When the Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi wrote about Goldman Sachs, he said "the first thing you need to know is that it's everywhere, a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money".
Which brings us to Marvel Studios – and, by extension, its owner, Disney – whose latest film will soon become the most lucrative ever made. Avengers: Endgame raked in an unheard-of $1 billion in its opening weekend. By the time the dust has settled, Marvel's caped messiahs will occupy five spots in the all-time box office top 10.
This is not a surprise. This is what Marvel films do. The real point of interest is how well it's gone down with critics. With near-unanimity, the write-ups register somewhere between grudging enjoyment and gushing acclaim: from broadsheets to tabloids, America to Britain, excitable nerds to indie chin-strokers, the consensus is that Avengers: Endgame really is a terrifically good film.
Has Marvel pulled off the unthinkable and unearthed cinema's holy grail: the small speck in the middle of the Venn diagram of artistic vision, critical approval and mind-bending profit?
It has not. As the 181-minute plot clanks its way through the usual machinations of team-assembly, inter-hero fallout, last-minute reconciliation, noble sacrifice and tearful resolution, all the while lulling you into that CGI-induced semi-slumber, it dawns that Marvel has in fact pulled off a very different – much more impressive – trick, one 22 films and 11 years in the making: it has completely warped our expectations of a blockbuster. It has created a world where anything vaguely above the mediocre is hailed as a five-star tour de force.
In this sense, Warner Bros, Disney's ostensible rival, has actually been their greatest ally. Because while the Marvel films are largely passable, DC's efforts (six so far, seven more in the works) are startlingly, distressingly bad. But the aggregate effect has been the same: the two studios, via their 29 movies, have set new standards of film-making. They have made adequacy the new excellence.
None of which is to say that corporate capitalism is killing cinema. In fact, the most emphatic proof that art and commerce can function in happy tandem is to be found at the multiplex. Jurassic Park, The Matrix and Inception are the works of audacious visionaries, and made their executives a mint. The Mission Impossible movies deliver endless enjoyment from little more than bombast and blank cheques. Fast Five is a bona fide cinematic masterpiece.
But when franchise film-making is the only game in town, you've got a problem. Twenty years ago, the year's box office top 20 included 16 original standalone films, many of them – like The Sixth Sense, The Matrix, American Beauty and American Pie – smart, inventive and daring. Last year, the same list featured just four non-franchise movies (two of which were remakes) and seven superhero films, all by Marvel or DC.
And guess what? This dearth of originality bleeds into the movies themselves. If you’ve seen a Marvel film or three, nothing about Avengers: Endgame will remotely surprise you, let alone thrill you to the core like The Matrix's kung-fu showdowns or The Sixth Sense's gut-punch revelation. What's almost certain to be the most successful film of all time delivers a handful of well-crafted set pieces, some waggish one-liners and a whole lot of garish CGI. It is, to be especially generous, a paragon of competence.
That it has generated such fawning from critics is testament to the bludgeoning these people's brains have taken from the genre. Doctor Strange. Spider-Man: Homecoming. Ant-Man and the Wasp. Batman v Superman, Justice League, Aquaman. Inoffensively bad in isolation, mind-numbingly bad in cumulation. And the upshot of this systematic lowering of standards is the elevation of the average. Like a dying desert wanderer who stumbles across a discarded Coke can, the mundane suddenly looks like a godsend.
It should be said that not every superhero film is completely worthless. Black Panther, Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman tap into the era's most progressive instincts. Marvel's fare is, on the whole, quite funny. And the very fact of the genre's insane success – our craving for saviours in the face of looming apocalypse – is telling. Yet in every instance, once the credits have rolled and your ears have stopped ringing, the lasting sense is one of intense sameness and profound forgetability. Between them, the Marvel and DC films have employed 21 directors: how many can you name?
Marvel didn't invent the superhero film, or the movie franchise. It didn't even invent the cinematic universe. But it is the reason why those things now make up the one and only mode of big-budget film-making. In redefining a successful blockbuster as one that nudges the billion-dollar mark, it has also redefined it as a film that appeals to everyone and alienates no one. Hence the worlds created by Star Wars, Jurassic Park and Marvel, where language is always wholesome, blood is never spilled and everyone is born with an in-built chastity belt.
Not that it has hindered their mission to repopulate the multiplex via an orgy of profit, which – with last month’s $71 billion merger of Disney and Fox granting Marvel ownership of even more big-name characters – is only going to continue apace. In that sense, it's tempting to say that Endgame is only the beginning. Then again, in a truer sense, maybe the real end has already come and gone.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.