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Watching blockbusters in an age of calamity

Our biggest movies keep saving the world, but they never argue that the world is worth saving.

villains Javier Zarracina/Vox
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

John Lark, one of the main villains of Mission: Impossible — Fallout, has a manifesto, which the movie’s other characters seem to have largely boiled down to one quote: “There cannot be peace without first, a great suffering. The greater the suffering, the greater the peace.”

When Lark is asked to explain himself, he somewhat sensibly points out that the global system is broken, corrupt. It must be torn down to make way for a better one — and if tearing it down requires a little mass destruction and death, well, so be it.

The plan that he and the movie’s other baddies ultimately embark upon involves detonating two nuclear bombs and irradiating the water supply that keeps much of India, China, and Pakistan — and thus billions of people — hydrated. But, as the saying goes, you can’t overthrow the global system without irradiating a few water supplies.

Fallout director and writer Christopher McQuarrie recently explained (in this two-part, nearly six-hour-long podcast discussion with Empire magazine) that he purposely inserted moments like Lark’s defense of his worldview to make viewers consider empathizing with what Lark is trying to do. The idea is that, if you find yourself saying, “Hey, the world really is broken and corrupt,” then you can sort of follow the rest of Lark’s tortured thinking.

McQuarrie’s attempt to understand the point-of-view of every character in his movie, bad guy or otherwise, is commendable — a good approach for any screenwriter or director, even when the stakes are as ludicrously high as they are in Fallout. But watching the movie — one of my favorite action movies in years, I should mention — made me realize something.

If you find yourself inclined to agree with Lark that the world is pretty messed up (and I would guess that’s quite a few of us), but you don’t find yourself supporting his plan to ruin the drinking water for much of the world’s population (which I would guess is also quite a few of us), then Fallout effectively undercuts what its heroes are trying to do. Yes, of course it’s a good idea to stop the nukes from going off. But what are they fighting to preserve? The status quo?

So goes the American blockbuster in the 2010s, where the villains might make a certain degree of sense, but their plans are so ridiculously evil that they must be stopped anyway — and where the world the heroes are fighting for isn’t a better one or even a different one. It’s just the world we already live in, where everything’s falling apart all of the time. These movies don’t have political points-of-view — or, really, any points-of-view — beyond, “I guess things are going okay, right?” And that can make them feel like fun distractions, but the opposite of resonant.

In trying to pitch the least controversial political messages possible — in general, we shouldn’t let supervillains kill lots of people — blockbusters don’t just lose sight of their stakes. They also, inadvertently, become arguments in favor of the broken world that John Lark battles against.

Blockbusters don’t need to make radical arguments to still have a political point-of-view

Mad Max: Fury Road
Mad Max: Fury Road doesn’t have a terribly deep political message, but it does have one.
Warner Bros.

You may already be bristling at the idea of a big, dumb action movie engaging with politics at all. The idea of a “political” blockbuster might conjure images of Iron Man delivering Aaron Sorkin-esque speeches about the power of the filibuster, or the dinosaurs escaping from Jurassic Park to present a position paper on the ravages of income inequality. But I’m not envisioning anything that didactic. Instead, I’m asking these movies to think about the world they’re fighting for.

The simple truth is that all art is political, in the sense that all art argues either for or against something, or occasionally both. It might not do so out in the open. It might not even know it’s doing so. But all art is advancing a case for something.

Consider the best action movie of the decade, 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, which combines top-notch set pieces and brilliant filmmaking with what amounts to a genuine political and even feminist message. It isn’t a particularly deep message, as it largely amounts to, “Women should be allowed to chart their own destinies and not be kept as men’s slaves.” But even a thin political message supercharges the movie’s underlying dynamics.

The key is that Mad Max’s heroes are fighting for something — a colony that treats the women of this post-apocalyptic landscape more equitably — as opposed to just battling the villains. They want something beyond self-preservation, and that makes all the difference. You can try to map their objective onto the real world, if you want, or you can just enjoy the sociopolitical dynamics of the film itself. That it can sustain both readings is what makes it a great movie.

The same goes for something like Star Wars, whose evil Empire is just faceless enough to elicit all sorts of comparisons, to everything from the Nazis to the modern American military-industrial complex. It’s another film where the storytelling and filmmaking deliberately give you a sense of what our heroes are fighting for.

But the political rubric of an action movie doesn’t need to involve world-spanning issues of massive consequence. The first two legs of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, for instance, keep their political stakes deliberately small. Instead, they examine the role of vigilante justice in the modern world, mull how the rich can best benefit society, and suggest that chaos tends to only breed more chaos. They’re the political reimagined as the personal to such a degree that the equation loops right back around again.

Now compare Mad Max or Star Wars or The Dark Knight to something like your average movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (with a couple of notable exceptions). Sure, Iron Man’s a lot of fun, but the deeper into the franchise the character gets, the more he seems to be fighting for “Whatever feels right at the moment.” Worse, whenever other Marvel movies bump up against the ways that Iron Man’s various conflicts and concerns might manifest in the MCU, the movies usually blink.

For instance, Vulture — the villain in 2017’s Spider-man: Homecoming — really does have a point about how Iron Man and his pals are hoarding all of the best superhero stuff, but when it comes time for the movie to reveal its moral calculus, it mostly shrugs and says, “Iron Man’s still the good guy, right?” There’s nothing wrong with this, but it does weaken the movie a bit when it can’t question its own status quo. The world Iron Man operates within is an unjust one, but there’s no indication he even realizes that’s the case.

