Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Tag: Douglas Rushkoff

This Counts, That Does Not: On Canonicity in Media Franchises

It may surprise you to learn this, but the events of Star Wars never actually happened—the majority of them, anyway.  I mean that sincerely—not for a minute should that be interpreted as snide or condescending.  But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself…

In 1983, George Lucas brought his Star Wars trilogy to a close with Return of the Jedi (oh, those bygone days when movie franchises actually reached—wait for it—a conclusive resolution).  Throughout the eighties, the series lived on by way of a pair of made-for-television Ewok movies and the Saturday-morning cartoons Droids and Ewoks, which continued to stoke interest in the franchise—and its lucrative action-figure line… for a while.  But by the end of the decade, with no new big-screen productions to energize the fan base, Star Wars had resigned its position at the top of the pop-cultural hierarchy.

George Lucas looks to the horizon

Lucas, who had always been a forward-thinking businessman as much as he was a visionary filmmaker (he negotiated a reduced fee for writing and directing the original Star Wars in return for ownership of sequel and merchandising rights, which the studio deemed worthless and was only too happy to relinquish), had plans to revisit the Star Wars galaxy in a prequel trilogy that had been part of his grand design when he was developing the earlier films—hence the reason, in case you never thought to ask, they are numbered Episodes IV through VI.  Even though the prequels themselves were some years off—production on The Phantom Menace wouldn’t commence until 1997—he began laying the groundwork to return Star Wars to its lofty place in the cultural consciousness by commissioning science-fiction author Timothy Zahn to write a trio of novels set five years after the events of Return of the Jedi—what later became commonly known as “the Thrawn trilogy” (named for its chief antagonist).

The books were released successively in ’91, ’92, and ’93 (my best friend Chip and I couldn’t get down to the local bookstore fast enough to buy a copy of each upon publication, though being a year older, he got to read them first); they were New York Times bestsellers that not only got their intended job done—reigniting public interest in a dormant media franchise—but also led to an endless, ongoing series of novels that explored every facet of the Star Wars galaxy:  No character or event was too small to be the focus of its own story.  Thus, the Star Wars Expanded Universe (SWEU) was born.  Han and Leia had twins!  Luke got married!  Chewbacca sacrificed himself for the Solos’ son Anakin!  A universe of stories, far beyond the contained narrative arc of the classic trilogy, took on a life of its own and captured the imagination of a generation that invested itself in the ongoing space opera collectively known as Star Warsa vast, complex continuity that Lucasfilm maintained with curatorial oversight to prevent inconsistencies and contradictions in the expansive mythos, which comprised movies, books, comics, TV shows, RPGs, and video games.

The Force awakens? For many fans, it never went dormant

When Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012, however, they had their own ambitious plans to expand the franchise, and didn’t want to be tied down to every addenda in the extensive mythology.  And just like that, everything other than the feature films and then-current Clone Wars animated series was “retconned”—still commercially available, mind you, under the new “Legends” banner, but henceforth declared noncanonical.  This was an outrage to many of the longtime fans who considered these “expanded universe” adventures sacrosanct—who’d invested time, money, and interest in the world-building fictions of the Star Wars continuity that had been undone with the stroke of a hand.  Some of their favorite stories were now apocrypha, whereas the much-derided prequels, on the other hand, were still canonically official.  Where was the justice—the sense—in that?

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Collapse of the Tentpole: Why Hollywood’s Grim Summer Is Good News for the Rest of Us

Hope springs eternal—and by that I mean it was just this past spring I was lamenting Hollywood’s hopeless addiction to nostalgic, twentieth-century brands, from superheroes to Star Wars, and its incorrigible aversion to original genre works in favor of endless sequels and remakes (I will not cave to social pressure by calling them “reboots” just to assuage the egos of filmmakers too precious to be considered slumming with the likes of—heaven forbid—a remake).  And yet…

And yet what a difference a summer can make.  Let’s review the scorecard, shall we?

Batman v Superman took a critical beating (to say the least) and, despite sizable box-office returns, underperformed to expectations, an inauspicious opening salvo in Warners’ would-be mega-franchise (and something tells me, no matter how tepid the public response, they’re not going to take “no” for an answer on this one).  The follow-up, Suicide Squad, performed well even if it didn’t fare any better critically, though one could argue both movies actually did the health of the budding cinematic universe more harm than good in that they tarnished the integrity, such as it is, of the brand; DC is thus far not enjoying Marvel’s critical or popular cachet.  And you don’t build an ongoing franchise playing only to the base.

Other expensive underperformers:  Warcraft; X-Men:  Apocalypse; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:  Out of the Shadows; Neighbors 2:  Sorority Rising; Star Trek BeyondJason Bourne opened well but suffered a steep second-week drop-off—it had no “legs,” in box-office parlance.

