Genre and Medium and the “Popcorn Movie” and Age of Ultron

So, back when Avengers: Age of Ultron first came out, I read the following review on Wired:

I felt that I wanted to see the movie more than once to really know what I thought of it. Because of the Geek Baby, that second viewing only happened recently. I’ve been mulling over the movie, with posts like this one and like this one.

To sum up reviews of the movie, I think that it was alright but nowhere near as good as the first Avengers. It’s not doing something new and different like the first one did (bringing together how many individual movie franchises), it’s not as excellent a dark trilogy sequel as some of the classics (Empire Strikes Back), and it has Too Much Going On And Being Set Up syndrome (but not as badly as, say, Amazing Spider-Man 2). Do these statements seem fair?

I talked about the first couple of things in my prior posts, so let me just say something here about Too Much Going On And Being Set Up. Some of the most hotly debated scenes from the movie – Thor’s vision quest, the Banner/Natasha “monster” discussion – had extended, deleted scenes. That was really interesting to find on the disc. These scenes that the fans saw as particularly troubling were ones that, apparently, Joss Whedon had trouble with too.

Was it because he was trying to succumb to the all-powerful Marvel plan? Yeah, maybe some. But the two versions of scenes like this show me that Joss did his best to work them into the movie in its final form. Successfully? Eh. Clearly debatable. But the theatrical versions were the ones that he meant for us to see… the scenes of lesser evil?

However, my main purpose here is the review from Wired. It says it was picked up from another site, so it was opinionated enough for syndication. It got me fired up before, but rather than a point-by-point rebuttal or some other Nerd Rage, I want to just address the main point of the article.

The only image from the article - the rest is a giant wall of text, oh and advertising which crashed my browser a couple times...

The only image from the article – the rest is a giant wall of text, oh and advertising which crashed my browser a couple times…

The article opens by talking about the “Popcorn Movie” genre. It’s in the title of the piece, as well. Marvel, “killing” the “popcorn movie.”

As someone who has argued a lot on this blog about genre and especially science fiction (most recently here), defending the importance and validity of “escapist” genres is something I care about. And indeed, in the post I link to, I did a bad job with my words as well.

I was talking about comics, and also especially superhero stories, as a Genre. Comics is a Medium. Superhero stories are a genre – and are not defined by or defining comics. Indeed, this much was spelled out very clearly in the Superhero Entertainments class we started taking. I really got to thinking hard about this the day after my review linked above – when I got to see Kazu Kibuishi.

This distinction is really important here. Let’s say we only accept the Big Genres – things like mystery, romance, science fiction, fantasy, and then “literature” or “fiction” as the catch-all for “not-genre” – as being what Genre means. I suppose those are the literary ones, the ones you would find in a bookstore. But I think those Genre distinctions carried over pretty well into movies, though you might add Horror and Comedy and Action.

Still, it gets hard. What do you call, say, Ghostbusters? Horror Science Fiction Comedy? Yeah, kind of. That’s where sub-Genres are important, and Superhero Stories are a sub-Genre of the Big Genres. They can be hard to place; in general, comic-book superhero stories have their roots in science fiction (again, Superhero Entertainments). Think science-experiment-gone-wrong-now-I-have-superpowers. Also aliens. Futuristic tech.

But then, movie-wise, the Action genre defines most superhero (all superhero?) movies. Although something like Chronicle might be better defined as a Horror movie, and the shaky camera certainly gives it that feel.

And more to the point, the Marvel movies have been increasingly parts of different movie sub-genres, as well as being about superheroes and being actiony. We have the war movie in First Avenger. Spy thriller in Winter Soldier. You have Kenneth Branagh bringing an almost Shakespearean ThorGuardians of the Galaxy as a comedy. Iron Man gets closer to science fiction. Sounds like Doctor Strange is straying towards Horror.

And the first Avengers as the movie that somehow brought together all those sub-genres, characters with those backgrounds, all of that together. Somehow, magically. Did Age of Ultron live up to that? No, but then, maybe it was impossible, as many have said – including the Wired review.

Which we’re back to that. Of the sub-Genres, is “Popcorn Movie” one? And my answer is, “no.”

While assigning Genre may be difficult, it’s not impossible. It’s the sort of thing that Librarians – or retailers – do all the time. Especially when it comes to assigning a main Genre. Can someone have different opinions on this? Sure, I’ve seen The Dark Tower novels move from Fiction to Science Fiction at the bookstore. I wouldn’t be surprised if they end up in Horror sections other places. And I would imagine that anyone trying to assign a Genre to the series would be thinking of those three, and maybe trying to decide whether they need to co-locate with all the other Stephen King books…

But “Popcorn Movie?” I think that this is a more subjective designation. For instance, for some people, their fun viewing experience is bad movies. For others, probably horror. For some, B movies. For others, romantic comedies. Or comedy comedies. Still others, action. Or animated. And for others, the Michael Bay Explosion Fest.

