Cultural Euthanasia: Killing Franchises Because We Love Them
By Cameron Cook | Editor-In-Chief Published: 06/13/2013 10:36 am EST
If you’re uneasy about having nine year old movies spoiled for you, then you might want to stop reading.
Still with me? Good. In the movie Million Dollar Baby, Maggie Fitsgerald’s boxing career is ended when she breaks her neck and becomes paralyzed. Her quality of life drops to zero, her unhappiness becomes its own form of infection, and she pleads for her trainer, Frankie Dunn, to put her out of her misery.
It’s an ethical dilemma that has popped up in courts and in literature for decades upon decades. Do we keep the one we love alive because we don’t want them to go, letting them rot away and become mere fractions of who they once were, or do we pull the plug and let them die with dignity? Do we spare them the agony of a slow death?
I’m not going to get into the politics of euthanasia when it comes to people. Not because I don’t have an opinion, but because there’s not much I can do about that particular situation.
However, there is another form of euthanasia that is slightly less traumatic than the real thing. Cultural euthanasia.
When can we finally let go of the property we love? How do we know when it’s time?
A couple days ago, Nintendo broadcast a video where they detailed all of their upcoming games. Almost all of them were sequels, and almost all of those involved, in some way or another, Mario. Mario has been featured in over two hundred video games since his debut. Let that sink in. Mind, he wasn’t the star of a lot of them, and some of them were essentially just Tetris with Mario standing somewhere in the background, but the point stands. Mario is everywhere all the time.
At the Sony and Microsoft conferences the day before, several long-running properties were teased, including the Assassin’s Creed and Call Of Duty sequels slated to jump up to the upcoming platforms, which in themselves are sequels to previous iterations.
Assassin’s Creed, which started off as a weird little tech demo of a game about time-jumping scientists and the Crusades, has become an annual tentpole blockbuster that gets more and more stale with each passing title. Not because the games are bad, but because the ideas just aren’t fresh anymore. It’s the same game with a new coat of paint and a couple of new weapons.
Call of Duty has the same problem. Even though the franchise is spread across two companies and thousands of creators, each iteration is offering diminishing returns. It’s not the developers’ faults necessarily, either. After all, they’re making a product that stands as the single highest-selling piece of entertainment of all time. They’re financially unable to break that cycle at this point, as their investors are undoubtedly counting on infinite sequels. But they’re also required to release a product that is more or less identical to the one they just produced. Only, you know, better.
But what made it good was the surprise. Modern Warfare became a huge hit because it did something totally different. It threw away WWII and took place in the modern era. It was a gamble. A risk. It was ballsy.
We haven’t seen anything quite that daring in the franchise since.
Mario is a different story, but only slightly . He ushered in the 3D platforming generation with Mario 64, but all of his iterations since have also offered diminishing returns. Sure, Super Mario Galaxy is a fantastic piece of software that stands as an artistic triumph, but I’m not sure if it really changed the game the way that Mario used to. He’s getting old. His clothes are getting more fashionable, but it’s not like the basic idea has changed all that much.
So why do we still play his games? They’re fun. Of course they’re fun. But they’re also not that different. Not different enough for me to pay fifty dollars every couple of years in order to see him again.
“But Cameron,” some of you are thinking, “why aren’t you talking about Zelda? You don’t even like Mario that much.”
For those of you who are thinking that, you’re absolutely right. Why do I love Zelda so much?
Because it’s home. I grew up playing every game in the franchise over and over again. I still play the Nintendo 64 titles every year.
But do you want to know a secret? I haven’t been able to happily finish a Zelda game since Majora’s Mask came out in 1999.
It’s not that I’m not having fun, it’s just that I know where it’s going. Like a stale romantic comedy, Zelda games have somehow become nothing more than a formula with slightly different visual styles.
Skyward Sword offered a few new ideas, but it wasn’t nearly as different as it thought it was. It was just more of the same.
This is nothing new, but Nintendo fans want a change. They want a truly open world Zelda game, like Skyrim (also a sequel of a long-running franchise). They want something new. But they still want a new Zelda.
While the seemingly endless franchise is nothing new, it’s certainly at its worst when it comes to gaming, right? All those sequels and HD remakes and spinoffs and digital downloads. People can’t let go of the franchises they love to play.
