Nostalgia Bait and Hollywood's Crisis of Unoriginality
This article contains spoilers for "Spider-Man: No Way Home"
I really liked “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” I’d dare say that I loved it. My ghoulish, 7-year old brain was flipping out seeing some of my favorite villains like Doc Ock and the Green Goblin come back from the old Sam Raimi trilogy without missing a beat. Willem Dafoe in particular was even more menacing than he was in 2002, and he has already become one of the MCU’s greatest villains. Seeing Tobey Maguire again as a wiser, older Peter Parker was nostalgia done right. I was excited about Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man being redeemed, who was far and away the best part of the two awful movies he was in. It fixed pretty much every issue I had with Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, making him lose everything and putting him back to basics as a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man with a classic homemade suit living in a rent control apartment in New York. The action scenes, particularly the fights with Green Goblin, were fantastic. Most of the side characters who would have been distracting or annoying in other MCU movies had importance in this movie both for the plot, the themes, and the emotional payoffs. The plot itself is fairly stupid if you think about it for too long, but I can forgive it because the movie did so much right that it doesn’t matter. It had been a while since a large theater release actually was satisfying like that.
A week after this, I watched “The Matrix: Resurrections” and I remembered that most of these nostalgia bait movies still suck. I can’t really blame Lana Wachowski for not wanting to make this movie, because the Matrix trilogy was already finished in 2003. The story was done and nothing needed to be revived, and a lot of people didn’t like the latter two movies in the original trilogy anyway. But this new movie somehow found a way to be way worse. Not only was the movie a soulless, corporate cash grab from Warner Bros., but it is actively self-referential about it. But being self-referential about doing the bad thing doesn’t make it better when you do the bad thing anyway. That makes it worse. On top of that, the movie doesn’t move the story or world of the Matrix forward and actively undermines the story of the previous trilogy for no reason. Even the action scenes were all bad, which is what the original trilogy was renowned for regardless of people’s opinions on the story.
A lot of movies in the last ten years fall into the category of “corporate, soulless cash grab to capitalize on existing IP.” The “Star Wars” sequel trilogy had this issue, as did the “Ghostbusters” soft reboot, the new “Star Trek” movies with Chris Pine, and practically most other sequels, reboots, and remakes you can think of in the last ten years. This isn’t new for Hollywood; they have always been making these types of movies. The difference now is all these studios and distributors like Warner Bros. and Disney have so much intellectual property (IP) as a result of their growing monopoly in the film industry that they can sustain themselves off the IP for decades without needing to make original movies.
It’s easy to make fun of these studios and chastise them for being soulless hacks who don’t care about art or movies, but honestly, moviegoers also share the blame. I keep hearing the phrase, “They don’t make them like they used to,” but the vast majority of the people saying that don’t keep up with the independent scene, where there is a lot of really great and original filmmaking. It’s not really their fault, because independent studios and publishers don’t have the same resources or budgets to make larger scale productions and market them the way a company like Disney does. But at the same time, you can’t complain about movies sucking now when Google is at your disposal and you can search up “good movies in 2022” and try to find movies that suit you and support those. Your demand is only as powerful as what you choose to support.
The other issue is that the independent scene is a lot less accessible for general audiences, as they tend to be more challenging movies. But for a while, there were more mainstream, mid-budget productions where the filmmaking and storytelling still had the challenging nature of the independent scene while being more accessible for audiences. In other words, studios actually took creative risks more frequently. A lot of those movies would get marketed incorrectly or tampered with by the studio, but many times it wouldn’t matter because movies could recoup their costs through DVD releases. In fact, for all movies, DVD releases would be like a second opening run for movies. Obviously, this is not the case now with streaming, which I don’t even understand how the profit structure even works in that model. I don’t think the industry executives understand it either. But the consequence of this is that studios are less willing to take creative risks because if it doesn’t do well in the theater, then the movie is a sunk cost.
The end result is that a lot of movies that people end up seeing are either really small, independent releases with relatively small budgets, or they watch these awful big budget movies that prey on nostalgia because it’s the easiest way to get buzz for an upcoming project. Even great studios like Pixar got relegated to churning out mediocre sequels with a glossy sheen in the last decade, a far cry from the studio that consistently pushed the boundaries of animated storytelling in the 1990s and 2000s.
It’s not really hard to make a good sequel, reboot, or remake that still can contain new ideas alongside good filmmaking and storytelling. “Blade Runner 2049” is one of the best movies of the last decade and that’s a sequel to “Blade Runner.” “Spider-Man: No Way Home” is proof that even a big blockbuster in a saturated genre can still excite audiences and give them something new with elements and characters they know and love. But not every movie can be nostalgia bait. “Spider-Man: No Way Home” worked because the nostalgia elements had a purpose in the story. “Blade Runner 2049” worked because the original “Blade Runner” left a great foundation for future movies to explore the themes and ideas it brought up, which the sequel expanded upon in ways that were better than the original while also pushing the boundaries of filmmaking, unlike most big budget movies.
I worry that Hollywood will look at the box office results of a movie like “Blade Runner 2049” (which failed at the box office) and a movie like “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and decide that the nostalgia bait is the easiest way to get people in the seats with no regard as to whether it is important for the story. But to be honest, it does seem like people are getting fed up with Hollywood’s shenanigans, as many of these sequels and remakes were underperforming in the box office even before the pandemic. If Hollywood takes the wrong lesson away from “Spider-Man,” I just hope that audiences continue to vote with their wallets and make it clear that Hollywood needs to stop making unoriginal and uninspired garbage.