In a recent interview with EW, Joss Whedon compared contemporary media culture to the gun gag in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom:
“A movie has to be complete within itself; it can’t just build off the first one or play variations. You know that thing in Temple of Doom where they revisit the shooting trick? … That’s what you don’t want. And I feel that’s what all of culture is becoming — it’s becoming that moment.”
Whedon refers to the scene in Temple of Doom that repeats an original gag from Raiders of the Lost Ark: Indiana Jones, faced with a nasty swordsman, pulls out his gun and shoots the guy rather than fight. In Temple of Doom there are TWO swordsmen and Jones winds up fighting them. The original scene was practically an accident: Harrison Ford famously had dysentery and didn’t want to do the fight scene. But Temple of Doom provides us with a wink to the camera, a self-aware reference that does nothing to build on the last film, but repeats itself with variations. It is referentiality and repetition in place of originality.
Which brings me, inevitably, to this summer. It’s been said that this summer was one of the worst on record, and that’s not quite accurate. Actually, there were a number of films that did excellently in terms of box office returns (Despicable Me 2, Iron Man 3, Fast and Furious 6, Man of Steel). There were also a number of big budget, high-profile flops, the most significant being The Lone Ranger and The Wolverine. But for the most part, this was a perfectly good summer for the powers that be.
So why the long faces? Let us consider the quality of our returns this year. Let us consider the fact that many anticipated films fell painfully flat, and several films were touted because they … well, they didn’t suck. Pacific Rim was my second most anticipated film of the summer, and while I don’t think it was a poor film, it was far from the quality of what I expect from del Toro. What pains me most about this summer was not that the films were bad – many of them were not – but that by and large they were just kind of boring.
It was a summer full of sequels and franchises, where the same jokes were repeated for the fifth time, where the same characters went through the same arcs. The films that attempted to kickstart new franchises – The Lone Ranger, R.I.P.D. – were major disappointments, largely because even they were a re-hashing of things that had already been done before. While I was bothered by the level of destruction and needless collateral damage in Man of Steel, my biggest beef with it came down to the fact that it just wasn’t interesting. A lot of things exploded and I did not care. It was big and apocalyptic and boring.
This does not bode well for the future of the blockbuster, my friends. Studios like Warner Brothers and Universal have arisen with fairly blanket statements that new, original content just isn’t going to sell. This is not because there’s no new, original content out there but that the original stuff (like R.I.P.D.) is pretty much a carbon copy of old stuff. Franchises and sequels, the big studios seem to say, are the way forward for our summer viewing. So Marvel has their superhero slate planned into 2021, the big news in moviedom is whether or not Ben Affleck will be a good Batman, and we all question how many Fast and Furious films will be made before the Rock’s biceps get their own screen credit.
No one wants to take risks anymore. We forget that Pirates of the Caribbean started life as an accident: Disney didn’t want Johnny Depp in the role of Jack Sparrow; they though that the character was too outlandish and bizarre to make a hit with audiences. Robert Downey Jr.’s casting in Iron Man was a major risk because of his addict past. While neither franchise has managed to duplicate the surprising brilliance of the original, those are two examples where a risk was actually taken and paid off. None of the ‘franchise launchers’ this summer were risky – they depended on actors we already knew, in plots that we had all seen before.
There was only one semi-franchise film I saw this summer that was worth the price of admission: The World’s End, the finale of the loose Cornetto Trilogy directed by Edgar Wright and starring Nick Frost and Simon Pegg. It was the sole summer movie that played perfectly, a balance of humor, pathos, intelligence and, yes, big robots (or faux-bots or smashy-smashy-eggmen). It was an original idea from an original team, and while it referenced various pop culture points, it will hold up as well ten years down the line as it does today. The humor, the relationships and the account of human existence is timeless.
Hollywood remains mired in the 90s, scared to go outside the box, scared to try something new, and will kick and scream into the future while still paying lip service to the capabilities of technology. They got away with franchise films this year, but for how long will they be able to sustain public interest? How many versions of the same plot will fly with audiences before people simply stop going? This summer they made it through. Will that be true for the next, and the next and the next? Or will we come to 2021 and wake up to discover that Fast and Furious 12 has hit cinemas, and there’s no one going to see it? We’re reaching maximum capacity here, guys. Something’s got to give.