Rehashing the past at the expense of the present: How Hollywood sacrifices innovation in favor of easy revenue

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Despite several disappointing releases recently, some franchises have been able to course correct and deliver an enjoyable and watchable experience that has the potential to rescue their brand.  Films like “Aquaman” and “Bumblebee,” which should have failed like their predecessors, broke their franchises’ mold and earned millions at the box office (along with some critical praise). As of late, studios have chosen the easy route to make millions by retreading the past. Rather than risk failure by trying something new, studios turn towards proven strategies and industry tropes in order to revitalize dying franchises or kick start new ones. This trend exemplified by the likes of “Aquaman” and “Bumblebee” shines a light on a troubling studio trend of simply rehashing old material at the expense of not experimenting with something new.

Both “Aquaman” and “Bumblebee” were coming off the heels of previous disappointments in their respective franchises. Prior to “Aquaman,” the only definitive success the newly established DC cinematic universe could boast was 2017’s “Wonder Woman,” but everything prior to it received scathing reviews from critics and divided fans. The Transformers franchise followed a similar trend, with not even one of the previous five installments receiving a “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes (the highest being a 57 percent for the first film). Though “Aquaman” has received mixed reviews from critics, both  “Aquaman” and “Bumblebee” are earning millions at the box office and restoring their fans’ interest in their respective franchises.

For the DC universe, the consistent complaint has been that their films and heroes are overly dark and brooding, especially when compared to the light-hearted, family-friendly films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Warner Bros. has slowly tried to correct this mistake ever since “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice” by integrating more humor and lightheartedness into their films.  “Wonder Woman” was the first to integrate some humor, but still retained the muted color palettes and somber subject matter established by Zack Snyder. Warner Bros. also tried to make “Justice League” bright and light-hearted in post-production, but unfortunately succeeded only in creating a rushed and disappointing final product. Rather than attempt to fix the mold set by previous DC films, “Aquaman” chose to drop the mold entirely in exchange for the fun spirit of the MCU. Though this decision proved successful, it cost the franchise some of its unique style and appeal.

The success of “Bumblebee” came from the Transformers franchise’s chaµnge in leadership. It has the distinction of being the first Transformers film not directed by Michael Bay, instead having Travis Knight take the helm. Though Bay does have a producing credit to the film, his signature over-the-top action sequences, tedious slow-motion moments and cringeworthy attempts at humor are scarce in the film. Instead, Knight returns the series to the past by setting the movie in the 1980s and borrowing from the beloved toys and TV show that made the Transformers famous. The opening scene alone looks like a direct adaptation of the original show, with the original designs and sounds on full display. However, the film still maintains an overreliance on the human cast that characterized the Bay films, rather than focusing on the titular Transformers and their centuries-old war. This nostalgic return, coupled with a compelling and interesting story, has reinvigorated the disappointing franchise.

A similar fate has befallen director M. Night Shyamalan, who directed the highly anticipated “Glass,” which releases in January, and seemingly turned his career around with 2016’s “Split.” In the early 2000s, Shyamalan was Hollywood’s next big talent after successful films like “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable.” However, following several remarkable films, the master of the twist came out with several consecutive flops causing many to give up hope that he’d make a comeback. Surprisingly though, Shyamalan shattered expectations with the release of “Split,” which outperformed all other Shyamalan films other than “The Sixth Sense.” The movie was well received by critics, earning a 76 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and was a hit with fans despite low expectations. It is hard to pinpoint an exact reason why this film broke Shyamalan’s losing streak other than the fact that it was well written and executed with stunning performances. However, one thing that undoubtedly helped the film was its connection to one of Shyamalan’s most beloved films, “Unbreakable.” Once revealed to be a sequel to the 2000 success, the film grew in popularity and built anticipation for the next installment in the trilogy, 2019’s “Glass.”

What all these films and their respective franchises have in common is that they have turned to proven strategies to save their brand. In each of the three cases provided, filmmakers turn to storytelling techniques and tropes that have been proven to work with fans and earn millions at the box office. DC adopted a more comedic and family-friendly style from Marvel for “Aquaman,” “Bumblebee” toned down the tropes of Michael Bay films and capitalized on nostalgia, and M. Night Shyamalan went back to a proven property after a series of terrible independent films. Though this results in successful films and better reviews from critics, it sheds light on a concerning trend for films going forward.

Too often in recent years, studios have relied on past successes rather than develop new stories. This is most apparent with Disney’s new push to re-release all their previous animated hits as live action adaptations. The horror genre has also been plagued by this as far too often major studios crank out hastily made remakes or sequels to classics in the genre. This trend has earned their respective studios millions despite mixed critical or audience reactions and shows limited signs of slowing down. Disney alone plans on releasing three live action versions of beloved animated films in 2019 with more planned for future years. Thankfully the horror genre has made steps to create new stories, such as the smash hits “A Quiet Place” and “Get Out,” but still mostly relies on remakes and tired tropes to earn the bulk of their money.

Even when major studios aren’t remaking past successes, they are integrating the past into future films. It has already been said how studios like Warner Bros. and Paramount have adopted tactics from other studios for “Aquaman” and “Bumblebee,” but the same can be said for major franchises like Star Wars. In “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the first in the series since Disney purchased the property, the plot more or less follows the structure of “A New Hope.” Sure the characters and the setting might have changed, but the core elements remained and despite the billions it made, audiences criticized that fact. When “Last Jedi” hit theaters and tried to do things differently, fans reacted harshly and it remains to be seen how Disney will react with Episode 9.

Capitalizing on the past and nostalgia is not necessarily a shortcoming, as it often does lead to admittedly well-made and successful films. The problem lies in when the past starts to dominate the films that make it to the big screen and pushes aside any attempts at new and creative cinematic ventures. As major studios and film franchises continue to make millions at the box office and dominate the screens, they will continue to repeat the past until new paths and innovations prove successful.

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