Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: Prior to “Black Panther,” when was the last time that a major studio movie changed the film industry forever?
Siddhant Adlakha (@SidizenKane), Freelance for Village Voice
What’s equal parts incredible and scary about “Black Panther” being the next big game changer — and it will be — is the last time a studio film changed the American film industry in a major way it was Marvel’s own “The Avengers.” The landscape shift in the post-Avengers world was palpable. Disney had struck gold by acquiring Marvel a few years prior (“The Avengers” was the first superhero film distributed by the Mouse House) and in the wake of its financial, critical and cultural success, it became the new Gold Standard for big blockbusters. Suddenly, not only were there large swathes of intense superhero fandom springing up separately from the Avengers’ comic counterparts, there were also folks all over Hollywood looking to get into the ‘shared universe’ game.
Warner Bros. had just run out of “Harry Potter” novels to adapt, so it set its sights on both wizarding prequels and the darker answer to Marvel’s superhero success with DC Entertainment and a fast-tracked “Justice League.” Sony tried (and failed) to launch its own Spider-Man villain continuity and a series of inter-linked “Ghostbusters” films, and they even had plans to cross “Men In Black” over with “21 Jump Street.” Universal recently shuttered its attempt at a Monster-verse, and while their “Fast & Furious” series arguably played the long-narrative game first with “Fast Five”, we’re only just now getting spin-offs and side stories. 20th Century Fox green-lit an X-Men movie that combined its original films with their own prequels, “Days of Future Past,” in attempt to rival Marvel’s ensemble superhero pieces — they’re still catching up to them on that front despite having begun eight years prior — and lord knows if Paramount’s Skynet film/television universe stemming from “Terminator: Genisys” would’ve been successful. Then again, as much as one might say “The Avengers” changed the way films are made, it seems to have had just as much impact why so many aren’t, as studios attempt to lay track immediately in front of trains.
Marvel Studios became the template for cinematic storytelling in the age of New Media to the point that Disney even modeled its Star Wars plans on its Avengers success: keep the brand in the news cycle and public consciousness year round, and follow the comicbook fandom template of rewarding fealty with references across films. But as all other studios try and get in on the action, Marvel itself has shot ahead both by branching out into television — its ABC shows and Netflix series are run by divisions outside Marvel Studios, but to the general public, the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” spans three different platforms of visual media — and by branching out into new kinds of blockbusters with the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films and this year’s “Black Panther,” which shifts the question of who gets to tell what kind of stories in a concrete direction.
And while it’s intimidating to think one corporation now has such a large hold over popular culture (the impending 21st Century Fox takeover won’t help matters), Marvel’s “The Avengers” put long-form studio storytelling on the map in ways “Harry Potter” never could, since it had a definite end point at the time. There’s a chance we could be following a single continuity of films several times a year for the next few decades, and while other studios figure out how to match up, we’ll still be tracing things back to the global party that was “The Avengers.”
Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker
“Change” is a value-neutral term; there are changes for the better (such as the ones that “Black Panther” is likely to inspire) and ones for the worse (such as the ones resulting from “Jaws” and “Star Wars”). The major changes in the art of movies have come, in recent years, from outside the studios; the change that, I think, made “Black Panther” possible (in terms of industry priorities) is “The Dark Knight,” a mediocre movie that nonetheless proved the commercial prospects and cultural influence of a big-budget superhero movie made by an acknowledged auteur, a filmmaker of recognizable style and thematic consistency. Ryan Coogler is a vastly superior filmmaker; yet even the notion of conferring “Creed” to him may have issued from the success of “The Dark Knight.”
Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail/Film Festival Today
I certainly hope that “Black Panther” changes the film industry forever, but we won’t know for a while, and as Prince once sang, forever, “that’s a mighty long time.” I’d like to believe that 2017’s “Wonder Woman” also changed things, but, again, we just don’t know. So, to answer the question, I looked through the top box-office earners of each year, according to Box Office Mojo, starting with 2017 and heading backwards until I saw a film that, I thought, had produced a measurable impact on the industry. That was 2009’s “Avatar,” which, whether one likes the movie or not (and I have very mixed feelings), most definitely showed the studios that 3D could be a big thing and, well, we all know how much we are still suffering … I mean, benefitting from … that realization. Now, if I could only find those damn glasses …
Stephen Whitty (@StephenWhitty), Freelance
“Heaven’s Gate” changed things in 1980, and not for the better, giving the media an easy hook for snarky stories about self-involved “movie brats,” and studios the excuse they wanted to crack down on rebellious young auteurs. It didn’t matter that another would-be blockbuster that year, the stultifying “Raise the Titanic,” lost nearly as much money; it didn’t matter that Michael Cimino was merely the latest in a long line of ’70s wunderkinds whose ambitions had lately exceeded their grasp. (And really, aren’t ambitions supposed to?). And it certainly didn’t matter that the movie, whatever its flaws, was full of gorgeous sequences and a few great performances. This is the film that bore the brunt of the backlash. And really began the end of an era when studios readily ceded an enormous amount of authority to artists, trusting them to deliver something worthwhile and unique.
David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire
So many different movies change the industry (and the world) in so many different ways. And so many of the movies that change the industry (and the world) do so by standing on the shoulders of the movies that came before them — while each of these phenomenons operated on a different scale, and broke through in different ways, a case could be made that “Moonlight,” “Get Out,” and “Black Panther” are all stretched out across the same continuum. But I want to highlight “Get Out,” because it marked a paradigm shift on several different planes. Not only was it just a fearlessly damning post-Obama indictment of America’s racial discord, and an extraordinary lifeline to black audiences, and a massive financial success on a very moderate budget, and a film that has a very real chance of winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards next week, but it’s all of those things at once. To see one film clear so many previously unthinkable hurdles is so powerful because all of its accomplishments reinforce each other, reminding Hollywood just how much is possible when they actually create the art the world is asking for.
Tasha Robinson (@TashaRobinson), The Verge
I call bullshit on this entire question. Entertainment journalists abuse the word “forever” because saying something “changed the world forever” sounds really dramatic, and in an environment where everything has to be epic, unbelievable, and the best/worst thing of all time just to get noticed, we apparently need the drama. But nothing is forever. Especially not in a field as mutable and vibrant as art, where one set of aesthetic fads or technological developments often eclipses and erases the previous one. There have been plenty of milestones, from the first color film to the first synchronous sound film to the way Netflix just changed the industry about five minutes ago with its no-marketing surprise release of “The Cloverfield Paradox.” But even major studios are still making black-and-white films for the aesthetic value, and if tomorrow’s VR sensorama experiences work better without synchronous sound because it interferes with some new nerve-induction technology, even that could change. There’s no “forever” in the film industry, and it’s better for it. Here’s to constant change!