Analysis: After ‘Black Panther’ and ‘The Last Jedi,’ is this the era of the artisanal blockbuster?
The supersized success of “Black Panther” didn’t just smash assumptions about what superheroes are allowed to look like, it has also proved that the best franchise films put the emphasis on the film, rather than the franchise. Following on the heels of Rian Johnson’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” Taika Waititi’s “Thor: Ragnarok,” Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” and James Mangold’s “Logan,” Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” is one more example of Hollywood’s most surprising trend — artisanal blockbusters.
Each of these films, in its own way, bears the unmistakable imprint of its director, whether the exploration of identity and representation in “Black Panther,” the genre sleight-of-hand in “Last Jedi,” the liberating optimism of “Wonder Woman,” the absurdist humor of “Ragnarok” or the intense character drama of “Logan.” And that in itself feels like a win for the industry and audiences alike.
Collectively they feel like a triumph over the long-simmering tension between art and commerce — between personal expression and commercial concerns — that has seen renewed debate in the film industry as artists endeavor to make movies that feel like more than another episode in a series.
The rise of franchise-minder figures such as Marvel’s Kevin Feige and Lucasfilm’s Kathleen Kennedy in roles that are an unusual blend of producer, production chief and showrunner, initially looked to be pointing toward a homogenous sameness from film to film in the name of quality control and brand management.
When director Edgar Wright left Marvel’s “Ant-Man” just before it went into production in 2014, it was interpreted as a blow against allowing for the idiosyncrasies of individual filmmakers within the confines of the current production model. A similar reaction erupted when filmmakers Chris Miller and Phil Lord left the upcoming “Solo: A Star Wars Story” deep into production, citing “creative differences.” And related or not, it was after the disastrous reception to his oddball indie “The Book of Henry” that “Jurassic World” director Colin Trevorrow departed the upcoming “Star Wars Episode IX” project.
One of the most common complaints against current serialized franchises, and installments such as “Avengers: Age of Ultron” or “Justice League,” is that the films do not seem like individual works, but rather episodes in some larger story. The recent films such as “Black Panther” that have gotten around that problem have done so in part because their filmmakers draw outside the lines. There’s a push toward putting a personal imprint on the storytelling rather than conforming to some greater blueprint. The resulting films stand firmly on their own.
One uniting factor among these recent franchise auteurs is that each latched on to the scale of the storytelling the projects afforded them. From more creatively conceived villains to sidestepping the trope of mass destruction as climactic event, this is where a grasp of storytelling beyond mere plot mechanics really comes into play.
The new breed of franchise auteurs are engaging audiences on deeper levels of character and thematic development. All initially emerged with low-budget independent features (many of them made their debut at the Sundance Film Festival). It is likely also noteworthy that these filmmakers all place particular emphasis on collaboration — most work with core colleagues from film to film, opening up their own artistic practice and smashing the dictatorial stereotypes of the director.
Which is another way of saying that the works they create are just good movies, well-made, engaging and entertaining. The screwball snap between Gal Gadot and Chris Pine in “Wonder Woman,” the zesty verve of Cate Blanchett and Tessa Thompson in “Thor: Ragnarok” or the discovery of young Dafne Keen in “Logan” all bring a human scale of emotion to outsized stories.
Late in “The Last Jedi,” one space transport smashes through a much larger vessel in a bold, desperate maneuver to save a small fleet of escaping ships. The exposure of the image dramatically shifts as the impact fills the entire screen and the soundtrack drops out to a suspended silence, creating an unexpectedly serene moment of obliteration, hope, sacrifice and survival. The formal daring of the moment is the exact sort of thing these types of movies typically don’t do, which is exactly what makes Johnson’s choice so exciting, so impactful, so special.
Likewise, early in “Black Panther,” a futuristic ship sweeps across an African plain, taking in a postcard landscape. Then it suddenly swoops within a secret city in the hero’s home nation of Wakanda, flying by skyscrapers with thatched balconies and a cityscape drawn from the iconography of Afrofuturist science fiction. It is a breathtaking moment of immersion and innovation that in many other films would be a throwaway series of expository shots.
Coogler’s arrival sequence is also something of a microcosm for the rest of the film, a surprise world hidden underneath more typical expectations.
There are plenty of projects on the way from the Avengers, Star Wars, X-Men and DC franchises, and many more opportunities for the filmmakers behind these franchises to continue to distinguish themselves. Even the venerable James Bond franchise has found new life with two recent films directed by Sam Mendes and current reports that Danny Boyle is in consideration for the next adventure.
With filmmakers such as Coogler and Johnson — alongside Jenkins, Waititi and other creators of handcrafted blockbusters — blazing a trail, hopefully more filmmakers will find a way to satisfy the needs of the system while also building vehicles for personal expression and achievement of craft at the highest levels. And hopefully they will be granted the same leeway to do it.
While franchise films are simply a reality of contemporary Hollywood, filmmakers have shown that the effort that goes into them does not have to be as simplistic nor as cynical as the old adage “one for them.” Rather, by making movies that smartly and distinctly bridge that eternal art/commerce gap and appeal to inclusive modern audiences, they are working to ensure the franchises are for all of us.
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