Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Heath Holland On...The Endless Franchise

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine conflicted.

A wise lady once said "The world is changed: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost." That was Galadriel in The Lord of The Rings, and I’m pretty sure she wasn’t talking about the Middle Earth, but about how every movie playing at the Lothlorien Cineplex 20 was a sequel or an adaptation of one of her favorite '80s TV shows. Galadriel? BIG Magnum P.I. fan. We’ll get back to Galadriel in a second.

I’m writing this on the cusp of the release of Iron Man 3. The summer movie season is upon us; sequels, franchises, and superhero stories will comprise MOST of what hits theaters for the next four months. Iron Man 3 is the first movie in Marvel’s Phase Two initiative, which itself can be seen as sort of a sequel to their Phase One initiative. Phase One brought us Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, Captain America, and culminated with the highly successful-I-can’t-believe-they-pulled-it-off The Avengers. And now they’re going to try to do it all again.

Marvel is owned by Disney, and Disney’s plan is apparently to follow this same pattern until everyone is so sick of them that they are no longer lucrative. We all know Phase One only ended when it did because of the Mayan calendar. Why make movies when everyone will be dead? But that didn’t happen, so Phase Two, here we go.
It’s not just Marvel movies that are following this pattern, either. When Disney announced their purchase of Lucasfilm from George Lucas to the tune of four BILLION dollars (has it been long enough for me to make a Doctor Evil joke?), they also announced that they would be making Episodes VII, VIII, and IX. There were also plans to keep solo movies and side adventures in theaters; thanks to a recent announcement, we now we have an even clearer idea about what they meant by that: new Star Wars films in theaters each year, starting in 2015. That means that between Episode VII: The Arthritic Menace and Episode VIII: The Rebellion Has Fallen And Can’t Get Up, we’ll likely get at least TWO side Star Wars adventures, just like how this year we’re getting both an Iron Man and Thor sequel apart from The Avengers.

I am not the first person to write about these plans for Star Wars. Patrick wrote a column about it months ago, and you should read that, if you haven’t. If you have, read it again. The fact is, film fandom is entirely divided on how they feel about all these Star Wars movies, superhero movies, and sequels to semi-successful movies that were based on TV shows or cartoons. It seems that there’s a LOT more people who are skeptical and are worried about over-saturation than there are who are unreservedly excited.

Upon the April 17th announcement that Star Wars would be in theaters every year from 2015 onward, dozens of embittered and disenfranchised fans climbed the nearest skyscraper and threw themselves off of it. Well, alright, it was 4 people defiantly jumping from a tree house that had a bloody C-3PO painted on the side. Okay, you got me, it was really just one person: a Sioux City, Iowa man, 46, who tumbled off the couch after falling asleep while watching Attack Of The Clones. Cheetos were everywhere. The point is, far from it being universally recognized as fantastic news, people are skeptical and unsure about the whole thing.

I live in a house divided: I am excited by the idea of all of these movies. You could even say comforted, because I like knowing that the movies that mean something to me and go back to my childhood are going to be a mainstay for years. My wife sees it very differently. She holds those movies just as sacred as I do, but she’s worried that new content will sully and taint (tee hee) the pure memories from her past, that Disney and companies like them will take these beloved properties that we hold dear and ruin them.

I’ve really been trying to examine all the angles on this, figure out where people are coming from and what their hopes and fears are surrounding these forthcoming movies. I’ve talked to people I know, but I’ve also talked to strangers, like the lady in the bookstore wearing the “I Love Star Wars” pin. When I asked her how she felt about more Star Wars, she said she just hoped George Lucas didn’t meddle. When I asked her how she felt about a new movie each year, she just kind of shrugged. So I suppose there are three camps: the excited, the skeptical, and the shruggers. To be honest, I’m not sure she knew what I was talking about. She had a deer-in-the-headlights look for most of our interaction. Perhaps I should have put my pants back on.