Even the most forthrightly political movie Marvel has ever made, 2018’s Black Panther, ultimately shies away from a bunch of its biggest questions. Its entire second act wrestles with knotty questions of what rich and powerful nations owe to poorer ones, then it filters those ideas yet again through questions of race, as the titular hero tries to figure out how his powerful African nation of Wakanda can best help black people the world over. Black Panther’s villain, the mesmerizing and memorable Erik Killmonger, argues that Wakanda — and by symbolic implication, the United States — has reneged on its core promises, has made the world a worse place by not sharing its power and wealth.

But the third act shoves all of these ideas back into the box to stage a battle between the Black Panther and Killmonger. The movie is still a triumph, but it loses some of its oomph once it shies away from actually answering some of the tough questions it raises and you realize its central argument is, essentially, “We’d better keep doing the hereditary monarchy thing, since that’s how it’s always been, huh?”

The more that blockbusters have to appeal to everybody everywhere, the more formless their core arguments become

Avengers: Infinity War
Marvel Studios

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with most blockbusters ending up with a political message as toothless as, “It’s good that the world continues to exist.” But it’s also frustrating to watch a movie like Avengers: Infinity War, which comes so close to going beyond the typical aim of “let’s save the world,” then falls short of really engaging with any of the ideas it raises.

Rather than give villain Thanos, who wants to wipe out half the life in the universe, any sort of social or political context, the movie reduces him to a simple actor. He wants to destroy the universe because he wants to destroy the universe. Insofar as the character exists, he exists to be punched. The only thing that’s radical about him is that he succeeds in his ultimate mission, though it seems clear he will only succeed for so long. (Avengers 4 is coming, after all.)

My guess is that much of this shapelessness is less the result of studio anxiety or even a desire by filmmakers to avoid potentially alienating politics, and more a byproduct of the twin impulses of art and commerce. First, there’s the art, where every blockbuster longs to be bigger and better than the ones that came before it — so the stakes have to keep rising and rising and rising. And it’s difficult to really think hard about the world a hero is fighting to preserve when said world will be wiped from the universe if the hero fails.

Then there’s the commerce, where most blockbusters are now built to travel the entire world, to make money in all corners of the globe. American filmmakers may not want to suggest too strongly that their heroes fight for, say, truth, justice, and the American way when “the American way” increasingly means troubling, ambiguous things even to American citizens, to say nothing of the many countries that have played host to our military adventures.

As a case in point, look at the latest batch of Star Wars films, which have performed terrifically in the US and Canada, but have struggled slightly overseas. Baked into the DNA of Star Wars is a bone-deep political conflict. Yes, that conflict is between two completely surface-level political philosophies of a more open society and a more rigid one, but it’s there, and it’s impossible to escape.

And what’s been fascinating about the latest trilogy of Star Wars films is how they’re intent on digging into the world’s inability to escape its own demons. The new villains are a retread of the original trilogy’s villains, led by a manchild who’s driven by privilege and a toxic anger over how nobody takes him seriously enough. It’s a theme that felt a little lackluster in 2015’s The Force Awakens, but by the time 2017’s The Last Jedi came out, it felt (in the US at least) a little like prophecy.

What’s more, The Last Jedi also features an entire subplot about the necessity of rebellion and about the massive corporate and commercial forces that work to prop up the status quo, no matter how oppressive it is to average citizens, because that’s how the money gets made. It tells a story about how important it is to guard against backsliding into fascism, about how difficult it is to stay watchful when so much of the world is designed to make you sink into simple comforts. (Naturally, this subplot was the one the franchise’s fans most hated.)

A desire to talk about this moment in American history without talking about America directly has led to the rather strange existence of heroes like Mission: Impossible’s Ethan Hunt and the Marvel gang, most of whom are now rough stand-ins for America itself. They possess immense power and uphold a system that, even at its best, doesn’t work equally for everybody who exists within that system.

But they also insist that they’re keeping the forces of darkness at bay, an argument the forces of darkness are only too happy to support by, say, threatening to irradiate the water supply of billions of people. It’s a “You might not like us, but we’re better than the other guy” theory of American foreign policy.

It’s possible that Fallout is cannier than I’m giving it credit for. McQuarrie never bothers to argue that anything Ethan Hunt accomplishes will change the underlying structure that John Lark proclaims so unjust. The world will continue to be a horrible place for many people, and injustice will continue to run rampant. But the world will also continue to be.

There’s no way it can improve if Ethan can’t preserve its existence in the first place. He fights to maintain the status quo because it’s what we’ve got, and he’ll let somebody else figure out how to improve that status quo. (Perhaps in the sequel, Ethan can attempt to do his part by getting involved in a petition drive or something.)

But the more I watch the blockbusters of the 2010s, the less I can shake the notion that the message is supposed to be: “Trust those of us with the biggest guns. We only have them because we know what’s best.”

There’s a throwaway line in Fallout where CIA director Erika Sloane crows that she has a waterboard waiting for a big-name terrorist that Ethan and company have captured, all the better for him to give up what he knows. And, yes, it’s a throwaway line, and yes, it’s meant on some level to contrast Erika with Ethan, to show how his methods are, ultimately, more humane than those of some faceless government entity. But, all the same, what the fuck?

I don’t need the American blockbuster to suddenly tilt toward radicalism, or even to develop a robust political conscience at all. Instead, I ask it to consider what it’s fighting for, rather than just what it’s trying to stop. What does the world look like not in the seconds after Ethan Hunt or Iron Man saves it, but in the hours and days and weeks after, when our heroes have returned to their lives of comfort and luxury and so many others have returned to the exact opposite?

If all any of us is fighting for is the right to continue existing, well, fine. I like existing well enough. But there’s got to be more than that — in all worlds, real or imaginary. We’ve got to have dreams bigger than what we can see out the window.

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