Transformer Politics

It’s a wonderful time to be a movie fan. We’ve had so many wonderful movies come out recently, from the sequel of the Star Trek reboot movie, to the sequel to the Spiderman reboot. Chances are, if you like comic books, you’re going to see your masked avenger on the big screen. And even if you don’t like the movie, you’ll get an entirely new version of that movie soon! Whats that, you didn’t like Brandon Routh as Superman? Well, you can see Henry Cavill as the man of steel.  Tobey Maguire not your taste?  Try Andrew Garfield!

Let take a look on at the top 10 movies of 2014:

1: Guardians of the Galaxy – based on a comic book and a film set in the same universe as who knows how many others

2: The Hunger Gamse: Mockingjay – Part 1. – Based on a book, sequel to other installments of the same series.

3: Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Based on a comic book, in the same universe as movie #1, direct sequel to another comic book movie.

4: The Lego Movie: Not based on a comic book! Although it has a comic book character in it. Based on a children’s toy line.

5: Transformers: Age of Extinction. 4th in a series of movies based on a cartoon based on a children’s toy line.

6: Maleficent: A reboot/spin off of a cartoon movie that came out in 1959

7: X-Men: Days of Future Past. Another in a series of movies that are so numerous I’ve lost count of them (let’s see, there were 3 basic X-men, First Class, two Wolverine movies, I think a Magneto movie? is this the 8th movie?) based off of a comic book.

8: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: A sequel to a reboot of a popular movie franchise:

9: Big Hero 6: An animated movie based off a Marvel Comic book.

10: The Amazing Spider-Man 2. A sequel to a reboot of a movie franchise that came out in 2002 and was based off a comic book.

Well, there you have it, 10 movies, 10 pre-existing franchises – most of them based on superhero comic books. (also, as an aside, maybe its time to buy Disney Stock. A full 6 of those movies are based on properties Disney owns).

So what is the point?

I can think of several reasons why this is happening. I do need to mention that part of this is due to the international market of movies now. Action translates much better than comedy or drama, and therefore we get more dumb action movies. But this only explains why popular movies are action movies, not why they are action movies based on pre-existing properties. Another reason is the expensive nature of marketing movies, and movies that are sequels already have a built in fan base, and are thus need less marketing.

These are important and play a role; but I want to talk about two other things that are effecting this.

The first is nerd culture. At some point, nerds became the driving force behind popular culture, which is a clear reversal the past 100 years. For the longest time, nerds had been the lowest rung of the social ladder, and the things that nerds did, watch cartoons after a certain age, care about comics, video games, and the like were considered signs of low status, and for a large part the reason those were low status is partially because they were rare. In high school, and especially after college, it was hard for people to relate to others who had those interests. Therefore, the “marginal nerd,” that is, someone whose natural interests were such that they could in effect choose to be more of a nerd or choose to more typical, chose to be more typical; it served them better in meeting other people, finding mates, getting a better job, etc.

At a certain point, two things happened. One is it became came along and allowed people of any interest to find others with the same interests. While the internet is the biggest single cause of this, there are other reasons as well, the existence of fan conventions is a big one as well. The other thing that happened is the number and pay of jobs requiring “nerd” skills greatly increased; there is now a giant demand for programmers, engineers, financial “quants,” and other jobs which, for whatever reason, nerds seem to be more skilled at. These two things both led that aforementioned marginal nerd to be much more likely to embrace his (or her) nerdy side.

Now, all this is kind of just normal, it may be interesting to think about but not necessary to cause every movie to be about comic books. After all, when disco was in, there were movies with disco soundtracks, movies about disco and movies starring John Travolta; but its not like there were only movies about disco in the 1970s. But with the advent of nerd culture, you see almost nothing but movies aimed at nerds. (and if you think I’m cherry-picking 2014 to make my point, 2013 is eerily similar at the top ten spots: Marvel Universe movie at number 1, followed by hunger games, followed by comic book movies, then a bunch of 3D animated movies, also a spin off of a classic children’s fantasy movie. 2012 was different though, instead of a marvel universe movie followed by a hunger games movie, it was a marvel universe movie, then a different comic book movie, then a hunger games movie.) So what is it about nerds that has this effect? For the most part, its that nerds become nerds by liking stuff a little too much. If they like comic books, they don’t just like comic books, but they have to know and somehow reconcile the whole of the comic book universe’s history. If they like Star Trek, they don’t just like watch the TV show, they learn Klingon. And so on. They are dedicated to their interests in ways that other subcultures aren’t. All this means that they are a gigantic market, they have disposable income and they care deeply about movies; making a movie for nerds is very lucrative.

But again, while this may explain a lot of what of the box office, it doesn’t explain everything. After all, the Twilight movies have done incredibly well, and nerds hate those movies with a passion. Also, the Fast and the Furious movies have done quite well, (most of them guaranteed a top ten domestic gross), and other than being aimed at males, there is nothing nerdy about those movies.

Certainly a lot of it is risk averse behavior by the movie studios. They can refuse to make movies which don’t have a built in fan base, and they can refuse to attempt ground breaking movies set in new fictional universes. But that’s not really what is going on, as these movies are still getting made, it’s just that no one is going to see Jupiter Ascending this weekend, while the whole universe is going to see the Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

I think that what is going on here is something that is kind of scary. Our cynicism is so great that we won’t believe what the studios tell us, instead we look to other places such as social media to tell us which movies to see, and we see them. Yet social media is enthralled by its own set of agendas, it’s currency is eyeballs and recommending a movie that doesn’t become popular can be bad for the site. So, whether through careful planning or through Darwinian mechanisms, the most popular sites become those who tell us what we want to hear; it’s not just the studios who can’t shape demand; neither can anyone else. So our movie culture is frozen at some point in the late 90’s.  Paradoxically as the studios have lost their role as gatekeepers and can no longer shape demand, they have become more powerful in influencing what movies we see.