It’s important to note that all of these movies could continue at this pace for a LONG time. Gwyneth Paltrow is out making her rounds to promote Iron Man 3 and has said that she thinks this is the last movie with Iron Man. However, Kevin Feige (Marvel President of Production, aka Marvel Movie Man) has made it clear that should the actors tied to these movies choose not to return, Disney/Marvel will recast and move on. There will be no reboots or do-overs. The goal is to follow the pattern set by James Bond and continue the ongoing story without starting over. As long as that remains the goal, it appears that we’ll be seeing these characters (in some form) for years.
I tend to find comfort in this. I think it MAY be because I have two and a half decades of comic collecting under my belt, and have therefore been wired to accept that the story never ends and that just because I like the way Wolverine is drawn in issue 55, he might look completely different in issue 56. With comics, creative teams are constantly changing, sometimes in the middle of story arcs. So if Chris Hemsworth decides he doesn’t want to be Thor anymore, I’m more than prepared to see some new guy pick up the hammer. I’m NOT saying that it’s okay to crank out a product every single year without putting your best effort forth. I do, however, really like the fact that Marvel has committed to no reboots. That shows a level of…let’s call it “stick-to-it-ness, that I am pleased by. If they had the Spider-Man rights, Amazing Spider-Man might have ended up a very different movie. And I really liked that movie, but think of how much better it would have been if they didn’t retell Spidey’s origin AGAIN. How many times does poor Peter Parker have to get bitten? The answer is 37.

However, as my wife is very quick to point out, movies are art; to exploit the affection we have for them can easily cheapen the whole experience. Movies are a snapshot of a time and a place, and she gets a certain “feeling” when she sees those original movies that she is very concerned can never be replicated. I think it’s probably more dangerous to continue something like Star Wars than it is to continue the Marvel Universe, because, at one point in time, Star Wars was one single iconic film, not a brand. I suppose that’s part of the problem, too. Disney purchased Lucasfilm not just to make more movies, but because it’s a brand that they know they can endlessly exploit. If we thought Darth Vader was already being used to market everything already, it’s about to get even worse. Disney has near unlimited funds and a PR machine the size of the Death Star. We ain’t seen nothing yet. Tatooine Tampons? Dagobah Deodorant, for when life feels like a swamp planet?

And here’s where things get dicey for me. Because like all those Marvel comics I’ve read over the last 25 years, Star Wars has been a brand for me for almost that long. I’ve read over a hundred of the novels, I’ve collected the comics, I’ve eaten terrible Taco Bell and Burger King food for crappy toys of R2-D2 and (D)Jango Fett. I’m a willing victim of the Lucas marketing machine.

Even though I find the stories of the prequels to be lacking, I love the worlds that those movies built, and find myself so eager to play in them. That’s why I don’t care for Patton Oswalt’s routine about wanting to go back in time and kill George Lucas before he could make the prequels. I think it’s hateful and disrespectful for Oswalt, who clearly loves the world Lucas built, to write a bit about murdering one of his heroes. So many people say George Lucas raped their childhood, but they’re all too willing to lay their money down for anything related to the galaxy far, far away.

But I suppose the point is fair: no, we don’t want to see how the sausage is made. I don’t need to trace a young Boba Fett’s every step and see how he ended up being the most feared bounty hunter in the galaxy. George Lucas is not very good at writing dialog or directing, or understanding what his fans wanted from his movies. But he IS great at tapping into the myths of our past and creating landscapes and planets where good can fight evil. I mean, he did, after all, create Darth Vader. Therefore, the prospect of more Star Wars with a dedicated effort to return to the more adventurous and carefree style of storytelling of the original trilogy has me very excited.

My wife? Not nearly as much. She is reserving judgment on the new Star Wars movies until she sees them. She’s very excited about seeing Han Solo on screen again, but she’s apprehensive because Harrison Ford is in his seventies and can’t play the role forever. What happens when they decide to follow through on the rumored “Young Han Solo” movie? And for that matter, what happens when Chris Hemsworth doesn’t want to be Thor anymore? She’s built an attachment to these actors as these characters. She doesn’t want to see Han Solo or Thor played by another actor. When these actors can’t or won’t play those characters anymore, it’s time to retire that character for a while, maybe forever. This is where a movie as a piece of art becomes all-important. Until pretty recently, a movie existed alone, or in a trilogy. Now, with Disney’s plan, movies are now just product, more disposable than ever. Don’t like the new Marvel movie? Don’t worry, there will be another one along in six months that may be your cup of tea. Don’t like the new Star Wars movie? Try the next one. You won’t have to wait long.
We grow attached to these works of art. There is so much affection for Star Wars because it was a landmark event. Even the two sequels were landmarks, though it’s important to remember that a lot of the people who saw the first Star Wars in the theater felt about Return of the Jedi as we now feel about The Phantom Menace. The Ewoks were the original Jar Jar. There were many who felt the story didn’t end with the consequences that it should have, especially after the darkness established in The Empire Strikes Back.

