The Homage is Not Enough: on the Limits of Nostalgia-First Narratives

In the summer of 2016 everyone started telling me that I had to watch a show called Stranger Things. I was reluctant. The reluctance came from the way it was sold: the entire series was one large nostalgia fest for ‘80s Spielberg, Stephen King novels, and Dungeons and Dragons.

It’s not that I don’t like Stephen King or Indiana Jones or battling bugbears. But I had just finished consuming two pieces of media that banked heavily on nostalgia and ham-fisted homages: the show Mr. Robot and the novel Ready Player One.

ready-player-one-back-future
A poster for the upcoming Ready Player One, which this is not a review of.

I had walked away from both Mr. Robot and Ready Player One with a general uneasiness, a queasiness, the stomach ache that comes from too much of any one sweet thing. In the case of both of these, that one thing was the overdose of both

  1. knowing that I had consumed something whose originality was constantly undermined by heavy doses of allusion and homage and
  2. knowing that I had consumed something for which I, a heterosexual white millennial male with an English degree and a penchant for science fiction and a job in digital marketing, was the target demographic.

When I finally did watch Stranger Things, it did not disappoint me in the way that Mr. Robot and Ready Player One both had. Sure, the entire thing has major IT and The Body vibes and there was even a moment where a character is reading Stephen King’s Cujo. The entire thing is, as Stephen King himself said, crowded with Stephen King easter eggs and nods:

But there’s something different about Stranger Things. Something deeper. More tactful, subdued, and thoughtful.

(Stranger Things is not the only nostalgic work that works. FX’s Fargo, crowded with references to O. Henry and Samuel Beckett and, naturally, the Coen Brothers, is a good example of another show that executes where others fail.)

What is it that made Stranger Things work while Ready Player One and Mr. Robot both, in this blogger’s opinion, come up short? It’s a very fine line, but also a bell that, once crossed, is hard to unring, regardless of whom it tolls for. Continue reading “The Homage is Not Enough: on the Limits of Nostalgia-First Narratives”

The World Needs Bad Men: How the Bush Era Caused the Anti-Hero Wave that Gave Rise to Trump

Toward the finale of the 2016 election, Mike Huckabee took to Fox News to give a defense of Donald Trump that I’ve been mulling over in my head ever since.

I see Trump as Capt Quint (Robert Shaw) on the boat, Orca, in the movie “Jaws.” He’s salty, drunk and says incorrect things. He spits in your face. BUT… He’s gonna save your rear. You may not like what he says but, in the end, you and your family survive.

“Vote for the fishing boat captain,” Huckabee said. “Not the shark.”

While ineloquent and muddled, Huckabee’s defense gave a great insight into why people were lining up behind Donald Trump. They saw him as a vulgar presence, but he was their vulgar presence against the greater dangers.

If Huckabee were more versed in film, literature, or television, he would have realized that there are a thousand better metaphors for who Donald Trump is: he is, in the eyes of his followers, the anti-hero of the True America.  

A different defense of Trump comes to mind, one that his followers would surely cite, had they seen the first season of True Detective:

Marty: Do you wonder ever if you’re a bad man?

Rust: No, I don’t wonder, Marty. The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.

true-detective-anti-hero
“The world needs bad men,” from True Detective‘s third episode.

The world needs bad men. It seems like a missed opportunity that Trump’s campaign didn’t snap that up as their slogan. One can imagine Rust and Marty’s conversation rolling over footage of Donald Trump mocking Serge Kovaleski, or Rust’s defense of bad men and musings on man’s inability to love intercut with I moved on her like a bitch and you can do anything.

This is not a specific argument I’ve seen much of, unsurprisingly. It’s easy to assume that True Detective didn’t have a major following among Trump voters, particularly when one  compares one recent study on regional television viewership demographics with the breakdown of voter demographics in the 2016 election.

However, Huckabee isn’t the only pundit to notice that Trump’s appeal is not being a traditional hero, but being the scoundrel on your side.

quint
If you don’t recall, this is the character to whom Huckabee compares Trump.

You can take a look at some of the headlines to see that this has been thoroughly explored, including a) Trump and the rise of the anti-hero from CNN b) President Trump: America chooses an anti-hero from Yahoo c) The Anti-Hero Candidacy of Donald Trump from Huffington Post d) The Donald Rises: Why Republicans Want an Anti-Hero in 2016 from The Week ad e) Trump’s success as an antihero relies on the power of reality TV and drama over reality from The LA Times

At this point, I have to point out that there is nothing unique in saying that Trump is an anti-hero and our obsession with anti-heroes in our media and film is what got Trump elected. As evidenced by the articles I just listed, this has been exhaustively explored. 

What I do have is another layer to add to this: the rise of the anti-hero in our media came from the America that emerged during the presidency of George W. Bush. 

