Nothing new in Hollywood

08.2023 | Peter van der Walt

I am not a movie snob. I promise. I can prove it too – I like nothing more than some formulaic and semi-mindless action flick. I’m down with buddy cop movies or anything depending on some gratuitous shirtless scenes to sell tickets. As a rule, I don’t like subtitles. And if I hear classical music, I assume the villain is about to make an entrance. So it’s not that I prefer the cinema equivalent of ‘literature’ – my tastes are respectably mainstream, middle-class and suburban. If something won at Cannes, I’m likely to skip it. I was raised on a steady staple of all American high budget excitement fests, though if you ask me what my favourite film of all time is, I’d demand I get one pick per genre. Comedy, horror, action, super-hero, sci-fi – a film must be viewed and appreciated on its own terms. You can’t apply the pretension of sophisticated tastes to the latest teen slasher – or you’d be the fool.

Still, I love stories. Really love them on a level that may not altogether be healthy. Movies did more than allow me to escape what I tell myself was a pretty crummy childhood. They set my mind free. They enabled me to roam, to explore things and even become things I never would have otherwise. Movies quite literally saved my life in some ways. As a consequence, I’m forgiving. Very forgiving.

I am starting to wonder, however, if Hollywood is running out of creative juice. It seems to be the case that there are no new ideas

In itself, this isn’t a new idea. There are 45 Master Plots, or 16, or 7 – all the stories ever told follow the conventions of structure laid out in academic studies of story structure or Writer’s Digest How-To’s. I’ve studied plenty of story structure frameworks and know that George Lucas sticks to ‘the Hero’s Journey’ if it kills the art or not. I know that there’s similarities between Jaws and Taxi Driver and I can even put on a bit of an accent and we can discuss the intricacies of that over suitably unpalatable finger foods.

But it’s worse. It’s worse than just telling the same story in new forms. It seems to me – as a fanatic and loyal consumer – that Hollywood doesn’t even bother anymore. It simply tells the same story in the same form, over and over. How many times can you tell the Spider Man or Batman story? Well, you can tell the former in 1977 (with sequels in 78 and ’81), then tell it in Japan only, also in 1978. Then there can be a lull of infighting and legal wranglings for the rights to make the movie, until Sam Raimi makes (new) Spider-Man 1, 2 and 3 in 2002, 2004 and 2007. Marc Webb remakes The Amazing Spider-Man, 1 and 2, in 2012 and 2014. Then there is the Marvel Cinematic Universe Spider-Man, which kicks off in 2016. Do we need the remakes? Do we need them so closely together? I’m asking as someone who likes the genre, you understand, not as someone who watches Nouveau movies with subtitles. Batman. Let’s ignore the serials of the 1940s, Batman and Robin in 1949 and Batman: The Movie in 1966. Consider all of those water under the bridge, hopelessly old school and due for remakes. We love superheroes so much, the first three are on the house

Tim Burton uses Michael Keaton to bring Batman back to life in 1989 and 92. Val Kilmer does it in 95. George Clooney in 97. We ignore all the animated films (more freebies with your large order of popcorn). Christopher Nolan brings darkness and grittiness to The Batman with Christian Bale in 2005, 2008 and 2012. Then comes the DC Extended Universe Batman (Ben Affleck) with at least four films although Batman joins other heroes in mashups with this series. Great. Welcome to 2022, and alas, the Bat is back.

The remakes happen because they are safe, because they make money, because they can be counted on. In the depths of a global pandemic, the big hope was attached to the ‘new’ James Bond movie (every James Bond, enjoyable as it might be, is a remake of every James Bond) and indeed Spider-Man: No Way Home, 2021’s highest grossing film, and the sixth highest of all time, must have done something that wasn’t done the other dozen and a half tries since 1977.

Star Wars certainly had the wow-factor when it first came out. I stopped watching when yet another dysfunctional family ended up yet again on two sides of the struggle between the Empire and the Resistance. I demand one (1) new plot. The Mandalorian isn’t a remake, but a series set in the universe of Star Trek, so that’s fine, I suppose

Except what would it take for a new universe? A new superhero? A different cast of characters, a fresh setting, and a plot that at least disguises the fact that it’s no doubt been done before?

The remake in film and TV is starting to look less like director’s bringing their fresh takes to a specific shared myth and more like a milking machine – to attach to the cows that are the audience, and to simply flip a switch and suck every last drop of money they may have until there is as little of that left as the creativity.

It’s always been this way.

In the old days, the studios had it down to a set pattern. The underdog studio does the edgy stuff because they have nothing to lose. Every now and then, the edgy stuff makes it big. Then the underdog studio becomes the big dog. And they stop making edgy stuff. The has-been old dog, cast out, has nothing to lose, and so begins to make edgy stuff. Rinse, repeat.

There are some new and fresh things being made, to be completely fair. It’s just that these aren’t commercial hits, despite having all the required celluloid and all the right beats. Love and Monsters (2020) was something new and should appeal to exactly the same demographic as all the many thousands of regurgitated superhero yarns. Peter Parker himself (the latest one) did something actually new in Chaos Walking.

But creativity is now the occasional and unintentional by-product of the creative arts. Crumbs from the table that churn out the stories we already know backward. That the Hollywood types would pick the low risk, high reward, dehumanise the audience route can be no surprise to anyone who pays attention.

What is perhaps new is that audiences seem content to settle for it.

And that depresses me.