A while ago now, back when it happened, I had a reader ask me my opinion of Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilms, particularly with regard to the future of the Star Wars franchise. My reader (Hi, Dr. O! We miss you!) is apparently a fan of Star Wars and is enthusiastic about seeing more of Lucas’ universe, and he pinpointed Disney’s successes with Pixar and Marvel as reasons to believe we can expect great things from the revived franchise. I can’t deny any of that. I am also a Star Wars fan (well, the original three movies, anyway), and I get excited about anything new that sounds like it might be good. BUT. I’ve thought about it all quite a lot, and my initial reaction remains the same: all of this still seems like nothing more than a shameless money grab.
Yeah, yeah, we’ve all heard these complaints a thousand times. “Why can’t Hollywood make anything new?” “Why do we have to have a thousand sequels every year?” “Why do they have to keep remaking classics?”
In my opinion, those are all really good questions. And the answer to all of them is: money. Studios prefer to stick with the tried-and-true moneymakers instead of gambling on a new, fresh idea that might not fly. If the first movie made a profit, then why shouldn’t the second, third, and fourth? And if everyone loved “The Nutty Professor” the first time around, surely they’ll love it this time, right? Robin Williams! Everyone loves Robin Williams. It doesn’t matter one whit that the first Star Wars movie came out long before most Twilight fans were born. Everyone’s heard of it, so everyone will talk about it, and hopefully, everyone will go see a new one. Heck, I probably will. You want new movies made? Don’t go see the same four or five rehashed and rolled out anew every August. But of course we all do, and we probably buy the DVDs when they come out, too. There are numerous manifestations of the commercialization of movies, and they’ve been around as long as the films themselves, of course. Who didn’t have a movie tie-in Happy Meal toy as a kid? There are a few “new” practices, however, that are really starting to annoy me, and I’d like to discuss those as part of what I think is wrong with movies today, as exemplified (in part) by the resurrection of the Star Wars franchise.
First of all, there’s this distressing trend toward stretching out a series (often “literary” adaptations) in order to fully realize the source material. Sadly, I think this may have started with the Harry Potter franchise. In that case, I do think the decision to turn the final book into two movies was a good one, although it could be argued that the first installment suffered from not enough action, while the second had the opposite problem. But then came the Twilight movies, who followed the same formula, drawing their series out to the very last, painful (so I hear) drop. And then, my friends, we have The Hobbit.
Now, thanks to my parents I was pretty much a Tolkien fan from day one, but I’m going to be honest with you. Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring trilogy was really, really boring. It was beautiful and faithful and all that, but it was dull. So when it was announced that he was going to do The Hobbit, I just shrugged. To me, it already sounded like LOTR 2: The Search for More Money, but then it got better. In case you were not aware, The Hobbit is only one book, and not a particularly lengthy one at that. But, the powers-that-be had decided that it would transition to film as not one, not two, but THREE movies. Apparently the use of source material and snippets of information from other works about Middle Earth would be added in to flesh out the story. Seriously? I’m not suggesting that this was all Peter Jackson’s idea (and frankly I hope it wasn’t), but this is clearly a grab for the movie-going public’s hard-earned dollars. Don’t you think there have got to be screenwriters out there who can shrink a book down into a passable movie? Let me just point out that Gone with the Wind is only one measly film, and that book has over a thousand pages. I’ve read it multiple times, and the film does a pretty good job of hitting all the important points. I’m pretty sure we could dispense of The Hobbit in under three hours.
Aside from dragging movies out, I’m pretty fed up with the concept of sequels in general. Sure, sometimes they’re good movies. Sometimes they’re even better than the original. But let’s face it: at some point, if they keep going past two, they all drag the original idea down into the mud and then step on it. But wait! That’s not a problem anymore, because now we can just REBOOT a series and start all over again! Admittedly, when Christopher Nolan revived Batman, he did something notably different with it, and that’s fine, I guess. But come on. Rebooting the Spiderman series after only what, four or five years? That’s blatant commercialism. And yet they’re already at work on the second installment of Spiderman 2.0. Where will it end?
