A sequel discussion between John Hood and Andrew Lewin
After understandably taking a couple of months to lie back and bask in the triumph of our superlative first blogging collaboration "A brave new (media) world".
Taking the Short View's Andrew Lewin and I eventually turned our thoughts to ideas for a suitably epic follow-up topic on which to focus on next. And inevitably, things screeched to a halt as we encountered that perennial 'difficult second album' headache.
Any new topic had to be a subject of suitable importance to be able to follow-up our discussion of the future of media in a digital age, while also being something fresh and different so that it didn't feel like a tired retread of our first offering - but at the same time not be so disconcertingly different from the original post so as to put people off who enjoyed our maiden joint voyage. Not too hot, not too cold: how to find this Goldilocks topic for our efforts? No wonder sequels are so difficult to pull off successfully!
And yet one look at the Box Office Top Ten tells you that it doesn't stop studios from trying sequels. All the time, in fact. These days, reading aloud from the list of film titles sounds more like someone intoning the latest football scores. Almost everything seems to be a sequel or a follow-up or a prequel or a series or a franchise or a reboot or a remake. When something wholly new and original actually does show up in the cinemas it doesn't seem to stand a chance against these marketing behemoths. Can this really be good for creativity or for the long-time health of the industry?
Our discussion about what to do for a sequel blog post had turned into a blog discussion about sequels, and the stars had finally aligned for our new collaboration. We had our topic; now all we needed were a few thousand words and we'd have our follow-up post in the can. How hard can it be possibly be? What could possibly go wrong...?
Andrew: So John: here we are again, and here we go once more. And I suppose the big first question to ask is how you yourself personally feel about sequels, follow-ups, reboots, franchises and the like - are you for or against? Are they a good way of ensuring the audience gets a steady diet of reliable product that they know will keep them entertained? Or are they a succubus inexorably leaching out all the originality and creativity from the film industry in the 21st century?
No pressure, then. Go!
John: Obi-Wan Kenobi's disembodied voice: Use the filmic force, John!
I’m instantly reminded of a sequel discussion during the film class scene in Scream 2! There’s a heated debate suggesting sequels suck - or do they? Ironically, Scream's own post-modern sequel proves the former and fails to reprise the tension of the original movie’s first act. However, there’s much to be said for sequels…
The Empire Strikes Back (my all-time favourite film) brings melodrama and complexity to Lucas’ space opera and Aliens brilliantly reverses Alien and subverts the action genre as an anti-war movie to boot. The latter also kick-started my passion for using video cameras.
Andrew: Indeed, the question of 'are sequels any good' was a perennial discussion when I was young and the same candidates were offered up again and again as proof that they could be albeit in isolated cases: The Empire Strikes Back, Godfather 2 and Bride of Frankenstein were the most oft-cited, and then Aliens when that came along. Seems like we don't have too many new examples to add from the last 25 years of non-stop sequelising, although I'd offer Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Toy Story 2, The Dark Knight and The Bourne Supremacy as candidates for films that successfully improved on or at least equalled an already outstanding first outing.
John: Honourable mention must go to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
It was the first time I witnessed a beloved fictional character making the ultimate sacrifice on the silver screen. The final scene between Kirk and Spock was elegantly simple and all the more poignant for it. As the credits rolled (tears too) the audience sat in stunned silence and James Horner's score exulted.
Fast forward and it's not unknown for Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight Trilogy to play back-to-back at the Hood home cinema.
Andrew: The Wrath of Khan occurred to me as well when making that initial list - it's certainly better than The Slow Motion Picture (although I have an odd liking for that flawed maiden outing…) but somehow I don't see the film as a 'sequel' per se but rather as part of a much bigger whole.
John: Sequels were taken verbatim during my formative years. The original Star Wars trilogy casts a long shadow and set my expectations for an ongoing saga.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture failed to engage after the thrilling Klingon battle, which is Star Trek channelling Star Wars (see Star Trek Into Darkness). Anything involving explosions and fast pacing (Mr Rush was my childhood nickname) was enough for my young, pyrotechnically-inclined, mind.
