What’s The Next Great Blockbuster Gonna Be?
So much for concepts, ideas and original voices… today’s “event movie” landscape is all about brands. Where does that leave the creativity that once upon a time ruled at the multiplexes?
“There are more movies nowadays, so the cultural decay of ideas is much, much faster.”
Those words stuck with me right after I heard them from a branding expert in Morgan Spurlock’s documentary ‘The greatest movie ever sold’. Sure, it’s nothing new. It’s a given: causing an impact nowadays is much harder than it used to. Back in 1977, works like ‘Star Wars’ were like an oasis in the desert. Under that analogy, today’s movie landscape would be like a desert filled with oases.
It’s a good thing, in principle. 2014 alone is already shaping up as quite the geek fest. Spidey, X-Men, Cap, Robocop, Godzilla (my personal favorite for the year)… And I won’t even get into 2015. That’s some insane amount of geekery that’s coming, y’all.
But still, the expert’s words haunt me… because of how sad they are. It’s sad to think that that unique cultural joy that people experienced back in 1977 is now endlessly more difficult to attain. The words “derivative”, “bland” and “forgettable” have become commonplace in reviews during every single summer movie season. Films come along, are featured in some EW cover, enjoy some presence in movie blogs for a period, then – if they’re lucky – cause a splash on opening weekend, but it’s not long before their cultural influence is reduced to unsold toys on retailer shelves.
It’s become something of a ritual to partake in the colossal hype machine behind whichever superhero movie comes out that year – and I’ll be the first to acknowledge how fun that can be. The groupal countdown for a trailer? The discussion of rumors? Debates on the portrayals of character X, Y or Z? That right there is a double whammy of pleasures if you’re into both movies and superheroes. But while roaming around the discussions behind ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’, I just can’t shake off the awareness that… this is the FIFTH Spider-Man movie, people. It’s the FOURTH Spider-Man sequel. The movie might be cool, it might hit all the right buttons and maybe we’ll walk out of it with a pleasant sense of joy this time. But at the end of the day, it’ll just be a variation of stuff we’ve already seen. No more, no less. Because at this point, it’s all it can ever be. And the same can be said about most other superhero films in the pipeline (if not all of them).
It would be easy to blame the problem on the “death of originality”. But I remember a cool story comics writer Ed Brubaker (Captain America) once told in Wizard Magazine. As a teen, while visiting a convention, he got asked by some DC editor what it was that he liked so much about Alan Moore. Brubaker said it was his originality. The editor replied that it wasn’t “originality” that made Watchmen such a powerful book – it was the way Moore had written it. Originality, he said, was overrated. Fair enough. I mean, ‘Star Wars’ was just a rehash of some of the old Flash Gordon tropes, wasn’t it?
The problem I see with superhero movies – the reigning genre in the current blockbuster seasons – is that, quite simply, they’re not all they can be. They just can’t afford to. There’s sequels at stake. Merchandising deals. Spin-offs. Team-ups. First example that comes to mind: how empty Tony Stark’s dramatic final decision in 'Iron Man 3' seems when you take into account that Iron Man's presence is a given for ‘Avengers 2’. Then, that little thing called “artistic freedom”? Absent. Could Spidey die in ‘TASM 2’? Could Superman hang up the cape? Could James Bond turn evil? No, no and no. Not even if creativity dictates it. It’s not that those are things I’d like to see; but the option itself isn’t there. There are things that you just know can't happen, and therefore won't. That, friends, is a problem. Lack of options and creativity just don’t go hand in hand.
Which is why ‘Avatar’ was so important, and something of a godsend, if you think about it. I love what ‘Avatar’, as an original creative endeavor, represents… even if the film itself was a little heartbreaking for me. I championed and pimped that movie like there was no tomorrow, and when I finally got around to watching it, all I could think was “Didn’t ‘Ferngully’ tell this story already?” And this coming from someone whose favorite movie of all time is Jim Cameron’s ‘Titanic’.
