So director/writer Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Avengers) offered some opinions regarding popular films and, more specifically, criticism directed at them. His first major comment, regarding Empire Strikes Back, went like this:
“Empire committed the cardinal sin of not actually ending. Which at the time I was appalled by and I still think it was a terrible idea. Well, it’s not an ending. It’s a Come Back Next Week, or in three years. And that upsets me. I go to movies expecting to have a whole experience. If I want a movie that doesn’t end I’ll go to a French movie. That’s a betrayal of trust to me. A movie has to be complete within itself, it can’t just build off the first one or play variations.”
(You can read more about this here: http://www.ign.com/articles/2013/08/26/star-wars-joss-whedons-critique-of-the-empire-strikes-back)
I couldn’t agree with Mr. Whedon more. It is my opinion that if you intend to end a film (or a book, for that matter) with the glimmer of a possibility of a sequel, you should nonetheless make sure that whatever work you are creating is as complete as possible on its own terms. Compare, for example, the original Star Wars to Empire Strikes Back. In Star Wars, the film clearly gives us a hint of a sequel (the main villain, Darth Vader, gets away), yet the film accomplishes everything -storywise- it intended, from setting up the “big danger” and the heroes’ quest to their ultimate triumph in ridding their world of this threat. Empire, on the other hand, seemed to present a series of events culminating in nothing at all being resolved…and indeed all the characters in flux…until the next film.
Now, does this necessarily diminish the film? Empire is considered by many to be THE BEST of the Star Wars films, so clearly Lucas and company did something right. Yet Mr. Whedon’s comments, I feel, are nonetheless on target. Empire is a film without an ending, and as such is ultimately an incomplete experience…until you see Return of the Jedi.
(An admission: I am not a big fan of the Star Wars films. I don’t hate them, mind you, just never got into them as my peers did back in the day.)
Mr. Whedon’s made another comment, this time regarding self-referential humor -and the problem with it- in movies like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I find this comment even more intriguing:
A movie has to be complete within itself; it can’t just build off the first one or play variations. You know that thing in Temple of Doom where they revisit the shooting trick? … That’s what you don’t want. And I feel that’s what all of culture is becoming — it’s becoming that moment.
Germain Lussier at /Film takes up Mr. Whedon’s comment and offers a wonderful explanation/examination of what he is essentially saying. I underlined what I believe really gets to the heart of the matter:
The bigger issue Whedon is getting at here is that Spielberg relied on what had already happened for a cheap joke. Magnify that onto a larger scale and you have Saw VII, The Amazing Spider-Man reboot, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, and One Direction. Things that are simply copying creative endeavors that have proven to be successful. Whedon’s issue is very few people create something new these days. And, even scarier, no one seems to care. They simply consume the same crap over and over again. This sentiment is a valid one.
(You can read the entire article here: http://www.slashfilm.com/joss-whedon-points-at-temple-of-doom-scene-as-example-of-cultural-problem/#more-192045)
There is, of course, some irony to be found in Mr. Whedon’s comments, even while I generally agree with them. Wasn’t Mr. Whedon responsible for a TV show which essentially featured a character versus vampires (and other evils) as threats week in and week out? And wasn’t that vampire show given a spin off series? Yes, they were both very entertaining shows, but still. And wasn’t Cabin in the Woods, a film he produced and co-wrote, essentially a long riff on many horror movie tropes/cliches? Does one not need to know many of these horror movie tropes/cliches coming into that film to truly appreciate it?
Given that, how is Mr. Whedon’s use of such tropes/cliches to create his work all that different from the same example he points out in Temple of Doom?
Setting that aside, and going back to Mr. Lussier’s wonderful comments, the underlined elements are, in my opinion, the meat of the matter. Thanks to the internet and new technologies, we live in a society where we are stimulated more than we have ever been, be it via video games or music or movies or shows. We consume entertainment near constantly, and are always looking for the next fix.
Thing is, the next fix requires an awful lot of work.
Making a TV show or an album or a book or a movie isn’t something you can (in the most vulgar terms) “shit out” in your free time. It requires hours and hours of heavy work and, once it is ready, there is the very real possibility that it never catches fire and is immediately forgotten or, worse, completely ignored.
Audiences are hard -if not impossible- to judge. You may work your tail off and come up with something you feel is worthwhile and original and are meet with little more than yawns. You may do a riff on something currently popular (yesterday it was Vampires, lately it seems to be either Zombies or superheroes) and instantly connect with audiences and have great success. You may even hit it big with something that wasn’t so big before and, to keep the success going, start making your own spin-offs of said material…over and over again, to keep up your success.
The copying and re-copying of material carries with it, even in these over-stimulated days, diminishing returns. What was popular can become tiresome and audiences might suddenly decide to turn off.
I suppose pop culture has always worked this way. There are those who create material that offers a path for others to follow (and, if you want to be blunt about it, rip-off) until that path and creative direction is worn out and the “new” material -whatever that may be- takes over. Until it becomes old and worn out as well. Then the new-“new” material takes over, and off we go again…