I’ve pretty much abandoned my former interest in genre cinema over the last decade or so. A large chunk of the blame can placed on the so-called tent pole releases from Hollywood, big budget movies designed to be accessible with minimal editorial changes for audiences around the globe. These purposely bland and generic productions, especially from the Marvel and DC franchises, have denuded science-fiction and fantasy film-making of any real creativity or originality. Everything is a rehash or a remix of everything else. In some cases literally so. Of course it would be unfair to claim that there was a definitive Golden Age in genre cinema, and even some of the best regarded productions of the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s were derived from elsewhere. Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) was inspired by the adventure serials and movies of the 1930s and ’40s while the Dino De Laurentiis produced “Flash Gordon” (1980) was an update of the original comics and films, albeit in a fantastically over-the-top manner.
However these and similar productions were released over thirty years ago. Decades of movies have hit the theaters, or the video, DVD, Bluray, download and streaming shelves since then. Having stumbled upon a handful of winning formulas Hollywood has attempted to repeat the same stories and narrative elements, in slightly altered forms, again and again and again. Worse still, generations of movie-makers – and the studios behind them – have become so inculcated in their own system (or “art” if you prefer) that they reach for the familiar as a sort of cinematic shorthand, one readily identifiable by audiences. Why write new or challenging characters, or ones recognisably human in their motivations and actions, when movie stereotypes and clichés are far easier or more palatable in ninety minute chunks? Indeed, why go to such creative labour when you are convinced that this is what the audience wants? There is no sense in promoting sushi when your customers have been raised on a diet of Big Macs.
Of course the situation has become so bad that there is an entire website devoted to charting all the stale tropes that fuel contemporary cinema, television and literature, particularly in the genre fields. And no, not all stories are universal or speak of the human condition. Most simply represent the laziness or limited imagination of writers and producers, who would rather repurpose other people’s works than develop their own. That is not to discount the dreaded sway of the “bean-counters”. It is called show business for a reason. However, what excuse is there for those with the freedom to think beyond the bottom line, or who work in areas where there is greater flexibility and choice. Shifting leading characters into a “parallel” dimension or “time-stream”, where they are invisible to those left behind, is a narrative theme as old as the Star Trek episode “Wink of an Eye“, way back in 1968. So seeing it repeated in slightly tweaked form (for the umpteenth time) on the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode “Deals with Our Devils” in 2016 simply makes one wonder at the exercise in creative torpor that now characterises everything that is Marvel.