Andrew: Pretty much all young boys of that age are similarly inclined, I think!
John: Between blowing up G.I. Joe action figures and AirFix model kits with fireworks; you'd think I'd be Michael Bay's biggest fan! Incidentally, during a Special FX panel, at the official Doctor Who 50th Celebration, Danny Hargreaves outlined a penchant for 'blowing stuff up' from a young age too. An explosive career ignited by Terminator 2 (T2) and culminating in an exploding Dalek on stage...
Andrew: You can't take that Danny Hargreaves anywhere without something blowing up! Sounds terrific.
John: An audience of 4000 simultaneously jumped as the Skaro mutant met an end worthy of any Hollywood blockbuster.
Andrew: Of course, "Classic Who" was somewhat budget-challenged to say the least and so it was the story rather than the action or FX that made the show great. That's still true today even though the show looks great and can pull off "spectacular" with the best of them, whereas Bay's movies are a prime example of how too many blockbusters these days have reached such an ADHD crescendo that it's drowning out all of those subtle, quiet moments in films that we didn't think we appreciated as kids but actually clearly did - otherwise you and I wouldn't have such a love for something like The Empire Strikes Back as we do.
John: ADHD reaches its zenith in Michael Bay's Transformers franchise. It's as though the director has no confidence in the audience; nor his own storytelling ability (where duelling robots are concerned). I'll await Mark Kermode's review of T4: Extinction with muted interest.
Andrew: I think Kermode's lost his zeal for any more venting on the Transformers franchise. He just sighs in that "I'm not angry, I'm just terribly disappointed" sort of way.
Stepping back a bit, while Star Trek: TMP was undoubtedly too slow it was still a case that for me the thrill of seeing Star Trek on the big screen, with proper effects, just made me fall in love despite all its flaws. By the way, I trust you noticed that the director of ST:TMP was also the director of the classic original The Day The Earth Stood Still?
John: I had! Fond memories of watching The Day The Earth Stood Still on a rainy weekday in the 1980s.
Andrew: I knew that one held a special place in your heart!
John: Unlike the risible remake!
Andrew: Another black mark for sequels, reboots and remakes then, if anyone's keeping score.
Anyway, the Star Trek example shows I'm kind of implicitly leaving out of consideration the long running series that were always expected to be followed-up, so for example in the Harry Potter series the first one – The Philosopher's Stone – is by no means the strongest instalment in the run; The Two Towers is arguably the best of The Lord of the Rings trilogy; and similarly Dr No is a great little low-budget film but much improved on by the likes of From Russia With Love, Goldfinger and most recently the excellent Skyfall. But I'm not sure I'd consider any of them 'sequels' in the classic sense.
John: Skyfall paid spectacular homage to a 50-year legacy: bombastic lyricism.
Andrew: Bombastic? I'll grant you that a lot of the early Bonds had a certain appealing arrogant swagger, but Skyfall itself was very much an introspective look at the mythos by comparison. I loved it. 22 films in and the series is actually still getting better!
John: Thinking more along the use of shadow play counterpointed with 'splosions.
Andrew: Ahh, gotcha, good point.
There are plenty of other cases where a sequel or follow-up is 'good enough' – which is to say, it might not be a match to the original but is still perfectly okay in its own right. The second Jurassic Park film, for example, or the second (and even third) Die Hard are favourite films of mine even if they don't rise to the heights of the first of their kind. No matter – they were still worth doing.
John: Die Hard, Jaws and The Matrix aren't enhanced by sequels and should have remained one-offs! All heralded as cinematic touchstones by both critics and audiences alike.
Andrew: Can't argue with you on Jaws and The Matrix, but I'm partial to those early Die Hard sequels - but it's true that the first is a stone cold cinematic classic in a class of its own.
John: I may brave A Good Day to Die Hard on Sky Movies this Christmas.
Andrew: Don't. Seriously, just don't.
