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What James Cameron’s Controversial Comments Get Right and Wrong About Marvel Movies and Studio Sci-Fi

The "Avatar" and "Terminator" filmmaker is getting tired of the glut of superhero movies, but does he really know what he’s talking about?

“Avatar”

James Cameron made waves over the weekend when he confessed to hoping for some “Avengers fatigue” at the box office, at least enough for the studios to turn to “other stories” to tell within the genre. Cameron knows his way around the space, but his comments didn’t gel with everyone. Ahead, IndieWire grapples with Cameron’s comments and his take on how the always-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe and its ilk are changing moviemaking today.

ERIC: I know everyone wants to slam James Cameron for hypocrisy, but I’m going to start this off by playing devil’s advocate, even though I’m not the biggest “Avatar” fan. (It’s underwritten and cheesy as hell. Deal with it!) Because here’s the thing: He has a point. The sprawling tales of superheroes can feel a bit redundant after a while, especially when they’re stuffed into a dense feature-length running time. And you have to admit that he’s on to something about the dominance of “hyper-gonadal males,” no matter the bizarre word choice, at least until “Captain Marvel” comes out.

However, the main reason I’m on Team Cameron in this throwdown goes beyond that: This is a major cultural figure speaking out against the capitalist tendency to tell the same stories over and over again. Most of us sound like arcane whiners when we lash out at a sea of Hollywood sameness, but Cameron’s words have a major impact. It’s almost too easy to slam the guy for indulging in franchise filmmaking of his own while criticizing the Marvel universe.

Here’s the thing. Cameron is a big-time blockbuster filmmaker, but for decades, he has molded those blockbusters out of his own ideas. Both “Avatar” and “Terminator” injected fresh sci-fi storytelling into mainstream consciousness with fresh concepts and technology designed to support them. He may be lost in Na’avi land until the end of time, but he built his own playground — and it worked.

“Avengers: Infinity War”

So yes, Cameron’s probably a bit bitter and envious of huge successes that he had nothing to do with, and falls prey to the usual ego tripping that afflicts so many of these obsessive testosterone-fueled Hollywood guys. But he’s also a major artist calling for studios to support new ideas, and that’s an ethos I can get behind. What am I missing?

KATE: Anyone calling for new ideas on the studio level (normally) has my vote, and you’ve got to hand it to Cameron for using his platform to speak out on a cause close to his heart (if not also his wallet), but I think this is just another case of the filmmaker putting his foot in his mouth when asked about big, buzzy movies and ideas. He did it with “Wonder Woman” — over and over and over — and came out looking out of touch and more than a bit bitter. And for what? Cameron is the rare male filmmaker who has consistently crafted films with kickass women at their center, so why trash another strong female character in an action movie just because he could?

But I digress! I’m so much rather hear Cameron championing the cool sci-fi films that studios are making, rather than kicking a behemoth franchise that’s going to be just fine with or without his support (and, yes, point of fact, is hardly just a “sci-fi” series, can someone show Cameron “Thor Ragnarok” or what?). Instead of trying to tussle with Marvel, why not use his voice and time to talk about films like “Annihilation,” “Arrival,” “Valerian,” and “Blade Runner 2049”? The studio system hasn’t totally abandoned original (or at least unique) sci-fi stories, but they are the ones who need the support these days. Get Cameron on a steady diet of films like that, and maybe he’ll change his tune.

“Annihilation”

Paramount Pictures

JAMIE: As Kate pointed out, there are plenty of great, original sci-fi stories being told but beyond this, it’s also incredibly lazy to diminish the impact of Marvel’s films. There’s always been a tendency to look down on comics as an inferior form of storytelling, but the genre has proven time and time again that it can tackle big issues impacting society in meaningful ways. “Transmetropolitan” has become a vital read in age of Trump, “Watchmen” has just as powerful an impact today as it did during the Reagan Era, and “Bitch Planet” is an especially empowering read as we continue to tackle #MeToo and Time’s Up.

Marvel has made it quite clear that Phase Four will continue to be inclusive. Coming on the heels of the enormous success of “Black Panther,” there’s “Captain Marvel,” the first solo female superhero MCU film; a “Black Widow” film is in the work; and there are rumors of an all-female Avengers film swirling. To quantify every Marvel superhero as the same, especially when so many have spoken out about the importance of representation in “Black Panther,” feels especially tone-deaf. Another Marvel movie isn’t more of the same, not when women and people of color can finally feel empowered by inclusive storytelling that puts them front and center for a change.

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