Pop Culture is (and has been) going through an identity crisis when it comes to its entertainment. This fast-moving landscape is changing rapidly in often unseen ways while the entertainment we are being offered increasingly looks the same.
At the time of this writing, the highest grossing film of the year (which, admittedly, is not yet half over — the year, that is) is Beauty and the Beast a remake of Disney’s 1991 animated hit. This is followed by Logan, the tenth installment in the X-Men franchise that started 17 years ago, the eighth King Kong film, and just a little bit farther down the line, the 15th big screen appearance by Batman (for the second time in Lego form). In fact, so far in this still young year, six out of the top ten highest grossing films are either remakes or sequels.
In 2016, a full eight out of the top ten highest grossing films were remakes, sequels or prequels. The exact same number is true for the top ten films of 2015 and the trend didn’t begin there. In 2014 nine of the top ten films were sequels, remakes or prequels or some strange and unholy mix of all of the above. Keep looking back through the recent years and this has been the case over and over again. In 2011, ten of the top ten were remakes, sequels or prequels. You would have to go back to 2004 to find a year when under half of the top ten consisted of remakes sequels and prequels.
Of course, the simplest explanation for this is “nostalgia” combined with a cynical dose of “give the people what they want” and both observations are true. But why exactly is this what people want? Is Hollywood just lazily milking every cash cow until it’s dry? or is there something more going on?
In the year 2016, I published my first novel after almost 20 years as a professional writer and longer than that as “that kid in class who wrote the best stories.” No, I’m not using my column to shamelessly plug my book here, but it’s important to note that this book is a hardboiled detective novel set in the ’40s. The year 2017 will feature not one but two more films both firmly set in the Mystery/ Thriller genre.
Why am I mentioning this? Well, I don’t really read mystery novels. Oh, I’ve read a few over the years, but mysteries, while interesting, have not been a genre I’ve even dabbled in as a writer or been my literary comfort food as a reader. Yet after decades of dabbling with horror and science fiction and other genres I have three mysteries publishing within two years of each other.
It’s baffling, I realize, but there is a reason for it. I realized as I was formulating the plotline for 2016’s Seven Days to Die that the story could only work in the age before the internet. If set in the same year it was published the entire novel would be about 25 pages long (if that) as the characters in the story would simply take out their phones and Google the answers to everything, then binge-watch Daredevil and forget anything important had happened. Thus, I set the novel in 1946. Thus, the story worked.
No, this isn’t coming to a Cineplex near you. Let’s face it, the last time you paid to see a guy in a fedora stalk dark alleyways, it was probably Freddy Krueger (less “hardboiled” than “hard boiler room”). If anything I, quite unconsciously, wrote this first novel as a reaction to the current cultural landscape, unintentionally seeking out mystery in a zeitgeist in which everything is, as a matter of course, completely demystified.
The fact that you are probably reading this article on an electronic device is a big part of this. The seeds were sewn some time ago. As the information superhighway (if anyone remembers that term) became more widely available, people no longer had to wait to have questions answered.
When I was a kid in the early ’80s if pals of mine and I disagreed on a movie quote from, say, Superman (1978) or Star Wars (1977) we would have to wait with patient frustration to be proven right or wrong until either the films were re-released in cinemas or we were lucky enough to catch them on broadcast TV or (if we were really lucky) HBO. Nowadays, if the same conversation took place we could easily find the quote on IMDB.com, read the entire script online, watch the entire movie streaming, and probably even catch the random clip of that very line on YouTube.
And I can do all of that from my cell phone. That same cell phone has every single Beatles song ever recorded stored on it and I can instantly access any part of those songs without carefully taking out a vinyl record or moving the needle. I can also access virtually any comic book ever drawn and most novels for either free or less than the price of a cup of coffee (which I can also get almost instantly and pay for with that same phone).
Don’t get me wrong, I love all of that. I’m not an old geezer complaining that things just ain’t what they used to be and you whippersnappers ought to appreciate what you’ve got.
But this instant gratification has also brought with it an instant expectation for getting just about any information instantly. And that, my friends, has taken a direct toll on the entertainment industry. We no longer have mystery in our lives. All has been demystified. Thus we demand that every blank be filled in for us. Thus we demand that each story should continue because, dammit, there’s just so much more story to tell.
This is why we had to have Jurassic World (2015) 14 years after the last film was made. This is why we have to have a new Star Wars trilogy, in spite of the fact that said trilogy has to undo everything the original trilogy wrapped up in order to have a story at all. This is why Hollywood churns out Mission Impossible sequels in spite of the fact that the television series it was based on ended in 1973. This is why we have to have new and increasingly more horrible Transformers movies based largely on a mythology made up for children in the early ’80s. This is why we just had to have two new Batman movies in 13 months giving us two different versions of the character. Three if you count Suicide Squad in which Batman is a supporting character. Batman’s next big screen bow will be later this year, only nine months after The Lego Batman Movie. This is why we had to have three films to adapt one novel called The Hobbit and had to have all the empty spots filled in with things the author never gave us.