I guess the question is whether these examples are sufficient to declare the rule that 'sequels are bad' is wrong, or whether they constitute the exceptions to the rule that otherwise holds? I tend to think a sequel should only be undertaken if there is a real, strong, compelling creative reason to do it. If that reason is simply box office takings then it's almost certainly a bad idea and one that will only trash the reputation of the original.
Actually, let's reality check that for a minute: does a naff sequel tarnish its predecessor, do you think?
John: A good question and there's no definitive answer in my book!
Andrew: I think for me there is. I can't think of a single instance where a naff sequel has damaged my love for the original. The Matrix is still wonderful despite the disappointing follow-ups; Die Hard is still in my all-time top ten list despite how execrable this year's A Good Day To Die Hard was. Jaws is still sublime despite the shipwreck of Jaws 3. Star Wars: A New Hope isn't diminished by the spectre of The Phantom Menace. The Star Trek franchise even survived the abysmal fifth film, The Final Frontier.
John: The Thing prequel/remake of a remake falls into that category! It doesn't detract from John Carpenter's The Thing, nor does it add anything to the shapeshifting mythos and the effects fall short of Rob Bottin's seminal body horror wizardry.
Andrew: Agreed. It was a decent and respectful enough attempt but then seemed to lose its nerve and overall didn't know what it was trying to do.
But on the flipside, I do think a good sequel can actually enhance not only the series but possibly even the original retrospectively: the Bond series' appeal is surely partly down to its entire body of work over 50 years. The Star Wars films would be just another isolated piece of hokey SF froth without The Empire Strikes Back, which changed the game just as dramatically as Wrath of Khan and First Contact did for Star Trek.
John: First Contact was a terrific spin on Moby Dick with Die Hard and Aliens mined for good measure. The Borg Queen could have stepped out of an Alien movie and owes much to Swiss surrealist HR Giger - more nightmarish than anything witnessed in the Alien prequel Prometheus.
Andrew: There was indeed something thrillingly horrific about First Contact on so many levels. I hadn't connected the Borg Queen with Giger before, but it's a good comparison.
John: Thank you, kindly. Be sure to checkout HR Giger's Necronomicon if you haven't had a chance. A tome brimming with compelling conceptual art and biomechanical erotica.
Andrew: Sequels, prequels, follow-ups and series aside, how do we feel about remakes? Or as it seems we must call them these days, reboots?
John: Aside from JJ Abrams’ Star Trek (2009) reboot, the most satisfying (for me) has occurred on console and PC (sorry if this is cheating a bit by bringing video games into the equation and leaving you out in the cold, Andrew!). Namely this year’s Tomb Raider, which adroitly remakes The Descent with a sprinkling of The Hunger Games and reinvents Lara Croft’s origin story in the process. Rarely have I cared so deeply about a game’s central protagonist. A direct sequel is in the making.
Andrew: Yes, I'm afraid I have absolutely nothing of value to input on PC and console side – you're very much the expert here in that field! Although the original Tomb Raider was the very first (and possibly only) game I've ever played to a finish, so I was quite a fan of old Lara. Didn't last long into the second, though - I couldn't get the same enthusiasm for it.
John: I'll quickly chime in with another video game mention. Grand Theft Auto 5 satirises the studio system's obsession with green screen and remakes during a radio show, which players can listen to as they drive around Los Santos. A sentiment echoed by Radio Times critic Barry Norman who suggests modern films rely too heavily on special effects, sequels and remakes.
Andrew: Barry Norman speaks for me also, as he has done for the better part of three decades.
John: Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man was an enjoyable, if rushed, reboot. However, there’s the spectre of unused movie rights reverting back to Marvel and the Web-slinger graduating over at Disney - perhaps in the midst of Avengers 3? Sony shouldn't release endless Spider-Man movies simply because of contractual obligations and shareholder value.
Andrew: I guess the suggestion that a movie – reboot or otherwise - is being done purely for business imperatives such as retaining the commercial rights is an example of the sort of crushing non-creative reason for doing a movie that is just doomed to failure. In the case of The Amazing Spider-Man I don't think I'd call the 2012 movie a disaster by any means - but it just seemed terribly pointless, to basically make the same film done ten years previously and do so little to change it other than to allow Andrew Garfield to stamp his mark on the central role. Do people really have such short term memories we can just make the same film every few years with so little originality? Are cinema-goers really so unwilling to look at 'old' films even ones that are just ten years in the past? That reboot really ticked me off because of that.