Who ya gonna call to exterminate the "ghosts" of a previous generation haunting the multiplex?

Who ya gonna call to exterminate the “ghosts” of a previous generation haunting the multiplex?

Plenty of other “surefire” sequels outright bombed:  Alice Through the Looking Glass, Ghostbusters (not a sequel, but it was promoted as one), The Huntsman:  Winter’s War, Zoolander 2, Independence Day:  Resurgence, and The Divergent Series:  Allegiant, the last of which has resulted in a particularly embarrassing—and unprecedented—predicament for its studio, Lionsgate, which, following in the footsteps of previous YA adaptations Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games, unnecessarily split the last movie into two parts, and now they’re stuck with a commitment to a final sequel (or half of one, anyway) without an audience anticipating its release.

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Saving the Cat from Itself: On Deconstructing “Game of Thrones” and a Troubling Pattern of Misanalysis

The folks over at Save the Cat!, which does not include the program’s late innovator Blake Snyder, offered an object lesson last week on the misapplication of craft.

It’s common practice for Save the Cat! to break down a current or classic movie and illustrate how it conforms to a story’s fifteen major narrative “beats” as Snyder identified them (Blake himself published an entire book dedicated to this skill-building exercise, which I recommend—certainly over any of the recent analyses on the STC! blog).  This is what a sample “beat sheet” (of my own authorship) would look like (click on it for a closer look):

Raiders of the Lost Ark beatsheet

Simple enough, right?  The entire story summarized at its most basic, macrostructural level.  That’s the kind of plot overview I’ll painstakingly compose before I begin Word One of my screenplay or novel, so I know the plot is always tracking in the right direction.  It’s an indispensable application to help a writer “break the back” of his story, as well as an excellent learning tool:  By reverse-engineering well-regarded movies, you can teach yourself the fundamentals of mythic structure.  That is ostensibly the reason Save the Cat! offers sample deconstructions on a near-weekly basis.

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The Exodus Is Here: On Saying Goodbye to the Who

There was a lot of contentious shouting in our apartment throughout my childhood, so much so that it could be heard the moment I stepped off the elevator—I’m talking thunderous, mean-spirited bickering.  All of it—every word—was filtered through the tinny speaker of the AM/FM radio that sat atop our refrigerator.

My father listened daily to The Bob Grant Show—at top volume.  He didn’t particularly agree with Grant’s conservative politics, but he loved a good argument.  (I wonder if he’d feel the same today, in this era of ‘round-the-clock cable-TV squabbling masquerading as news?)  When he wasn’t listening to Grant in the kitchen, he had it blasting from the radio in our Plymouth Duster.  I didn’t understand much, if any, of what was being debated, but I laughed every time Grant hollered, “Get off my phone, you jerk!”  (He did so often.)

The endless caterwauling from Dad’s favorite station prompted an antithetical reaction in my mother (whether intentional or unconscious I do not know):  When she had control of the radio, we listened almost exclusively to 106.7 Lite FM.  Up till the age of ten or so, “easy listening” was effectively the only genre of music, save classical, I was aware of.  It was probably upon hearing Ambrosia’s “Biggest Part of Me” for the thousandth time (or maybe it was Journey’s “Open Arms”—like it even matters) that I finally asked out of both frustration and genuine curiosity, “Doesn’t anybody sing about anything besides love?”

My mother considered that for a moment.  “Love is what makes the world go ‘round.”

It wasn’t a particularly satisfying answer, and perhaps on some subconscious level she herself recognized that, because the following Christmas—this was in ’86 or ’87, I think—she gave me a cassette copy of the Who’s 1978 album Who Are You (which I recently rediscovered while cleaning out my childhood closet).

I’d had no awareness of the Who before that; Who Are You was my crash course in progressive rock, a style that came to speak to my more philosophical and intellectual proclivities throughout high school, college, and beyond.  I didn’t always understand what the songs meant—many of Pete Townshend’s lyrics, I suspect, are a mystery to all but (perhaps) himself—but that was exactly the point:  The music of the Who is a Rorschach—a receptacle into which you can pour you own feelings and experiences, and from which take your own meaning and catharsis.  The lyrics—and the narratives of the band’s operatic concept albums—are so specific to Townshend’s particular imagination, but the broader themes are universal.  Take any given Who song, and I doubt it means the same thing to any two people.

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The Great Escape: What the Ascendancy of Comic-Book Culture Tells Us about Ourselves

Lest anyone doubt the real-world superheroic capabilities of a fictional character, let me state for the record that Batman taught me how to read.

For in watching the syndicated reruns of the Adam West series in the late seventies—the kitschy opening credits, specifically—my not-yet-literate mind eventually recognized a correlation between the splashy title-card logo and repetitive choral chant that accompanied it, and “Batman” became the first word I could read and write.  Absolutely true story.

"Ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba! Batman!"

“Ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba! Bat-man!”

I loved the old Batman show—the pop-art color scheme and Dutch angles (not that I took conscious note of such stylistics at the time) were like a cartoon come to life.  The camp humor?  Entirely lost on me:  When Batman and Robin slid down the Batpoles and zoomed off in the Batmobile—staged in that glorious life-sized playset of a Batcave—the sense of adventure was kinetic.  And when the villain-of-the-week left our heroes for dead in some Rube Goldbergian contraption—their fate to be determined in twenty-four agonizing hours!—the tension was excruciating.

Unlike most of my heroes at that time—Michael Knight, the Duke boys—the Dynamic Duo weren’t confined to the limited jurisdiction of their own fictional worlds, but rather popped up elsewhere, too, in animated form on The New Scooby-Doo Movies and Super Friends, and I never quite understood why no one had thought to put Adam West, Christopher Reeve, and Lynda Carter in a movie together; with no concept of copyright issues or irreconcilable aesthetics or what later came to be called “shared cinematic universes,” it seemed like a no-brainer to assemble an all-star superhero team from the preexisting talent pool.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Thirty-five years after I—along with an entire generation raised on the same pop-cultural diet, it turns out—first dreamed it, the team formerly known as the Super Friends are getting the tent-pole treatment next month with the release of Batman v Superman:  Dawn of Justice, Warner Bros.’ opening-salvo attempt at the kind of license to print cash shared cinematic universe Marvel has so deftly pioneered (to the envy of every studio in Hollywood).  Fanboy anticipation is at a full boil, if enthusiasm on social media is any barometer; many are counting down the days with a breadth of fanaticism ordinarily reserved for the Second Coming, others forecasting the would-be mega-franchise’s stillbirth, but all are anxiously awaiting Dawn.

Not me, though.  I can say with absolute and irrevocable certainty that I’ll be sitting out Batman v Superman—in theaters, on home video, on cable.  In perpetuity.

But, more on that shortly.

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Signals in the Noise: Finding Meaning through Storytelling

It’s a strange thing, really, as anyone who knew me way back when can attest, that I now find myself in the predominantly solitary profession known as novelist.

Now, I don’t think any of them would find it the least bit surprising that I’m a creative, it’s only that I preferred to exercise my creativity as an agent of fellowship:  I was the kid who organized weekend games of “Christopher Columbus,” a large-scale, rough-and-tumble variant of hide-and-seek played on the streets of New York (its origins, so far as I know, derive from an obscure teen comedy from the eighties that I haven’t watched since, on the hunch that it’s likely better off remembered than revisited); I hosted annual “murder parties” along with my best friend, Chip, inspired by our love for Clue:  The Movie; and in senior year of high school, we enlisted half the neighborhood in a quixotic production of Lost Boys II, a handmade, feature-length sequel to one of our favorite horror films, itself a kind of ode to teamwork, that we shot on a state-of-the-art VHS-C camcorder.  To this day, I think we did a reasonably credible job of passing off the Bronx as Santa Cruz:  The Palisades along the Hudson River doubled for the coastal cliffs of the Pacific, and a cavernous subbasement I’d discovered beneath a 1970s luxury high-rise served as the vampires’ cave—not a bad bit of on-the-cheap production value, if I do say so!  (The acting and cinematography, on the other hand, from the limited footage that still actually exists, seem somewhat… unpolished.)

In retrospect, the Lost Boys project probably represents an inexorable turning point in my life:  Not only had I finally found a creative outlet that felt like a natural fit (after guitar lessons didn’t pan out and my enthusiasm for comic-book illustration somewhat outweighed my talent for it), but filmmaking would allow me and my friends to do something truly special—make movies!—and, more importantly, to do it together.  Of all the arts, this one embodied the spirit of fellowship I so cherished like none other.  It became one of the great loves of my life, and an obsessive—even tumultuous—twenty-year affair with it ensued.

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Journey’s End: Rushkoff and the Collapse of Narrative

And now for something completely different:  How about a magic trick?

Think of your favorite story—book or movie.  (Hell, say it aloud, if you’re inclined—I can’t hear you.)  If you’ve got several candidates, just pick one quickly, at random.

Got one firmly in mind?

Betcha I can tell you how the plot unfolds.

Here goes:  The protagonist is faced with an unforeseen crisis that upends the status quo, and, after some initial resistance, accepts the call to adventure.  Through a series of trials and setbacks in which both allies and enemies are made, our hero finds the strength to rise to the challenge and, in doing so, achieves personal catharsis (what we in Hollywood call the “character arc”), returning once again to an ordinary state of affairs… a little bit wiser for his troubles.  The End.

How’d I do?

It’s a little general, I’ll grant you—I probably wouldn’t wow them in Vegas with that act—but, at your story’s most basic structural level, that pretty much sums it up, no?

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