer, Jim Slotek has interviewed literally thousands of celebrities for the Toronto Sun and various entertainment magazines. His script work runs the gamut from an acclaimed documentary on Mexico’s Day of the Dead (El Dia, La Noche y los Muertos), to CBC variety specials (the Gemini Awards, the NHL Awards, CBC Canada Day Special).