The whole 'reboot' fad might be approaching the end of the road anyway. If Hasbro think that they can reboot the Transformers series by keeping on Michael Bay doing his same old tired schtick then I really think that the word 'reboot' might have lost all sense of meaning.
John: Any thoughts on the RoboCop reboot/remake? The trailer suggests a better movie than most might have feared. Ironically, Irvin Kershner was unable to distil the alchemy of The Empire Strikes Back when directing the predictably titled RoboCop 2. Only memorable due to a member of the cinema audience laughing, hysterically, whenever someone got shot and another kept disappearing with a mysterious white plastic bag. I'm laughing at the memory of it.
Andrew: Wow, seems you got a better deal and more enjoyment out of the sequel than most people did!
John: Sometimes what's happening off-screen is more compelling with a vivid imagination.
Andrew: Sounds like it! No, I have no thoughts about the coming RoboCop reboot - I genuinely do hope it's better than originally feared, but overall the response that occurs to be is once again simply: "Why?"
John: What about the Blade Runner II announcement? Do you think there's more to tell in terms of Deckard's story or is Sir Ridley Scott mistaken to return to the sci-fi genre so soon after the divisive Prometheus?
Andrew: I think Ridley Scott is such a good director that anything he does is always genuinely interesting and never cliched or pointless - look at Prometheus for example, which very much avoided being another tired Alien retread (although whether it actually works as a film or not is another matter entirely). If he's doing it then I guess he's confident that there's still something new worth mining there. I have cautious optimism.
John: Our readers maybe interested to Google the alleged early script treatment for Prometheus, which culminates in the Star Beast (the original title for Alien). Infinitely more ambitious than the mishmash that ended up on screen and would have stretched to two prequels.
Andrew: Prometheus 2 and 3, shooting back to back and coming to a screen near you shortly...
John: Will the audience care?
Andrew: It'll be interesting to see!
Your mention of Blade Runner II and especially "the predictably titled RoboCop 2" is interesting though and chimes with the mention in our intro of the top ten box office sounding like the football scores. Exactly when did it become standard to start numbering films in the title? It feels old fashioned - and lots of films like the Star Trek franchise and Nolan's Batman films pointedly refused to use numbers.
But it's actually quite a relatively recent approach. In the 30s, the sequels to Frankenstein weren't Frankenstein 2 and 3 but Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein. Offhand I can't think of anything before the 70s that used numbers - Godfather 2 might be the first, and then later there was the likes of French Connection 2, Superman 2, Jaws 2 and it became standard to use the numbering. I guess someone in marketing came up with it as a way of ensuring people kept coming to the next entry but it's not only horribly crass it also backfires because people start saying "I'm not seeing Lethal Weapon 3 because I haven't seen 1 and 2".
John: The move to more 'meaningful' titles such as Into Darkness and The Dark Knight Rises lends itself to a more literary approach and is most welcome. Of course I view cinema with the same reverence as other artistic mediums. Well, I need to justify my BA (Hons) somehow.
Andrew: Quite right, too! It was really the one genuinely new art form to really come to flower in the 20th century (I'm reserving video games to be the uniquely new art form of the 21st century, by the way.)
Not sure how much the change in approach to titles really achieves 'a more literary approach' however, much the filmmakers would like us to believe it. As we both know very well, it's not even a new idea: it's how the studio B-movie series (Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan, The Falcon, ...) were done in the 30s and 40s. I suppose the idea of 'chapters' feels even more literary, yet that was part of the Saturday morning serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers which of course is why Star Wars picked up that style and ran with it (although strangely the Indiana Jones series kind of missed out.)
Since I'm invoking seriously old classic films here - are there any big, classic movies from that era that you think should be remade? Films like Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Gone With The Wind, Vertigo ... ?
