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This week, the internet was agog in tongue emojis and admiration as the first photos of the upcoming Barbie movie, directed by Greta Gerwig, emerged. Margot Robbie plays Barbie. Ryan Gosling plays Ken. As far as casting goes, they incontestably look the part. But the very existence of the film is just the latest sign of a creativity crisis in Hollywood that we’ve all come to accept far too readily.
The movie theater near me is playing a grand total of one movie featuring characters that have never appeared in another film before it. It’s an animated movie called The Bad Guys, about a group of villains who experiment with being good, and honestly, it’s quietly excellent. Which is a relief, because it’s also my only chance of being surprised in some kind of way at the theater this month.
The last two weeks at the box office have featured Top Gun: Maverick, a 36-years-later sequel, which broke all kinds of records and registered the lowest drop between opening week and its second week. Maverick was only unseated from the top by the 386th installment of Jurassic Park, this one called Jurassic World Dominion in case you’re keeping track. Meanwhile, Lightyear opens in theaters this weekend, and though the internet has registered a bewildering thirst for young Buzz, it remains unclear who exactly asked for this. The following two weekends are taken up, respectively, by a new Elvis movie and a new Minions movie — Minions being a sequel of a spin-off from the wildly successful Despicable Me movies.
The Barbie movie will be toymaker Mattel’s biggest foray into filmmaking, but it’s just the beginning of a new phase for the company. The American Girl doll is getting a live-action movie, as is Barney the dinosaur of Barney fame. Last year, Mattel announced that rapper Lil Yachty will helm the development of a heist movie based on the card game Uno, which sounds like mad libs. Elsewhere, Emily V. Gordon, who co-wrote The Big Sick, is making a Play-Doh movie with Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu.
Meanwhile, the biggest show on television this week is Ms. Marvel, a lesser-known comic book character plopped into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is perhaps the largest entertainment machine in history. The first episodes of Ms. Marvel are charming and warm, feeling like a breath of fresh air in the Marvel galaxy. But nonetheless, the series is a continuation of a larger trend: Some characters may be new, but the draw is the familiarity. The pilot’s opening sequence is a show of power, a rundown of how many Marvel characters we’ve all come to memorize.
In no particular order, this year we have had to put up with a show about scammer Anna Delvey, a movie about televangelist Tammy Faye, a show about Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, a show about Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, who was convicted of fraud earlier this year, a new Star Wars show built around Obi-Wan Kenobi, and a show about Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee. And then there’s Netflix, which is capitalizing on the runaway success of the highly original Squid Game… by launching a Squid Game reality show, presumably sans the mass murder.
Are you exhausted yet? We seem to have arrived at the nadir of original stories, a cultural moment where many of the TV shows and movies feature names and characters we already know. It does not matter how well we know them — it just matters that the audience is already familiar with the world. We are living through the age of peak intellectual property. Hollywood has learned the safe route, found a reliable pattern: Every time studios push this button, $13 comes out. Why wouldn’t they keep pushing it? But at what cost to originality?
Iman Vellani, the star of Ms. Marvel, is 19. Quick math says she would’ve been starting grade school when Iron Man came out in 2008, setting in motion what would become the mightiest money-making entertainment machine on Earth. We are now seeing the first generation of MCU stars who were raised on the MCU.
This piece isn’t one of those “Marvel movies are bad” panics. They are, by and large, fine. I have seen the vast majority of them, and I’ve had a great time. But it’s important to recognize that in the span of a decade and a half, Marvel has reset the bar of success for everyone else. When Thor: Love and Thunder opens in a few weeks, it will be the 29th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Meanwhile, Ms. Marvel is the seventh television series of Marvel’s latest shows that exist alongside the movies — and the first one of those came only 18 months ago.
At this point, the Marvel machine sustains itself. Bad reviews for Eternals? Who cares? Tepid response to the latest Doctor Strange? Doesn’t matter. The crowning achievement of the Marvel trajectory isn’t an Avengers movie or a Thor sequel — it’s the burrowing of the Marvel brand deep inside the culture, in such a successful manner that any character can be attached to it and be guaranteed to succeed. Who the fuck is Moon Knight? Doesn’t matter: It’s a hit.
