Movie premieres are the movable feast days of geek culture: indeed, even GR’s eternally preoccupied Board of Directors earmarks a handful of off-days a year (often en-masse and with matching t-shirts) for big theatrical premieres. Of course, keeping updated with the biggest pop culture phenomena of our time is also an essential part of being a career artist and so much can be gleaned from directly experiencing what is quite literally the “state of the art.”
That being said, it appears that the "State of the Art” as of August 2016’s worldwide box office records largely involve “stories from things you already recognise” whether they be prequels, sequels, reboots, re-imaginings, or adaptations. eight out of ten of the top grossing movies so far this year have been one of those things with the only outlier being “Zootopia” and Hong Kong science fantasy romantic comedy “the Mermaid” which involved a mermaid who was sent to assassinate (then falls in love with) a playboy businessman. Some people have cited statistics like these as solid proof that Hollywood has officially run out of ideas; others have rebutted that no fundamentally original story has come out of human creativity since Cervantes so there’s no point in making a fuss. For us at GR, we mostly just enjoy these movies as they come.
Then again, no two movies are created equal - even movies made in the wake of massive social trends. We review some of the biggest franchise releases below to see if there’s more to this than just studios milking their licenses for all they’re worth.
STAR WARS VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS
Sure it came out December last year but baring a handful of showings, it didn’t really hit Philippine cinemas until January. It also starts this list off with the biggest franchise follow-up of our generation. After all, the phrase “ruined childhood” was actually said to have been coined over the troubled fan reception of the Star Wars Prequels. With George Lucas out of the picture, replaced by J.J. Abrams at the helm, with Disney raring to build yet another cinematic universe - Force Awakens had to deal with the insurmountably high-stakes challenge of succeeding not only a classic that has spawned literal religions around it but also a previous follow-up that many consider to be exhibit A in the argument against this trend of cinematic follow-ups.
Apt, perhaps, for a franchise that has a literal cult following, Star Wars VII: the Force Awakens took a route not unlike that of the Protestant Reformation: eschew the gratuitous use of flashy visuals, reestablish what was essentially so captivating about the originals, and throw out a long history of extra-canonical material in favor of a narrower canon. Without question, "Force Awakens" concentrated on returning the franchise to its legendary golden roots. Some have even wondered if it was TOO much of a return: "rural youngster gets swept by chance circumstances off a desert planet to face a supernatural destiny that leads to blowing up a giant round superweapon in space before heading off to train with an old master" is an oddly specific way to start a trilogy twice, let alone three times. Then again, given the fact that The Star Wars mythos was so entrenched in both Eastern Mysticism and the use of Joseph Campbell's classic "Hero's Journey," the cyclical progression of recurring themes was a natural device.
In any case, I thought "Force Awakens" was largely a success given the titanic checklist it had to run through. It managed to continue the stories of iconic original characters while passing the torch to unique and interesting new characters of its own. It also successfully reestablishes the focus of the story back to the chemistry between characters as opposed to the vagaries of galactic trade law. It was not a perfect movie by any means - none of the villains ever felt very threatening and the world feels three or four expositions short of vivid - but all in all, it did accomplish it's main job: it leaves you with a renewed hope for the franchise.
BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE
Let me start this review by saying that not long after our viewing of this movie, we had to rush GR President Emmanuel Javier to the ER for debilitating nausea. Was it all because of "Dawn of Justice?" Comprehensive tests still need to be run but let me go on record to say " yeah... maybe it was?"
Much like "Force Awakens," "Dawn of Justice" was tasked to start a cinematic universe of new characters while following in the heels of a predecessor with a spotty reputation. "Man of Steel" had been met with both mixed reviews and a lot of unanswered questions and if DC was going to give the impression that it could do cinematic arcs right, they were probably better off reminding people how well they fared with the Dark Knight trilogy. With all that on the table, it's mind-boggling how Zack Snyder managed to figure there was going to be room for a half-baked philosophy lecture in there.
You're probably familiar with all of this by now: unaccounted collateral damage, "Martha!," the Justice League's introduction-by-flash disk, the dragging dream sequences, and a Lex Luthor that seemingly dug up Heath Ledger's Joker and glazed it in Jolly Ranchers. You might even be one of the people who give it a pass for the fight scenes or whenever Wonder Woman was doing anything. As far as this article goes though, it is a good example of a movie that seemed to know everything it needed to do to continue its franchise but decided to half-ass all those things instead of carrying it through all the way. "Dawn of Justice" begins strongly, giving a humanizing view of the notorious fight scene in Man of Steel. It ends in a dramatic climax that leaves its survivors emotionally scarred yet inspired to face the challenges ahead. Somewhere in the middle, it ticks off its list of essential elements with dreary disinterest that it tries to hide behind incessant vwawwww-ing.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR
Marvel has had its good sequels. It has had its bad sequels. Worst of all, it has had its ultimately forgettable sequels. Even so, no other studio in history has pumping out sequels down to an art-form like Marvel does under Disney. The Marvel movies have become the quintessential example of the Cinematic Universe: obscenely lucrative, incredibly hype-able, and still ultimately unchallenged.
Given that, the Russo brothers could have rested on their laurels. They've already produced one critically-acclaimed sequel in "Captain America: Winter Soldier" and they were already earmarked to do Avengers: Infinity War next anyway. Most of their characters and themes were also well-established at this point as well. Surprisingly, they made use of all these advantages and managed to top their previous work with what could be the most sophisticated super hero blockbuster yet.
