Franchise Fatigue (but maybe not)

30 04 2016

art by Alex Solis

In one or more of my numerous recent posts about media empires based on fictional universes, I cited this from Alan Moore: “… it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times.” He’s talking about superheroes, but the same could apply to any of the legacy franchises that seem to dominate pop culture today: Star Wars, James Bond, The Muppets, etc. I keep going back to this quote from Moore, because I admire him a lot, and I’m perennially torn about enjoying superheroes. But I think maybe it’s all okay.

It’s pretty self-evident that the prevalence of franchises puts originality at a disadvantage. The big familiar blockbusters can stunt the experimentalism of young potential creators. They make audiences less receptive to new, challenging stories. They give publishers and studios an attractive alternative to risky new ventures. 

Even so, new and relevant works by emerging voices are everywhere. Look at novels; the vast majority have nothing to do with franchises. Look at television, awash in new, high quality dramas and comedies. Look at independent film. Even in the world of comic books we have such innovative gems as Saga, not to mention the huge range of alternative/independent comics. Unfortunately, most of the new and original material suffers a huge disadvantage in the marketplace…but have we ever lived in a world where that wasn’t true?

Some legacy stories and characters would be much better off without the endless revivals and renewals, and appreciated as the flawed jewels of a particular time and place.* James Bond, for a prime example: removed from the Cold War and scrubbed of misogyny for a slightly more enlightened age, he’s reduced to an action movie cipher, indistinguishable from every other half-developed secret agentish man. 

But some franchises have more to offer than just squashing the creative competition. I mentioned in my post about Star Wars: The Force Awakens that I felt some dismay at the long, enduring grasp of this franchise. Pretty much for the reasons suggested by Alan Moore above. Why can’t Star Wars stop drinking the life essence of all us Podlings and let a new player onto the stage?** Well, it’s important to remember that the first Star Wars had a colossal impact on cinema and pop culture. Is it fair to expect another entertainment-landscape-shattering spectacle to show up on a regular basis? Our whole media world now is so different from 1977, one might argue that such game-changing works are no longer possible.*** All this to say, it’s not just studio bankrolls and marketing machinery that keeps Star Wars rolling along. Longevity is to be expected from something so hugely influential.

Sometimes I wonder why the superhero genre is so exclusively about older characters. Newer superhero stories like Powers, Hellboy, and Planetary are some of the best, but can’t begin to compete with the household names like Spider-Man or Batman. But then, the actual cause-and-effect is probably the reverse. Superman, Spider-Man and Batman dominate because they’ve been around so long. Thousands of stories have been written over the decades of monthly comic book publishing, and Marvel Studios is doing an excellent job of mining the gold from all that pulp.

The danger, when adult fans stay attached to the beloved characters of their youth, is a lack of maturity. Many fans and creators basically mistake pornography for maturity. That’s no good. But as with Star Wars, the most enduring superhero characters endure because of their emotional impact. They speak to mythic truths we all recognize.

Where would we be today without franchise dominance? What if, for example, instead of continuously reinforcing the Star Wars aesthetic, we’d had other artists reinterpreting space fantasy with the support of major movie studios? We’d have a richer, more stimulating cinema, undoubtedly. But art and entertainment are not public policies we can work toward correcting; they reflect who we are, and help us understand ourselves. Even crummy art tells us something about where it came from. I want us to have more good art and less bad art. The best way for anyone to work toward that goal is to make art.

*Also true of the majority of newspaper comic strips, shambling along like zombies long after the original creator is retired or dead. But that’s maybe another post.

**Consider this a mashup, not a mixed metaphor.

***Or at least, not as simply a really cool movie. Some greater reinvention of medium would have to play a part.

Walking Dead, Ya Lost Me

6 04 2016

(Hordes and hordes of spoilers)

Okay, not lost. I will be tuning in for season 7. But I hated the finale of season 6.

I get it, The Walking Dead. You are a show about brutal circumstances, heartbreaking losses, intolerable pressures, and you have a high stakes, no-one-is-safe attitude. I like those things about you. What I like even more is when you depict the struggle to remain human and decent under such horrendous conditions. During season 6, you actually caused me to re-examine my own real life attitudes toward my political opposites (and there are some doozies out there right now, you know). But then you threw all that away in favor of nihilistic torture porn.

I get it, Negan is some ultra-villain from the comics, which I have not read. Having no previous investment in Negan, I was not impressed. He’s just another asshole sociopath, only more cartoonish than the Governor or the people of Terminus. I liked the misdirect better, when one of his people a couple episodes ago said “we’re all Negan.” A leaderless yet organized mob would have been an interesting twist.

