Today’s annotation was written by Robert:
In the days of yore, when your parents were about your age now, movie screens were dominated by the stirring vistas of Utah, Italy, or Southern California, for the hero of great renown was the cowboy. In a gold rush of cinematic inspiration, studios pumped out Westerns at a rapid pace with the intent of cornering the hearts of consumers. Even today, a lot of Westerns get made, but it is no longer the genre that moved heaven and earth.
The destroyer of the Western’s dominance, bursting onto screens in May 1977 with its glorious fanfare and helpfully explanatory bright yellow all-caps, was also its successor. Star Wars superseded the Western by being the Western, but also being a medieval romance, and also a samurai movie, and also a World War Two movie, and also a myriad of other things. When less creative minds attempted to copy Star Wars’ success, they still mined the Western for ideas – e.g. basically any episode of Battlestar Galactica classic – but it was the beginning of the end of the cowboy’s cultural dominance.
The West remains as a constant background radiation of our storytelling, because it’s how we express certain ideas. The most relevant example I can think of actually happened to Martin and I. When we wrote The Fouriad, I wrote Comic-Robert as a loner, proud and haughty, unable to properly understand the true spirit of Connect Four. When I decided that, I was thinking of the Rival so common to kung-fu movies and shonen manga. The Sasuke Uchiha, the Vegeta, the Wimp Lo. Martin drew him as a cowboy. And it was then I realised that Comic-Robert’s ‘just me and the open road’ philosophy fits cowboys just as well as it fits martial artists, to the point where Martin probably didn’t even think I meant anything different. Samurai movies, kung fu movies and Westerns going well together is not a new idea, but now I was seeing it in action before my very eyes.
Star Wars, to a degree, brought back space opera. If not for its critical, public, commercial and cultural smash-hit success, Star Trek would never have returned as a film series, and Star Trek: The Next Generation would likely have never been. But in a wider sense, Star Wars made fantasy real. Its down-to-Earth script made the galaxy believable – our heroes and villains may have talked like snappy 1930s movie stars or grandiose wizards (or, frequently, both at once), but they had the right emotions and the right motivations. Audiences in 1977 didn’t know what a Millennium Falcon was, but they understood a beat-up yet much-loved car. Simultaneously, its groundbreaking (if not ground-annihilating) effects made double suns, grey metal planet-destroyers, talking robots and the blur of hyperdrive intensely real. And it was that mix – pure imagination that looked, sounded, even tasted like reality – that changed the cinematic world.
Without Star Wars, there would have been no Ghostbusters, which synthesised the fantastic and the mundane, except this time it was using comedy – and no more movies to do the same, like Back To The Future, or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. There would have been no Conan the Barbarian, which painted its own harsh world in the richest of colours. But most important, there would have been no Superman: The Movie.
Richard Donner’s watchword in the creation of Superman: The Movie was ‘verisimilitude’ – the appearance of reality. Superman was really the first superhero movie to pursue this idea, and it’s probably a harder task than even Star Wars faced. Superheroes have to exist within an Earth that is very much like ours, but they must also be empowered in a fantastical way. We have to believe what we can’t believe, and we have to believe it could happen down the street from us.
Superman goes a long way towards verisimilitude. It spends a good amount of time on Krypton, setting up the motivations of Jor El, father of the titular character, and a trio of Kryptonian criminals who mean ill for him. The movie goes through the adolescent pain of Superman in his human form as Clark Kent. Clark knows that he is different from other humans, yet he is forced to hide his mysterious powers, incapable of understanding why he is apart from the rest of the world. It shows Clark travelling to the Arctic, where he learns his true identity from the hologram ghost of his long-dead father, and decides what to do with his life on Earth – to protect people in secret, but not to severely meddle with humanity’s development.
Yet after this point, the movie starts stuffing itself with comic relief. The main villain, Lex Luthor, is just as incompetent and bumbling as his henchmen, which fits poorly with his later attempted murder of Superman. Clark Kent’s love interest Lois Lane fares little better, coming off as a screechy sitcom protagonist. Superman was the first superhero movie to aim to be real, and it honestly does that very well, but then squanders much of that goodwill with wacky comedy, as if the creators weren’t confident enough in what they were making. They tell the audience ‘Laugh! It’s all silly!’ as a pre-emptive strike, so the audience laughs at their movie because it encourages them to, not because the audience can’t believe in it.
Some time later, comic relief dominating a superhero film franchise became such a problem, it killed it for eight years. Batman and Robin tanked the Batman movie series, to the point where its slate was wholly wiped clean, in what was then a new word for movies – ‘reboot’. Batman Begins was an entirely new story, retelling the origins of Batman, ignoring what came before. This was to be a serious Batman, a Batman people could believe in. (It had wry humour, true, but that was the extent of its comedy.) It methodically went through every stage of Batman’s inception (no jokes), intent on making them all plausible in a world very similar to our own, even to the point where nobody had superpowers – a rarity in superhero films. Bruce Wayne wants to crusade for justice, but fears for his loved ones, so he wears a mask. He doesn’t want to die from getting shot, so he wears body armour. He needs to get around the city quickly, on both roads and rooftops, so he drives a tank-like Batmobile and wears a long, parachute-like cloak. He has listening devices which require antennae, so he fits them inside batlike ears on his head. By the time a terrified mob boss shouts “Who are you?!” to the darkness, and is answered with a growl of “I’m Batman.”, you are not only convinced that this was a logical and rational series of events, you are making a mental checklist of things you’ll need to do in order to become Batman yourself.
Yet, all good things must be relentlessly copied by people who have no idea what they’re doing. For a long time, superhero movies were too light in tone, asking the audience to disregard even their own internal logic, because ‘ha superheroes aren’t real, it’s all silly’. But once Batman Begins and later its sequels became worldwide box office smashes, studios rushed to replicate their success.
One studio, newly created, had a little-known hero, an ex-felon to play him, and a script that was rewritten every single day of production. The resultant film would go on to spawn a multi-billion dollar franchise, because it and its successors followed a single, simple notion.
Movies can make the impossible real. They can lie to your brain. The lies must start out small: ‘a pair of geniuses can scrape together a working super-machine armour’. But you can slowly make them bigger and bigger – ‘the norse gods were aliens’, ‘the Nazis had a rebel faction with alien death rays’, ‘a talking raccoon and a tree are best friends’ – and the brain will take it.
Some creators – no, they don’t create – some bankrollers think that the impossible must be shrunk to fit their own perceptions, which makes it less impossible and more ‘kind of unlikely, I guess’. They don’t believe in what the brain can accommodate, they believe in the waiting dollars of their fellow shrunken-minded.
Movies cannot lie to your heart. A yearning for the freedom of wide open spaces is inherent to all humanity, but it is expressed in the cowboy. People love cowboys because they recognise that yearning. The mystery of reality and the innermost parts of the soul is inherent to humanity, but people see that in the Force. We recognise exploration and the nature of man in Star Trek, and we recognise the ordinary made incredible in superheroes. They are who we are, and they are more than who we are.
But some seem intent on making them far less.