NOTE: I wrote this a few weeks ago, sent it to some movie website that blew me off. Here it is anyway:
Star Trek Into Darkness opened to a four-day domestic weekend of some $80 million. This is a staggering amount of money, yet the movie was characterized as underperforming. Into Darkness did record business overseas (for Star Trek), but its emphasis in fast-moving action after months of hype-through-secrecy left core Trekkies mumbling the Vulcan proverb, “Don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining.”
In college I took a film theory class during which I asked the professor if it was true that movies today (circa 1996) had too many close-ups, because directors were familiar with television and music videos. The professor responded with one of the guiding principles of my life: “That may be true, but I try not to beat up on historical change.”
Which is to say, the point of this essay is not to complain about blockbuster Hollywood filmmaking, which cheapens our culture with its relentless violence, stupidity and ideological reinforcement. (Hollywood preaches social liberalism—tolerance of different peoples, which broadens audiences—and economic conservatism, so as to tell each and every one of us we are special and we must pursue our individuality…with the help of some products by the sponsors.)
That is, of course, true. But more interesting are the problems inherent in creating and maintaining “franchises,” as they are called (not “movies” anymore; certainly not “films”). Hollywood studios used to produce an array of small-, mid- and large-budget pictures, but today only one truly interests them: the franchise, promising huge grosses (and merchandising) in predictable, repeatable intervals.
It makes sense—it’s not just the cost of the movie, but the marketing, and nothing beats brand awareness. The trend toward franchises has occurred, like everything, because of technology: digital effects have allowed superpowers to be rendered in photorealistic detail.
And yet we may have reached a moment of “Peak Blockbuster” in which it is mathematically impossible to improve upon record grosses (Avatar, The Avengers)—at least until they invent $50 tickets with direct-brain stimulation. The word “porn” is thrown about nowadays—superpower porn, action porn, explosion porn. These movies have all of that, even “emotion porn”—teary payoffs at proscribed moments (often, the main character expresses his love for Daddy), finely tuned by script consultants and test screenings.
Like previous trends in spectacle that fizzled out—’50s CinemaScope spectaculars and ’70s disaster films—the current wave of geek franchises will collapse under their own weight. Box-office prognosticators will compare worldwide box-office hauls against ever-rising production and marketing budgets, and wonder, what went wrong?
“Franchise fatigue” has been used to characterize specific properties that have withered, but I would apply it to the entire phenomenon.
This essay is about why.
One of the truths of existence is diminishing returns—the second candy bar does not taste as good as the first. If any franchise is suffering diminishing returns, it is Star Trek, now on its 12th feature film, after five live-action TV series and one animated one.
Star Trek Into Darkness contains some of the most breathtaking spectacle ever realized of the Star Trek universe—stuff that Trekkies could only dream about in the days of paper-maché sets and spaceship stock footage.
And yet, Star Trek was never about the FX. The secret of its success is its optimistic future and, more than that, its detailed, comforting universe—Starfleet is nothing if not in loco parentis. In Star Trek, the human characters might as well be robots, but the alien (or android) characters are versions of human children, learning how to be adults: Spock coping with his emotions, Worf with his aggression, Data with socialization. The stories unfold like morality tales for radio, not cinema—the FX is mere icing on the cake.
But it’s a very old cake. The series' first unsold pilot, “The Cage,” was produced in 1964—nearly fifty years ago.
Much has been made of the Star Trek’s prescience in anticipating technologies such as cell phones and CAT scans, racial harmony and the end of the Cold War (with a Russian serving on the bridge)—but other aspects have dated horribly. The show is 19th century colonialism in space, uncomfortably translating white Americans to the Starfleet heroes, with blacks/Jews/Asians/everyone else cast as the aliens. And everybody speaks English—not really, thanks to the “universal translator,” but is that bullshit or what?
On a level of plausibility, in 1964 there was still a reasonable expectation that mankind would travel in spaceships to other worlds. Today, it is complete fantasy. This is a major distinction.
Movies are not reality; as William Goldman pointed out, they must not be real so much as believable. But believability comes from the real world; when science fiction is exposed as bogus science, and historical assumptions are proven wrong (today’s threat is Global Warming, not the Cold War—ourselves, not the Other), the stories built on those foundations transform from plausible to mythical—like Star Wars (more on that below).