You see? Hollywood is eating up the fact that we are eating this up. We are sanctioning laziness and voting with our pocketbooks for Hollywood to keep telling us the same story but with slight differences, so we can fill in every blank and remove every mystery.
Unfortunately, mystery is what fuels every story. No, I’m not saying we all need to go read mystery novels instead. This isn’t a plug, but a reflection. I mean “mystery” as the concept, not the genre.
Take Star Wars, for example. That film asked many more questions than it answered and that was both the beauty and the magnetism of the film. That was exactly why we made it a cultural milestone. A mysterious older man named Obi-Wan Kenobi mentioned some strange magical energy field called “The Force” along with “The Clone Wars” while making allusions to the main character’s deceased father and the samurai-armored evil warrior that killed him.
That was mysterious. That was why we bought all of those toys to act out all of these missions that we made up. There were so many questions that we couldn’t help but keep talking about it and we went back to watch the film over and over again (long before it was available at home) and still were left with more questions than answers.
Star Wars practically created the summer blockbuster (though 1975’s Jaws helped a lot) and also revolutionized product tie-ins. Just as this film influenced so many others, so did George Lucas’ prequel films contribute disturbingly to the demystification trend.
Let’s leave aside how you may or may not feel about the prequels for the moment and concentrate on the fact that we all had a good idea of their story, which was being talked about (in various forms) for well over two decades before we got the first one in 1999. Because of all that buzz (and because, like me, a lot of people just love Star Wars) we now have everything spelled out for us. The Force is no longer mysterious. We know just where it came from and just what it can do. Darth Vader, Boba Fett, Obi-Wan… we now know their whole history. As much fun as that is (and it is) watching the original trilogy today is simply an exercise of saying “Oh, that’s what happened.”
The questions have been answered, the debates are moot, the enigma is gone, the conundrum has been solved.
After the prequels everything had to be filled in for everyone in most every film. It’s to the point that 2015’s The Force Awakens was more remake than sequel which left almost no room whatsoever for fan speculation. If you pay close enough attention, you even know who the main bad guy Snoke actually is. Every character from the original trilogy has a counterpart who either redoes or undoes everything the prior character had done. Han Solo himself (Harrison Ford) was our one Aristotelian skeptic in the saga, yet in the very trailers for The Force Awakens Han is heard saying of the Force “All of it… It’s all true.”
The most recent film in the saga, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) is based entirely on the opening crawl of the first movie. Was it a bad film? No, I loved it. Did we need it? Well, no. We already had this legendary hint about some major battle in which the plans were stolen. Seeing it all spelled out only demystifies things for us and causes a few incongruities with the film that started it all.
And that is the trend that we keep seeing in films. Back in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back we were all stunned when Darth Vader revealed that he is Luke Skywalker’s father. There were no valid hints to this, yet somehow it made perfect sense. Setting aside the fact that watching the Star Wars films in order now ruins that mind-bending surprise, the ramifications of that shocker were that movies then had to pull out brand new familial ties in their stories whether they made any sense or not.
Let’s look at Halloween II (1981), the first film of that saga to be released after The Empire Strikes Back we received the stunning surprise that masked killer Michael Myers is the long lost older brother of his favorite victim Laurie Strode. To be fair, this was before such surprises became cliché and it was unexpected and impressive. This was also before even the prevalence of video stores, so we hadn’t become so instant-gratification/ demystification jaded yet. However, knowing this, when we go back to watch the first film we no longer have the disturbing questions of just why Michael Myers is rampaging through this small town so violently or even why he focused on this small group of girls.
The first film in that saga to be released after the completion of the Star Wars prequels was the remake film Halloween (2007) which gives this secret away early on and also spends half of the film explaining everything that made Michael Myers a psychopath. The audience doesn’t share Laurie’s shock at the revelation of her family because we’ve known all along. We know way too much.
It has come to the point that there’s no trust from the audience anymore. If the audience doesn’t see it happen, it didn’t happen. Even with everything spelled out to the audience, more is demanded. There must be more to every story, right? Thus we need films about young Han Solo and young Lando Calrissian, in spite of the fact that what originally endeared us to Star Wars and, in fact, to Halloween (1978) was the overall mystery and strange questions asked but never answered.
What made Wolverine a fan favorite in the comic books? The fact that he had a cool Batman mask and claws? No. In fact, Wolverine was not a terribly popular character when first introduced. It wasn’t until he took that costume off and we saw a strangely out-of-place and out-of-style guy underneath the suit that he became a fan favorite. The plot thickened when it was revealed that this mystery man had only one name, “Logan”, and nobody (including him) seemed to know if that was his first or last. Combine that with the fact that this Logan still has his claws as part of an entire metal skeleton and you’ve got a real mystery there. Mix in the ingredient that nobody knows how he got those prosthetics… including Wolverine and you’ve got endless debates.
