At the Picture Show: Extended Cut
by Chris Bellamy
* Author's note: This essay contains spoilers for Man of Steel, Se7en, 2012 and White House
Down. Proceed at your own peril.
"Food and sex - those are my two passions. It's only natural to combine them." - George
That might as well be the official mantra in Hollywood these days. It should be emblazoned atop
the front doorway of every studio in town, with each executive and decision-maker touching it
ceremonially each morning, like Notre Dame football players tapping the "Play Like a
Champion Today" sign on their way out onto the gridiron.
If nothing else, it's their modus operandi already. The pop-culture ascendancy of standalone
superhero movies - as new as it still is - has already given way to a culture of conglomeration,
where one superhero simply isn't enough. Building entire universes out of multiple properties is
the new standard. If that wasn't clear enough already after the record-setting success of The
Avengers - sorry, my mistake, that's Marvel's The Avengers - it certainly is now in the wake of
Warner Bros.' Comic-Con announcement of a pending Batman/Superman mash-up, set for
release in 2015 and inevitably leading up to an eventual Justice League film.
It's only natural to combine them, right?
And so just like that, the Man of Steel sequel has doubled in size, and the pissing contest begins
in earnest. As mid-budget studio films continue to disappear, the blockbusters get bigger and
bigger - and they make them bigger and bigger simply for the sake of doing so. Though I, for
one, have never watched a superhero movie and thought, "You know what this needs? More
superheroes!" - one is apparently no longer enough to qualify as a franchise. For what reason
beyond the obvious, I have no idea. Bigness is apparently its own reward. Enhance, enhance,
enhance. Where it ends is an open-ended question.
For most of us, Patton Oswalt's epic, franchise-melding citizen filibuster from Parks &
Recreation was a great, absurdist joke. To Hollywood, it's a business model. You know there's
some Disney studio executive out there, spending his days on YouTube instead of developing
ideas, who came across the Oswalt clip and thought to himself, "You know what? That's not
such a bad idea."
In fact, the only problem the studio might have is that Oswalt's proposal isn't ambitious enough
in its franchise unification. Where are our DC heroes in that scenario? And surely, in light of
Leonard Nimoy's recent comments about playing Spock in Star Wars VII, there's room for Star
Trek as well. Disney can afford it, right? And I can imagine there's probably some guy in the
studio clamoring to add Jurassic Park into the mix. "Kids love dinosaurs! Can we please get
some dinosaurs into this thing? Who DOESN'T want to see a Jedi T-Rex? Ooh, now that I think
of it, what about King Kong?"
Look, I'm hardly the first to lament the bigger-is-better mentality, in this or any other business.
And I'm not even necessarily critical of any individual attempt to do something unique with
franchises; I said years ago that I was impressed with the ambition of what Marvel was
attempting, uniting various properties inside one cinematic universe (with varying success, of
course - the standalone Hulk and Thor entries were lousy). Ushering in a new standard in that
image, however, is quite another matter.
What I object to is not, in itself, the proliferation of the franchise-first model, but a movie culture
that has one solution and one solution only - make it bigger. A culture of more, as if more has its
own intrinsic value. A culture that can only think in terms of additions and enhancements.
At a panel last month, Steven Spielberg brought up the idea of studios charging more for movies
depending on their budget. Morningstar analyst Michael Corty piped in to say such a plan made
"economic sense" - a baffling conclusion, given that the amount of money a studio spends on a
movie is entirely up to its own discretion; we as an audience have little say in the matter. And the
fact is we would pay to see a Batman movie whether it cost $100 million or $300 million. Paying
more for a movie ticket simply because a studio chose to spend more on it - with no promise nor
even a reasonable expectation of that extra cost resulting in a better product - is a fool's bargain.
But that's where Hollywood's logic is headed.
