The insane majesty of Mad Max: Fury Road is an unanswerable riposte to those who assume franchise cinema lacks originality.
A lot of commentary around films takes as its premise that the assent of franchise cinema represents a clear case of Hollywood sacrificing creativity for commerce. That film would be so much better if only Hollywood would be more original.
I’m sceptical about both parts of this equation. I blogged yesterday about the how the financial case is not as formidable as is often supposed. Today, I want to suggest the artistic indictment is also weaker than generally assumed.
The impetus for doing so comes from Mad Max: Fury Road. It looked to have emerged from Studios ongoing process of fracking their intellectual property: they blast, shake and pump apparently arid territory to yield up new, though generally not fresh, material. For example, you make a fourth instalment in a series that’s third instalment was released thirty years before but do so without its star. Could there really be any plausible reasons besides money to do so?
Surprisingly, there turned out to be plenty. I saw it a week ago but have not yet been able to write a review of it. Sitting down and writing what I think of it would require me to have digested it. Yet it’s so vast, visceral and strange I’ve not been able to. But I can say, applying the labels often slapped on franchise cinema – safe, predictable and interchangeable – to Fury Road would be unthinkable. We’ve seen plenty of visions of dystopian futures lately but nothing this disturbing and regularly putridly revolting. The action scenes go not only big but aptly crazy without losing coherence or humanity. And it looks, astonishing, the Namibian desert is a sumptuous background to shots that will soon feel familiar as filmmakers rush to copy them but which at the moment are bracingly different. It’s raw, undiluted cinema and even if I’m not sure I liked it, I know it I was awed by it.
It is not just an exception to the rules; it is a stark demonstration of how wrong it is to suppose there is a rule that says franchise films must be lazy or unoriginal.
For starters, term ‘franchise films’ has come to encompass a vast array of movies. If a film is a sequel, spin-off, remake, adaptation of a popular novels or some combination of those it seems to count. By that definition The Godfather, Exorcist, Jaws and Gone with the End were franchise films rather than original ones. Even the most apparently cynical pieces of franchise stretching of recent years, resemble things that have produced classic films in the past. Silence of the Lambs was not only both an adaptation and reboot, it was a reboot that came just five years after the previous attempt to bring Hannibal Lector to the silver screen. That’s the same length as the gap between Spider Man 3 and a reboot in the form of the Amazing Spider Man.
Even if we talk confine ourselves to the films more often spoken of as franchises there still a pretty diverse bunch. One may be able to observe similarities between Fury Road and the Nolan Batman Films or the Hunger Game but probably not with Twilight or the Hangover. One can point to franchise films across the whole range from light to gritty and from innumerable genres. Just about the only common denominator is that they tend to be made for sizeable budgets with a large audience in mind. But even there are exceptions to that rule, for example, Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. So it is wrong to imply that working within franchises forces filmmakers to make films that are interchangeable. It still leaves open a huge number of different avenues for them to take. If you want an illustration of this compare (or rather contrast) Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher and Christopher Nolan’s massively different takes on the Batman mythology.
It is also worth considering the fact that the existence of a franchise is largely determined by the character and story. So working within the ‘confines’ of one should not constrain filmmakers from experimenting with the other aspects of their film. If the ending of X-Men: Days of Future and Captain America: the Winter Soldier look more or less the same to you, and they do to me, that says something about directors clustering around certain visual styles not about franchises breeding conformity.
There also seems to be a mistake made as to what kind of films would be getting greenlit in a world with fewer franchises. In a speech accepting his Independent Spirit award for Nightcrawler, director Dan Gilroy proclaimed that “Independent film, the foundation and everybody here today, I think are holdouts against a tsunami of superhero movies that have swept over this industry”. The implication was that independent films like his were threatened by big franchises of which superheroes are talismanic; that they have to struggle against them in order to survive. Whilst it may be true that independent cinema is struggling to survive, it is not by and large struggling with franchises. They are threatened by their block busting rivals to about the same extent that a Michelin starred restaurant is by a KFC. Stripped down to its essentials they may deliver the same product but they are doing so for such different markets that they don’t really compete. If not Fast & Furious 8 never makes it to the screen, the fourteen year old boy in a city in inland China that it’s targeted at is not going to go out and see a documentary shot with hand held cameras instead. The tsunami’s path has not taken it towards the most obviously worthy films.
What is has destroyed are the kind of blockbusters that predominated in the eighties and nineties. These were very often original only in the sense of creating a new fictional continuity. They had exactly the same pressures to maintain a broad audience as modern blockbusters do and did it in the same way: by cleaving to familiar styles and tropes. Where they differed was in the familiar faces they used to draw in audiences: they leaned more on stars than on classic characters. I’m not convinced that was such a great loss. Certainly I’m not sure that more films of the ilk of Beverly Hills Cop and Top Gun would be worth sacrificing Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the Dark Knight or, yes, Fury Road for.