I don’t object to landing in a desperate and despairing situation. I stuck with you through the death of Beth, and that was hard, but it had a kind of integrity. Not like the unearned menace in the season 6 finale; that felt like a D&D session where the DM has a specific, unpleasant outcome in mind, and no amount of inventive role playing or ingenious problem solving will sway him (we’ve all been there, right?). Suddenly Negan and his group can just do anything. Negan and his “awesome” baseball bat lording it over the characters we care about was excruciating and it went on way too long. I really wanted to shut it off, but I was hoping there would be some twist or glimmer of hope worth hanging in there for at the end. Instead there was just withholding of information. The event happened, but we don’t get to know who died. That is some arbitrary, American Idol-style dead air phony suspense bullshit.

Honestly though, I don’t even care about the cliffhanger. I felt like the episode left the realm of smart, powerful drama and just gloried in pain and misery, Saw style. I know you love your overblown head splatter sound effects, Walking Dead, and I generally find that little affectation amusing. But if you really wanted to be dramatic instead of gratuitously grotesque, you would have ended that final shot with one blow, maaaaybe two. Not half a dozen head splatter sounds playing over a black screen.

Come on.

Daredevil Season Two

29 03 2016

All the buzz right now is about Batman vs Superman, which I have not seen and don’t plan to see. Being familiar with Zach Snyder, the critiques don’t surprise me at all. They say the story doesn’t make sense, the characterizations are all wrong, the palette is muddy and dull, and the whole enterprise is buckling under the weight of moral profundity, even though it’s not profound, or moral really, or interesting at all. This is superheroes for grown-ups done all wrong.

No one is talking much about season two of Daredevil on Netflix. Everything wrong with BvS is right in Daredevil. Sean Collins is recapping the episodes and is a far better writer than me, so I refer you to him for the details.

Unfortunately, superheroes for grown-ups done right is making me question all my life choices as a fan of the genre, probably more than seeing it done wrong ever could.

It’s hard to remain a fan of someone who routinely beats information out of people. The esteemed Mr. Collins sees the show as grappling with Daredevil’s questionable morals, and I don’t disagree, but by the end of season two the show seems to have thrown up its hands. It makes me think that the only way to tell a philosophically consistent super hero story is to make it completely self contained and finite, á la Watchmen. Daredevil does so well with the real-world implications of powered vigilantism, the philosophical flaws of the setup become unavoidable.

Nobody wants me to drag politics into this, I’m sure. But in the current climate of terror attacks, mass shootings, and candidate Drumpf legitimizing bigotry, bullying, and worse, I can’t watch a show and ignore the implications regarding violence and the use of power.

Maybe DD season two is setting us up for a more thorough wrestling match of morals. There is certainly a lot more to come, with Luke Cage in the works, and Iron Fist, and the inevitable massive crossover event. I will watch all of that stuff. I hope I can watch and enjoy with my whole brain.

Decades, Centuries, and Millennia(ls)

25 03 2016

Much moaning has been moaned about Millennials and the deterioration of counterculture. I’m guilty of it too, linking to this article on Facebook which spoke to my near total antipathy to/alienation from current popular music.The author’s point about the 1996 Telecommunications Act is compelling, and the characterization of current popular music rings true. But it’s not fair to bash Millennials. I think there are several things going on here.

1. We are taught to understand counterculture movements by decade: the beats of the 50s, hipsters of the 60s, disco dancers of the 70s, punks of the 80s, 90s grunge, and then the great wasteland of the 20-oughts and teens. Obviously I’ve left out many additional subcultures, but I’m not bothering with an exhaustive list because the whole taxonomy by decade is problematic. Decades provide a convenient framework for looking back with nostalgia, but counterculture identities don’t start and stop when the years tick over from 9 to zero. And, so what if nothing as iconic as punks or hippies has emerged in the last 15 years? Why should it?
This article describes the rapid economic growth of the last 60+ years as an aberration, and suggests looking at trends over several centuries for a better understanding of economics. The recent period of abnormally fast growth roughly coincides with the past few decades of rapidly evolving countercultures. Could it be that unprecedented economic expansion gave us the luxury of youth cultures that could reinvent themselves every few years? What if the natural pace of cultural change is much slower?

One could argue that technology and the Internet have profoundly affected our culture, and accelerated change over the last 15-20 years. Why then has counterculture not kept up? Well, why should it? What did we expect, a bunch of Googleglass wearing Neuromancer throwbacks? Maybe music, fashion, and design got more stable to balance out the highly disruptive advances of technology. That’s not a failure of counterculture, that’s a survival strategy.