Before it was a product, Star Wars was a remarkable achievement of independent cinema. What George Lucas has failed to see in the years following that first movie is that you can’t change a work of art. My wife related it like this: you can’t go back and “touch up” the Mona Lisa. You can’t paint eyebrows on her, or give her a wider smile. It’s art. It speaks for itself and stands as a captured moment in time. Every time Lucas adds Darth Vader yelling “Noooooo” or puts a fuzzy alien in the middle distance, he’s painting eyebrows on the Mona Lisa. And by continuing the adventures of Han, Luke, and Leia, we’re trotting out the Mona Lisa once more and forcing it into a place it was not originally intended to go. If you have that painting hanging in the Millennium Falcon, then my work is done.

"But Hollywood," you say, "didn’t you just say that you were excited about new Star Wars and Marvel movies?" I sure did, dear reader, and I am DEFINITELY excited about the future. This is an interesting time for us as film fans, and there doesn’t seem to be a "right" or a "wrong" opinion on this to me. Like it or not, this is the direction things are going. Recently I lamented the loss of the way things used to be, but realized I just have to accept that things have changed. I could spend my time moaning about what we’ve lost, but in doing so, I could be missing out on what we’re getting.

I love movies, and I will always look for the good. In many ways it feels like we’ve returned to the days of the old black and white serials; only instead of every week or two, we get a new adventure once or twice a year, and with special effects our parents and grandparents could only have dreamt of. There’s value to that, isn’t there? And everything is a cycle. This current cycle, populated by costumed heroes and digital magic, will eventually end, giving way to something new, or, with luck, something old.

We ARE losing something by Disney, Warner Brothers, and pretty much every other studio cranking out endless sequels and cashing in on our love of these characters. When you push out so many movies based on previously established properties, you’re sacrificing originality and creativity. Of last year’s ten highest grossing films, not one of them was an original idea. They were all based on a previous movie or a comic book or a young adult book series. As we fall even deeper into franchises, we run the risk of seeing fewer and fewer movies like The Wrestler, or Slumdog Millionaire, or even original blockbusters like Avatar.

Still, in spite of the near omnipresence of superheroes and movies on their sixth or seventh sequel, there was enough room for films like Django Unchained, Argo, The Master, and Adam’s beloved Silver Linings Playbook. There may be less of it, but that original content is still there.
Galadriel was right, things have changed A LOT, and what we once had is in danger of slipping away, or is gone already. She should know, because she’s in a franchise herself. But we’ve traded what we’ve lost for something we’ve never had before: big action movies with limitless potential. With Marvel, Star Wars, Star Trek, Superman, and too many others to name, the sky is no longer the limit. We can see and do ANYTHING. The future of these movies and franchises lies wide open in front of us. In many ways, we have the best of both worlds: the huge summer franchise films AND the unique creator-driven movies. As long as we still have both, I remain optimistic. I’ll be at the theater, seeing everything I can.

Save me a seat.


  1. This is a great and LONG (I mean that in the best possible way) article/post. I never know what to call these things. Column? Heath, you touched on a lot of interesting things and I agree with most of, if not all of, them. I'm pretty optimistic about what Marvel/Disney are doing because, speaking on the release Iron Man 3, they hired Shane Black to write/direct Iron Man 3! Who thinks of that guy when thinking about a "3rd" in any series let alone a series Marvel knows will make money. They could've done so little, slapped Iron Man 3 on it and it would've made butt-loads of money. I want to see Iron Man 3 because I love that character but I also want to see it because I love Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, so I want to see what that guy does next. Same thing goes for Edgar Wright and James Gunn for the respected Marvel films. Marvel seems to really care and I think we can/should breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy what's to come.

    1. That's what I'm saying, Mike! Oh, and you can call my columns "joints," like "have you read the new Hollywood Heath Holland joint?" Just kidding. No I'm not.

      I feel like Disney has handled Marvel pretty well since they took over. I was not really into Iron Man 2 so much, but that's the only one that's really stumbled for me. I think it might have taught them something, because now we have Shane Black and RDJ together again. I'm hoping for a Val Kilmer cameo.

      But that's what makes me optimistic for these Star Wars movies and for the future Marvel movies. They know they're going to make sweet Benjamins because putting those characters in anything is like a license to print money. But they've put really good people on their projects. Kenneth Branagh to direct Thor. Think about that! It's crazy. They've made some bold choices in order to satisfy not just mainstream audiences, but to make the movies GOOD.

      So that's kind of what I'm trying to say in my column/joint. It's not so great that original ideas seem to be a small portion of our options, but at least some of what we're getting has been decent. I don't want a Hangover 3 because it's pointless. I don't want or need continuing adventures of those guys. But if something is well done, bring it on. Because it SEEMS like thought is being put into this. I have enjoyed almost all of the Marvel movies. In fact, I'd rather watch those movies than read the comics for those characters now. I NEVER thought I'd say that. So, as you said, let's take a sigh of relief and enjoy it. We've certainly waited long enough for this.