John: Any attempt to remake those movies would be an indulgent folly at best! What fresh ideas could a retelling bring to the story? I'm aghast at the news of The Shining remake.
Andrew: Well, I know Stephen King hated what Kubrick did to his story with the original film, so I suspect a little author-led intervention is involved here to do it again and get it 'right'. But to be honest, I'm not sure the author is always (or even usually) right about these things - sometimes it takes a different eye to come up with the perfect result in a different medium even if it's not what the author intended. But like you, I'm not keen on the idea of remaking The Shining: even if it does bring something new to the part, it will always be in the original's shadow and unfavourably compared come what may.
Of course, remakes don't have to be bad news. Theatres have been 'remaking' Shakespeare stories on a regular basis for four hundred years; and the classic versions of The Maltese Falcon and The Wizard of Oz, for example, were not the first films of the source books. And in fact is it even right to refer to something which is a different adaptation of the same source novel as a 'remake' in the first place?
John: What did you make of Disney's prequel Oz: The Great and Powerful? I've yet to sample its frothy 3-dimensional delights on a newly won 47" LG Smart 3D TV from Sky Movies.
Andrew: Oh, just flaunt your new prize before us less fortunate mortals, why don't you! Actually I suspect that I'd recoil from the idea of letting a 3D TV in the front door...
John: So much for subliminal product placement.
Andrew: What? (Stops looking online at prices of 3D flatscreens.)
I have to confess I've not seen Oz: The Great and Powerful but at least it's not a remake of the 1939 film. My first thought was actually of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, where director David Fincher bristled whenever anyone referred to his film as a "remake' of the Swedish version and insisted it was no such thing, but a brand-new, original adaptation in and of its own right. I actually had some sympathy with that - so is there even any sense to labelling one an original and the other a remake in this case?
John: Semantics? Actresses Noomi Rapace (Prometheus) and Rooney Mara (The Social Network) imbued Lisbeth Salander with individuality. I'm loathe to choose one performance over the other as both are brilliant character studies. The spectre of James Bond haunted Daniel Craig's inferior portrayal of Mikael Blomkvist. I expected him to brandish a Walther PPK and jump into a fully-loaded BMW (seemingly the car of choice for Fincher's adaptation) to chase down the antagonist.
What about remakes that surpass the originals? John Carpenter's The Thing and David Cronenberg's The Fly transcend their sources and Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers inspired nightmares for weeks after I clandestinely watched it on late night BBC 2.
Andrew: Great point - The Fly and The Thing are both perfect examples of remakes that can be better than the original. I guess you can argue that the originals in these cases were cheap inferior B-movies with plenty of room for improvement, but let's not forget that The Thing from Another World was co-directed (uncredited) by none other than Howard Hawks - one of the best American directors in the history of cinema - so to come up with something so vastly better is quite a feather in Carpenter's cap. Perhaps his single best work as a director?
John: The lack of resolution is audacious and something I'd like to see more in mainstream movies.
Almost overlooked Alien in the above list! Take John Carpenter's Dark Star, remove the humour and add a heavy dose of Swiss surrealism!
Andrew: Alien as a remake of Dark Star? Maybe more of a sibling relationship than a remake I think. If Alien is anything, it's the old 'psycho killer in a haunted house at night' reinvented for the science-fiction age.
In the case of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Kaufman's version is so entirely different on just about every level that it too is hard to consider a remake - perhaps it's more accurately simply an appropriation of the same title. In this case, I'll take the original over the 70s version, but that's not to say that the latter isn't also outstanding on its own merits. Great new Blu-ray release of the 70s film just came out from Arrow, by the way.
I was going to say that I hope they don't remake Forbidden Planet - one of my all time favourites. One's been mooted for years but fortunately never happened. But then, arguably Gene Roddenberry got there first and repurposed the basics with a little TV series that they aired in the 60s that didn't do so bad.
John: Brace yourself for Forbidden Planet the IMAX 3D Experience!
Andrew: Urgh. Just the very thought of it makes me feel ill. Are there really no new ideas left in the world?