2. The iconic movements of recent decades– hippies, punks, metalheads, etc.– are music and fashion based. Sure, there are philosophical elements associated with each. But if you’re a punk, you dress a certain way and listen to certain music. The same goes for hippies, goths, and grunge. When I was a teen in the 80s, you could tell a person’s clique by looking at them. Everyone said cliques were stupid, yet everywhere you looked, people were cultivating a look that aligned with a particular group and implied a particular aisle in the music store (lots of others cultivated blending into the background, or defaulted to dorky nerd, or occasionally stood out in a completely unique way. It’s not really relevant to this post, I just have to give those modes a shout out). Millennials, it seems to me, just don’t organize their identities around fashion and music to the same extent. Why is that? Maybe technology and social media just take up more bandwidth. Maybe it has to do with access to all eras since the invention of photography being equally accessible for the first time in history. Who knows, but it’s certainly not a failing to decline to wear a countercultural uniform.

3. Perhaps you’re bothered by the lack of rebellion among Millennials. Please see the Occupy movement, Black Lives Matter, and the Bernie Sanders campaign. So what if there’s no musical style or wardrobe to go with them?* Again, maybe music and fashion just aren’t the identity keystones they once were. It seems like a sad loss to older generations, but it’s just a change. Things always change.

4. As for me personally finding no connection with trending music, that’s nothing new. I’ve been a music crank my whole life. I used to blame it all on the shallow commercialism of the music, but I figured out recently that it has a lot to do with my tin ear to vocal performances. There are legitimate criticisms to be made of popular music and the music industry, but it’s important to recognize that the music industry was torpedoed by the Internet. Albums, concerts, videos, merchandise– none of it is what it once was. Sure, we can pine for the days when weird musical auteurs could fill stadiums. It’s tempting to see the big acts of today as homogenous and risk averse. But weird and risky music is alive and well. Probably dong better than ever. Those acts can now reach a fan base without having the colossal luck of being discovered by a producer they happen to appeal to, or touring with a popular megaband who happens to like them, or being the Chosen Ones of major radio stations for whatever reason. Creative, challenging stuff is not going to get dropped in our laps anymore. But if you’re bothered by the (relatively small) effort it takes to find innovative, compelling music, consider that for every Rush or Talking Heads or David Bowie of the past, there had to be countless acts that died on the vine. I won’t say it’s easy for independent musicians today, but artists of all kinds can now at least find enough of an audience to feel that what they’re doing is worthwhile. And that is no small thing.

I may have veered off topic at the end there. I guess my point is, instead of complaining about the state of music today, start by typing your favorite band from years gone by into Amazon or iTunes or Pandora, and see what current bands pop up under “you may also like.” And then buy their stuff.

*Except maybe hip-hop. My great apologies to everyone, I am an ignorant old white guy and I’m only barely aware of the meaning and impact of hip-hop. I know there are hip-hop artists with powerful messages, but I feel like they are overshadowed by hugely popular acts with nothing much to say. Is hip-hop the counterculture identity of the 21st century? Only those far cooler than me can answer that.

Unrelated Movie Round-Up

9 02 2016

I managed to watch a few movies in the last couple weeks, and even caught one in the theater with Marcie!

(Spoiler free, except for Inception, but come on.)

Ex Machina. This is a fabulous movie. Old school speculative sci-fi that is powerful, creepy, surprising, and questions the nature of consciousness, always a plus.

Ant Man. This could have been a great, quirky variation on the superhero theme, but ended up being pretty par for the course. I liked all the shrinking stuff– for all the superheroes we’ve seen on the screen lately, there has been very little in the way of cinematically interesting powers. I was also happy with the somewhat distinctive characterization of Hank Pym, not quite just another snarky genius billionaire. However, I couldn’t get past the inconsistencies. Apparently shrunken things retain their original mass, unless it would be funny to swat them with a ping pong paddle.

Mad Max: Fury Road. I should really devote a separate post to this movie. It absolutely lives up to the hype, and more. The world of Mad Max is ruled by insanity, absurdly violent, and disturbingly familiar. Like Max, muzzled and propped up on a pole on the front of a speeding car while the driver steals his blood, we are subject to endless mystifying violations that our culture at large accepts as normal. Poisoned water in Flint, lockdown drills in elementary schools, veterans left homeless in the streets, etc etc etc. Fury Road doesn’t specifically allude to any event or cause, but it is not just an expertly crafted, astonishing to behold action epic. It is a mirror.

