Is Creative Culture Stagnating?

Spoiler warning for the new Star Wars movie.

I’ve read a few interesting pieces critical of The Force Awakens: Peter Suderman at Vox says TFA is a prime example of Hollywood’s nostalgia problem, there’s also a “nostalgia debate” around TFA at The Atlantic, and Ross Douthat at the NYT says TFA is a symptom of the decadence and cultural stagnation of our society.

I wondered if these people were having a romantic view of the past; has Hollywood just now started doing more sequels or have they always done so? I decided to take a look at the highest grossing movies from 1975-85 (when the original Star Wars trilogy came out) and compare it to the last 5 years. But it quickly became more complicated than I thought it would be; are sequels better or worse than remakes? Are movies based on books bad? Are movies based on comic book characters worse than movies based on books?  What about sequels of remakes of movies based on comic book characters?!  That sounds like the worst category, but it would include The Dark Knight, one of the best action blockbusters of the lack decade.

I took away two points. One is that movies based on old material in some fashion (sequels, remakes, adapted screenplays, franchises from other media) have been happening for a long time. The other point is that despite the historical importance of sequels, it’s undeniable that more than ever before, many of the highest grossing recent movies have been direct sequels.

From 1975 to 1985, there were sequels in the top 10 grossing movies every single year. However, in no year were more than 3 of the top grossing films sequels.  There were remakes and adapted screenplays as well, but many of the top grossing films of the time were original pieces that spawned their own franchises.

Contrast that to the period 2010-2014 in the US movie market:

  • In 2010, 5 of the top grossing movies were direct sequels (Toy Story 3, Iron Man 2, Twilight 3, Harry Potter 7, Shrek 4), with an Alice in Wonderland remake.
  • In 2011, 9 of the top 10 highest grossing movies were direct sequels (Harry Potter 8, Transformers 3, Twilight 4, Hangover 2, Pirates of the Caribbean 4, Fast Five, Mission Impossible 4, Cars 2, Sherlock Holmes 2)  with Thor being the 10th and part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
  • 2012: 5 of the top 10 were direct sequels (Avengers, Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall, Twilight 5, Madagascar 3) with The Hobbit and The Amazing Spider-Man as a prequel and remake, respectively.
  • 2013: 6 sequels or prequels (Hunger Games 2, Iron Man 3, Despicable Me 2, Monsters University, The Hobbit 2, Fast & Furious 6) with Man of Steel and Oz the Great and Powerful as remakes.
  • 2014: 5 sequels (Hunger Games 3, Captain America 2, The Hobbit 3, Transformers 4, X-Men: Days of Future Past) with Guardians of the Galaxy, not as a direct sequel, but as part of the MCU, plus the Sleeping Beauty remake, Maleficent.

So if you are trying to argue that sequels are a bigger part of the industry of Hollywood today, you’d be right. Nonetheless, I’m really not as worried as many of these critics seem to be. For one thing, sequels don’t indicate whether a movie is good or not; many sequels are good, many are bad. The Avengers, Skyfall, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, X-Men: Days of Future Past–these are great movies. They are based on comic book characters, on cold war spy books from the 50s, and modern books for teenagers, but they’re still excellent films.

Peter Suderman makes this argument, that there are “good” sequels and “bad” sequels, but then argues that The Force Awakens qualifies as a “bad” one because it doesn’t grow the franchise enough.  I disagree. The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones made great strides to expand the franchise and the universe; the films were nevertheless awful.  J.J. Abrams decided to play it safe with plot points, but made a movie with acting, direction, and cinematography that hadn’t been seen since 1980 when Empire Strikes Back came out. Would a combination of new plot ideas and good film-making have been even better? Sure.  I really didn’t like that there was a third Death Star in this movie, but honestly I’d rather have that than a poorly made Darth Vader origin story.  Borrowing aspects from a film that came out almost 40 years ago to make an excellent movie today sounds like a solid foundation for a franchise to build on.