Ah, ‘Titanic’. This whole rant comes down to being able to use ‘Titanic’ as an example. I may live to be 100 years old, but I honestly doubt any movie will ever have such an impact on me like ‘Titanic’ did when I was 11. It’s merely my personal example, obviously, and I can see now that it’s far from perfect (Jack’s character – my idol at one time, fuck you, don’t mock me – is actually a tad boring, isn’t he? No wonder DiCaprio argued with Cameron about spicing the dude up with some flaws). But that’s a movie that does what ‘TASM’, ‘Thor’ or ‘Iron Man 2’ never had the chance to: be all it can be. There’s no saving shit for the sequel. There’s no pulling punches (i.e., purposefully subduing a story’s emotional power for the sake of enabling a continuation). And there’s no fucking ridiculous excuse that it’s just “a set up”. Left and right, you hear from silly fanboys how it’s cool that the Superman in ‘Man of Steel’ wasn’t the traditional life-saver, because MOS “is just a set-up” for the character. TASM didn’t have to follow through on its subplots, you see, because "it’s just a set-up”. And even ‘The Avengers’ – the holy grail of modern superhero movies, along with ‘The Dark Knight’ – couldn’t be bothered to develop Steve Rogers’ plight in adjusting to the modern world, because, in Joss Whedon’s words, that’s a task for Cap’s solo sequel. And I understand. I mean, it makes sense. But it’s the reason 99,9% of superhero movies – burdened how they are by shoddy screenwriting, as most are invariably bound to be – are doomed to lack the impact of a true, generation-bending blockbuster. This sequelized form of conceiving movies is the death of the Great Blockbuster.
You want a rare (and, I’m sure, much disagreed upon) example of how to do it right? ‘The Dark Knight’. Nolan refused to buy into the whole “larger universe” nonsense – for better or worse, depending on who you ask. For me, a non-synergized DC movieverse made for better Batman solo movies, and I will always admire him for that. But you’ll also notice that the best sequels almost always come from whence the idea of a sequel was uncertain. ‘The Godfather’. ‘Toy Story’. ‘Star Wars’. ‘Back to the future’.
Forget the term “sequel”… the best MOVIES spring from the intention of delivering a single punch. Another one after that is a nice option, but it should not be a necessity. Anyone remember a little hit in 1982 called ‘E.T.’? And let me ask you this: just how often over the last, say, 20 years has an original idea with a maximum of two creative minds behind it landed top spot in the year’s Highest Grossing list?
That brings me to 1996’s ‘Independence Day’.
I love ‘ID4’. I think it’s one of those movies that have managed to be vindicated by history, in spite of its original critical reception. When people mention it, it’s not in the same breath as 90s hackfests such as ‘Godzilla’ or ‘Speed 2’. Most seem to remember it with affection, because it was, oh joy, a FUN film. Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith chomping at cigars during their victory strut at the end? That’s GOLD, of the extra cheesy kind. Just talking about it makes me want to watch it again. Go see if half the CBMs of the last 10 years enjoy that rewatchability factor 10 years from now. And just the thought that it all came from two dudes’ original idea makes me want to sit down and write an original genre screenplay like right friggin’ now. Can you imagine something YOU created - and own - stirring so much imagination, so much emotion… so much money? And so much influence, too, on fellow artists and the medium?
It’s still common to see fans’ takes on comic book movies. Pitches, fan fiction scripts, “Here’s my idea for a Superduperman movie”-type editorials. Nothing wrong with that… but judging from how limited – that’s the key word here – the superhero movie genre has proven to be in the last couple of years, I sincerely hope those writers see it as worthwhile to spend time in their own stuff. Because the next Great Blockbuster - a truly generational one - won’t come from ‘The Amazing Spider-Man vs. The Sinister Six’ or ‘Batman vs. Superman’… it’ll come from someone chasing that ‘E.T.’, ‘Back to the future’ and ‘Avatar’ spirit.
BONUS: Also… music videos don’t hurt. How cool was it to love movie X and then unexpectedly run into stuff like this on MTV? Ah, glorious 90s. Those guys knew how to have fun.
(BTW, I know I have a Superman avatar, which gives away my love for superheroes. This is not a diss on CBMs, no matter how it comes across.)
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