Marvel Comics kept that mystery going for decades, adding just a little hint here and there that, like Star Wars only brought up more questions.
Now all of that is gone. When Twentieth Century Fox scored a hit with its first and second X-Men films it informed Marvel Comics that it had better reveal Wolverine’s origin or Fox would do it. Thus, Marvel released a miniseries appropriately called Origin, which explained everything we needed to know about Logan’s history at the expense of his mystery.
While that story is amazing, it’s notable that the feral berserker who fascinated us throughout multiple media for decades due to his unknown past and strange abilities now frequently answers to the name “Jimmy” in the films.
The same can be said for the X-Men films on the whole which have now gone back in time to 1963 to tell their own prequel stories. Notably, they are also very careful to fill in any blank they possibly can in Wolverine’s history so they can make more money and leave him as just another guy named “Jimmy”. The aforementioned film Logan goes so far as to tell us the future of Wolverine and Professor X because we simply have to know everything they did from birth to death or else we just don’t believe it could possibly have happened.
As good as Logan was, the ultimate result was less a sense of wonder and more a simple ability to check off a few boxes in our heads. We not only are demanding more story, we have come to believe that we have no choice but to see every tiny little bit of each story and remove any subtlety or riddles from the equation.
Things have gotten so cynical that this has even seeped into the storytelling itself. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has made some of the best Superhero films of all time, yet the first film, 2008’s Iron Man ended with Tony Stark (whose secret identity was always a closely kept secret) saying “I am Iron Man.” on national television. Similarly Man of Steel (2013) launched the DC Extended Universe with a film in which everyone and their dog knows that Clark Kent has superpowers and he even gives his address to the army who is looking for him. There are no secrets anymore.
Of course, this is also a reflection of the zeitgeist. In our world where privacy is swiftly becoming a thing of the past, how can young viewers relate to a secret identity at all? Take a picture of Superman and post it to Facebook and Facebook will immediately ask if you want to tag Clark Kent in it. Some hacker might steal a data dump from Stark Enterprises and Wikileaks would soon break the story of who Iron Man really is.
And, again, we’re eating it up. This is simply a case of supply and demand and Hollywood is happy to supply just what we demand… repeatedly. But the truth is we are not doing ourselves any favors here. We are not only promoting laziness in filmmaking but also laziness in our own imagination. Now that everything is spelled out for us, why should we have to think anything through?
This trend is having further ramifications outside of entertainment. Because we have to know just what detergent Fox Mulder uses or else we can’t possibly believe he’s ever done laundry, we are constantly looking for more story everywhere, even and especially where there is none to be found. The “information superhighway” is happy to quickly fill those voids with disinformation and the trivial. Do we really need to know what the Kardashians are doing? I don’t want to know. Are we really so starved for more story that we have to build conspiracy theories around everything we see on the news because there is no mystery left to entertain us? This is 2017, folks, can you believe that there are still people out there who believe the Earth is flat?
If Shakespeare’s Hamlet were written today it would start with a long, unnecessary, SFX laded preamble in which we see Claudius seduce Gertrude, kill Hamlet Senior and set a plot in motion with Polonius that would tactfully and intentionally drive Hamlet crazy and in the last few minutes Claudius would reveal that he was secretly Hamlet’s biological father the entire time and Hamlet would then live on to star in new adventures (starting with the post-credits sequence that dares to reveal that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are, in fact, not dead).
In reality, Shakespeare so trusted his audience’s imagination that he used the interpretation of cloud formations as psychological indicators well over three centuries before Rorschach invented the inkblot test and he expected his audience to get what he was doing.
Well, we’re now just shy of one century since that inkblot test was developed and I daresay we have taken several steps backward. It’s hard to imagine seeing a bird or butterfly on a psychiatrist’s card without a prequel card and sequel card to demystify the origin of both the ink and the image. Any ambiguity is now considered a flaw and entire forums spring up to complain about anything implied but unseen onscreen.
So, yes, perhaps it is true that I gravitated to Mysteries simply because there was no other way to tell the stories I wanted to tell in the current landscape where everything has to be over-explained and we now need an entire movie or television series to explain a one-off comment in a classic film. And perhaps that is never going to change. The world is only moving faster and technology along with it. There is no stopping it and I would not want to if I could. But perhaps it is important to think hard about this trend and see where it is taking us and what it has done to our stories.
As William Wordsworth once said Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;/ Our meddling intellect/ Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—/ We murder to dissect. Do we really want things so spelled out for us and every blank filled in or does this, perhaps, destroy what makes our stories great?
See you in the Next Reel.