In that famous episode of Mad Men, ‘The Carousel’, Don Draper diagnoses the beguiling power of the one force in advertising that is stronger than the allure of ‘new’ – the old.
If the success of the reboots of Jurassic Park, Star Wars, and Harry Potter have shown us anything, it is that nostalgia is a potent sensation, an emotional well that studios have now learned to extract and monetize in the most calculating way. Of course, for film and television to capitalize on the power of nostalgia is nothing new: in the 90s, Dazed And Confused took audiences back to the 70s, and more recently Stranger Things enjoyed great success in large part due to its homages to the 80s. In the case of Star Wars, (and now Harry Potter also) which for the second time has been resurrected to massive financial success, the nostalgia being evoked is not just a fondness for a past time or place (of course, much of Star Wars’ current audience wasn’t alive to watch the first films) but for the original films themselves. In a sense, audiences are lining up to have their own memories replenished - memories that were sold to them by the studio in the first place.
Several critics and viewers realised immediately that The Force Awakens was a rehash of the original films, but this of course was the point: the bland conservatism of the film was essential to its wild success. It was a non-film, constituted of only the few elements necessary for the audience to fill the near-empty vessel with their own fantasies and nostalgia. Indeed, the most traumatic experience for a hard-core fan of Star Wars would have been, after the many months of anticipation, to be confronted with something totally new. There will be nothing ‘new’ about Rogue One, and - though I refuse to watch it - nothing new about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them either. Ask a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe how many of the series’ directors they can name, and they will probably struggle to think of many, if any at all. This is because big franchises are not interested in making original films: directorial vision is antithetical to their goal (no doubt the reason that Guillermo Del Toro split ways with The Hobbit project). When you go to watch Rogue One, Fantastic Beasts, or Doctor Strange, you are not watching a film, you are prolonging a fantasy that has been sold to you.
This is the creative limit that all huge franchises must necessarily impose on themselves. People do not want what is new, what is revolutionary: it’s no surprise, for example, that the only truly creative film in the Harry Potter franchise - The Prisoner of Azkaban - had the worst performance at the box office. Marvel Studios are the unsurpassed masters of selling to consumers that which they’ve already seen before – in fact, through discarding the traditional chronological structure of franchises and creating a ‘cinematic universe’, they have given themselves lease to churn out dozens of minor variations of the same clichéd storyline, each one recontextualised into a superficially new setting (while making sure that these stories are just interrelated enough that watching every film yields a richer reward when their plots are inevitably brought together, as in The Avengers).
The domination of the film franchises is absolute: of the fifty highest grossing films of all time, thirty-nine are sequels or are extensions of a franchise (even when excluding films like Jurassic Park, the recent reboot of The Jungle Book, or the first Harry Potter film, which all benefited from significant pre-existing cultural capital). Any criticism of big franchises faces the common rebuttal that shallow, big budget films have always reigned over cinema - the studios simply provide audiences with what the market demands (“And anyway, it’s only a film – why can’t you just let people enjoy it?”). This is not true: in the past studios were less afraid to put these budgets behind bold, challenging films – there was some degree of risk, and of trust in the audience’s capacity to appreciate good filmmaking. In the condescending environment of contemporary cinema, could you imagine a film like The Godfather, or 2001: A Space Odyssey (the highest grossing films of 1972 and 1968, respectively) topping the box office? The cult of the franchise strangles originality from films because its primacy requires conditioning the audience into wanting only what is familiar, a task they have succeeded in so effectively that they can even sell us the same film twice – there is no clearer proof that people will line up to feed the cash cow that provides them their generic, store-bought fantasies than that fans were overjoyed when the final books of the Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Twilight series were all split into two film adaptations.
Unfortunately, I suspect that things are going to get a whole lot worse before they get any better. There is no reason to be optimistic about the state of mainstream cinema: for every original, ambitious, big budget picture, like Mad Max: Fury Road (a rare example of a franchise done right), it seems there are a score of films like The Force Awakens or Iron Man. Perhaps the best that any individual filmgoer bored with big franchises can do is to vote with their money and avoid the tedious, yearly stream of Fantastic Beasts and Rogue Ones - not that this will put an end to bad movies any more than boycotting H&M will put an end to sweatshops. Despite the exorbitant profits generated by such franchises, movie theatre attendance is declining; maybe all that is left for the lover of Hollywood is to mourn the big screen, and the escape and wonder which it once represented.