  2. Heath, it's cool that you and your wife get to have such debates. Mine likes Star Wars but she doesn't want to discuss it (or any other film really).

    I'm of the opinion that bad sequels, prequels, remakes and special editions can never destroy a good movie. I'm perfectly capable of divorcing the good material from the bad and enjoying whatever "works". I never root against a movie but I think there's likely to be some weak entries in a franchise such as planned. And that's fine.

    1. I do feel very lucky that my wife is so willing to engage in such debates. She changes my mind on a LOT of things. I'll be all like, "rar rar rar!" And she'll go "but what about blah dee blah?" And then I just crumble, because I realize I was being too narrow. Like this week's column. The genesis was something very different.

      What I'm saying is, I am Heath's wife. The good columns? I write those.

  3. "But Hollywood," you say, "didn’t you just say that you were excited about new Star Wars and Marvel movies?" OMG, the "Hollywood" thing has gone to Heath's head everybody... run! :-P

    Seriously though, your apprehension seems to be more that there is no unifying artist or creative person/vision guiding the upcoming "Star Wars" and Marvel superhero movie cavalcade (with their 'you're cool' due given to the Marvel suits for stating there will be no reboots). Re-reading the... uh, manifesto (Har!) it strikes me that I don't see creative names attached to these movies other than Lucas for "Star Wars" (who basically got a settlement for Disney to let his "SW" children go live with mama Disney from now on) and Shane Black for "Iron Man 3." We know a few of these are in relatively safe hands (JJ Abrams with "Star Wars VII," Josh Whedon with "Avengers 2," etc.) but I'd be more worried about who's going to write and direct future "Thor" and "Iron Man" movies than whether Hemsworth or Downey come back to play them. You're entire column could be summoned up with 'I know these companies can afford to put these movies out, but whose vision is being followed and does/do he/she/them have enough creative juice to not fuck things up?'

    You're a big Tolkien/"Lord of the Rings" fan Heath, so the fact Peter Jackson is shepherding "The Hobbit" prequels doesn't give you pause that Warner Bros./MGM pushed hard for these movies (and Jackson too to make us forget his poor track record in-between "LOTR" franchises, "King Kong" notwithstanding) in a naked cash grab for fanboy (and plenty of mainstream) cash. Heck, even Jackson himself is probably using "The Hobbit" as an excuse to push his technological agenda (48 fps 3D) but, as proven by their track record and the first "Hobbit" prequel, there is a creative artist and a team of talented craftsmen in place that know what they're doing. Like Disney did signing Abrams to do "Star Wars" (the best thing they did after they bought the franchise) calming the nerd herd with signs that they get it would soothe your worries. Just sayin'.


    Wait, what the hell is Wayne Wong doing here? Krzysztof Kieslowski's THREE COLORS: BLUE (1993) on Blu-ray.

    'I see you, but where's the huntsman?' Kieslowski's THREE COLORS: WHITE (1994) on Blu-ray.

    RIP Krzysztof Kieslowski (1941-1996) :'( THREE COLORS: RED (1994) on Blu-ray.

    'Nothing can change a man's basic nature.' Jean-Pierre Melville's LE CERCLE ROUGE (1970) on Blu-ray.


    And I'm spent! :-)

  4. Fantastic article/column/joint/shuttlecock HHH. I think as a whole it accurately captures the true middle ground that I think the vast majority of people are really at (because I assume everyone is just like me, its so much easier).

    It’s a tricky topic to come up with a definitive answer for. For every argument I try to mount claiming that there is an artistic merit there that needs to be preserved and protected, I can come up with a counter argument that these properties are to be exploited and have never been a stand alone piece of art during my life time, and for many of them (particularly from the comics side of things) were never intended to be so.

    Marvel, DC, Star Wars, Star Trek, I have never known any of these properties as a single piece of art. All of them were well into the process of being exploited and had become franchises before I was even aware of them. So I think the side of the argument I come down on more often is that churning them out is fine and (maybe) encouraged, but at the end of the day I'm only going to give a damn about the ones that are made well and (I guess) are good pieces of art. Ill probably watch the entries with poor artistic value once when they first come out, but a good quality solid movie ill watch endlessly til the day I die.

    I ultimately think its cool at these properties which I have an emotional investment in are having such a massive heyday in the movies at the moment. I've stopped getting angry/frustrated at the disappointments, and am just trying to enjoy this time while its here.

