Tuesday, October 18, 2022

The Long Look Back: Star Wars and Superheroes

It has been ten years since Disney acquired the Star Wars galaxy and our writers here weighed in on what we thought this might mean for fans, and ten years since I wrote what remains one of my favorite essays for Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together, From Spurs to Spandex: Why Westerns Died and Superheroes Fly. I’ve been thinking a lot about those two things recently, because literally everywhere I go, I am confronted by a non-stop barrage of Star Wars and superheroes.

Every time I turn on the television, every time I pass a bus stop, or a bus passes me, or I pass a billboard, or I pick my kids up from school. It has become part of the noise of every day.

There was a time – ten years ago, as it happens – when this wasn’t the case. Back then, I and other NoaF writers offered some theories of what might be coming down the pike and speculated about some of the whys and wherefores. I thought it might be interesting to look back at those perspectives and predictions from today’s vantage point.

Let us go then, you and I...

The Rise of Streaming

Right off the bat, two statements I made in the Star Wars and Superheroes posts collide because of the ways in which streaming services have totally redefined the media landscape. The transformation has been seismic, and not one I saw coming or I think any of us really could have predicted.

First, regarding the Disney acquisition of Lucasfilm, I worried about the impact it would have on limiting voices and stories, because for many years the number of films being released to theaters had been (and continues) shrinking. In November of 2012, I wrote:
What we're looking at is a two-year cycle of 12 films where 2 Marvels, 2 Pixars, 1 Disney Animation, 1-2 Tim Burtons, and now a STAR WARS are already taking up over half of the slate and about a billion dollars in budgeted production costs. What this move means overall is that fewer films will be made, there will be fewer surprises, and fewer chances for anyone to ever again blow up the cinematic landscape like Lucas did with the original STAR WARS.
Second, in the Westerns post, I argued that superhero films would move beyond the simple “household name hero origin story+sequel+sequel” pattern, to include different kinds of stories at difference scales. I wrote:
I do not believe it [the theatrical film market] can become saturated [with superhero content] in any real sense, but expectations have to be adjusted. Not every movie with a cape or a costume will make $100 million.
I wrote that in early 2013, surveying a media landscape in which movie studios were consolidating, so there were fewer and fewer buyers for and producers of feature films. Netflix existed, but to put it in context, the first episodes of House of Cards had just premiered. The success or failure of Netflix’s move into original programming was still an open question. Orange is the New Black hadn’t premiered yet, and Breaking Bad had yet to air the second half of its final season. Produced by AMC but licensed to Netflix, the show’s audience swelled through 2013 in anticipation of the final episodes thanks to people being able to binge the previous seasons on Netflix. But this was, crucially, still a broadcast show.

I argued then that Breaking Bad was the show of our time, and I think that holds up because I believe it was the transformative show that paved the way for the rise of streaming services producing original content. Contemporary reporting suggested as much, but even so, the sheer volume of original streaming programming is a whole other thing entirely. From the vantage point of 2012/2013, there was simply no way to anticipate that within the decade Disney+ a) would exist and b) would be cranking out more hours of Star Wars content per month than the total runtime of all the films in the franchise up to that point.

I believe it is fair to say that, thanks to the rise of streaming services and the continuing trends in theatrical distribution, the media landscape has now, in fact, become saturated with superheroes. But this speaks to the central thesis of my Westerns vs. Superheroes piece – in the 1950s, Westerns saturated the (far smaller) media landscape. Myriad TV shows geared toward kids, families, and adult audiences dominated the airwaves, and the list of Western films produced in the 1950s is so extensive that Wikipedia breaks it up into 1950-1954 and 1955-1959 . The Western occupied a massive domain in the American zeitgeist, which now has been replaced by superhero narratives.