In terms of superheroes, I realize the trend toward merging characters and franchises has its
literary roots dating back decades. So perhaps it's only natural, even appropriate, that cinematic
adaptations take their lead. On the other hand, the multi-superhero graphic novels I've read have
all done a much better job creating a stylized world fit for superheroes than any of the movies in
the Marvel Universe, including (perhaps especially) The Avengers (which worked not because of
its borderline nonexistent world-building, but because of its sardonic and playful approach to its
very premise). I have no idea what the genesis was for any of those comics I read, but for
whatever reason, the writers and artists generally made the stories feel like they made their own
kind of sense - and that, say, Batman and Superman could co-exist in one universe. With
movies, it's virtually impossible to be unaware that we're seeing a bunch of disparate
commercial properties cynically thrown together for some presumed maximum impact.
Take something like the first Iron Man, whose backdrop of a plausible, down-to-earth reality
was essential to the hero's greatness; the addition of Norse gods and genetically modified
superhumans to that world can't help but feel anachronistic.
Consider how absurd it would seem if the same thing were attempted in other media. If book
publishers were clamoring to stick Harry Potter and Bella Swan into their own spinoff series. Or
Katniss Everdeen with Winston Smith. Or how about John Yossarian banding together with
Ignatius J. Reilly and Billy Pilgrim?
But in the movies, it's the new normal. Not long after WB's Batman/Superman announcement, a
release date was revealed for a third sequel to The Amazing Spider-Man, with director Marc
Webb teasing that the fourth film would extend beyond just Spider-Man (with many speculating
about a Sinister Six storyline). And there have been countless rumors about various other
characters being integrated into the continually expanding Marvel movie-verse.
But if this is the way it's going, why stop at just superheroes, right? Why not apply the same
logic to every other genre? After all, horror movies already got the jump on it a decade ago with
Alien vs. Predator and Freddy vs. Jason. Consider Henry Hill and Tommy DeVito going to war
with the Corleone family. Or McNulty and Bunk moving to Jersey to investigate Tony Soprano.
You want a mystery? You got it - and we'll give you Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe and Sherlock
Holmes, all teaming up for one mega-detective agency. If things got too hairy, they could call in
their arch-rivals, professorial partners Indiana Jones and Robert Langdon, for assistance.
You think Jason Bourne is the modern-day James Bond? Well how about if we just team the two
of them up? In fact, let's throw in Ethan Hunt and the IMF team just for good measure.
Or if you've got bloodier taste, perhaps you'll enjoy the wild tales of Hannibal Lecter and John
Doe* as they join forces for a cross-country serial-killing spree - with none other than Dexter
Morgan hot on their trail. (* Naturally, given John Doe's fate, this would have to be a prequel to
Se7en. We've gotta keep this canonical, don't we?)
Why not the Smurfs and the Chipmunks? Why can't Frodo and Gollum travel through a
wardrobe into Narnia? Who would win in a fight between The Terminator and Neo? John
McClane and Rambo?
What if Harold and Kumar went to Las Vegas, ran into the guys from The Hangover, and then
got recruited to join Danny Ocean's crew? And if that doesn't float your boat, does The Best
Exotic Marigold Avengers sound enticing?
Better yet, let's do 'em all; let's take Oswalt's ideas to their ultimate, logical conclusion - the
complete fusion of every franchise in the business, each successive summer blockbuster playing
out like episodes in a neverending serial drama.
Is that big enough?
The obsession with bigness extends beyond the macro level (franchising and big business), into
the micro, affecting the specific details of each individual film. As budgets have ballooned, it
almost seems like movies have had to scramble to come up with reasons to use all that money.
The crutch, which we've seen leaned upon over and over, is the fetishization of mass destruction.
It's practically a prerequisite that a summer action spectacle conclude with a massive setpiece in
which one city or another - or state, or planet - gets destroyed. The problem is not so much the
narrative decision to climax in the midst of a sea of destruction, but the fact that films are often
so ill-equipped to handle (or understand, or sometimes even acknowledge) the implications of
the mayhem they're so gleefully doling out. Because modern CGI makes it so easy to
convincingly blow up buildings and set cities aflame, it becomes something of a natural instinct
for a film to use its resources doing exactly that. Gotta show off all that money somehow.