Star Trek is a vision of the future created two generations in the past. It has been updated successfully once—when Star Trek: The Next Generation stumbled upon a variety of episodes dealing with postmodern notions of identity via memory and perception (all those Holodeck and mind-fuck episodes)—but is otherwise treading water.
Star Trek cannot be changed because then it is not Star Trek; but as Star Trek, it is stuck in the past and no longer relevant. (As J.J. Abrams and his colleagues have learned, if you change a button the bridge, you had best be prepared to incur Trekkies’ wrath.) Pull on its threads and it makes no sense. Why are all aliens humanoid with bumpy foreheads? (Because there are no aliens in the Screen Actors Guild, the producers used to joke.)
Star Trek is not the only franchise to be nearing the half-century mark.
The first James Bond movie (Dr. No) was in 1962—the books started in 1953. Their setting is the Cold War; recent films have paid lip service to Bond as a relic, trying to hang a lantern on his anachronism.
Marvel’s key characters were created in the early 1960s: the Fantastic Four (1961), Spider-Man, the Avengers and the Hulk (all 1962), Iron Man and the X-Men (1963), Daredevil (1964); Wolverine (a great character) came relatively late (1974). Back then, nuclear radiation caused wondrous and fantastic superpowers—not cancer.
Captain America was created even earlier (1941), competing with the earlier wave of DC superheroes like Superman (1938) and Batman (1939).
What else? Planet of the Apes (newly rebooted by 20th Century Fox) was filmed in 1968, from a 1963 French novel.
Indiana Jones began in 1981—famously a mélange of 1930s serials and 1950s B-movies like Secret of the Incas and Valley of the Kings.
We watch Mad Men and chortle at the sexism and political incorrectness, absolving us of responsibility for their legacy. And yet almost all of our beloved franchises were created in that pre-Civil Rights, pre-gender equality, and certainly pre-Internet mindset.
There is, of course, everything to be said for reinventing a story. Especially in pop storytelling, one always pours old wine in new bottles. Superman, the oldest of the superheroes—a Depression-era, Jewish immigrant power fantasy—flourished on radio in the 1940s, on television in the 1950s, and on the big screen in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
Batman, the vigilante superhero, is easiest to update—without actual superpowers, he is not leashed to malarkey science. He was camp in the 1960s, Tim Burton gothic in 1989, and dark and realistic in the recent Christopher Nolan movies.
The Nolan Batman, however, shines a light on the dominant filter of the era: 9/11 and terrorism, as analyzed recently by Andrew Johnson [http://moviemezzanine.com/tony-stark-is-a-villain-how-the-iron-man-films-subvert-traditional-views-of-the-war-on-terror]. Johnson does not, however, mention the single most influential “superhero” of the 9/11 era: Jason Bourne, the human weapon with amnesia, seeking answers for his existence. Created in a 1980 novel (the first in a series), the character didn’t come alive in pop culture until the 2002–2007 movies starring Matt Damon. James Bond may have come first, but Daniel Craig’s 007 walks and fights in Bourne style—as does Nolan’s Batman, as does the recent incarnation of Star Trek’s Khan by J.J. Abrams.
Audiences, it turns out, know in their human DNA there is a price to pay for their bloodlust—they want the action porn and ’splosions, but they hunger for something that we used to call literature: stories that tell us things we know about the world to be true, but have forgotten. How to do escapism with relevance? Bourne.
The most brilliant line George Lucas ever wrote was the first one in Star Wars: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” That changed everything. This was not reality—it was metaphor. Myth. Star Trek is futurism (not modernism), but Star Wars is postmodernism. Postmodernism does not mean “after modernism,” though that is its chronology. It has to do with revealing art as being in the eye of the beholder, making the mind aware of the act of perception, and the constructed nature of our reality (go drop this on a coed).
As myth, Star Wars presents its own set of problems for the orgy of sequels and spin-offs about to be unleashed by Disney.