In other words, what the reviewer did by defining the “Popcorn Movie” as a genre was to lump all of those types of movies – and others – into a single Genre. To reduce it down a bit to absurdity, any movie not angling for an Oscar is a “Popcorn Movie.”

How I might define the “Popcorn Movie” is any movie that feels like you need to see it on the big screen. Do these tend to be action movies? Yeah, maybe. Ones where something cool is being done onscreen. There’s a reason why the big block of Best Picture Oscars movies, and the ones up for all the Special Effects awards, tend to be different movies. Some are for the Theater Experience – the “Popcorn Movie” – and others are for the Intellectual or Learning Experience – the “Oscar Contender.”

If someone decided that the only movies that should be made are “Oscar Contenders,” and we stopped making the (entertaining) “Popcorn Movies,” then almost no one would go to see movies in the theater. Or they’d all be Art House Theaters.

But if the “how” on how we experience these movies matters – Theatrically and not just any-old-where – then I submit to you that it is a Medium, and not a Genre.

Comics is a medium, because it is a comic book, defined by pictures, words in bubbles and boxes, and all sorts of things you can read about in Understanding Comics. Superhero stories are a Genre, which have predominated American comics pretty much from their inception. Superhero movies tend towards the Action movie Genre, with other Genres to give them spice.

And “Popcorn Movies” are movies worth seeing in a movie theater. On the big screen. They are a Medium experience.

Okay, so back to the article’s point, even if they meant this: is Marvel killing the “Popcorn Movie?” In other words, are they making it so that we don’t want to see movies on the big screen?

I feel like the answer here is still no. I have seen every Marvel Cinematic Universe movie on the big screen (a little proud of that – almost missed Ant Man), so maybe I’m the wrong person to ask. But their evidence in the review goes towards a second point: for them, the “Popcorn Movie” is mindless fare, something they can escape into and enjoy without having to think.

I’m not particularly sorry that the growing fandom experience that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe is wrecking their ability to enjoy a movie. Will it self-implode? Maybe, but it hasn’t yet and Age of Ultron didn’t kill it. Are other studios copying Marvel? Sure, but they’re still making their own business decisions. Sony seemed gung-ho on their Amazing Spider-Man franchise, but when it wasn’t doing as well as they wanted they shut it down. DC has lined up their Marvel counterpoint, and if it doesn’t do well, you better believe they’re going to start canceling movies.

And as the review concludes, Harry Potter gave us a rash of Young Adult Novel Adaptation movies. Which is kind of a sub-genre, but shaky. At least it’s not subjective… But can’t we really blame Harry Potter for everyone wanting to do multi-movie franchises? Or Lord of the RingsPirates of the Caribbean? Or heck, the X-Men movies? Why blame Marvel now, when it came later?

And for all of those – like the MCU – you needed a functioning knowledge of what came before. That’s what the term “sequel” tends to imply. I’m going to go on a limb and say that J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens is going to assume that audiences have seen six prior movies, spanning four decades. Theater-going fare? I’m thinking the massive pre-sales can confirm that. I think audiences are okay with it. And hey, same Disney overlords…

So is Marvel making it so that we don’t want to see movies in theaters anymore? Nope. Is Marvel making it so that we have lots of sequels and franchises out there? Not just them, but sure, they’re a part of it. As a geek, do I mind that at all? Nope. Am I upset that Geek Culture seems to be pulling ahead?

Not in the slightest.

So to sum up. “Popcorn Movie?” Not a Genre, so Marvel can’t kill it. And as a Medium, the “Popcorn Movie” has more to fear from negative reviews like this – the sort of thing that keeps people from going out to theaters to see a movie.


5 responses to “Genre and Medium and the “Popcorn Movie” and Age of Ultron

  1. I would argue that “The Comic book movie” genre isn’t really a genre either. I call it one too, but technically, it is as much a “genre” as animation is a genre. It is simply a group of movies based on a very specific medium. And when we say that movies like The Avengers are the “most comicbooky” we actually mean that they are the most like the typical American Superhero comic. But a Comic book can be everything. Lucky Luke is based on the Western genre, TinTin is an adventure series, Asterix is a social satire set in the past and even American comic book companies have dabbled in different genres (though they tend to prefer the horror genre for some reason).

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah I guess the best comparison in my post for the “comic book movie” is the “young adult novel adaptation” movie. Where you get everything from The Fault In Our Stars to The Maze Runner.

      We just watched Kingsman on HBO the other day… That’s a comic book movie. But it is also squarely a spy movie, a very genre-aware spy movie.


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