It's often said that Americans love new things. We celebrate our founding as a quintessentially original act without precedent; profit from an economy designed to reward innovation; and consume our information with mercurial attention spans that suffer nothing stale from the blogosphere.
Still, there's a difference between brand-new and brand new... that peculiar class of novelty that's trademarked behind a famous name already planted into the public's consciousness. Those are the times -- when we line up for the newest iPhone, program our DVRs for the next episode of Game of Thrones, or religiously check our bookmarked blogs -- that folks gravitate towards what they know and trust. It's not quite that Americans love new things, so much as new editions of old things.
Consider the curious case of the cinema multiplex in recent years. A cursory glance over a list of this summer's highest-grossing domestic blockbusters reveals that each of the Top 5 earners is a franchise film (either a sequel, prequel, reboot, or re-make). Of the Top 10, exactly one, the Brad Pitt-fights-zombies-while-keeping-his-hair-perfectly-conditioned flick World War Z, is unattached to a pre-existing cinematic saga. Oh, and the smart money's got it getting knocked out in two weeks by X-Men caper no. 73 The Wolverine.
This sequel-sweeping appears to be a relatively recent phenomenon. In 2012, 8 of the Top 10 Box Office draws were franchise movies, and in 2011, all 10 were. Yet journey further back into the millennium's first decade, and things start getting a little less derivative: between 2004-2010, this franchise number falls somewhere between 3-6 each year; and in 2000, there was (gasp) only one in the Top 10 Box Office: Mission Impossible II. (I would post a line graph for you, but I don't know how.)
Nobody has ever accused Hollywood of being narratively daring in the past, but this is different. It used to be that LaLa Land recycled formulas and re-packaged them for audiences, then slapped a new name on the marquee. Our side of the bargain was to eat our popcorn, smile, and pretend that War of the Worlds was nothing like Independence Day, and that Pirates of the Caribbean didn't lift the narrative and character alignment from Star Wars (...to save the princess/governor's daughter, you'll need the Millenium Falcon/Black Pearl, the fastest ship in the galaxy/on the high seas, captained by the roguish mercenary who steals the movie...until the naïve, sheltered youth with daddy issues confronts his destiny...). Those were the days.
Now, studios aren't even bothering to re-package anything; they're just packaging the same thing all over again, and leaving the titles untouched -- a whole new level of creative laziness. The result is that your neighborhood theater could be showing a sequel to a re-boot (Star Trek: Into Darkness), two re-boots OF RECENT RE-BOOTS (Man of Steel and The Wolverine), a pair of animated sequels locked in a cage-match for final box-office supremacy over our munchkins until Judgment Day (Monsters University and Despicable Me 2), in addition to Iron Man 3, Fast & Furious 6, The Hangover: Part III...and all of a sudden, that cool refuge from 100 degree temperatures, the mid-summer movie theater, begins to feel less like an escape from reality, and more like an indoor Times Square.
The problem is, it's hard to blame studio executives for this addiction. If the alternatives were between investing in Jack the Giant Slayer or After Earth, I might propose shooting a fifth Spider Man too. In those instances this summer where companies did bet on originality and thundered into the breach, they got financially clobbered. After sinking 215 million dollars into The Lone Ranger, Jerry Bruckheimer and company learned a little late that Johnny Depp + makeup does not a monster-hit make (fret not: they'll earn enough overseas for airfare home). You can also catch original tales and characters this August in Turbo and Pacific Rim, playing in any number of empty theaters near you. I'd step lightly, though. The reels might be on trucks by sundown.
Then there's the tumbling, train-wreck-on-fire that is R.I.P.D. This sacrificial offering teams a hotshot cop (Ryan Reynolds... is his agent an alcoholic?) with a surly, geriatric partner (Jeff Bridges, unapologetically straight from the set of True Grit) to fight for a supernatural police force called the Rest in Peace Department against souls who've escaped judgment. It truly is the Pietà of shameless rip-offs, except Universal forgot the cardinal rule of 2013 re-makes: um... it has to be an actual re-make. You defeat the purpose by replacing the actors and title initials of yesterday's cash-cow -- in this case, Men in Black... if they had called it M.I.B.: Will is on Vacation, maybe somebody might have paid to use the bathroom in the theater. Formulaic, you see, is no longer good enough.
Do yourself a mitzvah and just compare the trailers below... it's magical.
So, what's behind this madness? Perhaps we just happen to be in the midst of a temporary genre craze over comic book flicks; or it could be the HBO Effect -- to compete with an unprecedented explosion of quality television, studios have been forced to return to known audience draws, fighting series with series, as it were. Maybe social media has made marketing familiar brands too effective to pass up.
But is it also possible that we really have topped out at a narrative ceiling for blockbusters? Stories have always been derivative, to some extent, yes; and we've all read Joseph Campbell's explanation of mythical archetypes The Hero with a Thousand Faces (or, at least, we've listened to George Lucas talk about it on the Star Wars bonus materials DVD).
However, shaping common literary motifs from the Bible, King Arthur legend, and Homer to reflect adventures in the modern world is one thing. Most have made peace with the death of pure, unadulterated invention in mainstream entertainment. But we're not asking for The Odyssey here... just to be spared of Grown-Ups 2.