2016 was a tipping point for me. Which year was it (or will it be) for you?
The tipping point I’m referencing has to do with the increasingly ubiquitous franchise film. Its power - amoebic and absorbent in quality - has never been greater. Of the top 10 grossing films year to date, eight are more “property” than piece of art - set in a cinematic universe or a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, or, failing that, a sequel to or remake of a beloved film.
With very little variation, those declarations would have been just as true last year or any of the five or so previous (at least). What wouldn’t have been true is my near total ambivalence to the franchise film. That is new, though it has been a long time coming and has been egged on by my own personal circumstances.
This is funny because just last year, buoyed by the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road, Creed and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I had nothing praise for the state of the franchises.
It’s also funny because nothing really changed in the intervening 12 months. Hollywood kept churning out the same kind of properties at a gradually accelerating pace. If you’re disenchanted with (or simply bored by) franchise fare, you have more alternatives than ever to see original work and more avenues through which to access it.
There was nothing of the quality of Mad Max: Fury Road or Creed this year, but mostly it was me that changed, though even “change” doesn’t feel like an adequate term to describe how I came to this point.
The most ostensible change is fatherhood. Caring for a 14-month-old has its rewards aplenty, but extra time at the cineplex isn’t one of them. The slow realization as the year has progressed, and as I’ve missed “event” after “event” at the box office, is that I haven’t missed anything of consequence, at least not when it comes to those mega-moments that are supposed to galvanize pop culture.
The thing is, I don’t think that realization is a defense mechanism or a realignment of my personal priorities. It was a painstaking wait to get to the likes of Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea, for example, and I still believe, broadly, in the power of seeing film where it is meant to be seen - in a darkened theater where the powers of a filmmaker are allowed to overtake your other senses.
What I no longer believe in is the ability of Hollywood’s major studios to make their franchise events, well, events. And how could I, with a Star Wars movie, and two or three Marvel and DC movies on the calendar from here to eternity? Most of these films are fine. Many of them are even better than fine. None of them are special. That’s mostly down to saturation of the marketplace, but it’s also a comment on the antiseptic quality of the films - this unshakeable feeling that what you’re watching isn’t just a movie, but is also an A/B test and a merchandising vehicle and a story that is not meant to be self-contained because that would ruin those carefully laid marketing plans that run through the 2020s.
The Washington Post's Ann Hornaday, in a piece from earlier this year, argues that the big studios must embrace their role as guardians/curators of their own intellectual property beyond the bottom line, citing Walt Disney and Warner Brothers as an ongoing case study that represents two sides of the same coin:
In recent years, the studios have decided the best way to minimize financial risk and maximize profits by looking to their own libraries to reboot, remake and spin off — the cinematic equivalent of poking around the attic to see if there’s anything worth spit-polishing and painting to make new(ish) again. Intellectual property, whether in the form of past movies or the rights to novels, comic books, TV shows, video games and — heaven help us — iPhone apps, has become the dominant purview of studios, which have depended on adaptations for their material since their inception.
Where the fatal misunderstanding occurs is when the studio executives believe that simply repurposing preexisting material with a built-in fan base is enough. If this summer proves anything, it’s that aesthetic values such as meaningful stories, psychologically complex characters, risky casting and directorial vision are no longer properly consigned solely to idiosyncratic “art” films. They count just as much when it comes to the mission of the most bottom-line-oriented studios. And as they develop their own thematic approaches and signatures — depending on whether they see their mission as exploitation or stewardship — the studios’ IP management has become its own form of auteurism.
Hornaday’s argument offers hope, but it’s quite a bit sunnier than I’m prepared to be about the franchise work being churned out by the big studios. That’s not to say that it’s all bad, nor is it to say that films, writ large, are in trouble if Hollywood can’t be better.
It is to say that what they are doing collectively just isn’t very special anymore. The feeling of seeing The Avengers assemble or of watching an all-new Star Wars scroll as John Williams’ familiar score blares has been watered down, and permanently so.