Two weeks ago, actor, musician, and writer Donald Glover, also known as Childish Gambino, released the album “Awaken, My Love.” It’s (rightly) received critical acclaim for being a radical departure from his earlier hip-hop sound since he brings the funk. Prior to its release, Glover claimed that the album was sonically inspired by Sly and the Family Stone and Parliament-Funkadelic.
Upon listening to the album, one can’t help but realize that it isn’t anything unfamiliar or brand new. Rather, it’s a good imitation or a retread of Funkadelic (less of its sister act Parliament). Of course, Glover is not the first to be inspired by P-Funk. Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, the G-Funk bible, and Shock G’s Digital Underground were all influenced by Clinton’s genius. The difference is that Dre and Shock G made classics that they could distinctly call their own. Glover doesn’t take us into anywhere new. If anything, after listening to it, one just wants to listen to the entire P-Funk catalog – which (fair or unfair) is original and significantly superior to “Awaken, My Love.”
Now, Glover represents a current phenomenon of nostalgia based work that isn’t limited to music. Hollywood itself is enthralled by this same exact trend of prequels, sequels, and reboots of projects that predate my own existence (I was born in 1992). Kids born in the 2000s will enjoy sequels of movies that were birthed during my childhood and the childhoods before my own.
Understand, this is not an exercise in the usual pearl-clutching from art’s self-entitled gatekeepers. Movies aren’t dead or dying and they’re not that much better, per se, than they were in the thirties. Original motion pictures, sequels, and remakes have and will continue to exist. The indie circuit this year shelled out masterpieces like Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, and The Witch. The mainstream studios also brought us films like Arrival and The Nice Guys. All of these films are notable for being high-quality standalone pictures that explore characters and humanism (essential for great literature) as opposed to some prepackaged corporate grand plot involving good vs evil.
And, to their credit, we received really good blockbuster sequel/remakes that fit the mold of good vs evil such asCaptain America: Civil War, Jungle Book, and Rogue One. We also received a slew of really well done animated films like Zootopia, Finding Dory, and Moana. Of course, we also received plenty of bad sequels and remakes this year in Ben-Hur, Ghostbusters, and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. This year isn’t particularly unique in the regard that there are good and bad movies that sometimes do well or poorly at the box office. Though certain time periods that are better than others (i.e., 70’s was significantly superior to the 60’s), but no era can claim to have perfect art without any flops.
The great thing about art is to us into new places or to build upon previous work. As it pertains to literature, this works well in so-called “genre fiction” as well as “literary” fiction. But as it pertains to recent blockbusters, originality doesn’t seem to the be the norm. This year alone, we got a prequel/sequel/spinoff in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a sequel in Captain America: Civil War, and sequel/prequel/reboot in Batman V. Superman as some of the year’s biggest blockbusters. Next year in 2017, the biggest blockbusters are primed to be the third Spider-Man reboot in Spider-Man: Homecoming, Fate of the Furious (the eighth in the series!), and Star Wars: Episode VIII.
This isn’t to mention the slew of blockbuster reboots/sequels coming out next year in The Mummy, Power Rangers, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Logan, Transformers, Beauty and the Beast, Blade Runner 2049, Thor: Ragnarök, Despicable Me 3, Cars 3, War for the Planet of the Apes, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. That’s just to name a few! There’s hardly an original film on the docket for being a potential blockbuster and that’s a problem for aspiring creators everywhere.
Of course, the ironic thing about this piece is that my points are not entirely original. Plenty of writers and pundits have noted this trend before. They have also expressed disdain and concern over the studios’ choice to produce safe films in place of original and potentially groundbreaking films.
Of course, there should be no issue with remakes and reboots when they’re done with quality and take us into new places that their predecessors did not go. Plenty of art fits this category whether it’s the current reboot of the Planet of the Apes series or the Nolan Dark Knight series. But the problem is that we’ve seen very little original live-action content that could define our era of filmmaking.
When George Lucas created the original Star Wars film and its subsequent sequels, he introduced us to a new world that had never been seen on the silver screen before. The dogfights in the space, lightsaber battles, and ominous caped villains gave audiences a sense of adventure and wonder that no other sci-fi movie could match. That was in 1977.