Inception. I watched this for the third, maybe fourth time. Like the top spinning endlessly in Mal’s mind safe, it worms into my head and won’t let go. I had to imagine a lot of forestory (is there an opposite of backstory?) to hold onto emotional payoffs and engaging characters in the face of undeniable evidence that Cobb is dreaming the entire movie. I can’t tell if this is a good or bad thing.

Hail Caesar. When I first saw The Big Lebowski, I found it unsatisfying. Now I love it. I have a feeling Hail Caesar is a similar beast. My first impression is that this movie is both a love letter to, and a harsh critique of, the movies. It’s stuffed with narrative threads that sometimes connect, sometimes don’t, and ends on an anticlimax. I’m sure it will reward multiple viewings, which I shall surely view.

The Dreaded Democratic Candidate Post

30 01 2016

I’m for Hilary Clinton.

All the Berners are probably calling me a big sellout right now. But Berners, I put it to you: Clinton is the real radical choice.

What could be more radical than electing a woman president? Possibly electing a black president. As a privileged white dude I’m not going to argue about which victims of prejudice suffer the most. Neither do I want to argue about the merits of Obama as president. But the mere fact of a black president has undoubtedly had an effect on the nation. If nothing else, it has dragged the bigots out into the daylight and forced us to face up to the very real and lasting legacy of racism in America. The problem is nowhere near solved, but getting some clarity is a crucial first step. Imagine if we were forced to confront insidious, entrenched sexism in the same way.

I’m really grateful to Bernie Sanders and all his supporters for speaking the truth about our economic system, and countering the strong rightward shift that has overtaken our whole political conversation for the past 20 years. I would love to see Sanders’ policies enacted. But a president alone doesn’t have that power, and congress is sure to stonewall him every second of every day. That means electing Sanders would be largely a symbolic gesture, wrapped in hope for a miracle or several. And I am all for that. But the more meaningful symbolic gesture, with more hope for miracles, would be electing Clinton.

In addition, I think Hillary would be an excellent president. She’s more qualified than any candidate in a generation. And whatever you think of her politics, you have to admire her courage. She’s seen how republicans attack a democratic president, endlessly and without scruple. She’s endured those attacks for her whole career and has to know how much worse it would be from inside the Oval Office. And as the birthers and the secret muslim believers have made Obama the target of their racism, Clinton would face the added pressure of the entire Old White Boy’s’ Club flailing to hang onto their unearned privilege. And she has shown that she can stand up to it. 

Sure, she’s not Elizabeth Warren. She’s not going to break up the banks, which definitely should be broken up. She is effectively part of a political dynasty, which makes me queasy. However she is the only candidate appropriately alarmed by mass shootings, which is a big deal to me. She’s sure to uphold and build on the progress made by Obama. She has the best grasp of international politics and the biggest stake in gender equality. And she will drive the privileged class right around the bend. Yes, she is the pragmatic choice, but that’s just a bonus. Clinton is the radical choice.

Star Wars: The Force Progresses

8 01 2016

I’ve got a spoilery feeling about this…

The major complaint I’m hearing about Star Wars Episode VII is how closely it mirrors Episode IV, beat for beat, motif for motif. That’s accurate, but it doesn’t bother me, for two reasons.

Reason 1: there’s a line in the movie about fighting the only fight, the eternal fight between good and evil. This could be taken to imply an Incal-style cyclical nature of the Star Wars universe; the same events played out by more or less reincarnated spirits in the endless ebb and flow of light and dark. I realize this is a stretch, and far too wooby-wooby for most. And it doesn’t change the simple fact that rehashing a successful original is the lifeblood of Hollywood. Many fans who both love Star Wars and hunger for fresh, rich stories are wishing The Force Awakens had taken more risks.

Which brings me to reason 2: the movie did take two very large risks. It is an action blockbuster starring a woman and a black guy. It shouldn’t be risky to put someone besides a white dude in the spotlight, but again, we all know how Hollywood works. Now, for the first time ever, a woman and a man of color are leading the biggest entertainment franchise in the western world. If the rest of the movie had to be overly familiar to make that happen, I’m okay with it.

Episode VII had to do one thing (besides making boatloads of money, which it could hardly fail to do): it had to redeem the Star Wars universe from Episodes I-III. It had to bring back the magic. I admit, when the music started and the words “Episode VII” appeared on the screen, my reaction was less plunging into a beloved imaginary world and more “holy wamprats, the grip this thing has had on my entire life.” But soon after that, I was hooked. The magic is absolutely back. With that mission accomplished, I’m hoping the movies to come will push the narrative boundaries and strive for real cinematic greatness. But if they end up being more of the same, I’ve still got my Incal-y half-assed karma theory.


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