Unfortunately, the comic book genre provides ample opportunity for sequels and reboots and replacements. I’m on record as being a big fan of Robert Downey, Jr. and Iron Man. I liked Thor and Captain America, and I absolutely loved The Avengers. But honestly, it breaks my heart that they’re cranking out more of all of those. There’s simply only so far up you can go before you inevitably go down, and I don’t want to see that. The problem is that they have to keep trying to top themselves by bringing in more heroes, more bad guys, more action. In nearly every instance, this leads to movies of lesser quality. The Avengers was so great. How are they going to top that? Why do they even need to bother? Sometimes it’s ok to just walk away, knowing you did a good job, isn’t it? Or maybe it’s easy for me to say that, since I’m not raking in mountains of cash with each new trailer.
The combination of all these factors, and the mechanisms that the movie-makers use to keep these machines running brings me to my final point. This is something that I only recently realized was making me really, really angry. X-Men 2: Days of Future Past. As I’m sure we are all aware, the original X-Men trilogy started out fine, but was a bloated mess by the third movie. So, in the tradition of such things, a reboot happened. X-Men: First Class was a surprise hit. I really enjoyed it. Naturally, a sequel would follow. The story is apparently based on a popular one from the comics, involving parallel universes and/or time travel, or something appropriately comic-book-y. From a Hollywood perspective, though, those types of things enable the moviemakers to work their own magic and bring back nearly everyone from the original franchise. Now, let’s talk about this. They rebooted the series, bringing in new blood (more on that new blood in a second) because the series had gone downhill, right? So why bring back the old crowd? I know everyone loves Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, but do I need to remind you all of the quality of his stand-alone spin-off? It was dreadful, although that isn’t stopping them from producing a sequel, either.
But back to Days of Future Past. I get that there’s time travel and so we’ll encounter some of the characters from First Class in their older incarnations. However. I recently read a story about how some of the stars of First Class were angry about the amount of screen time (and probably consequently money) they can expect to receive in this second movie. And I ask you: how is that appropriate? It’s only my opinion, of course, but shall I tell you what made First Class so very good? Four words. James, McAvoy, Michael, and Fassbender. Their characterizations of the young Xavier and Magneto were beautifully fleshed-out and flawlessly acted. Their changing relationship formed the heart of the movie. And now we’re going to toss that aside so Ellen Page can revisit Shadowcat? Hollywood, please explain this to me, because I do not understand. Never mind all the usual hallmarks of a sequel: more heroes, more villains, more more more. I think (I know you’ll correct me if I’m wrong) that fans would be happier with a sequel that maybe stripped things down and followed the progression of those two characters and their efforts. Since Magneto wasn’t actually the main villain of First Class, wouldn’t it be natural for him to be so in Days of Future Past? It’s not as though Fassbender couldn’t handle it.
It’s all just a way to grab as much of the potential audience as possible with little to no concern for things like story, plot, performance, or cohesion. The need to outdo everything that’s come before results in more movies of lesser quality instead of films that everyone involved can be proud of. I know that sounds like I’m trying to elevate the comic book movie to high art, but I think we’ve had plenty of recent examples to show us that the so-called “popcorn movie” can be about a great performance, or a serious and thought-provoking story line, without sacrificing the explosions and fight scenes. Similarly, I’m not trying to suggest that people like Fassbender, Downey, Joss Whedon, and Peter Jackson are not capable of creating something meaningful even in the face of rampant commercialism. I do think I’m safe in saying, however, that the honeymoon doesn’t last forever.
To return to the question of new Star Wars films, hey. I hope I’m wrong. The Star Wars universe spans a large amount of territory beyond the films, and so clearly there is great potential for new and creative movie-making. Using the names and themes already familiar to movie-goers isn’t a crime, certainly. The recent speculation about whether the original stars (Hamill, Fisher, Ford) will reprise their roles feels an awful lot like a gimmick, but ultimately, I suppose if audiences enjoy whatever the studio comes up with, it’ll be a win-win for everyone involved. At least until Episode X, anyway.