And honestly half the complaints I hear about the plot borrowing could just as easily be applied to Lord of the Rings or maybe even The Matrix as well as Star Wars; there’s a character living on the edge of a slowly building conflict (Frodo/Luke/Neo/Rey) who happens to come into the possession of something important (The Ring/R2D2/BB8).

George Lucas stole the idea of R2-D2 from The One Ring!

George Lucas stole the idea of R2-D2 from The One Ring! Public Domain Image.

Along the way, an older smart character guides them on a journey (Gandalf/Obi-wan/Morpheus/Han) where they eventually go to a gathering (Rivendell/Mos Eisley/the oracle’s house/Takodana) and eventually decide to join the fight against the bad guys finding their one weakness despite being newbies (destroying the Ring in Mt. Doom/the Death Star exhaust port/Neo becoming the One/blowing up Starkiller Base).  This is an adventure movie; it’s going to have similar plot elements to other adventure movies.

Moving on to the bigger idea that Ross Douthat suggests: are we losing our creativeness as a culture? I don’t think so. And not just because I like this Star Wars movie. The sequel craze is driven by the economics of the changing movie industry more than anything. In 1975, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was the third highest grossing movie of the year, despite winning all five major Academy Awards (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, Screenplay). It made less money than Jaws, the first real summer blockbuster, and the cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I’m also certain that, had it been released today, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest would not have made the top 10 grossing movies, perhaps not even the top 20.  This is a vital point; Hollywood in 1975 was not a mass market phenomenon. Jaws and Star Wars invented big budget action movies, and allowed movies to expand into American culture to an extent not seen before.  Hollywood has added ideas to its movie lineup, not taken things away. Those cerebral, thought-provoking, original stories are still there, but there’s also an entire new genre of action movies that didn’t exist 40 years ago.  These blockbusters can make lots of money, but also cost a lot to make. In order to guarantee big returns, the industry leverages franchises with established material and built-in audiences.  We’ve already mentioned that sequels can be creative, and I think it’s obvious that better sequels do better at the box office; The Dark Knight and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire were excellent sequels and brought in the money.

But the biggest point is that my way of measuring creativity is deeply flawed. The industry has grown so much that looking at the top 10 grossing movies is no longer a good sample; there are so many ways we can consume media through digital distribution, the body of visual work made every year is so large we can’t possibly see it by only looking at 10 films.  The internet has made original story lines incredibly easy to find and distribute; you just have Google them! Additionally, a quick scan of the Academy Award nominees for Best Original Screenplay shows us that originality is alive and well in film. But that doesn’t even begin to cover all the incredible stories being told today: Netflix exclusive series like House of Cards, and Jessica Jones, HBO series like True Detective and Game of Thrones, and cable shows like Breaking Bad, Homeland, and Mad Men.  Even free YouTube series like The Vault are entertaining and original.  The idea that we are living in a “decadent” time for entertainment and a lack of creativity is simply wrong.

Back in 1975, Jaws invented the concept of the summer blockbuster. Since then, we’ve created dozens of new franchises that have captured the imaginations of movie-goers. Just like in any business, some products have been more successful than others, and those that have succeeded are kept and reproduced while failing products have been discarded. So it’s not particularly surprising that we have accumulated a huge collection of successful franchises from which to produce blockbuster action movies.  Should it bother us that successful movies are part of franchises? Again, I don’t think so. Generally speaking, bad movies don’t get made into franchises (there is no Incredible Hulk 2 or John Carter 2). But good movies, like John Wick, Pitch Perfect, and The Hunger Games got sequels. Eventually franchises run out of steam when they have nothing left to say (A Good Day to Die Hard, Shrek Forever After), but it’s hard to argue that it’s better to have never tried to make a good sequel than tried and failed (the failure of Terminator Genisys does not outweigh the benefits of Terminator 2).

So that’s my take. Sequels shouldn’t bother us that much, but if they do, go watch the tons of original content being produced every year. Enjoy the golden age of creativity and entertainment we are living in!