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CBR TV: Leonard Maltin on Movies, Misfires & “The Avengers'” Success

Famed film critic and historian Leonard Maltin set sail aboard the CBR Tiki Room at Comic-Con International 2013 for a lengthy chat with Jonah Weiland about the current climate for films, comic book adaptations and the changing face of the international movie market. They begin by discussing the effect “Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide” has had on generations of film lovers, as well as whether he’s ever considered giving up on being a critic in light of how movies and the business of movies has changed over the years. They then shift to discuss super hero films and their staying power, as well as audience tendencies and why each generation has their favorite stories and characters either in spite of or because of certain limitations. Maltin explains why tentpole movies continue to dominate even as more and more films are labeled flops, as well as why “The Avengers” was able to avoid various traps and become a massive success. They close things out with a discussion of his passion for animation preservation and how he sees each major studio’s approach to making animated films for both children and adults.

On whether the advances in visual effects will outpace the bursting of the super hero film bubble: Kids of my generation — I’m a baby boomer — were just as enthralled with the George Reeves “Superman” television show when we were growing up, low tech as it was — and it was — as anybody today with the highest tech imaginable in visual effects. So you’re not wrong; you’re absolutely right they can do all these things that were once impossible, unimaginable in cinematic terms, but we love what we got, too.

I was in junior high school, I think when “Batman,” the Adam West “Batman,” went on the air. It was like The Beatles. It was all anyone could talk about. And when that went on the air it was two episodes a week. At school it was all anyone was buzzing about. You know, “Bang! Pow!” and that incredible theme, and all of that. So every generation gets its own chance to enjoy, savor and then become nostalgic about eventually what they’ve gotten.

The more cold-blooded, cold-hearted answer to what you’re saying, “When will that bubble burst?” When it bursts in Indonesia and every other country in the world where now the box office has taken over. China is the largest film market in the world. They’re having premieres of a lot of these big films in Moscow. Who could have predicted that? It’s nuts. And the U.S. domestic box office is becoming less significant with each passing year [in terms of] the decision making process of what films are going to get made and how much they’re going to spend on them.

On the difference between critical success and commercial hits in the current film climate: This is what I find discouraging as a critic now. As we sit here talking, “Grown Ups 2″ made a lot of money last weekend, too. We live in a time when these tentpole movies, these gigantic opening weekend movies, are succeeding not on merit, but simply by existing. By being there at the right time, and the right place, without too much competition on a given weekend and because parents are looking for something to take their kids to or because people are hungry for some escapism.

On whether Hollywood will learn their lessons from big budget flops: That’s what Steven Spielberg talked about in that much-quoted seminar he did with George Lucas at USC just a month or so ago. He predicted that things will change with a few more of these costly flops. But the second thing is, some of them are not costly flops, they’re costly flops in the U.S., at the U.S. box office. That doesn’t mean they might not make a lot of money or break even at the very least overseas. It’s a big world now, and that world market dominates the bank accounts and the decision making. So no, nothing seems to deter them. Hollywood would rather fail big then succeed small.

On balancing spectacle with characters and the success of “The Avengers”: Why was “The Avengers” such a successful movie? Not just successful, massively successful. Because Joss Whedon wrote a brilliant screenplay. A funny screenplay that managed to put some meat on the bones of all of those characters. Nobody gets short shrift in that movie. They all get a chance to shine, they all interact in a credible and engaging and really interesting way, and yet he doesn’t short change anyone on action and visual effects and all the sizzle that you want from a movie like that. That was one of my favorite movies last year, and I was sorry that it didn’t get award recognition at the end of the year. Christopher Nolan gets award recognition because his films are more “serious.” Joss Whedon had the smarts to inject a sense of humor into this, and it’s a wonderfully funny film on top of everything else that it is. But no award kudos.