Almost forty years later, and after suffering the embarrassment of the prequel trilogy, J.J. Abrams releases Star Wars: The Force Awakens. One cannot walk away without thinking that it isn’t just a retread of the original film. It was a movie that was copied and pasted with some edits (i.e., Rey, Finn, and Kylo Ren). They didn’t really introduce anything new and unique nor did they expand on anything previously introduced in the other films. It was just a rehash of older characters and plot devices from the original trilogy. It was an artistic disappointment that became a box office sensation, grossing over $2.2 billion.
Supporters can point to that fact that the newest incarnation of the franchise is more diverse and thus a welcome addition. But this doesn’t make it brand new or even revolutionary. I personal prefer diverse movies over lily-white casts that don’t reflect any world in which I inhabit. But I’d rather see a completely new and riskier project that involves POC and LGBT characters/artists front and center than some prepackaged corporate cash grab with unoriginal writing. We get this all the time!
At best, we’ll see a POC playing a character who was previously white in other sources (i.e., Michael B. Jordan as The Human Torch, Idris Elba as the Gunslinger, or Quvenzhane Wallis as Annie) and that’s an artistic copout. Instead of allowing POC craft our own stories and mythology, studios just pay lip-service to “diverse” audiences by rehashing old stories told by white folks and adding some color to them. Why have a Black James Bond when you can create a Black spy with an intriguing back story and universe of their own? Why have an Asian female version of Sherlock Holmes when you can have a detective of Asian descent with their own film series?
In terms fo television, Star Trek is a perfect example of doing different things with different characters in each successive series. There was no English Kirk or Black Picard or Woman Sisko. Each captain was distinct from one another. Kirk was a womanizing cavalier who frequently defied authority. Captain Picard was an idealist with a penchant for negotiation as well as Earl Grey Tea. Sisko was a ruthless pragmatist who was also a loving father and a reluctant religious icon. Janeway was a scientist-explorer who maintained her ethics despite being tens of thousands of light years away from her homeworld. And these are just the captains. All the supporting characters have distinct personalities from their predecessors, even if they share unmistakable (and intentional) similarities with one another (i.e., Spock vs Data, Worf vs B’elanna Torres, Riker vs Chakotay, etc.,).
Yes, Star Trek has a lot of sequel series and spinoffs to the point where it’s a mega-franchise. Yes, some of the adventures can be repetitive and the episodes can lack in quality. Yes, some of the movies over-rely on its name for marketing as opposed to the idea and storytelling. But each subsequent series explores something new in the vast frontier of space. This is the essence of science fiction, which imagines the possibilities of what could be, but it should be the standard of every so-called creator. It should be what all artists aspire to do as oppose to just imitating something else that came before it.
What new ideas await the silver screen? Are there any up-and-coming blockbusters that today’s youth can look to and call their own? Will they get some new universes, new characters, and new ideas that can spark one’s imagination? Will they receive new worlds and new adventures?
Or will they just get Star Wars films every year? Or a new Marvel/DC movie? Or a reboot of some monsters from the thirties or the seventies?
But the better question is this – do audiences really want new original blockbuster movies at the expense of properties that bring up nostalgia? The only reason a studio will bring back a certain film is because the audiences demand it.
Capitalism dictates that every film released by separate studios are in competition with one another over the audience’s money. Studio budgets are not infinite and release slots are limited. Ticket prices continue to escalate, meaning consumers are only going to spend their cash on a limited amount of films in any given year.
So, the safe route to making money is to go with what people know and are familiar with. They will shell out $200 for a new Star Wars film only because they will see a tremendous dollar gross (even the prequels did well despite their commercial decline with each successive entry). After all, why spend $40 million for an adaptation of “The Wild Seed” when it probably wouldn’t break even, especially when released alongside some other blockbuster? Arrival might be a game changer since it’s a sci-fi film based on a weird concept that’s grabbing money, but largely white audiences aren’t always receptive to movies with primarily Black casts and studios are aware of this. The only reason the upcoming Black Panther movie, which is largely Black, will be inoculated against this sort of white flight is because it has the Marvel banner backing it.
Creators of potentially brilliant and spectacular blockbuster content are going to find themselves in a rut for a while. They’re going to have to deal with the fact that audiences are inured to the current wave of reboots, sequels, and prequels. Their best bet would be to find an audience in television – where there is a lot of good content to be found. Yes, the budgets are limited and what they present will ultimately earn less money than the box office of a movie. But, until audiences (myself included) grow weary of a galaxy far far away, schools for magical teens, or super-powered vigilantes, they’ll just have to stay on hold.
Or they work on another Spider-Man reboot?