A story only has a story if it has an ending—and as far as I can tell, the six Star Wars movies tell one story rather well: how an idealistic boy (Anakin Skywalker) becomes a villain (Darth Vader), then is redeemed by his son. Since the new movies will not be a reboot, you can prepare yourself for many characters to be repetitively tempted by the Dark Side.
In the new Star Wars movies, some characters will turn evil, others will turn good. It will essentially be a television series—or a soap opera.
It’s worth comparing the essential difference between a television series and movie.
A movie is the permanent and irrevocable change of the protagonist: Luke (in the original Star Wars Trilogy) goes from a boy to a Jedi Knight (over the course of three films, but still). Michael Corleone goes from idealistic youth to mafia kingpin. (We don’t have to continue with every movie ever made—you get the point.)
But a television series is the gradual, glacial change (if that) of the characters—their perpetual wrestling with their inner nature (Tony Soprano’s depression, Don Draper’s philandering, Walter White’s mortality). In Star Trek’s best-ever episode, Kirk (married to his ship, not a woman) has to sacrifice his lover in “The City on the Edge of Forever” to restore the timeline, but he’s fine again next week. (The Sopranos’ ending may have seemed a cheat but it was truthful: David Chase realized that his character, Tony, honestly would not change; thus our time with him simply stops.)
Television series have much more in common with comic books than movies…and we’re beginning to see the problem of adapting television and comic book characters to movies.
A television character exists in the state of becoming himself—actively becoming the same. Yes, that’s a paradox.
If the new Star Wars movies are done with intelligence and care—and I have no doubt that their makers will try—they will be designed as a multi-movie series, like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings. But they had better have an ending, or else they are not the good version of television—the high-end cable visual novels with planned resolutions—but the bad version, where a show is run out there until it jumps the shark, people stop watching, and it is canceled.
The bad version is also known as a comic book.
I read Marvel Comics religiously from 1985–1988. That timeline is important: four years. After four years, stories start to repeat themselves. Comic professionals know this and try to plan accordingly. (In the 1980s, children could actually afford to buy comic books.)
When I read X-Men, it was at issue 200 or so. Now it is north of 550. I dare anyone—die hard fans excepted—to read a synopsis of those 550 issues. It’s gobbledygook.
Or, it’s a soap opera: in a soap opera, bad guys come to town and are slowly integrated into the community. In a comic book, characters (which never or barely age) are put through changes that take them away from their familiar, essential (and marketable) selves—they quit, get married, turn evil/good, die (!)—only to reset to normal. I was nine when I learned not to fall for the character dying—he’ll be back in record time.
The popular comic book characters are brilliant for their mythical simplicity: the boy who learns responsibility (Spider-Man), the man with the monster within (the Hulk, a rip-off of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). The X-Men stumbled upon the Dr. King/Malcolm X Civil Rights duality in Professor X and Magneto, and it works like gangbusters.
How does one adapt a comic book, or the bad version of a TV show, to a movie? With great difficulty.
Characters on HBO’s The Wire talk about prison sentences as consisting of only two days: “The day you go in, and the day you come out.”
We could say the same thing about a comic or TV character translated to a movie. There are only two stories worth telling: how they came to be (the origin story), or, if they are very old, how they came to be again (the redemption story).
The best-ever Star Trek movie, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, is the latter, with an aging Kirk remarrying his ship via the sacrifice of his friend, Spock (it doesn’t even have to be a Star Trek movie—it’s just a good movie).
The problem is trying to do something in the middle. The obvious answer is to do a version of the series’—or comic’s—best episode/issue. For the X-Men, that’s the Dark Phoenix saga (in X-Men: The Last Stand) or “Days of Future Past” (the next movie).
But those are really about the villain—pick the hero’s iconic nemesis and tell a story in which the villain beats the shit out of the hero and everything he loves, and the hero must risk losing his humanity to defeat his adversary. (In the post-9/11 world, the hero risks losing his humanity an awful lot, because that is our fundamental anxiety.)
Two problems: the villain invariably upstages the hero (the Joker, be he Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger, always steals the show from boring, straight-laced Batman; Gene Hackman upstages Christopher Reeve). Moreover, the audience, who have waited two to four years to see our friend on the big screen again, do not want to experience him behaving like an asshole from losing his humanity!
