Cinema is not what it used to be.
There’s been a huge shift in how films and TV are made, in no part thanks to Marvel and their Cinematic Universe. Simple stories are out. Big, complicated stories are in. Cameos are in. Characters discussing events from previous films (or films that aren’t out yet) is absolutely in. Each new story is an opportunity to be nostalgic.
And it’s killing cinema.
There’s Too Much Reliance On Nostalgia & Short-Term Cultural Impact
It isn’t just Marvel’s fault (only, you know, mostly.) It’s internet culture in general. Memes, references, retweeted quotes, shared snapshots of movies etc. There’s nothing better than a quotable meme to market your movie. And if your writing a sequel to a movie, you better include a needless amount of references to the original so people on the internet can lose their minds.
Only now nothing can exist without it being a reference to something else. I can’t get the full experience from the latest Spiderman film without watching the seven films that came before it. I can’t watch a standalone film like Free Guy without being bombarded with Star Wars light sabers and Captain America’s shield.
And listen, my personality is like 78% references. I can’t go three minutes without referencing some movie, some game, some ProZD short. I’m not against references. I love references!
What I am against is this mindset of “this story is good because it reminds me of something else.” I’m against filmmakers evoking the easiest emotion out of people and not striving to do anything else. I’m against rewarding mediocrity.
And that doesn’t scratch the surface of what is really the problem.
So what’s really the problem?
No Stakes or Suspense
I recently watched Obi-Wan Kenobi and it was okay, except that it’s completely devoid of suspense (and common sense), and when you strip all that away, it’s simply a show relying on nostalgia and spectacle.
Everyone watching who is already familiar with Star Wars knows that Obi-Wan is going to survive what happens to him, he’s not going to be majorly injured in any way, and the young Leia he’s protecting throughout the series is going to be completely fine. We know this because Star Wars: A New Hope already exists. Likewise, the battles between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader have no suspense because we know that Obi-Wan and Vader fight in A New Hope. Every scene that should have had suspense had none, virtue of us already knowing the outcome.
And listen, I liked the spectacle. I liked the moment at the end of the show where Obi-Wan looks into Vader’s eye and realises that his friend is truly gone. That was a profound moment.
That doesn’t change that apart from the fan-service, the show is pretty boring.
The Crux Of The Problem[s]
There are two problems here, technically: 1) A problem of nostalgia-bait and 2) a problem with prequels in general. The former is fueling a surplus of the latter. Prequels often suffer with ‘call-backs’ to their processors.
The Hobbit, a prequel trilogy to Lord of the Rings, has several scenes focused on ‘setting up’ what happens next in the story. You know, the story that we’ve already seen. The end result is a trilogy that’s far too long, and lacks focus and character consistency, and is barely in the same league as the trilogy it’s trying to emulate.
What worries me is the influx of movies trying to do the exact same. I feel like I can’t just watch something anymore without being reminded of something else (usually something better). Not only are there fewer original stories, there are fewer well-written ones.
How Film Makers Should Do It Instead
EXAMPLE ONE: Who Framed Rodger Rabbit
Who Framed Rodger Rabbit is full of references and cameos from various animated features that came before it, starring characters such as Mickey Mouse, Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny and hundreds more that have long faded into obscurity. Yet, the movie hasn’t aged too badly.
Why is this?
First, it hits on a unique concept: It’s a crime-comedy set in a world where cartoons live alongside real people. Second, it stars original characters. It could have easily have been about Mickey Mouse, but instead it’s about Rodger Rabbit. It’s not trying to tie in multiple canon universes and create the Disney Animated Multi-verse. Most importantly, it tells a standalone story.
EXAMPLE TWO: Titanic
Everyone knows that the Titanic sinks, so when James Cameron made his movie blockbuster about the infamous ship, he did the smart thing. He didn’t build the story around the question of ‘Will the ship sink?’ he found another source of suspense. In fact, he found multiple. He came up with some great story questions, outside of the obvious ‘will the characters survive this?’ and if he hadn’t Titanic wouldn’t be nearly as great as it is.
Here are some story questions from Titanic that have absolutely nothing to do with the ship sinking.
- What happened to the diamond?
- Why did Rose hide her identity for 84 years?
- Will Rose escape her oppressive life?
- Will Rose and Jack get together?
- Will Cal stop Rose and Jack from being together?
The result is a story that has stood the test of time.
Bring Back The Basics
Both Titanic and Rodger Rabbit rely on the fundamentals of storytelling. That’s why they work. What modern film is lacking is the very basics of how to tell a good story. It’s time to let go of internet culture, references, and nostalgia-baiting. Bring back the simplicity. Bring back the mystery, the heart, and the soul.