It is almost impossible NOT to compare "Dawn of Justice" and "Civil War" and it's probably more than just because of the release dates. Both movies tackled heroes in conflict. Both movies were hinged on character tension reflecting broader philosophical and political themes. Both movies were meant to springboard spin-off movies for characters we've never met before. The difference though is in showing versus telling: where "Dawn of Justice" felt like it was tacking its point haphazardly in the dialogue just in case you miss what's going on, Civil War managed to perform its objectives subtly. Or, at least as subtly as you can manage in bright blue fighting gear.
The X-Men Franchise is something like the wayward step-sibling of the super hero franchises, fostered with Sony in the wake of leaner times. After all, when DC fails, it fails hard, loud and painfully. With the X-Men, even their successes seem forgettable. Rounding off its second set of trilogies (unless they manage to get a fourth out of the same cast), "Apocalypse" means to take us twenty years after "First Class" with barely any of the cast aging a day since the sixties. Not that it matters though: we hardly touch on anything quintessentially 80's in the movie anyway except for a few throw away references.
Interestingly, the movie comes off as the worst possible love child of "Civil War" and "Dawn of Justice." Like both of these, it shows characters forced to face-off against their friends by a looming villain that works largely in the sidelines. Like "Dawn of Justice," everything is muted, there are more characters in play than anyone knew how to deal with, and the villain has an annoying tendency to discuss Theology like a Youtube comment section. Like "Civil War," the characters are from Marvel and is also a third movie.
In the end, all I can say about this movie is that it's got one really good scene and that it manages to do one of the worst things a sequel could do: it managed to finally establish these new X-Men movies as the ultimately forgettable super hero franchise.
STAR TREK BEYOND
Marvel might be the most prolific franchise around and Star Wars might be the most lucrative Science Fiction brand in history but as Cinematic Universes go, Star Trek got there first. With interconnected titles following characters and plot threads across TV and Film, it isn’t surprising that Star Trek would amass the kind of devoted following that can weather as many flops as it had produced (generally believed to be every odd-numbered movie plus the whole of the prequel series “Enterprise.” Even when rebooting its franchise, it manages to tie it directly to the original narrative - easy when your franchise involves time travel and parallel universes.
All in all, “Beyond” follows the reboot movie series quite well: it is generally regarded as the best of the new Star Trek movies if not one of the best Star Trek movies of all time. The movie capitalises on both the source material’s extensive lore and on the cast who, by now, has formed some pretty solid chemistry. In fact, while the new movies have always tried to establish drama from character relationships, “Beyond” was probably the first of these movies to pull-it off to the point where there’s actual drama to contend with.
Unfortunately, while reviews have been generally favourable, one wonders if it could have been more popular for it. While being one of the world’s most recognisable franchises, it didn’t really break any box office records or amass crazy amounts of hype - even with the tragic death of one of its stars. Succinctly put, the movie was overshadowed which is a shame given its quality. There’s no question that the franchise is going to continue but if it remains as insular as it is, economic concerns may end up coming into play.
GHOSTBUSTERS ANSWER THE CALL
If there was a movie this year that was not overshadowed, it was this one. Right from the first trailer, everything about this movie had been all of clamour and scandal: everybody either had a very strong opinion about it or a very strong opinion about not having any strong opinions about it and somehow, the fate of mankind rested in whether movies like Ghostbusters were made or not.
Having watched the movie, I could safely say that it was largely innocuous fun. It wasn’t really like the first movie which was raunchy and actually rather scathing in its politics. It wasn’t really like the second movie either which was a bizarre stroll through the apocalypse. If it was closer to anything, it was probably closer to the cartoons with heavier use of slapstick, a pace that seemed to always be trying to catch your attention, and a plot resolved by the invention-of-the-week. That isn’t to disparage the movie at all though: as its own movie, it’s a really enjoyable experience with some of the characters (not all, not all) being unique and enjoyable.) And given how most Ghostbusters media - even the ones that included all the original characters - have been so tonally different from each other to begin with, I thought “Answer the Call” hit all the notes that qualify it as a legitimate follow-up to the originals.
But no, to say that the movie had major faults that can turn people away for good reason does NOT make you a misogynist. The visuals were heavily lambasted when the trailers came out and they really did represent much of the visual effects of the movie: saccharinely coloured and very nearly comical. I did find myself laughing all throughout but since the jokes came in too densely, I was cringing quite a lot too whenever the joke missed. And sadly, while the setup for the final battle may have been great as far as the new ghostbusters were concerned (someone gets to punch ghosts with a ghost blender fist), the ghosts themselves never seem to have the kind of numbers or demeanour that made the big invasions in the old movies quite as threatening. None of these faults kept me from enjoying the movie, personally, but I think that if the future of Women’s Rights had to depend on everybody unequivocally praising one movie, this shouldn’t be that movie.
FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM (AND THE CURSED CHILD)
Let me start this listicle with a play that has yet to be a movie and a movie that has yet to come out. Now, I’m not saying that, since Harry Potter is done and out, that JK Rowling is angling for an expanded cinematic universe of her own but.. actually, yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. The sequel to Fantastic Beasts is already under development and the Cursed Child a play that you have to be in the theatre twice for to see in full. And it’s not like she hasn’t worked on anything other than Potter since; it’s just that we didn’t catch on to those other books quite as much as we seem to be over this book series that ended nearly ten years ago.
And in the end, I think that’s the case. Maybe some day, the trend will be for new characters and new worlds all the time, every time. Maybe one day we’d actually be as tired of sequels as we say we are. But that’s not where we are yet. And with some shining examples out there with the dross, I can stand to watch more of these sequels and spinoffs for a few more years to come.
Marthy Angue is Vice President and resident film critic of Gunship Revolution.