Here in May of 2023, it’s still early to call but it looks like Marvel Studio’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 might end the studio’s rocky run of late. I’m talking financials of course, as critically the film is a clear winner but we’re still waiting to see if it can gross the kind of cash that Disney needs to be able to please shareholders and silence its critics.
If this does prove to be the case and Guardians does make an undeniably large pile of loot, will this mark a long-term reversal of fortunes for superhero films, or are we experiencing the eye of the storm, a moment of calm before the cyclone of declining box-office and wild doom-mongering ramps up once more? Time will tell but if all of the recent sound and fury regarding the fate of the MCU reminds us of anything, it’s that sooner or later, all things end.
But what on earth would come next? What possible product could fill the superhero-shaped void in our lives? Where else would corporate-owned studios unearth (let’s go corpo for a moment) ‘content’ with ‘pre-built awareness’ that will mitigate financial risk and subtly encourage us to think less and consume more, as the same stories are fed to us again and again, just in slightly different packages?
Well, the answer isn’t just waiting in the wings, it has already made its bow. Meet the product movie, an entity that is perfectly capitalist in its conception, being both a product and a product about a product. 2023 alone has already offered us Air and Tetris with Barbie and Flamin’ Hot, the Cheetos origin story, set to follow quickly on their heels.
This isn’t a piece decrying any of these movies, by the way. Air was a well-made film featuring movie stars dealing with an issue that wasn’t a planetary invasion or an epic historical conflict. It’s the kind of film that we don’t see enough of in cinemas these days and I’m thankful I got to see it in one. For the presumed many that will discover it now the film has made its debut on Amazon, I’m sure they’ll feel that way too.
Likewise, Tetris was a fun period piece about the 1980s computer game development scene, something that happens to be of personal interest to an ageing nerd like me. I looked forward to it and when it arrived, I had a blast. Of course, Barbie and Flamin’ Hot have yet to release, but I find it hard to imagine that Greta Gerwig will drop the ball with Barbie given her unimpeachable track record. in fact, if I only get to watch one of the two high-profile releases coming on July 21st, I’ll be choosing Barbie over Oppenheimer and I have no problem admitting it.
So why the vague sense of unease as to why the product movie replacing the superhero movie might not be a trade-up?
Well, there’s two things. The first is the way in which these films tend to blindly venerate products. If you’ve seen Air, Tetris or even The LEGO Movie from a few years ago, you’ll know what I mean. Characters in these films are flawed (because how else would drama be created?) but the product? Never. The product is always presented as unimpeachable.
Maybe it’s just my Generation X sensibilities, but unflinching adulation of a commercially-designed entity does not come without problems, especially when those products are not perfect. Well, maybe Tetris is, but Nike’s shoes come with a long history of well-documented issues relating to supply-line ethics, whilst Mattel’s line of Barbie dolls have faced plenty of ethical criticisms over the decades too.
You’ll likely be aware of the issues I’m talking about and I’m not going to recount them here, apart from to say that in an ethically-compromised world, it’s too easy to place the blame for the evils of consumerism on the company, or the individuals that make those decisions whilst the product itself remains untouchable. It’s easier for us to tut at the compromised ethics in Apple’s supply chain whilst an iPhone sits in our pocket because as long as the product isn’t compromised, that then places us (and our decision to use it) comfortably outside of the sphere of responsibility.
However comforting it might be to believe that, it’s not the truth. These products are imbued with the genius, but also the fallibilities of their creators, something that David Fincher explored to devastating effect in 2010’s The Social Network. The film, historically accurate or not, presents the perceived human flaws of Mark Zuckerberg as being irreversibly baked into his product, Facebook.
The film makes it very clear that we can’t reject Zuckerberg’s seeming attempt at world domination but also embrace Facebook the product because they are one and the same. The Social Network’s masterful construction makes it abundantly clear that should we choose to use the product, we share in the responsibility for the elevation and empowerment of a flawed, perhaps even dangerous construct.
Of course, not every filmmaker is David Fincher and not every film can be The Social Network, one of the greatest films of this century and a shining example of what a product-focused film can be. Instead of being made in spite of Facebook’s wishes like The Social Network was (Zuckerberg’s attempts to block the film were revealed in the aftermath of the Sony hack), the current crop of product-based films are mostly made in league with the companies that make and sell the product.
It’s this relationship that’s part of the problem. It means that instead of Nike’s Air Jordans shoes being interrogated for the true breadth of their cultural impact, we get treated instead to images of joyous wonder as the product is revealed as actors do their best take on Spielbergian wide-eyed awe. Like I said, maybe it’s just that healthy Gen X scepticism, but it reminds me of that questionable montage in the brazenly self-mythologising Bohemian Rhapsody where the titular song is born into being not through painstaking hard work but, well, because Queen are simply geniuses I suppose and not a lot else seemed to be required.
Put simply, the more self-mythologising a product movie embellishes itself with, the warier I become. To it’s (partial) credit, Air does insert one line about the use of third world labour to make its shoes during this era but it’s hardly a rounded viewpoint. I know what you’re thinking: why on earth would a company subject itself to a cinematic inquiry into its own ethics and you’d be right, it would make no sense, at least not within the current economic reality that we exist in.
However, the strange decision to exclude Michael Jordan from the story (his story even) about a young, Black athlete that shatters the glass ceiling of corporate sponsorship for others to follow, draws some of the story’s sting and instead leaves you focusing on, yep, the product. Despite some ropey digital work and a less starry cast, Tetris fares better in this regard telling a story about the ideological clash between communism and capitalism, the fall of the Iron Curtain and the impact of that on real human lives.
Tetris, (the game) serves almost as a Macguffin of sorts with which to bring these characters and their contrasting lives and motives onto a collision course. Yes, the product is still unimpeachable but at least in Tetris it feels like it’s playing second fiddle to the more interesting human goings-on at the narrative’s core. Despite liking Air, I’m not sure I can say the same.
If ‘the product movie’ become a mainstay for studio executives looking to spend their budgets, that’s okay if we continue to get films like Tetris. But if history teaches us anything, we won’t. Because as soon as a few of these movies become individually successful, compromises need to be made. 2008’s Iron Man was the first entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and some might argue, still the best. It’s a perfect example of a genre film made by a talented filmmaker who clearly has a large degree of control over the creative process.
Fast forward to 2023 and MCU films are having to carry so much extra baggage that the lightness that makes Iron Man so watchable isn’t as apparent. These films have to now deal with setting up other films, introducing other new franchises, increased product placement, US military approval, directors giving up creative control for key portions of the film, the films themselves seeking to distinguish themselves whilst sticking to the same key Marvel formula.
It’s a lot to ask, but it’s also inevitable. As the product origin movie becomes more commonplace, the same machine will inexorably grind into gear and the films that come out of the other end will be increasingly compromised. In fact, it’s arguable that even the ‘purer’ projects that already polluted through the simple dramatic conceit of narrative alignment. To make us care about the character in Air, Nike, a multinational corporation is positioned as the battling underdog. To some extent, the same is true of Nintendo in Tetris.
Positioning these companies as the hungry go-getters, the besieged upstarts is problematic given how their profits-based ideology makes them anything but. If a filmmaker wants to make a movie with a product at its heart, I’d argue that films such as The Social Network or The Founder should be mandatory homework first. If we’re simply going to venerate products rather than interrogate them, we might as well just make the movie part of the pre-show advert and frankly, those never-ending commercials are long enough already, aren’t they?
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