Now that the summer movie season is winding down, and we have a few solid months of the crap-fest known as that fall movie season ahead of us, I think the time is right for a post-summer autopsy. This was a big season for the mega franchises. Star Trek, Iron Man, Wolverine, Monsters Inc, and Despicable Me all got sequels; Superman got a reboot (is anyone else starting to hate that term?); Gore Verbinski released an updated take on The Lone Ranger; M. Night Shyamalan came out with a Will Smith-led sci-fi film; even World War Z got a film treatment (starring Brad Pitt!).
On paper this was a good season, but in actuality there were no clear winners this summer. Audiences and critics were more divided by this year’s summer blockbusters than they were about the films of years past. The films that should have been solid (like Star Trek Into Darkness, Iron Man 3, Wolverine, and Man of Steel) if only because they’re established properties (anyone getting tired of THAT phrase yet?) all seemed to hover somewhere between pointless and insulting, and the films that were more of a stretch (like Lone Ranger and World War Z) failed to launch with audiences and critics.
I think the problem is that nerd fare works best when there is a healthy balance of original material and established properties in theaters. Too often sequels are pointless and unnecessary retreads of the originals (which makes Star Trek Into Darkness a rarity: a pointless sequel AND a pointless remake). Executives, though, seem to feel safest with the bankability of remakes, sequels, reboots, prequels, and adaptations of established properties, and are therefore less willing to back the next Steven Spielberg.
Hollywood’s over-reliance on “franchises” sequels, spin-offs, adaptations, remakes, prequels, and reboots is nothing new, and some folks have been pointing it out for a while now. 2013 was no exception. Of the top ten films to come out this year only one (ONE!) was based on an original story.
This isn’t just bad for moviegoers in general. It is also bad for the future of film fandom. I know this is hard to believe, but there was a time when the cinema screens were filled with scrappy original films made by equally plucky young directors. What a bummer it is that these days there is less and less room in theaters for original films, especially original fare for fanboys and fangirls.
To make matters worse, the single-minded pursuit of the 13-40 age demographic has led to the endless production of films that, essentially, all look and act the same. Gritty enough to not be childish, but not so gritty to get an R rating, all about the same length (i.e., unnecessarily long), all with the same blend of action, humor, and titillation, all occurring at basically the same moment in the plot (it doesn’t help that so many scripts are now based on a page by page formula)
The last, and frankly most damning, problem with this summer’s crop of geek-fare is that they’re almost universally about how white men save the day. NPR’s Linda Holmes was right to point out that “In many, many parts of the country right now, if you want to go to see a movie in the theater and see a current movie about a woman — any story about any woman that isn’t a documentary or a cartoon — you can’t.” She was right. When she wrote back in June 90% of the movies in theaters were about men or groups of men. I’d guess that this figure would be higher if we only look at nerd-films. What Linda doesn’t mention is where are the characters of color are. Where were the black characters, the Latino characters, the LGBTQ characters?
Instead of getting new original films featuring new and original characters, we’re stuck with endless iterations of the same films, featuring the same characters (who all look the same), all unfolding in the exact same way–often down to the minute. Looking for a different kind of sci-fi film? Sorry, kid, unless you live in a city that has an active indie movie circuit, you’re outta luck. Looking for something other than a square-jawed white male lead? Go back to communist Sweden, you liberal pinko. Looking for something–anything– that’s more heart than cold studio calculation? Sorry, not happening.
All of this is making me appreciate more and more what’s going on in the world of indie sci-fi. In fact (and I know this is a long way away from Man of Steel or Star Trek) but the most surprising film this summer was Shane Caruth’s Upstream Color which, in my opinion, was his own personal THX-1138: a film so audacious that it has GOT to be a portent of a bright future. The same is true for Europa Report which, if the reviews and word of mouth buzz can be believed, is this year’s District 9 (sorry Elysium). And while films like Elysium, Worlds End, and Pacific Rim give me some hope that the days of blockbusting original fare are not behind us, that hope is tempered by the fact that 2014’s biggest films are, again, sequels, prequels, remakes, and reboots.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ll be first in line next summer to see X-Men: Days of Future Past, Spider-Man 2, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Guardians of the Galaxy and whatever other nerd-movies are in store. But I’ll be less excited then than I was this summer, and even more sad to see those films taking the screens that could have gone to original films featuring original, diverse characters in original stories.