John: Do you feel it’s all a cash-in by a studio system starved of ideas and looking to the aisles of Toys 'R' Us for inspiration? I’m looking at the migraine-inducing Battleship, which seemingly spliced together unused footage from JJ Abrams and Michael Bay movies.
Andrew: Battleship the game is another Hasbro property, right?
John: Yes! There's talk of Risk being given the Hollywood treatment too. Maybe Hungry Hippos could be a satire on studio execs with eyes only for profit?
Andrew: Hahah! Very good! Although I'm not sure we should print that - they might get an idea and start filming next week and then it would be all our fault!
John: A bonafide blockbuster and there should be a tie-in app too!!!
Andrew: Maybe they were going for a 'house style' with Battleship for their stable of films? More likely it's a case of Hasbro wanting to exploit an existing franchise like a board game or toy range and treating a film like it has no other purpose than to be a big advertising hoarding for their merchandising.
John: By the time Return of the Jedi hit cinema screens, many of us were as excited about the merchandise as the movie itself! I owned a collection of action figures and accessories months before seeing Speeder Bike chases and Darth Vader unmasked.
Andrew: I was a few years ahead of you in age, so I, too, devoured the Star Wars merchandise - in my case, as soon as it appeared after the first movie. George Lucas really did incredibly well keeping those rights to himself. I do worry that he might have inadvertently poisoned the film industry with this innovation though - there are some films (like Cars which begat Cars 2 which begat Planes) which seem to only exist because they're huge hits in retail even if the films themselves spiral downwards in quality.
John: Diluting the brand in the process? Pixar is in the midst of a midlife crisis and only serves the insatiable merchandise machine. The last movie from Pixar I cared for was Up. A far cry from the nascent creativity born out of Lucasfilm (itself now owned by Disney) and fostered by Steve Jobs after his ousting from Apple. We know how that story ends.
Andrew: The decline in Pixar has been really quite astounding. I never expected the spark to go out so soon after the merger with Disney and of course the passing of Jobs. Makes you wonder just how big a role the Apple supremo played in the films' creation process that it should all go so wrong so quickly after he left us.
John: Pixar was synonymous with story first, second and third. Vividly recall attending an advanced screening of Toy Story and was in awe of what the pixel-pushing artisans had accomplished. For a decade Pixar overshadowed distributor Disney with superlative fare. Yes, there was merchandise, but it was subordinate and considered as far as such things can be.
Andrew: Truly did. And as you say, the secret was story first, second and third. Once again it comes down to the film having a proper creative purpose in existing other than on the corporate balance sheets. The more depressing aspect is that increasingly audiences don't seem to notice or care when that doesn't happen and they're served sub-standard fare; it's like too many of us no longer mind if we walk into a top class restaurant for a hundred quid meal and it comes to us on a plate still in the McDonald's Happy Meal box.
John: Excellent use of metaphor and a damning indictment, Andrew! I'm squeamish paying more than £6 (a Netflix monthly subscription) to see a movie at the cinema; the only exception is Gravity in IMAX 3D, which critics are lauding as an Oscar-worthy technological tour de force underpinned by emotional resonance with standout performances from Sandra Bullock. Swoon. And George Clooney. Not something you read everyday in the Hollywood trades.
Andrew: I really liked Gravity. It looked totally stunning and was a totally immersive experience. Smart, intelligent sci-fi, a new generation's 2001. And despite the fact that there isn't much of a story in the traditional sense, you're right that Bullock especially and Clooney too both give outstanding performance in the middle of all this technical virtuosity. I didn't even resent the 3D this time, which for me is saying a lot. But these days it has to be special to get me to see it at the cinema - films are a tenner here, more for 3D or IMAX, and you can buy the DVD a few months later for that.
John: A tenner for the privilege of seeing a movie, which may or may not pass projection muster? Wasn't World War Z the first mainstream movie to offer a digital download - as a premium ticket option - day-and-date with the Blu-ray disc/DVD release?
