Are Superhero Movies Really Ruining Cinematic Quality?

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DigitalVision/Getty Images

Do you agree with Jodie Foster that superhero movies are ruining viewing habits or the cinematic equivalent of fracking? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Robert Frost, Cinephile and movie blogger, on Quora:

I think that that Daily Mail is further oversimplifying an oversimplified statement that Jodie Foster made and then this question even more oversimplifies it.

Studios making bad content in order to appeal to the masses and shareholders is like fracking — you get the best return right now but you wreck the earth.” - Jodie Foster “It’s ruining the viewing habits of the American population and then ultimately the rest of the world. I don’t want to make $200 million movies about superheroes.” - Jodie Foster “Going to the movies has become like a theme park.” - Jodie Foster

Those are three quotes from the Radio Times interview. Big budget superhero films are mentioned as an example, not as the primary focus. Jodie is commenting on the preoccupation of the theaters and studios with big tentpole films that maximize profits. This is not a new thing. It’s a sentiment that has been voiced since the mid-1970s, after Spielberg and Lucas created the big budget summer popcorn films with Jaws and Star Wars.

The fundamental change that is occurring in movie watching is not due to superhero films - they are largely a reaction to the change. The real change is the improvement of television - both in the material made for television and the televisions themselves.

Up until twenty years ago, the vast majority of television was produced for four national networks, each of which was dependent on advertisers and thus catered to the lowest common denominator - ruining the viewing habits of the American population and then ultimately the rest of the world. While there are lots of great exceptions, television was largely mind numbing pablum designed to sell soap, soda, and cars. For quality and artistic content, people went to the cinema.

But then HBO started making good television. Showtime followed. Then there was an explosion of basic cable networks that were each searching for content that would make them stand out and appear more desirable than the over the air networks. Over the last five years, a new battleground has appeared with streaming sources. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and others have gotten into the game and all of them are producing real quality content.

The result is that there isn’t much incentive to go to the cinema to see a low to moderate budget smart and artistic piece of entertainment. Why pay $10 to go see two hours of entertainment when a mass of very similar material is available for $10 a month?

The audience for the types of cinema films Jodie Foster wants to make has decreased because they are just as happy to watch that content at home. About 80% of televisions sold this year were 40 inch or greater, high definition flatscreens. Those films can look and sound just as good at home as in the theater - and the beer at home is considerably cheaper and if anyone at home lights up the room with a cell phone screen, they can be deservedly shot and explained away to the cops as a home intruder.

To stay in business, the cinemas need content for which the cinema experience can compete with the home theater. This means content that benefits from IMAX screens, 3D projectors, thousands of watts of sound, and seats that react to the action. Superhero films certainly can fit this niche, as can true crap like Transformers and Fast and the Furious.

I think that many of the people that use superhero movies as examples of the fast food movie culture are doing so because they don’t understand comic books. They have a perception that they are mindless entertainment intended for addle brained ten year old boys. Superheroes are simply the stage dressing for a story. A superhero movie can be great. It can be art. Or it can be mindless entertainment - just like any other subject matter. Movies like Logan or Captain America: The Winter Soldier stand up well next to great and similar, but capeless, films like Shane or Three Days of the Condor, respectively.

What does hurt cinema is the mindless CGI-fest stuff that is made to look cool but say little, such as the above mentioned Transformers and Fast and the Furious, and this summer’s Geostorm. They are garbage and if people are fed a sufficient amount of it, they will grow to like eating garbage. Jodie says that “It’s ruining the viewing habits of the American population and then ultimately the rest of the world” but that’s a bit backwards. Much of that garbage is being produced and continues to be produced because of the rest of the world. Movies like Fast and the Furious play well all over the world because they don’t really need translating. They are just as understandable (or senseless) in Beijing, China as they are in Boulder, Colorado. There would not have been eight Fast and the Furious films or six Pirates of the Caribbean films if it was up to only American audiences.

But to return to the main point - we do need more of the types of movies Jodie Foster wants to make - but those films aren’t likely to be coming to the local cineplex. Directors like Jodie will find a home for that content in the home theater, via Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO, and the like. (That’s why she was being interviewed - she recently directed an episode of Black Mirror).

The cinema is now a theme park. It is an overpriced ticket that has one stand in line for brief adrenaline packed entertainment, sitting alongside strangers. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t also a market for smart and beautiful content that can be enjoyed in the privacy of one’s library or den.

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