In Defence Of ‘Peak Sequel’ Capitalism

Is Hollywood running out of ideas?

In the wake of the unsurprising success of the seventh iteration of Star Wars, it can’t have escaped anyone’s attention that the American film industry is now pouring out sequels and reboots and exploiting established franchises.

This year we’re going to get Zoolander 2, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, Kung Fu Panda 3, Batman v Superman, Finding Dory, Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse, Now You See Me 2, aGhostbusters reboot, a fifth instalment of the Jason Bourne series, Bridget Jones’s Baby, another Jack Reacher movie, another Independence Day, a sequel to Bad Santa, and of course the next Star Wars film.

After 2016, there’s another Indiana Jones in the works, at least one more Alien, another American Pie, moreAvatars, another Blade Runner, a Die Hard prequel, another Frozen, and apparently a Star Wars every year until we die. Dominic Knight has dubbed this “peak sequel”. By one count there are 156 sequels in the works.

So it’s easy to be pessimistic about the imaginative vibrancy of Hollywood. One influential essay in GQ in 2011 forecast the “(potential) death” of American film as an art. There’s a helpful infographic floating around on “Hollywood’s waning creativity”.

But there is every reason to look at Hollywood’s sequel, franchise and reboot fashion with optimism, even admiration. They are a symbol of cultural health, not stagnation.

First, the situation is not exactly as it looks. While there are more sequels there are also a lot more movies, as trade sources in the US and UK complain. Don’t like the flashy pop juggernaut of Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Go see the bleak Revenant, which just won the best picture Golden Globe.

Anyway, adaptations and franchises have been Hollywood’s game since the very beginning. Cinema has always dug through and repurposed other cultural products. One of the earliest, greatest films, the 1902 silent A Trip to the Moon, is a mixed adaptation of stories by HG Wells and Jules Verne.

In the golden age of studios, filmmakers happily converted popular novels into film. By my count, at least 15 of the 20 best picture Oscar winners between 1950 and 1969 are adaptations of novels, plays and musicals. These were sometimes very well known, including Oliver! (a film adaptation of a musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’s novel); My Fair Lady (an adaptation of a musical adaptation of a film adaptation of the stage play Pygmalion); and Ben Hur (a reboot of a 1925 adaptation of an 1880 novel that had been made into a play in 1899 and a 1907 film). Possibly the best American film is a sequel of an adaptation: The Godfather Part II. Look at how derivative the Internet Movie Database’s top 250 movies are.

It’s not clear how adapting well-loved and established stories for film is substantively more creative than adapting well-loved and established film stories for more films. What standard of creativity does the all-female reworking of Ghostbusters violate that West Side Story (a film adaptation of a musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet) did not? It would be weird to complain we’re getting too many Shakespeare reboots. For what it’s worth, The Revenant is an adaptation of a novel too.

I made the point before Christmas that all culture relies on appropriating from earlier culture. George Lucas’s 1977 Star Wars was boldly original, but was also a complex pastiche of narrative tropes and imagery.

But there are stronger arguments for a Hollywood full of franchises than everyone-does-it and if-you-don’t-like-it-go-see-something-else.

As TV shows become more film-like – with higher production values, and longer stories that stretch across an entire television season – franchising means films are becoming more TV-like. Imagine those endless Marvel films (Iron Man, The Hulk, The Avengers, Thor, Captain America and so forth) as episodes in a long running story, rather than standalone movies. Like any show there are better episodes and worse episodes, but in sum they add up to a stronger whole than each individual would be.

Star Wars is a great example of how franchises can enrich a culture rather than shrink it. Everybody but the most contrarian agrees that Lucas’s three Star Wars prequels, released between 1999 and 2005, mostly fail as individual pieces of dramatic entertainment. (Yes, OK, an arguable exception is 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, sure.) But as exercises in constructing a rich and deep fictional world, they are remarkable. Sequels and franchises allow filmmakers and audiences to mine further veins of potential stories. No character need briefly appear on the screen and disappear forever. There’s always the opportunity for a spin-off.

Audiences clearly want this. The fanfic subcultures which pop up around every major film reveal an audience eager to further immerse themselves in the fictional universe. Books, comics, and TV specials are released to add depth for those who want more. The Star Wars expanded universe offers audiences a map of the long-ago, far-away galaxy with its own traditions and tales. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has its own comics, short films, TV shows, and the enormous back catalogue of stories and characters dating to the Second World War.

Even all that tacky merchandising that consumers lap up is a sign of cultural engagement. They want to take the film experience home with them. Surely this is what we want from culture – a communal experience, shared stories, imaginative worlds.

Movies have always been the most explicitly commercial art form. If you view art and commerce as distinct, separate spheres then it must be tempting to view ‘peak sequel’ capitalism as displacing the original visions of genius auteurs with repetitive dreck. But art surely has to speak to people. These grand worlds being built by sequels and franchises are doing that. They should not be regretted; they should be embraced.