Andrew: Lots of films - even the biggest - are coming out on iTunes or streaming even before the DVD/Blu-ray release these days. The innovation I find really interesting is the smaller indie films like A Field In England that are coming out on all media on the first day of their theatrical release, allowing the audience to decide exactly how they want to consume it. It is, I think, the way of the future - although I can't decide on what the end effect of that will be. Will it provoke more remake/sequel/franchise blockbusters or will it instead allow a wider range of more innovative and creative projects to get made? At the moment all we have to compare is the rise of the made-for-streaming TV productions like Kevin Spacey's House of Cards which seem to suggest that it's amenable to new and daring projects than otherwise would never have been made.
John: Kevin Spacey said it best: Story. I don't mind how it's consumed: from iPhone to IMAX.
Andrew: I think we're nearing a consensus on that, for sure.
When it comes to bad reasons for making a movie, here's a best case/worst case example: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was on the face of it a lamentable example of a film existing purely to promote a theme park ride. Only, a funny thing happened on the way to the box office: the project fell into the hands of a team that actually made not just an okay film out of it, but a really rather excellent one. Naturally that warmed the cockles of the corporate accountants' hearts and they immediately ordered up more, but look at the leaden messes they got served up when it just became about maximising the revenue stream. What had started as a bit of a fun subversion of corporate advertising quickly lost its heart and soul thereafter. (Although this would also be another case of dire sequels not diminishing my love for the original, incidentally.)
But all that said – what is it that makes the Marvel franchise succeed where even the Mighty Mouse House falters? How are they being able to keep the quality up from Iron Man, Thor and Captain America through to The Avengers (and now S.H.I.E.L.D. on TV, although that seems to be struggling more than I would have expected) and sustain that level of creative and commercial success on what should be just another cash-in on the comic and toy merchandising?
John: Marvel deftly mapped out Phase I, II and III with an Avengers movie as the culmination of each act. It's also a rare example of the studio system co-ordinating between distribution partners from Disney (Marvel's owner) to Paramount: everyone shares prime-billing and a slice of the fiscal action. Warner Brothers has failed to grab a similar audience mindshare in the wake of The Dark Knight Trilogy. There's a palpable sense of risk-aversion at the studio that gave us the gangster genre.
Andrew: By contrast, it's odd just how much DC really seems to struggle to make its formidable stable of iconic characters flourish outside the comics. You'd think they'd be in pole position, but while they have occasional breakthroughs - Superman in the 70s, Batman at the end of the 80s, Smallville on TV, Batman again with Nolan's Dark Knight - they seem to be unable to sustain or build on the success and it simply goes nowhere. Arrow is the current big hope, but it seems to me that they're resorting to simply copying Marvel's playbook.
John: Well, DC continues to prosper on television with award-winning animated series! Since Batman: The Animated Series (the definitive incarnation and introduced 'Dark Deco' to the collective consciousness), the "Timm-verse" (as it is known) has expanded and prospered. Only recently I stumbled across the brilliant Young Justice on Amazon LOVEFiLM Instant. Back to a silver linings playbook (couldn't resist a reference to Jennifer Lawrence).
Andrew: You and your Jennifer Lawrence obsession! But you're right, I had totally overlooked the animated side of things where DC really has had better fortunes thanks to being the brave and the bold and moreover creatively daring.
Marvel's approach to live action is incredibly well mapped out. What they've done is truly innovative: they've treated the films as a sort of multi-comic book series and plotted the development just as they would a graphic novel mini-series. In other words it's creative-led rather than the accountants coming along and saying "We'll have one with Daredevil, then if that works we'll try out something with the Hulk, and then if that makes money we'll give the Fantastic Four a go..." which of course is what they did at the start - to frankly uneven success.
John: The mishmash of output was no indicator of what was to come. Beginning with the revelatory Iron Man...
Andrew: A great film, I just rewatched that one the other weekend and it was even better than I remembered it.
The other thing Marvel has done is get true auteurs to helm the films. Jon Favreau for the Iron Man films, Kenneth Branagh for the first Thor, and of course Joss Whedon for the Avengers. Big names, and not necessarily just big geeks, but talents ideally suited to the type of film being made. I'm very impressed by the way they've approached the entire project, how it puts the artistic and creative first at every step of the way, and I'm happy to see them rake in the cash as a result. It's a franchise (or series, or sequels, whatever we're calling them) that's founded on creative endeavour that just happens to make a pile of cash in the process.
