Movies have a Marvel problem, and it’s not the subject matter or source material that’s to blame. Marvel’s most recent Spider-Man film, No Way Home, is notably filmed almost entirely using a greenscreen. Even the most basic of settings (a living room, a New York street corner, a run-of-the-mill diner) is digitally inserted as background for whatever section of the plot is set to be enacted. This result is sterile, dull, and lifeless. The actors are unable to interact with their environment in any tangible way; they are performing while perpetually floating in space. It’s disconnected. This is not some grand artistic decision on Disney’s part. VFX artists don’t have a union, unlike film crews and set production people. They are often overworked, paid little, and take on twice the workload. All because the corporation that owns 40% of all media in the United States wants to save some money. The criticism shouldn’t fall on the VFX artists themselves; this is systematic. The problem is that they are a relatively new workforce being taken advantage of by an industry that has adapted over a century of box office highs and lows. The need for excessive smash-hits and refusal to invest in the people that actually craft them with any semblance of vision has manifested in a perfect storm of soulless greed. Instead of being treated as a separate entity from art, “content” has glommed onto and slowly but surely absorbed “art” vis-a-vis popular culture. Content is meant to be digested in a never-ending cycle. Slurped down via whatever latest streaming service has been announced. It’s ultimately the result of passivity and circumstance. This all creates a mindset of incuriosity in the modern movie-goer. The system fosters that mindset and nourishes it by cutting off circulation to anything else.
In 2022, alongside the usual turnout of superhero films and box office guarantees, three visionary action vehicles manifested. Michael Bay, S.S. Rajamouli, and Joseph Kosinski are all action directors with vital, distinct visions that stand out among the inhospitable landscape of new superhero franchise action releases. Bay’s Ambulance revels in real-world stunts and one-takes so daring you can’t help but find yourself on the edge of your seat. RRR, Rajamouli’s phenomenon of fantasy action, utilizes jaw-dropping CGI. Kosinski manages to find a sweet spot squarely between nostalgia and adrenaline with the sequel to the original Tony Scott movie, Top Gun: Maverick. All of the films present a path away from Marvel’s stronghold on the dwindling theater experience; its own genre is showing itself a way forward.
“You’re a bad cameraman, dude. You gotta get in the action. Bad cameraman!” Michael Bay teased a man recording him on his own phone. Bay handed it over to film himself trying (and failing) to make a goal while visiting an empty soccer stadium in Spain on a press tour for Ambulance. That statement, while ordinary, is an apt exemplification of “Bayhem,” a buzzword combining “Bay” and “mayhem” meant to streamline the conceptualization of Bay’s style. The premise of Ambulance is simple enough—In a bank heist gone wrong, the robbers commandeer an ambulance that was called to the scene of the crime to assist an injured officer and use it for the get-away of the decade. In a film where a police SUV quite literally crashes into a camera, Michael Bay is very much “getting in the action.” He plants himself and his camera at the center of it, letting it wrap around him like crinkled steel around a concrete divider. Being in the heart of non-stop movement creates a feeling of unease, disorientation. The more attuned to the chaos on screen, the more the viewer feels as if they’re the ones with their life on the line. Utilizing heart-stopping drone work, audiences are literally plunged and swept into the havoc, dragged behind the destruction left in the wake of the red and white vehicle that has been turned into a battering ram against the barrage of cops on its tail.
India’s most successful contribution to big and bold action in 2022 takes the form of RRR, which earned $175 million worldwide, becoming the third highest-grossing Indian film ever released. RRR (Rise, Roar, Revolt) is a mythical retelling of two real-life revolutionaries, Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan) and Komaram Bheem (N. T. Rama Rao Jr.), who fought against the British Raj and the fictional friendship that develops between them. Instead of every set and action being suffocated by CGI, RRR is heightened by its computer imagery. The awe-inspiring feats portrayed on screen, from hurling a jungle cat at an enemy to an almost superhuman dance-off, leave the viewer in a state of sensory ecstasy. In the melding of technology and man-made vision, it is a film that relies so heavily on precision in its execution and choreography that one can’t help but marvel that it was made at all, much less with such flair.
Although RRR took the world by storm, Ambulance faltered at the box office. Michael Bay’s name was once synonymous with smash-hits, guaranteed money back in the pockets of investors. But these days, the only guarantee seems to lie in Disney’s monopoly. Just when hope was wavering, Top Gun: Maverick arrived on the scene. In this sequel to Tony Scott’s 80’s hit, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell returns to the Navy flight school known as Top Gun 30 years later to train an elite group of graduates to survive a mission that seems beyond human achievement. Cheekily referencing itself using much of the same soundtrack, revisiting the same dynamics, but powering through its legacy and namesake with dynamic filmmaking. It positions the viewer within the action. Bay’s Ambulance packs you inside the titular ambulance with its fiery trio, Maverick crams you into the cockpit with Tom and company. You feel every turn and jerk of the jet, the pressure on your chest, the sun in your eyes.
What these three movies offer is an opportunity for growth in an industry that seems stuck on a hamster wheel of visionless money-grabbing. The box office domination of the new Avatar proves audiences will flock to see original works of art that aim big. The Marvel machine can only be sustained for so long. Eventually, maybe sooner than later, audiences will grow tired of the same characters being woven into the same stories. The expansion of the Marvel universe will reach a point where there is nothing left to expand on, no more “intellectual property” to tap. Now, for the first time in years, there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel. If we, as an audience, can put our trust in artists, especially those willing to take artistic risks on a large scale, we can slowly but surely advance away from the monotony.
This isn’t to say that being a fan of intellectual property is not valid, but rather that art should rest in the hands of artists and creatives, not fans. Diversity in perspectives and creation has been the driving force behind every art movement throughout history. Those that were tired of the status quo stepped forward and created opportunities for other voices to be heard. It is not snobby or elitist to want better for an art form, for its audience, for it to live up to a capability you know is possible. The potential modern movies hold is beyond comprehension. Technological advances in moving pictures are reaching heights that were once unthinkable, much less achievable. But the heart of film will forever rest in human achievement. A vision will always need a visionary.