During the Bush era, America found itself in the role of the anti-hero. This is what propelled the flawed and gritty protagonist into our film and television. This is what prompted the wave of dark and gritty reboots that are still grinding today.

Art imitates life imitates art. Politics causes pop culture causes politics. Bush was our cowboy hero who became tainted, tattered, and gritty as our wars became unwinnable and our morals murky. Obama was our shining hero, our knight in shining armor, our warrior who could not be everything he wanted to be.

And now there is Trump: the gritty anti-hero, the protagonist who rapes, the populist king. He is the danger.

But, before I move forward with this argument, it’s important to pause and discuss what we talk about when we talk about anti-heroes. Continue reading “The World Needs Bad Men: How the Bush Era Caused the Anti-Hero Wave that Gave Rise to Trump”

Please, No More Origin Stories of How Evil Villains Used to be Good Guys or Children

If you haven’t heard, the latest complete failure at the box office was the flaccid reboot Pan, an attempt to create a franchise out of the Peter Pan story by starting with Mr. Pan’s origin as a young boy on an adventure to Neverland. In which the villain is Hugh Jackman as Blackbeard and Peter’s best friend is a guy named James Hook.

Okay, Hugh Jackman. You're too good to keep playing Wolverine but you'll do THIS?
Okay, Hugh Jackman. You’re too good to keep playing Wolverine but you’ll do THIS?

That’s right: in the new version of Peter Pan that you didn’t see, Pete’s best friend is a young, two-handed, two-eyed Captain Hook in his pre-pirate days. Meaning that the narrative is an origin story that includes a tragic bromance in which we watch one of the central characters become a villain.

This is the exact reboot/origin story/cheesy narrative that we do not need. And it’s a strange trend, with examples including the Star Wars prequels, Wicked, and a variety of superhero films and television shows in which the villain first appears as a classmate, friend, or family member of the hero.

It’s redundant and unoriginal and redundant.

As stated above, there is very little original left in the idea of “let’s imagine what happened in the part of the story before what we’ve seen,” whether its Pre-Pan or Not-yet-sleeping Beauty. It would perhaps be more interesting if it wasn’t so common, but there’s no longer anything unique about the idea that “what if Poison Ivy was a little girl before she became a bad guy” or “guys, maybe the wicked witch wasn’t always wicked?”

It’s sad and disturbing, but not in a compelling way.

There’s something very sad about a narrative in which we see a kid become a villain. There’s a reason that no one has made a summer blockbuster about Adolf Hitler as a kind little boy who becomes corrupted by evil. It would be disturbing and awful and sad. Although, based on the trends, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone creates an gritty origin story in which Jesus of Nazareth and Pontius Pilate are classmates who fight a battle against Herod before Pontius becomes a villain and Jesus becomes a hero.

The only good example of this trope is Rob Zombie’s Halloween reboot, because at no point is Michael Myers an innocent young boy awaiting corruption. He’s evil from the start, killing animals in his bedroom and classmates after school. This works because it’s an over-the-top absurd slasher film in which Zombie’s endgame is overwhelming the audience with a visceral, brutal experience.

Yes, I kinda liked Rob Zombie's Halloween.
Yes, I kinda liked Rob Zombie’s Halloween.

Other than that, this cheap trope of the eventual villain beginning as a child is too brutal for a children’s story and too obvious for adults. Even the Sam Raimi Spiderman trilogy was weakened by the hackneyed writing that turned James Franco from Peter Parker’s bff into Green Goblin Junior.

It paints the world in unrealistic terms.

Here is the narrative we’re given in this unneeded origin stories: “He was good, and then he became evil.” The one exception is probably that of Darth Vader, in which the narrative is “He was good, and then he became evil, but then he became good for a second right before he died and then he went to Star Wars Heaven.” Either way, it declares that the world is good guys and bad guys.

The worst part is that these narratives often pose as “darker interpretations” or act as if they’re asking poignant questions about morality and heroism, when really the only question they ask if “what’s an easy way to show a good person become a bad person?”

It eliminates suspense from the story.

“Oh, his name is James Hook? So what, he’s Captain Hook? Yep. Okay. Wait, I need to watch him become Captain Hook for the next two hours? Great. This is exciting and suspenseful.”

ivy
I wonder which Batman villain Ivy Pepper will grow up to be.

This is the trouble with prequels and origin stories. They’re often yawn-inducing, because we know exactly what’s going to happen. Even Better Call Saul, a show I kinda like that provides some good laughs, suffers from the flaw that it’s completely unnecessary and we know what the ending will be. I mean, the ending already exists. It’s called Breaking Bad.

With Pan, we have reached peek reboot. And it’s a good lesson for anyone who has plans for an upcoming reboot or origin story or prequel, whether it’s the Adventures of Young Jesus and Pontius described above or the inevitable Back to the Future reboot.