But is the Marvel approach the future, though - or just a one-off anomaly?
John: This could be anomaly on a grand scale: a capricious alignment of the stars within the vertically integrated firmament. Especially given Disney's insatiable acquisition trail. Why bother spending money developing new intellectual properties (IPs) when there are existing ones ripe for commercial exploitation.
Andrew: "Vertically integrated" says it all, doesn't it - it's all down to economics these days and it's all become as formulaic as a car production line. But who are we kidding, it always was - hence we refer to show business and the film industry, it's always been a money-making endeavour first and foremost - works of art, should they appear, are just a happy accident.
John: Disney has announced an exclusive distribution deal with Netflix, which will witness new Marvel superhero franchises exclusively on the platform from 2015. Hopefully these new offerings will redeem the studio in the wake of the lacklustre Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Andrew: So are we kidding ourselves and developing a grass-is-always-greener/rose-tinted-glasses view of this? Were things any different or better in the so-called golden age, or has it always been this way?
John: There's an inherent ideological tension when any art form meets commerce and Hollywood will continue to rise and fall as cultural trends shift. The biggest issue the studio system has will be the distribution of content, which we've debated, at length, previously. Maybe in a few years we'll be writing about a merged Apple Disney Netflix empire…
Andrew: I wouldn't be at all surprised about that, certainly. As for an inherent problem when art meets commerce, does that mean we are being a bit blinkered about the golden era? Hollywood was pretty much the Gold Rush of the 20th century as filmmakers charged to the west coast to get a slice of the action; and we've never seen any 'art form' as mechanised and industrialised as the era of the studio system in the 20s, 30s and 40s - and yet they managed to produce many of the all-time classics.
If I were to try and paint a difference between that era and today, I'd suggest that maybe it's one of ambition and courage. Back then, everything seemed possible and the big studios had the profits they needed from their vast output of movies that allowed them to take more daring chances with a small proportion of them. These days, however, every film is so big and expensive that a single one could be the Heaven's Gate that bankrupts the studio concerned, making everyone nervous, afraid and playing safe - which means ending up with a load of look-a-like middle-of-the road pap controlled by the accountants rather than the director. And the safest such fare of all is the "We'll have another one of those," or "Trade off the nostalgia by remaking another of this."
It's a shame, however inevitable it might be. It was brought home to me the other week during the 50th anniversary celebrations for Doctor Who, when someone pointed out that a show using that pitch wouldn't have a hope in hell of getting commissioned today. And look what we would have missed out on…
John: A sobering thought and our paths may never have crossed had it not been for a mutual interest in the good Doctor's adventures!
As we draw this discussion to a close, Hollywood has announced a new big screen Terminator reboot to be accompanied by a television series! I was fond of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles S1. And Lucasfilm is considering an Indiana Jones reboot at Disney alongside yearly Star Wars movie releases between each chapter of the new trilogy. How long before Marvel vs. Star Wars hits cinema screens?
Andrew: So still more reboots/remakes/TV spin-offs of stalled movie franchises by cribbing from the Marvel 'how-to' playbook. It's just so wretchedly predictable. Honestly, I can't think of anything that sums up my frustration and disappointment at the state of the entertainment industry better than the Terminator announcement in particular.
It all makes me really value and appreciate truly original visions like Gravity, and I'm pleased such films get the success and recognition that they deserve. But I have to admit, I'm certainly not immune to catching a case of sequelitus every now and then - I'm very much looking forward to seeing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug despite how a slim original volume has been over-stretched to a three-part, three-hour bloated epic. I guess there's a place for the odd blockbuster sequel and franchise even in the most curmudgeonly heart after all.
Is that a suitably Christmas note on which to wrap up, do you think?
John: Indeed! Why don't we end with a subtle link to my Christmas top ten, Andrew?
Andrew: What an excellent idea, John!