It is not often that I can get through an article on the film industry and only disagree with the very last line. Laurence Caromba’s Studios with a licence to sequel (Published 7 March, I know I’m late to the party) gave me the opportunity to reflect on this fact, because it actually managed it. The article itself deals with Hollywood’s love affair with sequels and adaptations, eloquently laying bare the economic incentives and pressures that caused and propagate this state of affairs. It is a strong piece of writing that loses some momentum when it veers into value judgements. Not that value judgements are wrong. They’re things we’re all allowed to make.
It’s just that last line (and, to be completely honest, the preceding paragraph) that kept niggling at me. Is the new crop of films released by Marvel and Friends truly that “empty and soulless?” They are adaptation, sure. They are sequels, undoubtedly, but to compare them to Jaws and Indiana Jones is not only cherry picking, but missing another important consequence of the big Disney takeover.
When comparing today’s films against the charms of Indiana Jones, it seems that the writer is using quirk as the main criterion to bemoan the state of modern films. To be sure, Indy is chock-full of quirk and I love him for it, but a perceived shortage of the stuff is not exactly reason to bemoan the state of the industry.
It views the past through rose-tinted spectacles. Indiana Jones might be the archetypal adventurous romp, but that doesn’t mean that its peers are necessarily works of genius. There are more than enough examples of “original” drivel making tons of money in the past to seriously question the veracity of the claim that spec scripts are necessarily better.
Adapted material is also not necessarily worse. The Hunger Games franchise is coining it with films that are uncharacteristically nuanced for tentpole films. Would it have been better to rather make two original ideas? Maybe, but it’s doubtful that it would have necessarily resulted in better movies. It would almost definitely have resulted in less money.
Viewers are growing more nuanced. We are disillusioned with simple narratives about the world and expect films to mirror this. The upshot is that big dumb action movies are seemingly becoming less and less stupid. Take Iron Man, for instance. The third instalment in the series was as quirky and self-deprecating as Indiana Jones ever was, but with added nuance. Here we have a film built around giant action set pieces, while still managing to touch on issues like media manipulation, mass hysteria, PTSD, and obsession. Or the new Captain America: drone warfare, the patriot act, government espionage, moral culpability, and preventative violence are a few of the main themes explicitly tackled by the movie. Let’s not even get started on movies like The Dark Knight.
I lament that wonderful original movies aren’t getting made as much. I wish the ones that are made didn’t often get overshadowed by the studio’s behemoths. Much of what the article says is very true and worrying, but not for the reasons posited. The big, brainless films will probably always be with us. It’s why most people watch movies. I don’t believe, however, that we are on a downward trend. I, like the article’s author, don’t expect these chart-toppers to be great works of cinema, but I do believe that we are getting closer and closer to the point where they actually are.