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On Its Own Terms

The problem with a movie fandom that can't accept stories for what they are.

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MARVEL STUDIOS
  • Marvel Studios

"The movie doesn't have any stakes if I know that everyone lives and death isn't permanent!"

It's a refrain I've heard leveled more than once at last year's Avengers: Infinity War, a movie where half the population in the Marvel universe was wiped out with a snap of Thanos' Infinity Gauntleted fingers. Another complaint I see often is that the marketing for the upcoming Spider-Man: Far from Home has undermined the dramatic tension of Infinity War, since we have advertisements for a movie starring a character who clearly died in his last appearance in the universe. It doesn't matter that there's academic research to suggest that the general audience wants to see spoilers like this in the marketing; these cynical filmgoers can't suspend their own disbelief in the first place, let alone after more marketing has come out.

"Mr. Stark, I don't feel so good," Peter Parker says as he vanishes into dust in Infinity War. And, frankly, when I think about the state of film literacy, I don't feel so good either. I think people leveling complaints at movies like this might have forgotten how to watch movies, if they ever knew how to watch them in the first place.

Watching Infinity War, or any geeky film with heroes of any kind in them, there's a given: The hero is probably going to win in the end. No matter how bleak the odds might seem, the hero is more than likely going to overcome. That's simply the way these stories work. As an audience, the knowledge that a hero will most likely overcome should be irrelevant to us. What we should be more thrilled and concerned and excited about is how the hero will overcome.

Knowing that they will likely come back to life shouldn't rob their death of any impact, either. How could a person scoff at the emotional death of Spider-Man at the end of Infinity War? It takes an almost lethal dose of cynicism to see it and say, "Well, they'll just bring him back anyway, so this doesn't mean anything." You know who it means something to? Tony Stark. The moment is real for his character, and since it's his point of view we are looking through, it ought to feel real for us. Roger Ebert once said that movies are machines for creating empathy, and until I saw these complaints about the film, I would have thought it impossible for an audience to not empathize with the hurt Tony Stark feels as Peter Parker—a kid he dragged into this fight—turns to dust in his arms. Tony Stark, a man who has an answer for everything, has lost everything. It's emotional and heartbreaking, no matter how the sequel shakes out.

But that's when I realized that maybe we've forgotten how to watch movies. These days, it seems like many viewers in the age of "Everything Wrong With ..." YouTube videos are looking for ways to outsmart films rather than enjoy them, as though every movie was Smaug and they're Bard, looking for the missing scale to drive our arrows through. We're participating in the stories, but as adversaries. The movie should be our ally, not our enemy. It's trying to show us something, to teach us a lesson, to make us feel. Audiences need to let the movie show us its individual truths without us trying to outwit it. And, for whatever reason, this problem seems to be worst in the superhero, sci-fi and fantasy genres.

Even when the answers to audience questions are in the text of the film itself, this brand of filmgoer is unable to see them. They want everything spelled out literally. This phenomenon might be worst in Star Wars fandom right now. Did you know there is a contingent of people who think Finn was going to actually destroy that battering ram cannon with his sacrifice in The Last Jedi? It's as though the language of cinema—the close-ups of his ship disintegrating, and the dialogue saying that his actions would be useless—meant nothing to the combative sects of the audience. Because they thought it could have been a good place for Finn to have a heroic ending, they considered it a mistake of the storytelling, rather than a part of an unfolding story.

When you go into a film trying to find reasons not to invest in the story being told, and hope for a different story altogether, you're going to be disappointed. When you add in the marketing, and allow it to affect your experience, you're not viewing a film; you're meta-viewing. We should all strive to meet each story on its own terms and give it an honest shot to make us feel the things it intends for us to feel.

Not only are we all going to have a better cinema experience, we'll probably be a lot less obnoxious on the internet, too.

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