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Filmism.net Dispatch November 27, 2016

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Acid wash jeans and Stock, Aitken and Waterman music were cool when I was in my teens and we laughed at the flares and disco of ten years before. Today, flares and disco have been back in style three times over (probably acid wash jeans too, or do we as a society have higher standards than that?). The point is, culture historically recycles old ideas, looks, moods, memes and fixtures. But at what point does old stuff just become too old to regurgitate?

I was struck with just this question recently while looking at announcements for upcoming movie projects. No, this won't be a rant about Hollywood's creative bankruptcy. The big studios certainly are guilty of it but the arthouse labels, VOD distributors and Netflix/Amazon/Hulus of the world are picking up the slack.

It seems cinema culture as a whole refreshes completely every decade or so. The first big budget Spider-Man franchise feels like it was just a few years back (2002) and we're already getting our third series about him.

While it might say more about my continued denial about getting older, there was a time we'd never see three major movie series' about the same character. As well as Spider-Man, there have been three major efforts (some more than others) to spin up Batman and Superman franchises too.

But believe it or not, there are movies in development about Popeye, Felix the Cat, Willy Wonka and Benji. Do kids who go to movies today even know who they are? Benji was around when I'd barely grown out of using a bib when I ate. Willy Wonka had Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory a classic iteration I had to fall in love with on TV because it came out the year I was born (there's already been a failed attempt to revitalise him in 2005). Felix and Popeye were created when my grandparents were kids in the 1920s!

How can we possibly market movies about such museum pieces to the critical 18-25 year old demographic that props up the traditional studio system nowadays? As this year's The Legend of Tarzan and 2013's The Lone Ranger seemed to prove, we can't. Some characters and properties might be just too old to contemporise, no matter how many pop stars sing catchy tie-ins.

Ah, but the eagle eyed among you would have noticed a discrepancy in my argument. Batman and Superman were both created in the 1930s, why do they still work? The answer is pretty simple, but unfortunately it's the kind of thing we won't know for 75 or 100 years when we see if the characters the artists and writers of today make up are still around.

The both have longevity that suits the storytelling platforms of today as much as they did when they were created. Their imaginatively visual (and visually imaginative) backstories and mythologies are inherently cinematic with the colourful costumes, larger than life villains and iconographies like the 'S', the bat symbol, etc.

The Lone Ranger had no such striking visual language. We already had Batman and he did the same thing the Lone Ranger did in a way cooler mask than an airline sleeping blindfold with two slits cut out of it. Plus, I could have told Disney years ago that neither kids nor foreign audiences are interested in Westerns.

Popeye's an even less effective superhero, his huge forearms and spinach fetish not nearly enough to keep modern audiences interested. He was never really a crimefighter anyway, his adventures restricted to rescuing Olive Oyl repeatedly from Bluto's clutches.

Benji's a dog. Felix is a cat. Today we've got sentient robots that transform into cars and hungry dinosaurs running amok in theme parks. Tarzan is just a guy who swings through the jungle, and we've already seen Spider-Man swing through the urban jungle fighting for truth and justice a hundred times.

So there, I know more about making movies than all those studio bozos. If any studio executives want to engage me as a project consultant, just email me.

Speaking of Spider-Man, it's always bothered me but I've finally hit on why I don't as a rule like Marvel films, the same way I don't like musicals or kids' films. There's nothing political about it, it's not because they're co-opting the Hollywood machinery to sell us CG trinkets and baubles and further marginalising the original visions of directors who want to make movies for adults. It's also not because they're not good quality. In the confines of how you make an exciting blockbuster movie, they do what they do more than adequately.

The problem I have with them is that every Marvel movie feels like something that's produced to a strictly controlled set of marketing parameters, a formula Kevin Fiege's figured out over the last eight years that works so well everything with a Marvel label on it must adhere to it regardless of the director on board.

Consequently it feels like you're going to the same theme park to go on the same roller coaster you've been on every summer holidays since you were a little kid. Every turn is thrilling and every drop buttock-clenching, but you know every jolt and curve, you can close your eyes and know exactly where you are on the track. You don't dislike it, exactly, because the same ride elicits the same visceral reaction... but it's still the same ride.

Iron Man was something different at the time, but every Marvel movie since, with their consistent tone and mathematically-calculated laugh quotient (to say nothing of the colourful costume and 'discovers amazing powers' origin story arc), feels like the same ride.

On screens recently, I caught up with one of the giants of cinema history I never thought I'd get the chance to see in its intended form (bless you, Netflix), The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. A lot of people say it's where movie horror truly started so it's essential viewing for your film education.

In honour of the recent demise of Vine I want to direct your attention to a little road movie comedy called FML. Written and directed by Vine star Jason Nash and starring a lot of faces you'll know if you ever fill lunch breaks up with Vine compilations like I do, it's a very pleasant surprise, with better writing and acting than plenty of big studio comedies by so-called pros.

But nothing compared to drinking in the visual and emotional splendour of Denis Villeneuve's sublime Arrival, which I think might be the movie of the year so far. If you haven't seen it don't wait, it's a big screen movie and the sounds, sights and story will wash over you like a wave and carry you away.

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