Without further ado, picking up mere seconds from where we left off…
Update: content removed!
Happy weekend, happy reading, and thanks for sticking around! A break for a day or two, then it’s on with writing Part Fifteen!
Three little words. The first uttered in darkness, the remainder as the lights come up and we behold the weathered features of Han Solo standing next to his furry, lifelong companion, in the aging corridors of the Millennium Falcon. A clarion call to uncounted legions of dreamers, young and old alike, waiting in what often seemed merely vain hope for thirty-two long years. We’d seen the Falcon fly in the first teaser, but this was different. This was an affirmation of something that we’d long been told was never going to happen. This was a gift. This was faith rewarded.
About damn time.
The Internet has grown far beyond what it was in 1999, when one had to suffer through an agonizing hour of QuickTime buffering through a dial-up connection to behold the reveal, following the Lucasfilm logo, of Trade Federation tanks creeping over a grassy hill. Certainly, at the time, I pored over the frames of the teaser for The Phantom Menace with unbridled curiosity, clutching at the merest hint of clue to what the story would be, and discussing and debating it at length over pints with fellow Warsies. We were excited, surely, long having been starved of anything new from the galaxy far, far away, absent the comic books and the Timothy Zahn continuation novels, which, finely crafted as they were, could not quite compare to the idea of a new Star Wars movie rolling across the screens.
Retrospect (and retconning, to be totally honest) has diminished the sense of anticipation rippling through fandom in those months leading to Phantom Menace‘s opening night. I was the only one of my friends with free time on the day advance tickets went on sale, and I hauled myself out of bed before the sun came up in April ’99 and drove twenty miles to the theater where there was already a line fifty folks long, prepared to stand there under baking sun until the box office opened at 3 p.m. People were playing the fresh-in-stores Episode I soundtrack on ghetto blasters, clowning around in Jedi robes and swinging plastic lightsabers, one-upping each other with quotes and character impressions and generally having as good a time as one can in a long queue. Foolishly, I did not bring any provisions (or even a hat) with me, and wound up having at one point to ask the two guys I’d befriended standing directly ahead of me to hold my place while I hopped in the car and raced off to the most proximate fast-food joint to find a bathroom and some bottled water. When they finally flung open the doors and I walked away, sunburned but with a whole pile of golden tickets for the 12:01 a.m. showing two weeks hence in pocket, it seemed rather anticlimactic, but I still had the sense of mission accomplished and relief that I wouldn’t have to wait one second longer to see it than anyone else.
We wanted so desperately for that movie to be everything we’d been hoping for. It’s tough to remember too that apart from the most deeply cynical cinephiles, everybody loved Phantom Menace on first sight. No less an authority than the late Roger Ebert said, “My thumb is up, with a lot of admiration.” But the glow faded very fast. Loud naysayers started screaming about its flaws, and those of us who’d been soundly in the pro-camp began to realize that beneath the digital veneer and the aura of NEW STAR WARS! was a poorly-written and poorly-performed story locked in to hitting marks and prevented, by its very nature as a prequel, from giving us any surprises. It was like a long, monodirectional train ride past flashy scenery to a predetermined destination, its characters marionettes against bluescreen, the dialogue stilted and hammy. And the previously revered George Lucas became a figure of scorn. We gave him two more chances to right the ship, but as the credits of Revenge of the Sith rolled, and with them the end of Star Wars as we knew it, we sighed at the affirmation of that old axiom that we can’t go home again. The uneven Clone Wars aside, that was it. Lucas said he was finished with Star Wars. He was ready to move on.
Enter the Walt Disney Company, and later, J.J. Abrams. The man who’d awoken the dormant Star Trek franchise by infusing it with a healthy dose of Star Wars-style action and banter. The man who tossed out the story treatments that Disney had purchased from Lucas and said that what he and the fans wanted to see was the return of Luke, Han and Leia. Sure, we said, good luck getting Harrison Ford back, who had opined with grouchy regularity over the preceding thirty years that he had absolutely no interest in revisiting the character of Han Solo. The photograph released last April of the new cast sitting in a round, Ford included, was welcome, but could not compare with the reveal in yesterday’s trailer of Han and Chewie, together again against odds, against fate, against belief and probability and all measure of the randomness of how life unfolds. The gasp heard around the world was very real, and quite deafening, given the three decades we’ve been collectively holding our breaths.
The Force Awakens will not premiere for another eight months. In the months prior to the Phantom Menace‘s release, entertainment journalists were speculating about the possibility of it out-grossing Titanic and Lucas himself said with a shrug that it simply wouldn’t happen. He understood that hyperbole of some aside, he was up against expectations that no one could possibly hope to meet. Certainly, Episode I could have benefited tremendously from some alternate creative choices here and there, but had Orson Welles come back from the dead to direct it from a script by the equally moldy Billy Wilder, you still would have had a vast majority of fans grumbling that they thought The Matrix was better. Anticipation is a funny thing in that satisfying it is often an exercise in disappointment. With tremendous loyalty to Star Wars as a whole still a robust force – pun intended – and the additional burden on its back of overwhelming the lingering sour taste of the prequel trilogy, so too can The Force Awakens not hope to please everyone.
What it has already done to its betterment is given us a singular moment that we can savor until the cold months return, and a lovely sentiment that we can remember with a smile in years to come, no matter the quality of the end result. The feeling that we have, if for ever a brief instant, finally come home.
I come before you today with a problem.
It is a rather insidious one at that, beginning at the base of my spine and migrating with so many spider’s steps one fraction of an inch at a time up along the vertebrae and couching itself in the recesses of my brain, there to ferment and fester and trickle into the forefront of my thoughts. It is the contradictory notion of living in the height of the era of fantasy and comic book-inspired film adaptations, long dreamed about since boyhood, and being overtaken gradually by a creeping fog of ennui that threatens to grow into shrugging disinterest.