Nicholas Meyer, the literate curmudgeon behind the best Star Trek movies, likes to say, “The audience may be dumb, but they’re never wrong.”
The problem with the geek audience to which the franchises cater is that they are both dumb and wrong—not about movies they’ve seen, but about movies they haven’t. Every year at Comic-Con, nerds haul plastic bags of worthless promotional crap through sweaty masses of humanity. And they seem thrilled at the privilege!
I would like ask them if they had any interest in plastic bags of last year’s crap, because I suspect the answer would be no—they’ve already seen those movies, some of them were very good, most were average, and some were execrable. (One year a giant robot was erected outside from Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Talk about a monument to hype.)
But next year’s movies? They can’t get enough. It’s J.J. Abrams’s “mystery box” at work—the promise of something new, something different, something unknown, is more captivating than anything that could actually be in the box.
But a movie is not a mystery box. A trailer is a mystery box. A movie is a movie.
James Cameron began the current cycle of breathtaking computer FX with the metal man in Terminator 2 (1991)—and he may very well have ended it with the 3D world of Avatar (2009). When The Matrix (1999) came out, Shane Black came back from the premiere (sorry to name drop, but I was at his house), started to describe one of the action scenes, gave up and explained: “I have honestly never seen that in a movie before.”
It’s hard to imagine what could inspire that reaction today, only 14 years later. (And it’s a shame that The Matrix, a truly innovative piece of mythical storytelling that believably modernized action mayhem—it all takes place in a computer, so anything goes—could become so lame, so quickly as to vanish.)
Audiences will pay to see something they’ve never seen before—be it the weird conversations in Pulp Fiction, the gonzo reality of The Blair Witch Project, or the epic team-up of characters in The Avengers—but at a certain point, they know that anything they want to see they can already view on Netflix at home. That point may already be here.
When technology allows everyone access to the best visual effects, pursuing larger and faster spectacle only causes headaches. Remember the creepily supremacist worry bandied about The Incredibles? “When everyone’s super…no one will be.”
Does that not explain the fundamental sameness and disappointment of these movies?
There is a reasonably accurate way to predict when an upcoming franchise movie will be any good—simply looked at whether the last one stunk. Nolan could reinvent Batman because everyone hated the Joel Schumacher version. Man of Steel might be good because the Bryan Singer Superman broke the reverence for the Christopher Reeve movies. An example from television: nobody (except die-hards) loved the original Battlestar Galactica, thus Ron Moore had carte blanche to reinvent it.
Iron Man was never an A-list Marvel character. He had never been filmed (except as a cartoon) prior to the 2008 movie—at the time, Robert Downey Jr. (brilliantly cast) was seen as a washed-up drug addict, not a movie star. The movie had license to succeed because there were no expectations.
The James Bond films are unique in that they coasted for decades on their tropes—but Bond was a cypher. The recent Daniel Craig films are, for the first time, filling in his character; Skyfall was origin and redemption story combined. (Good luck following that one.)
Perhaps the best example of how to produce a quality tentpole are the Harry Potter movies. J.K. Rowling’s creation is relatively new, so it is relevant for our era; the films are wonderfully made (thank you, British actors), and tell a complete story with a definitive ending.
So there will always be good movies—including blockbuster movies. In Frank Herbert’s sci-fi masterpiece Dune—made once as a stylish but bad David Lynch movie, and a bland but good pair of TV mini-series—Duke Leto tells his son of the importance of new experiences, for without them a person sleeps inside: “The sleeper must awaken.”
A line like this lingers because it is true. Dune also warns us, “Fear is the mind-killer”… let’s just say there is a lot of mind-killing in Hollywood.
The good movies will come from the filmmakers who pursue new experiences, without fear. Some will fail, others will succeed—it’s hard to predict. As Yoda tells us in The Empire Strikes Back, “Always in motion is the future.”
But franchise fatigue will happen, if it is not happening already. Why?
One of the most famous lines in political history was never uttered in real life—though everyone thinks it was. William Goldman invented it for the movie, All the President’s Men. There, it had a specific investigative purpose: “Follow the money.”
If that line is not the fundamental explanation for our civilization—and its commonly mistaken origin a foundation of our postmodern condition—I don’t know what is.