I managed to sneak away from my desk — okay, I was dragged away — and see The Avengers the other day. In deference to all those who have not yet seen it, I won't discuss it in spoileriffic detail. Rather, I'll discuss a few things that the mere fact of the movie brought to mind.
The first is something that was brought up by, of all people, Ross Douthat of the New York Times (the last person I would have ever expected to weigh in on this issue). He noted that the success of something like The Avengers means it is now that much harder for anything not a "property" to get made in Hollywood. I agree, up to a point: it's not possible to spend $150-200 million on something that isn't a proven property, because Hollywood executives were not born yesterday and are not about to blow that much money on something that comes entirely out of the blue. (Cf.: John Carter.)
I've argued in the past that for every one of these movies that gets made, there are tons of others that don't. Not just because of the money that gets spent here instead of elsewhere, but because of the promotional efforts, the bookings in theaters, the amount of legwork done by the studio (there is only a finite amount of all that bandwidth, after all) to make people aware of something. Yes, it is possible to make a movie on $100,000 that looks far better than one made a decade ago, but it won't mean anything if no one sees it — and as with the book industry, it's Hollywood that has the distribution and promotional muscle to get something seen. And they are reserving that muscle more and more for things they know are sure bets: comic books, flashes in the pan, adaptations and remakes.
The second is how this feeds back into Hollywood no longer sponsoring "films for adults". The kinds of audiences that used to exist for such things simply don't exist in the kinds of numbers that justify drawing their attention — in big part because no one is acting as if they are worth marketing to in the first place. The shuttering of many boutique sublabels at the studios (e.g., Fox Searchlight) is further proof of this. The adults who want to see something other than stuff blow up are left to their own devices, and to each other, to find the movies that matter to them — via NetFlix or Amazon's recommendations systems, in much the same way enthusiastic readers do via Amazon or GoodReads (or, if they're damn lucky, their still-open local bookstore). They have to hunt and peck, and so much of what is good to them is in the crevices and corners: Margin Call, You Don't Know Jack, etc. Not costly movies at all, but in their eyes not worth throwing a promotional budget at, and it's not like you can make Burger King glasses for a (tremendously smart, perceptive, well-played) movie about Jack Kevorkian. No, not even when he's played by Al Pacino.
When the current wave of Marvel films started hitting theaters, I was pleased, but at the same time apprehensive. I was glad that we were getting good, smartly-made comic-book adaptations. But I was also uneasy at how those things were coming at a cost that almost no one could pick up on: the shoving-aside of a great many other films that would either never get the attention they deserved or would simply never get made.
Again, it's not that I don't want to see Cap, Thor and Tony Stark all throwin' it down. It's that I don't want that to be all I ever get to see. And I'm sure even Joss Whedon doesn't think he's really part of the problem.