Quentin Tarantino: Was He Right? And Do We Really Need Movie Stars?
Quentin Tarantino made headlines recently when he said that “Marvel actors are not ‘movie stars.’” In an interview with the 2 Bears, 1 Cave podcast (per Variety), he said, “Part of the Marvel-ization of Hollywood is…you have all these actors who have become famous playing these characters. But they’re not movie stars. Right? Captain America is the star. Or Thor is the star.”
The nearly 60-year-old director noted that he used to collect Marvel comics as a kid, noting he’d be happy if he was in his twenties right now. His issue isn’t necessarily the film, it’s the space that they occupy in the marketplace. “My only axe to grind against them is they’re the only things that seem to be made.” He added, “And they’re the only things that seem to generate any kind of excitement amongst a fan base or even for the studio making them. That’s what they’re excited about. And so it’s just the fact that they are the entire representation of this era of movies right now. There’s not really much room for anything else. That’s my problem.”
There are two separate points to unpack in Tarantino’s comments. The first is that Marvel films have somehow eliminated the “movie star.” In his opinion, the iconic characters that they play are the main attraction and not the actors. There might be some truth to that: Chris Hemsworth was mostly unknown outside of Australia when he was cast as the lead in 2011’s Thor.
Chris Evans, meanwhile, had been acting for a little over ten years before being cast as Steve Rogers for 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger. He even played the Human Torch in 2005’s and 2007’s Fantastic Four flicks. Those films, however, were not well-written, unlike the majority of the later Marvel films. That iteration of the FF simply didn’t resonate.
Simu Liu was not well known outside of Canada when he was cast as the lead in 2021’s Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. He had the additional challenge of playing a character that isn’t as well known as Cap or Thor.
None of these guys were household names before taking these roles. However, they played the characters so well, it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing it. Did anyone ever walk out of a Captain America film saying, “It was good, but it should have been Brad Pitt”?
And isn’t that what we want out of movies? When we go to a film, in most cases, we want to see a good story. Sure, it’s fun to watch movie stars inhabit new characters. Depending on the film, we’re hoping to see dazzling special effects, fight scenes and car chases. But really, without a great story, does it matter?
It’s also worth mentioning that the role of movie stars in our culture has changed. Movie stars used to be untouchable celebrities, who couldn’t even be bothered to do television. You’d see them once a year in a movie, maybe twice. These days movie stars may go back and forth between features and tv shows. Not to mention the fact that social media – and media in general – have made movie stars a bit more accessible. There isn’t much mystique around them. There are reality stars and social media “influencers” who might have more clout than some movie stars. We no longer need to go to a movie theater to get our celebrity fix.
Personally, I go to see a lot of movies in theaters. There are definitely actors who I enjoy seeing over and over. George Clooney, Angela Bassett, Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, and Jamie Foxx come to mind. There are some who are so distinct that it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the roles they’ve played: Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Viola Davis, Cate Blanchett, Denzel Washington, Jeff Bridges. But I have never gone to see a movie specifically because one of these people was in it.
Funny enough, I do see films because of the director/writers. I’ve seen every Quentin Tarantino film in the theater. That’s because his films are, to me, a “can’t miss” event, just as every Marvel film is. The same is true for movies by Spike Lee, the Coen Brothers, Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, Kathryn Bigelow, Paul Thomas Anderson, Guillermo del Toro, James Gunn, and Taika Waititi. The latter two I discovered via their work on Marvel films (the Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor franchises, respectively).
Tarantino’s other comment about Marvel films was that “They’re the only things that seem to be made.” That’s a curious statement. Quentin seems to be able to make whatever kinds of films he wants to make, up to and including his last one, 2019’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. That was a movie about movie stars and it starred real movie stars (Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Margot Robbie). But all of the aforementioned directors have had great and challenging films released in recent years.
In many cases, these films were made precisely because the directors wanted them to be made. In the case of Scorsese, it’s hard to imagine a studio approving an over $40 million dollar budget for 2016’s Silence if it hadn’t been a Scorsese film. It’s also hard to understand why they would have approved it under any conditions. Silence barely grossed half of its budget, according to Medium. Much has been made over the fact that Scorsese and the cast worked for scale, as producer Irving Winkler revealed in a 2016 Hollywood Reporter interview. Good for them! But in most businesses, if you advised a company to invest in something that loses $20 million dollars, no one would think that you deserve more than scale. They’d probably call for you to be fired.
I’m a huge Scorsese fan – I loved Kundun, so I’m not put off by slower films – but Silence was awful. But not as awful as 2019’s The Irishman, which wasn’t salvaged by the presence of movie stars including Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Anna Paquin, Harvey Keitel and Jesse Plemons. So, yeah, movies outside of Marvel are still being made. It’s just that Mr. Scorsese’s haven’t been very good.
You need look no further than A24’s social media accounts or their website to get a great overview of amazing non-superhero films that are being made today. This year, the studio had their highest-grossing film ever: Everything Everywhere All At Once. The cast included Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan and Jamie Lee Curtis. It was directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, and it grossed over $103 million, according to Box Office Mojo. According to The New York Times, it had a budget of $14.3 million. That’s quite a return on the investment.
A24’s second biggest film is the 2018 art-horror flick Hereditary, written and directed by Ari Aster and starring Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne. Made for $10 million (per Deadline), it has grossed over $80 million. The studio’s2017 coming-of-age film, Lady Bird – directed and written by Greta Gerwig and starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Timothee Chalamet and Beanie Feldstein – is another success story: made for $10 million (per The Hollywood Reporter), it grossed nearly $79 million.
The company’s list of films over its ten-year existence includes a lot of other classics. There’s 2019’s Moonlight, starring Mahershala Ali (who will soon be taking the title role in Marvel’s Blade). You may have heard of 2019’s nightmarish Midsommar (starring Florence Pugh, who went on to play Yelena Bolova in the MCU’s Black Widow film and Hawkeye TV series). And 2015’s Room (starring Brie Larson, who has since played Carol Danvers, aka Captain Marvel). Larson won an Oscar for Room, by the way. And Ali won one for Moonlight. It’s generally movie stars who win Oscars. So no, Marvel hasn’t killed the idea of “stars”; in fact, they hire quite a few of them.
When Quentin Tarantino talks about “movie stars,” he might just mean big names that are perceived to guarantee box office success, like Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio or Jamie Foxx. But all of them have starred in their share of duds: Pitt’s presence didn’t help Ad Astra or Allied, to name two of his recent films that were box office bombs. Foxx’s participation in 2018’s Robin Hood didn’t prevent it from losing money. Leo has a really good track record, but no one would call 2008’s Body of Lies a smash.
Quentin is probably nostalgic for the era that he grew up in. A lot of us feel that way. We might miss record stores in every town, Saturday morning cartoons, or life before the internet (or cell phones). But the world has moved on. However, if you want to see great films, there are plenty to choose from. You just have to know where to look. And when Hollywood frets about movies disappointing at the box office, they’d be wise to think about what stories will resonate with people, as opposed to creating vehicles for celebrities. It might not solve all of their problems, but it’s a good start.