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.

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