In 1993 a director decided to take a risk, and bought the movie rights to a science fiction novel, from which he made a giant action sci-fi movie. The actors were fine, each played his or her part in the story, but none of them were the draw; the draw was the computer generated dinosaurs. It was marketed to death but made an incredible amount of money.

20 years later, any studio that wants to make a movie about dinosaurs can do so; while the rights to Jurassic Park are proprietary, nobody owns the concept of dinosaurs. Yet they don’t, we won’t see another movie in the mold of Jurassic Park; however we will see probably several more movies with the world “Jurassic” in their title.  In terms of movies, our society values names beyond content, and is almost incapable of creating anything that is both popular and original.

At about now, any responsible essay about the latest trend in movies would have to mention things about how television is the new center for creativity in the popular arts, specifically mentioning premium cable networks and even video streaming sites.  Television has recently given us all sorts of original content: we’ve had crime stories (such as The Wire), fantasy epics (Game of Thrones) period pieces (Mad Men). Even within some of those genres you have incredible diversity. The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad and True Detective are all about crime; yet none of them are like ther others in any way except superficially.

But this isn’t an essay about movies, it’s an essay about politics.

In 1992, we had a Presidential race between two people, one was an upstart Democratic governor who had a new vision of the future and represented a change not just in politics but in attitude and culture as well. The other was an experienced Republican technocrat whose resume was a mile long: President, Vice President, Congressman, Ambassador to China, Ambassador to the UN, and director of the CIA, not to mention his business and military experience. Bush vs Clinton was about not just two political parties or two sets of policies, in many ways it was a referendum on what the presidency was about. Was experience more important than vision? Did the country need a new enthusiasm or a steady hand?

Just like we won’t see another Jurassic Park but we will see another Jurassic Park Movie, , we won’t see another Bush vs Clinton, but we may very well see another Bush vs Clinton. As of February 7 2015, the most likely presidential matchup looks to be Jeb Bush vs Hilary Clinton.

Jeb Bush was the two term governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007. Before that time and since that time, he hasn’t exactly become known for a whole lot. Now it’s very easy to be snarky and take pot shots at somebody whose only accomplishment is being a two term governor. Its a lot more than I’ve accomplished and probably you have as well.   Being a governor is not unimpressive, it is only a few rungs away from the very top of the political ladder, furthermore being reelected is also no mean feat. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that I’m writing this in my pajamas from the comfort of my apartment and I really don’t mean this as a personal criticism of Jeb Bush at all. What I do mean to say is that as elected officials go (which is necessarily an impressive set of people), he isn’t that impressive. There are a number of Republican governors in recent memory (Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal easily come to mind) who are, if not better candidates for President, more representative of a facet within the GOP. The same can be said for various senators (Rand Paul, Marco Rubio come to mind).

Hilary Clinton moved to New York State for the sole purpose of running for Sentator there. After Rudy Giuliani was diagnosed with prostate cancer and withdrew from the New York Senate race in 2000, Hillary Clinton defeated republican challenger Rick Lazio.  She won re-election in 2006, and became Barack Obama’s first Secretary of State. (everything I said about not snarking with regards to Jeb Bush can be said doubly for Hillary Clinton). In the only truly competitive race she ever ran, the 2008 democratic nomination for President, she was beaten. This is, even with my above parenthetical, a little bit unfair, losing the democratic nomination to Barack Obama is kind of like losing a game of basketball to Lebron James, also Secretary of State is a very important position, and Senator is nothing to shake a stick at either. But, at least on paper, I don’t think she is that much more impressive than Kathleen Sebelius (Secretary of Health and Human Services former governer of Kansas), Janet Neapolitano (Secretary of Homeland Security, former Governor of Arizona), or John Kerry (Secretary of State, former Senator) (although you can argue that Kerry already had his chance). My point is that, even if you like Hillary, I don’t think she is so impressive that she should waltz to the nomination in a way that only Vice Presidents of two term presidents typically do.

Just like our movies are dominated by a sort of culture of least resistance, our political culture seems to be heavily influenced by a similar dynamic. Seeking not just to pick a president we like, but a president we think others will like, we are almost forced to pick the familiar name. After all, nobody ever got fired for buying IBM. We are unable or unwilling to entertain “new” things, we reach to the familiar, to recreate something from our past, without realizing our that our past wasn’t created by trying to recreate its past.

Now it is entirely possible that we may get to November 2016 and be on pins and needles about whether Rand Paul or Elizabeth Warren will be our next president; and everything I’ve said will have been proved to be mostly bunk. In fact, while I’m on the fence as to whether Hillary Clinton will become the nominee, I am actually doubtful that Jeb Bush will be the Republican nominee. Furthermore, this whole essay is missing the elephant in the room (er, the donkey in the room?), having failed to mention Barack Obama. I guess if we’re comparing people to movies, Obama would be Avatar, something wholly original (at least in terms of franchise/name if not content) who broke lots of records. However, even if we see a Paul vs Warren race (or Walker vs Booker or whatever), I don’t think that it will invalidate the whole of this essay. Instead, it will prove not that the same instincts which govern movies don’t apply to politics, but that we are capable of overcoming those instincts for the truly important decisions we face, (which, I suppose, is a very optimistic way of ending this essay.)