But in doing so, filmmakers often wind up displaying a flippant disregard for the ethics and
politics inherent to that destruction. As many others have noted (more eloquently than myself)
this summer, Zack Snyder's Man of Steel is a prime example. The film's concluding hour is one
long highlight reel of bloodless death and annihilation. Metropolis burns to the ground. Which
would make for quite a dramatic turn of events - if only Snyder, writer David Goyer or
Superman himself showed a single hint of concern for Metropolis or its inhabitants. Superman is
as responsible for the damage and the destruction as anyone else - a fact that seems lost on both
him and the filmmakers. Hundreds of thousands - perhaps millions - of people are anonymously
dying, apparently without the Man of Steel giving much of a crap. (The film certainly didn't give
enough of a crap to allow us to get to know Metropolis, or any of its citizens, before tearing it to
shreds for eye-candy purposes. Michael Bay, who was once rumored to be attached to a
Superman movie of his own, couldn't be prouder.)
And as if to raise the ante on his own cold cynicism, Snyder caps the film with a cheaply staged
sequence in which General Zod attempts to murder a random family - nameless and faceless,
just like the rest of Man of Steel's version of Metropolis - with his laser vision, forcing
Superman to snap his neck in an emotionally wrenching decision. A powerful moment in theory,
undone by cheap crassness with which the scene is set up. What, after spending the last hour
watching (and helping) the city descend into rubble without regard for the lives he's helped end,
suddenly Superman (not to mention the audience) is meant to care deeply about this random
Other films, rather than simply ignoring the meaning of their carnage, obscure it in ways that
seem deliberately obtuse. For this we look no further than the king of meaningless destruction
himself, Roland Emmerich. In each of his last two disaster films, 2012 and this year's White
House Down, he's concluded with an unambiguous moral quandary which he has either
tragically misunderstood or intentionally perverted. Both involve decisions between the end of
human civilization as we know it, or a comparably minor loss of life. In both cases, Emmerich
votes for the likelihood of the world ending as his more palatable option, idiotically betting on
cheaply devised emotional biases - without regard for rationale. In 2012, with survivors of the
ongoing apocalypse crammed into a survival ark, our "hero" passionately argues in favor of
letting in a group of people stranded outside the ark - even though doing so will put everyone
else (and, if I remember correctly, all of humanity) at severe risk. But the way Emmerich tells it,
our hero's choice - let the outsiders in, at the probable expense of every single other person - is
the right one, while the "villain" is a heartless coward, even though his reasoning is absolutely
In White House Down, he pulls pretty much the same trick. The choice comes down to this: blow
up the White House, and the 60 or so people remaining inside, or bring about the start of World
War III with a full-blown global nuclear attack. Guess which side Emmerich comes down on?
That's right - he's for saving the 60, rather than the 6 billion.
Needless to say, in both cases, everything comes up roses - disaster averted! - but that's beside
the point. Or, strike that, it is entirely the point - it underlines exactly how meaningless all that
destruction (or the prospect of destruction) was in the first place. Raise the stakes as high as
possible, or destroy as much as possible, frame it around a false moral dilemma, and then
disregard every ethical concern a discerning moviegoer might have.
Going for the dramatic jugular - the end of the world, the annihilation of a city - is fine. But if
you're not willing or not capable of dealing with it, you have not earned our interest - or even,
despite what a mighty spectacle you might show us, our awe. Too often, that's where the modern
blockbuster lands. Too often destruction happens for no reason. It happens because why the hell
not. It's cheap set dressing.
But it's probably an unavoidable eventuality. When the industry is designed around the idea of
getting bigger and bigger, as quickly as possible, perhaps it's only natural that the actual
motivation behind that bigness would fall by the wayside. It's about size and spectacle for their
own sake; the result is a lot of small ways to think big.