The general fallout of this is that all other studios are watching and copying. It has become accepted wisdom that for a movie to succeed, its characters must be recognizable in some way. One path to do this is to keep the sequel machine running. But there is a parallel lane of reframing major characters, too — 2021’s Cruella, 2019’s Joker, 2014’s Maleficent. These works are not reinventing the wheel of Wicked, which retold the story of the Wicked Witch of the West, but they sure are accelerating it. Pick a known villain, give them a childhood trauma, and we’re off to the races.
On the TV front, as Molly Fischer writes for the New Yorker, IP reigns supreme, too. We’re amid a wave of TV shows adapted straight from the headlines. Joe Vs Carole retreads the Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin storyline, while The Girl from Plainville recounts the death of Conrad Roy and the intrigue around Michelle Carter, Roy’s girlfriend who encouraged him to kill himself via text message. It’s just stuff you already know, remade into shows with actors you love.
Plainville debuted less than four years after Carter was convicted. This is hardly an “old story” in need of examination. But the familiarity, as Fischer writes, “is the point.” Call it the “You’re-Wrong-Aboutification” of pop culture. The popular podcast made its name recasting familiar stories in order to fill in the cultural gaps. These new IP shows purport to do the same — the lure is that you know the story. The promise is that the show will reveal something new, like Hulu’s Pam & Tommy, which was positioned as commentary on how we treated the circus around the Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee sex tape.
But unlike You’re Wrong About, which offers genuine windows of insight into why we might misunderstand a historical event or a cultural moment, these products of the IP boom offer no such thing. Pam & Tommy is incredibly fun to watch, but it has no point of view, nothing to say about its subjects. The show is happy to dramatically render a headline you heard somewhere, betting that this will be enough to keep your intention. That’s the golden ticket.
It’s unfair to treat these works of repackaged IP as the same. Top Gun: Maverick is an exhilarating film, one of the year’s best, while Jurassic World Dominion manages the incredible feat of making dinosaurs boring. Plainville has nothing to say, but HBO’s The Staircase, which dramatizes the making of the legendary true crime documentary of the same name, deftly explores the complicity of the audience in the salaciousness of the true crime genre. Ms. Marvel is similarly impossible to root against.
The larger problem is that major IP has become the reward for making compelling work. Barbie is Greta Gerwig’s follow-up to 2019’s Little Women, which earned Gerwig an Oscar nomination, and 2018’s Lady Bird, which was up for two Oscars including Best Director. Last year’s best director and best picture winner Chloe Zhao, who won for Nomadland, was at the helm of Marvel’s Eternals. Colin Trevorrow, who was handpicked by Steven Spielberg to run the Jurassic World franchise, made his name when his indie hit Safety Not Guaranteed turned heads for its creativity. Black Panther director Ryan Coogler was drafted to the Marvel side after his groundbreaking debut, Fruitvale Station, earned him the credibility to direct another major movie derived from existing IP, 2015’s Creed.
In other words, when filmmakers display a clear directorial voice and a unique vision, they are quickly put to work in the IP mines, turning vaguely recognizable names into new work. Sometimes it’s a success. Sometimes it’s a disaster. But it is almost always safe.
Perhaps the biggest treat at the box office this year has been the success of the thoroughly original and inventive Everything Everywhere All At Once, which became indie studio A24’s biggest hit to date. But nearly every mention of its phenomenal performance makes mention of how surprising it is. It feels like Everything Everywhere snuck through an area where it wasn’t supposed to and became the exception that proves the rule.
It is promising that Daniels, the pair of directors who gave us Everything Everywhere, are being recognized for their creativity. It is frustrating to know that of all the ways this accomplishment could be rewarded, the most likely path is that they’ll get a call from Marvel. Maybe someone will even put them in charge of a stand-alone Rocket Racoon movie.
It is unsurprising that audiences turn out in droves to see characters they love be put in new situations. This is, ultimately, an exercise in fan service, and fan service is a core part of developing relationships with audiences. What is unique about this modern era is that it’s all fan service, all filler no killer, with little appetite to shepherd something ambitious from inception to execution.
Works with characters who are completely new to us are coming along so rarely that it feels like a special visit to get one of those. How long will it be before we look up and realize we’ve been stuck in a reboot loop for a whole generation of moviegoers? One wonders if the next generation of inventive filmmakers who want to make films on a grander scale will only have a heap of sequels and retreads to mine for inspiration. How long are we destined to repeat ourselves? ●