An Ever-Expanding Palette, New Kinds of Stories

As I argued in 2013, both genres are concerned, at their core, with the intersection of violence and power. At that time, superhero franchises such as X-Men, Batman, Spider-Man, and the early Marvel films were considered reliable safe bets. I had a little skin in the game in the late-2000s, working as a writer developing a couple of original superhero projects. I and the producers I was working with heard consistently that nothing that wasn’t from existing IP would fly, and even the track-record of films from established characters with name recognition was spotty (Green Hornet, Green Lantern, Ghost Rider, etc). But I believed that the types of stories we were seeing would have to broaden and evolve. I wrote:
We can look at the incredible breadth of stories Westerns provided as a possible indicator of things to come. Tables were turned, where we began to see antiheroes and were asked to invest in the story from the "bad guy's" perspective, we saw stories of smaller lives touched by much larger struggles playing out around them, allegories for cultural and religious struggles, broken people forced into the hero mold and asked to do something beyond themselves, fringe voices telling familiar stories in entirely different ways, comedies, etc.
But I didn’t anticipate that, when we saw that evolution in the superhero realm, we’d be seeing it through the eyes of established characters. I believed that film and TV creators would gain the freedom to invent their own characters to tell stories of different sizes and with different perspectives. But with a few exceptions, particular in kids’ programming, IP remains king of the mountain in this regard. That said, hats off to the creators that have been able to make it work, and tell a huge variety of stories while playing in somebody else’s sandbox.

Marvel’s early Netflix run with Jessica Jones and Luke Cage used superhero characters to weave a neo-noir about the impact of sexual violence and a neo-blaxploitation series about local corruption, respectively – a far cry from the “saving the world” framing of many of the big-screen offerings even from the same universe. More recent series such as WandaVision and Hawkeye continued to get more personal, more emotionally complex, and less spectacle-centric. Meanwhile, the MCU theatrical offerings, especially in the Thor series, have become broader, funnier, and more intergalactic in scope. And films like The New Mutants, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, and Werewolf by Night have branched out into horror territory.

And that’s just Marvel. Amazon brought us The Boys, Netflix The Umbrella Academy, HBO Max continues to roll out content ranging from the blockbuster (Zack Snyder’s Justice League) to adult animation (Harley Quinn), and whatever DC is doing in theaters (a supervillain in a return to the 70s paranoid thriller? Ok, I guess.) continues to not interest me. Teen Titans Go! To the Movies remains DC’s best theatrical film, and you can fight me I don’t even care. So at this point, we have essentially seen the superhero genre iterate into every other genre we’re familiar with. Just like the Westerns did so many decades ago.

It’s important to make the same distinction I made ten years ago, which is that I’m specifically talking about superheroes, not the more nebulous “comic book adaptation.” Heartstoppers is a comic book adaptation. The Walking Dead is a comic book adaptation. That’s not what we’re talking about here. But you don’t need me to tell you that superheroes have become ubiquitous.

The question that lingers is why? Why now? Why with this intensity? Why with this ubiquity? And, I suppose, will it be with us forever?

Magical Thinking

In 2013, I argued that superhero stories supplanted Westerns because of a shift in perception among Americans about what the “American Dream” meant, and how it operated. I stand by this, and I think the titanic events of the last ten years bear this out. I wrote then:
Hard work doesn't pay off like it used to. Many of the hardest working people in this country can barely keep a roof over their heads, and people who have played by the rules and "done everything right" can find themselves out of work for years and unable to repay medical or student loan debts.
Superheroes tend to have a couple of things in common: they exist in a primarily urban landscape, and they believe in magic. Just like their audiences. As a culture, we are far more likely to believe in magic today than in hard work, and not without reason.

The former president of the United States played a successful businessman on TV, and then got elected to run the country. No experience necessary...just the irrational belief that it would all work out. Magical thinking. 1 in 5 Americans believes a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles runs the government. One in five! Even though their guy was in charge of the government! Observation tells me that over the last decade, there has been a marked rise in out-in-the-open magical thinking and a shift by millions of Americans away from evidence-based evaluation of just…facts. Of basic, discernible truths. 

It’s hard to avoid seeing the overlap between, say, Hydra’s role in the MCU and the ways in which an increasing number of Americans think the real world actually operates. It’s also interesting to think about the soul-searching at the heart of the Steve Rogers-Tony Stark dispute over the Sokovia Accords attempting to rein in the impact of superheroes and limit their destructive impacts as an allegory for corporate responsibility in an age of unparalleled corporate consolidation, reach, and impact. And The Boys seems increasingly transparent about its critique of the role of actual law enforcement in this country.

