The steady drip of announcements and events that could very well signal the demise of chain movie theaters continues unabated. On the heels of Mulan going straight to Disney+, the Tenet fiasco, and the latest Bond film being held until next April, we’ve now learned that Pixar’s Soul is going to follow the same path as Mulan, earning a Christmas release on Disney+; Dune is being pushed from Christmas to October 2021; and The Batman is being banished to the incredibly distant date of March 2022. And there’s speculation Wonder Woman 1984 could be going straight to HBO Max, which would be a huge change of strategy for Warner Bros., shifting from pretty much forcing theaters to reopen so they could lose their shirts on Tenet to dumping this once-prized ode to gym memberships onto a struggling streaming service’s anemic subscriber base.
In another major sign of just how much things have changed, there are reports MGM tried to shop the Bond film around to Netflix et al. in lieu of a theatrical release only to find there were no takers. Is it really conceivable the latest 007 could end up
so tarnished it could find itself in the streaming equivalent of the bargain bin?
It’s time for the studios to relent and take everything else they were going to hang onto until, when, Doomsday? and send it straight to the home market—something they should have done six months ago. It’s not just about the economics. In a world that bears little resemblance to the one that existed at the beginning of this year, do they really expect these movies to resonate with audiences today—let alone half a year, a year, or a year and a half down a very uncertain road? We now live in an in many ways worse and in some ways better world, but undeniably one with only a few tenuous connections to its previous incarnation.
The whole sad and in some ways silly tale of Tenet and the movie theaters is just another example of the kind of bass ackwards thinking that’s pretty much determined how everything has played out during the pandemic. To state what ought to be obvious (but there’s little evidence to suggest that’s so): We need to rethink our priorities. The economy isn’t some independent organism that must be fed at all costs, but a man-made and -controlled (when we want to be responsible for it) mechanism meant to serve the needs of people. In other words, it’s nothing but an artificial construct, a tool, a means to an end. Hell, at this point, I’d be happy to see us go back to the barter system—even potlatch—if it would spare us the spectacle of more human sacrifice on the mass scale.
Tenet has, rightly, become the poster child for everything that’s hopelessly balled up about the present moment. Something never felt right about that whole exercise in denial—even beyond the manifest irresponsibility of urging theaters to reopen in the middle of a pandemic, and Nolan’s Olympian hubris of thinking his ridiculously expensive little trifle was worth risking even a single person’s life.
Tenet tanked not just because releasing it was a brain-dead business decision but because it had been built up so much by Nolan, Warner Bros., and IMAX as something that had to be seen in a movie theater, that, viewed in the context of a global crisis, it ultimately felt trivial.
We’ve come—I believe, stupidly—to make huge emotional investments in movies, and especially franchises, when they’re almost inevitably the products of children of privilege indulging their extremely stunted emotional development.
Movies, honoring the hipster mantra, have become little more than diversions, distractions, one-note confections able to induce enough of a sugar high to get you to crave the next one but never able to supply enough nourishment to be in any meaningful way satisfying, elaborate yet ultimately crude devices that qualify as entertainment only in the most primitive way, and never as art.
I might really be dreaming here, but I’m hoping the current
upheaval proves to be the ultimate Kryptonite or Death Star or whatever and finally frees us from the tyranny of the superhero movie. No matter how pretentious directors want to get about them, at the end of the day, they’re inherently adolescent, silly, and, worst of all, fascist (Goebbels would have loved Gal Gadot), exhibiting all the overheated excess of a form of entertainment on the verge of collapse. (Which helps to explain why they tend to lean so heavily on kitschy Late Romantic retreads for their soundtracks. Mahler, R. Strauss, and Wagner were harbingers of the imminent demise of tonality.)
The studios are willing to commit so much money to producing superhero movies and push them so ferociously not because they’re more entertaining than other genres, let alone because they’re more edifying and profound, but because they more readily lend themselves to merchandising and video games and they help keep the populace in an uncritical state of arrested development. At the end of the day, it’s an economic and marketing decision and never a creative one—not even close.
Now, I realize that decades of indoctrination have led to a culture of fantasy über alles, but I’d like to hang onto a slim hope that recent events will shake us from our stupor and get us to realize that almost every mainstream genre we’ve succumbed to since the Reagan era—and this would include action films and other heedless celebrations of war—are ultimately forms of oppression.
Just to be clear: The last thing I’d want to see is a world awash in earnest little dramas without flair, socially-conscious efforts that ultimately just reinforce rampant intolerance, and ambitious epics that show no understanding of the rudiments of cinema—in other words, Oscar fodder. If we’re going to reinvent the movies, let’s really strip them down and rebuild them from the ground up. And just to show that this isn’t just some vague and abstract wish, let alone an exercise in nostalgia, I’m hoping to toss out a few suggestions for reimagining in a future column.
Disclaimer: My views are my own. They represent neither the general position of this website nor the opinions of any of its other contributors, who I’m pretty sure don’t much agree with me about any of this.
Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtable, marketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.