Let's hope that the Pepsi Perfect is just a fun thing that's happening, and not the first step of the Michael Bay reboot of BTTF.
Let’s hope that the appearance of Pepsi Perfect in real life (first seen in Back to the Future 2) is just a fun thing that’s happening, and not the first step of the Michael Bay reboot of BTTF.

There is only one way to make a reboot work now: you need to make anything possible. Don’t write the story into a corner in order to match the original plot points or the expectations that the audience has. Ensure suspense by making anything on the table. This is some work and some don’t. Batman Begins and its sequels gave us moments we’d never seen; Craig’s Casino Royale killed the villain and the love interest surprising, unexpected scenes; Man of Steel, on the other hand, failed because it opened with the exact same Superman origin story that we’d seen a million times, in which the baby Superman is put into a spaceship and sent from Krypton to Earth.

So, please, if you are currently hard at work on a gritty reboot in which we see a familiar villain begin life as an innocent, a hero, or a child: ask yourself if you are providing us with anything new and anything that anyone wants to see.

Why Bale Should Kill James Bond

Do you read The AV Club?  If not, it’s the sister publication to The Onion, self-described as “the web’s smartest take on TV, film, music, and lots more.”  Which nicely sums it up, as it lets you know how arrogant the writers of The AV Club are.  (Not that I hate the AV Club or anything.  I actually read it frequently, as it’s pretty much the only “entertainment news” I can handle.)

Anyway, a recent AV Club article informs us that Ralph Fiennes and Javier Bardem are both in the new James Bond movie.  Their response is  “At least we know they’re going with the whole gritty reboot wave everyone has been riding for the last five years.”  A typical dismissive, negative response.  Which is also completely inaccurate, considering that Casino Royale was itself a gritty reboot.  Bond had no gadgets, no Q, and no Moneypenny.  He bloodily killed a guy in a bathroom in the opening scene, and got severely tortured while naked (rather than placed in an over-elaborate, easily-escapable trap).  Also, the Bond girl died.  By drowning.  And Bond responded to this by saying “the bitch is dead.”  That’s a gritty reboot.   Shut up, AV Club.

However, let’s talk about this: Ralph Fiennes and Javier Bardem in the new Bond movie.

Ralph Fiennes:

Do you see?

And Javier Bardem:

Call it.

Okay, so maybe they are going darker and grittier with it.  But maybe not – remember that Bardem is also in Vicky Christina Barcelona and Fiennes is in Maid in Manhattan.

Continue reading “Why Bale Should Kill James Bond”

Mr. Potter

The fact that Spiderman is currently being rebooted proves that it is never too soon to start a franchise over from scratch. One might point out that Spiderman‘s reboot (the new trilogy’s first film with a release date that comes only five years after the end of the last trilogy) is nothing new for comic book films: the Batman franchise was re-invented with only eight years between Batman and Robin and Batman Begins, and Edward Norton as The Incredible Hulk came only fives years after Eric Bana as Hulk.

The main distinction is that the new Spiderman trilogy is following on the heels of a financially successful and critically well-received trilogy, rather than the complete disasters of Batman, Robin, and Hulk. Now, I could make the obvious point that Bale should be the one cast as Spiderman, but let’s be realistic: audiences probably wouldn’t be able to handle the concept that Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne look that much alike, even if Bale did a really good Brooklyn accent for Parker (which he obviously would).

Instead, we have to acknowledge the beauty of this situation. It has opened the floodgates for any franchise getting rebooted at any moment. And there is one franchise that no one has even imagined re-imagining yet: Harry Potter.

The first thing that has to go is the character of Harry.


The film will be entitled Mr. Potter, and Bale will portray the titular character, the father of minor character Harry Potter. Similar to the original Harry Potter books and films, the catalyst for all the action will be when mob hit man Val Mortenson (portrayed by Jon Hamm) arrives at the Potter home, with intentions to murder them. He quickly eliminates Mrs. Potter and Harry, their infant, but does not fare so well against Liam Potter. Potter and Mortenson fight to the death, which ends when Potter strangles Mortenson. Unfortunately, Potter’s house burns down around him–only through the swift arrival of the authorities does he survive the fire.

Upon emerging from a coma several weeks later, Potter learns several things. 1) He has been taken in by his father-in-law, Dursley. 2) Mortenson’s body was never found after the fire, and 3) Potter has gained some strange powers in his sleep.He soon learns, with the help of Dursley and a homeless, elephantiasis-stricken man named Hagrid, that Mortenson is just one pawn in a conspiracy of Satan-worshipers who call themselves The Ministry. The Ministry has already infiltrated the police, the media, and the all levels of the government. Potter soon realizes that he is the only chance there is against this vast network of evil–and that only by harnessing Satan’s powers for himself does he stand a chance against the Ministry.

It almost goes without saying that Michael Caine would portray the benevolent Dursley, and a heavily-costumed Oliver Platt would be Hagrid.