Like many of us, I feel helpless and insufficient to address so much of what is going on in the world. And the more I read, the more I realize that there are vast, interconnected systems undergirding every aspect of our daily life – systems that seem overwhelmingly formidable. There is something resonant in seeing fictionalized versions of those frameworks and something comforting in the idea that there could be superfolks who could just punch it all into oblivion. And there is something in it for the mega-corporations producing all of this content to keep us from looking behind the actual curtain. And it is at least in the realm of possibility that this inundation encourages us to believe in fantastic, impossible scenarios and frameworks, rather than examining the banal, actual, uncomfortable forces that are resulting in widening inequalities, loss of opportunities, and a general decay in the social fabric, writ large. I’m veering into the territory of whether or not violent media desensitizes individuals to actual violence, I know.

But the point is that the types of narratives we see in contemporary superhero stories, even in their increasing breadth, speak to us in our current complexity. Harley Quinn being an animated show for adults that deals with LGBTQ+ themes and situations is a great example. Can you fathom DC and Warner Media signing off on such a thing in 2013?!? The ubiquity and familiarity of these superhero characters create opportunities for storytellers and for audiences, and I don’t believe we’ll see anything but further proliferation of superhero stories, TV shows, and films for…a long, long while.

What’s Next?

Now is where I get to prognosticate a little more freely. This is just wild speculation, but if you were to ask me what comes next, as the popularity of superheroes inevitably wanes, somewhere far down the road? Again, wild speculation, but…

I’m kidding. I have no idea.

But I will say that I think one thing we are standing on the cusp of in this moment is an explosion of Star Wars content on a scale that is hard to fathom. Is it possible that someday the already-everywhere Star Wars might become even more ubiquitous? I’d say it’s a certainty. I’d like to shout out some of the predictions fellow NoaF writers made in 2012 when Disney acquired Lucasfilm.

The G opined:

Disney might be able to do some good here: they’ve done a decent job with Marvel (so far), and given that the STAR WARS franchise is riding a decade-and-a-half long waterslide to the gutter, it won’t take much at this point to right the ship. Mixed-metaphors aside, all it will take is putting the right people on the project. What’s Lawrence Kasdan up to these days?
As it happens, Lawrence Kasdan was about to be up to writing The Force Awakens. Along those lines, Molly wrote:
[T]his is all about who will lead up the project, both directing (my votes go to J.J. Abrams, Jon Favreau, or Christopher Nolan) – but more importantly, the writing.
Two out of three directors isn’t bad! J.J. was also Disney’s first choice, and Favreau wound up bringing us The Mandalorian. But Brad worried about certain possibilities, including one that definitely came to pass:
I say we all just get down on our knees and pray to God Almighty that they don’t stick Harrison Ford in the role of Han Solo for #7! After Indy 4 you know he’ll do it if asked.
But Mike really took the crown, with this quite prescient take:
My take is that Disney will take the brilliant world that Lucas created and treat it with care. Under the watchful eye of Disney I could see more of a Star Wars presence in its theme parks and could see it expanding the successful Cartoon Network’s Clone Wars. Anyone who has been watching the Clone Wars knows that the Star Wars franchise has a lot of quality stories to be told. I feel that removing Lucas from the picture may really open the creative envelope on a world ripe with opportunity.

Here we are ten years on, and I believe the ball that Mike predicted Disney would start rolling is finally getting up to speed. Many years ago, I remember Craig Mazin saying on the Scriptnotes podcast that when you factor in the Expanded Universe, Star Wars was the closest thing to a religion human beings had created in the last thousand years. The movies were just a sliver of the entire, immense Star Wars canon, but those novels and comics and other media never had the same blanket mass-market exposure the films did. Now Disney has essentially all the money in the world to put behind creating a brand new Star Wars universe, and they’re going to use Disney+ to bring all of it directly into our homes.

What about the metaverse, you may ask? Facebook and Microsoft are dumping billions of dollars into it. Might that revolutionize the entertainment landscape again in the coming years?

Nah. People don’t like to put shit on their faces. You heard it here first, folks!

Check back in 2032 for the latest.

Posted by Vance K – co-editor of nerds of a feather, flock together since 2012. Emmy Award-winning producer and director, and multi-instrumentalist in different musical thingies