When Star Wars came out in 1977, it shattered everyone’s expectations and preconceptions about what a blockbuster is. It also undid much of the work George Lucas’ contemporaries like Martin Scorsese (who said that Star Wars meant that he was “finished” in the business) and William Friedkin (who said that Star Wars was responsible for reverting Hollywood into a “giant sucking hole”) had been doing to accustom audiences to sophisticated New Hollywood films, and hurled them back to Hollywood’s golden age of spectacle, good guys & bad guys, happy endings and straight line narratives from about 30 years prior. In the face of Francis Ford Coppola’s advice to make use of darker Shakespearian themes in his writing, Lucas chose a Disney-like path and was so successful that for decades studios were convinced it was the only way a summer blockbuster could be. Superman? Epic, but campy as hell. Harry Potter? Close, but no cigar. Independence Day? Ugh. Clash of the Titans? Barf.
But in 2005, a man emerged, a Batman, shepherded by a man who seemed to be more apt to taking Coppola’s advice. Christopher Nolan took what Tim Burton had tried to do in 1989 and went all the way with it. Batman Begins also shattered everyone’s expectations, again in more ways than just at the box office. Nolan’s introduction of realism and ambiguous shades of grey morality turned the wheel again. Suddenly dark and serious was the only way to be. Bruce Wayne was a gun-toting malcontent, Alfred was being played by freakin’ Jack Carter himself, Michael Caine, and the bad guys were honest to blog terrorists in the most literal sense of the word. It had a densely plotted storyline and even a psychedelic experience or two, perhaps as a way of picking up where things left off before Lucas pulled his game changer. It’s the blockbuster Coppola would have made – a veritable Heart of Dark Knight.
Suddenly everything was too cornball. Stories needed to be layered, characters conflicted, and a straight line was no longer the shortest distance between opening & closing credits. The venomous reception to Spielberg & Lucas’ attempt to revive the Indiana Jones franchise is indication enough of the turn of the tide, as the Star Wars prequels might have been an early harbinger of this shift. And not only did the new crop of more thoughtful films drawing on the literary tradition start emerging on the scene, all kinds of goofy would-be moneymakers had to be remade or rebooted. Fantastic 4? What were we thinking? Spider-Man? Sure, it is one of the most successful franchises of all time, but we can start it all over again, sans Raimi corniness. Even Spawn might get another bite at the apple at a time when it actually should have been made to begin with.
I suppose this would be where I’d inject some kind of cute line about Star Wars and the Dark Side, but I think that would be counter to my point of cornball being on the way out. However, I’d like to be clear that this is not about assigning blame or charting mistakes or failures. I love Star Wars, love it. This is more of an observation about cycles – about measuring the past to anticipate the future. The way I figure it, we’ve got another 30 years until the dark turns to light again. Should be a helluva ride.