    1. That's well said. As long as they make movies that are GOOD, then I'll want to see them. I do kind of feel like Iron Man 2 was a misstep, but I think that has now been adjusted. It's surprising that as many of them have been as good as they have.

      But I am a little worried about Star Wars. Just because it's a very different thing. I mean, I'm on board...but I'm nervous, too.

  5. Nice dissertation Dr Hollywood Holland. I have a good feeling about the trilogy films but the solo movies they have going on in between the new trilogy feels like overkill a bit. Shoot me first if you must but I never understood the worship in the films about Boba Fett (the books about him are pretty good though). These other films they are talking about seem like they might work better on TV a la Clone Wars. That being said though my note to JJ about new SW film, make sure it feels real, you can use CGI but I better feel like I can reach out and touch it (like John Hammond wants it to be)

    1. Did you just give me an honorary doctorate? I will totally take that. Oh, wow. DOCTOR Hollywood Holland. That's got a nice ring to it.

      As for JJ Abrams and realistic special effects, I though the effects in his first Trek movie looked great. I mean, lens flares aside (they don't bother me), his aliens seemed to be a mix of prosthetics and CGI. Everything seems to have a weighty, chunky, real-world feel, too. As clean as the ship is, it feels like a set. Like they're there. I don't get the artificial feel that some CGI has.

  6. Hmmm...I feel like I'm an excited, skeptical shrugger - is that possible? I like to consider myself a pretty optimistic person going into just about any movie - why even start a movie if you don't at least think you might get some enjoyment from it? - for something in the Star Wars franchise, like the upcoming trilogy, I am both excited and a little skeptical. Probably because I got burnt by Star Wars three times in the past 15 years or so. I went into every one of the prequels with excitement and high hopes but they were all pretty much dashed - as I think you've discussed, though, I did still enjoy being able to spend some more time in that Universe, so even if I'm disappointed by some or many elements (I'll NEVER comprehend the decision to cast HC), I like ALL of the Star Wars movies, even if I'm not IN like with all of them. For the upcoming trilogy, I can't be the only person who grew up watching the OT and was dying for them to just continue the story with that cast, so there's definitely part of me that's EXCITED about the prospect, SKEPTICAL of whether or not they can pull it off and preemptively SHRUGGING my shoulders over the possibility that they'll be serviceable but not great additions to that Universe, because I am very secure in the fact that I psychologically went back in time and put a buttplug in my childhood so it can no longer be raped (that's what those are for right?). You know the old saying: "Rape me once, shame on you; rape me again, shame on ME."

    So, like you, I'm basically okay with eye/mind-candy Franchise Films getting churned out by Hollywood, because, as you say, more artful, quality stuff is still coming out. My concern, and I suspect this is very much the case, is that we're not getting MORE of those more substantive films BECAUSE they're getting pushed aside by the more widely palatable and instantly gratifying Blockbusters.

    Like many of the ideas you've put forth about the state of the modern film industry though, I think it ties back to larger societal issues. Everywhere you look (and I'm thinking of the Food Industry in particular but it's there in just about every industry) quality is sacrificed for marketability and profitablity. So who's to blame: Hollywood (not you, Hollywood, the place) or the Consumer?

    1. Wow, what a great comment. To address your last comment, I think we're all responsible, in some fashion. We like big blockbuster movies, so they make more big blockbuster movies. I think WE (this group of people) are doing a good job of supporting different kinds of movies* where we can, but I don't think the average movie ticket buyer cares about smaller movies.

      And your thoughts on Star Wars seem to completely echo my own. I love going and spending time in that world. It's that world that gave me some of the comics and novels that I love. And some of those movies work, like most of the action set pieces. But action set pieces don't a movie make, and I also don't understand a lot of the decisions made in that movie. Like why start with an 8 year old Anakin Skywalker? George Lucas could have started that later than he did. I always thought we'd get a 20 or 30 year old Anakin. I mean, at the end of Return of the Jedi when Luke takes the mask of Vader, that dude is OLD. Return of the Jedi is only about 30 years after Episode III. Those must have been some HARD years! But then, The Phantom Menace had Darth Maul and some excellent lightsaber battles. And I like the mythos created around the Jedi order that makes them monastic and celibate. I even like the padawan system. There's a lot I do like in those movies, but there's fundamental decisions that I don't understand. Still, George Lucas doesn't deserve to die for it.

      *I try to support the smaller movies that appeal to me, but living in my region does make it difficult. For instance, I live in the most populated, arts friendly city in my state. We have a thriving hippie community and lots of arts-friendly events. Yet, Rob Zombie's new movie Lords of Salem didn't open here AT ALL. Not on one single screen. And I was DYING to see it.