But what about other mediums? What about movies, TV, or books?
If you look up at the featured image, you’ll see an image from the sixth Fast and the Furious movie. The sixth. A seventh and an eighth film in the franchise are already greenlit.
Do any of you remember the original film? It was a mess. There was no focus, a convoluted plot, no central theme, and a sloppy third act. The second movie was even worse, followed by a barely-connected-to-the-franchise-at-all third film.
Then the franchise got “rebooted.” And it worked surprisingly well.
It worked because they completely changed the concept of the franchise. It turned into an action-adventure saga about daredevils and death-defying stunts. Go back and watch those first three movies and tell me if that’s what they are.
The last three movies of the Fast and the Furious franchise are actually totally different movies from a completely different cinematic universe. It just happens to contain the same characters.
But it could have been different characters. It probably should have been different characters. It’s a franchise that, like a phoenix, rose from the ashes of its critical sloppiness and became something greater. It was reborn as the modern day Die Hard (something that the actual modern day Die Hard can no longer boast) with its practical stunts and effects work.
It’s interesting that we have Fast and the Furious, a franchise that the people won’t let die, and Die Hard, a franchise that studios can’t let go.
Both of these franchises have gone on for too long, but sentimental attachment has forced these hands. Now we have no choice but to watch our favorite properties die a slow death. Diminishing returns are inevitable if you’ve been playing the game long enough.
Cultural euthanasia happens so rarely that I can recall almost every time it occurred. Seinfeld is perhaps the most obvious choice. The show was doing well both critically and commercially, and it could have gone on for another ten years if it wanted to, but everybody decided to let it die with dignity.
That decision is so courageous and unusual and bold that you’ll have a hard time finding another show with the same claim.
Except for Breaking Bad, which has decided to end its run after five hugely successful seasons both critically and commercially. Vince Gilligan decided that the end of the story was close, and he called it quits. Not because the show was getting tired, but because it was still great.
Sometimes the public can spot the necessity for cultural euthanasia, but it often requires those diminishing returns to finally reach zero. Take all of those slasher franchises from the eighties, which all hit over ten sequels before calling it quits.
Take a look at those same franchises now. Rebooted. Which is just another way of saying a franchise isn’t dead, we just have to cut off the sucky parts.
That’s what is happening with the planned Star Wars sequels from Disney. Starting in 2015, Star Wars will become an annual theatrical release like the Marvel universe.
Why can’t we just let Star Wars die? The first three films made for a nice, closed-ended story arc that told a simple story very well.
The prequels are universally hated for their convoluted plots and poor pacing. They were bad because the story wasn’t worth telling. The most interesting story had been told twenty years prior.
The franchise just needed to die. If we want to see it, we can watch it anytime. But the era of great new Star Wars films ended when Star Wars ended its small, simple story.
I’m sure Abrams will deliver a fun and entertaining movie, but it won’t be a Star Wars movie. It’ll be a science-fantasy adventure film featuring things we’ll remember from another movie we like.
Why not just make something new?
For years, I’ve been hearing that Hollywood is lazy. That artists are lazy and just keep making sequels. Maybe they’re partly to blame. After all, they’re making the stuff. But with what money? With our money.
We’re bankrolling these franchises that never die, even if we don’t like them. We want something that’s familiar because it feels like home, but we punish ourselves by visiting it. We’re watching something we love die very slowly and painfully, for no other reason than avoiding the pain of seeing it go.
Do we have to have a new Doctor? Do we need a new James Bond? If we want a female Doctor, or a black James Bond, can’t we just make a new franchise created completely around a new character? Why does it have to be a James Bond film?
Euthanasia is a messy subject because it involves complicity in the death of something we care for. But it’s for a good cause. We don’t want the thing we love to suffer. We want it to leave this world with pride and with dignity, and it can’t do that when Hayden Christensen whines in our faces.
Cameron Cook has been obsessed with, and haunted by, films of all kinds ever since that weird, singing fish jumped out of that pond in The Brave Little Toaster. Now he's all grown up, educated in the ancient art of writing and telling stories, and he's still wondering whose idea that fish was. What he does know is how to find a good writer, and he's spent his life working his way toward CultureMass.