You see, I have Marvel Fatigue.
I know, I should probably be forced to turn in my geek card after a statement like that, and go and lurk the message board of the New Yorker waiting for Richard Brody’s latest bloviation on Antonioni. But I’m wondering, in the last few weeks before Avengers: Age of Ultron debuts, if we’re just getting too much candy and we’re growing benumbed to its taste. Since 2008 there have been ten movies set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with eleven more slated for release over the next five years (even more if you factor in the X-Men and Spider-Man movies). And that doesn’t take into account whatever it is DC is doing (which seems to be a late-to-the-party duplication of the Marvel game plan, but with much more depressing product, in keeping with the prevailing dark chic aesthetic of the period), or the various TV iterations of the MCU, be they Agents of SHIELD, Agent Carter or any of the plethora of forthcoming Netflix originals. We’re way past saturation point now; we’re drowning. And it would be one thing if the movies were bad – for the most part, they’re all serviceable pieces of entertainment, made with top-notch talent. But they are all so locked into a shopworn and audience-tested formula that they’ve utterly lost their capacity to do the one thing movies like that should:
The feeling began to bubble up after I saw Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie that was being lauded left and right in the community of fandom as one of the greatest things for those of our ilk to hit the cineplexes since the original Star Wars. My son, naturally, was presold, but, won over as I was by seeing gushing praise from sources I respected, I even managed to sway my wife to join us. And apart from a few cute touches here and there, I came away from the screening feeling let down. The clincher for me was the music, the collection of tracks on Peter Quill’s fabled “Awesome Mix Volume 1.” Disappointingly, there was not a single song on there that hadn’t been used in at least a dozen popular movies preceding this one. Perhaps the intent was to feed nostalgia by scoring the story with the songs that would have been popular around the time Star Wars was wowing us all for the first time in 1977. For me, it was the most blatant possible reminder that these movies are suffering from what I’ve talked about before with cultural karaoke. Rather than striking out for bold, new, uncharted territory, they’re treading ground that has already been crushed under the weight of heavily booted footprints, choosing always the safe and familiar route. Every moment is a callback to something else, instead of standing on its own. You practically need a pop culture dictionary to understand everything that’s going on.
I enjoyed the first Avengers, but I’ve never watched it again from start to finish, as for me it was rather like a meringue: sweet and sugary but ultimately hollow and scarcely worth a second taste. If you set aside the whee! factor of seeing all those characters together in a movie for the first time, the story is paper-thin, and the emotional moments are forced and artificial – I mean, come on, the idea of the bickering team bonding over the death of a marginal character who’d had little impact on the lot of them (and turned out to only be, as Miracle Max would put it, mostly dead) just in time to fight off the alien menace in a CGI orgy of exploding buildings, is pretty flimsy for ostensibly A-list screenwriting. One can also see, based on the clips released from Age of Ultron thus far, that the sequel will follow the same pattern. Now that they’ve become an inseparable team, the heroes will find themselves pitted against each other, again – not for any organic reason, but because the Scarlet Witch’s magic messes with their minds – until they again overcome their differences and unite to fight off the robot menace in a CGI orgy of exploding buildings. Throw in a few pop culture puns delivered from Robert Downey Jr. and you’ve pretty much got the whole movie there in a nutshell, haven’t you?
I don’t say this all to be snarky for the sake of being a contrarian. I want to be wowed. I want to be surprised. I want the movie to go left when I was convinced it was bearing right. I want to burst out of that theater and race to the kiosk to buy a ticket to see the very next screening.
I just have little faith that that’s going to happen.
I imagine that I will take my son to Age of Ultron, laugh at the parts I’m expected to laugh at, roll my eyes at the showers of concrete from the exploding buildings, and shuffle on home to mark the calendar for when I’ll have to take him to Ant-Man. Marvel hasn’t shown in its productions thus far, nor indeed, have any of the other superhero movies of the 21st Century, that they have any interest in pushing the envelope and giving us something unexpected. And why should they? They have a formula that keeps generating hundreds of millions of dollars annually, a pent-up demand from my generation and our descendants that continues to flow as predictably as Niagara Falls. You know exactly what you’re going to get when you walk into one of these movies, and it’s foolish to pretend that there is no appeal in that, as anyone who keeps going back to McDonald’s can attest.
I’m tired of McDonald’s. Give me a steak.
Yeats famously said that things fall apart, the center cannot hold. Eventually, one of these movies is going to fall flat on its face, and questions will be asked, fingers will be pointed, articles will be written and everyone will collectively scratch their heads, wondering where it all went wrong. There won’t be one distinct answer, other than the notion that by refusing to evolve, by churning out essentially 21 versions of the same story in a period of eleven years, they will have brought on their own demise. The irony of it all is that it isn’t as though the potential is not there for mind-twisting stories and emotionally resonant moments, given the sheer volume of the source material, and the reservoir of talent bursting to be heard. But the focus remains only on predictable flash, because that is what a group of accountants in Burbank have decided is what sells – especially to overseas audiences who don’t grasp the puns – and they want their bazillion-dollar Christmas bonuses.
I’ve simply reached the point where as an audience member, I can’t overlook the hyperkinetic pixels and the stale one-liners anymore. Yet I cling to a tiny, diminishing reservoir of hope that one of these days, one of these movies will leap off the screen and smack me out of my complacency and remind me why I loved these stories to begin with. That hope is what keeps me buying tickets.
But I’m not there lining up on opening night anymore.