Who here remembers New Coke? Introduced in the 1980s, New Coke was a brand new version of the usual Coca-Cola formula designed more or less to try to imitate the sweeter cola taste of Pepsi. If you are familiar with the stuff then I’m sure you’re familiar with the fact that it failed spectacularly. Those who wanted a sweet cola drink stuck with Pepsi, while those who preferred less sweetness had no reason to buy coke anymore.
The reason I bring this up is because all across the media, studios and executives are repeatedly attempting the “New Coke” strategy. Seeing that audiences like one particular aspect of a movie, tv series or video game, they attempt to homogenise their products until they all bear the same aspects as the first one to gain popularity, regardless of whether or not these aspects fit the new products.
Take, for example, The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight was a movie released in 2007 to great critical acclaim and box office success. There were many factors that led to this wide success. It was considered a well written, well acted movie, especially on Heath Ledger’s part, that actually made a comic book movie come across as a sophisticated movie for adults. And, of course, it was quite possibly the darkest and edgiest comic book movies not to be rated as an adults only movie.
Now, in spite of a massive chunk of its success being down to good writing, good writing often doesn’t automatically make people flock to cinemas. I’m not saying this in a cynical way, I’m pointing out that it’s hard to reveal that something’s wholly well written through 2 minute trailers and advertising alone. While good writing will make people spread acclaim through word of mouth, and may even convince them to watch it twice, it needs to gain a sizeable audience before it can achieve this.
So, what’s the best way of capitalising on The Dark Knight’s popularity then? By taking its basic theme, atmosphere and aesthetics, and applying it to other superhero movies regardless of whether or not it fits. Darkness works for Batman. Batman as a character has always been “The Dark Knight”, working in the shadows, often coming across as an anti hero. But does it necessarily work for Superman?
Man of Steel is likely the most notable case of a movie imitating The Dark Knight. Superman, a character shown to be the optimistic symbol of American Justice, whose costume is usually as bright as possible, is perhaps not the best character to get the Nolan treatment. This was only exacerbated in Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice. Instead of seeing a grim gritty vigilante fighting an optimistic all-american demigod, we got two dark and edgy dudes who might as well have been the same fucking character.
Movies are not the only media where imitation is a serious problem, of course. Anyone who considers themselves a fan of tv animation may be familiar with the various rip offs of Ren and Stimpy that plagued children’s tv in the 90s, or the South Park rip offs that haunted adult animation for some time. Video games are not and have never been immune form this, judging by the pitiful attempts at mascots copying Sonic The Hedgehog like Bubsy the Bobcat. And yes, even literature suffers from this from time to time.
Note: in this case it is by no means bad novels following a “good” leader.
These aren’t straight up cases of plagiarism, or mockbusters (that’s for a later post). These are all unique pieces of media, be they original or adapted, that are trying to coat themselves in a paint of whatever executives believe led to the success of a predecessor.
At the end of the day, that’s all it is. A mere coat of paint. Man of Steel is not exactly a dark movie. It’s more like a moody teenager who dresses in black and whines all the time, despite having a pretty cushy life with no amount of suffering whatsoever.
While Man of Steel wasn’t exactly a failure, it’s nowhere near the sacred cow that The Dark Knight became. And then that brings me to a certain movie that WAS a failure. That being Fan4stic.
While Man of Steel has a good deal of fans, virtually no one is willing to defend this piece of trash. The 2015 Fantastic Four movie took a comic and characters arguably less serious than Superman and attempted to give them the Nolan treatment. What it ended up becoming was a movie so devoid of any light at all, and so ashamed of its existence as a superhero movie, that it was a commercial and critical flop, that won joint worst picture at the Golden Raspberry Awards.
While Man of Steel got away with playing the imitation game, Fan4stic failed spectacularly. By this point, most folks were very much used to serious and edgy comic book movies, to the point where no one was even remotely interested in seeing it. And there we see the real problem with this game of imitation: homogenisation.
People didn’t just like The Dark Knight because of its grim-darkness. They liked it because it was different. We’d never seen a superhero movie being so dark and so serious before. The many imitators don’t detract from its quality, they simply ensure their own impact isn’t going to mean nearly as much. This makes a huge difference in today’s age of franchises. If you want to build a franchise out of a movie, then people need to enjoy what you provide them with. Fan4stic is unlikely to get a sequel. Given its a well known franchise already, a reboot is a huge possibility, but only if it learns from its mistakes, and stops attempting to paint over its soulless writing with edgy Nolan-ness.
But, is this imitation game entirely bad?
The answer is in fact no. In some cases, a movie’s success can pave the way for movies that would never have been made otherwise. One of my all time favourite comic book movies, Dredd, ended up being a box office flop despite critical acclaim. Had it been released today, however, I believe that would not be the case, as Deadpool has officially proven to executives that R-rated comic book movies do in fact have a market.
It seems the problem, as usual, comes down to the fact that movie executives can often be so very, very bad at making decisions. Movie executives so often have experience and talent when it comes to business and sales, but little to no creativity whatsoever. And, as New Coke taught us, these businessmen can make terrible mistakes regardless of what industry they’re in.
The people who can, however, take advantage of the situation and make something great out of it, is the writers; specifically the writers who’ve been rejected for their ideas in the past. Any writer who has an idea for an R-rated superhero movie that works can simply point the executives to Deadpool as proof that such an idea can work. Writers looking to make kids shows with female protagonists can point to the success of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic amongst young adult males. And yes, if a writer has a genuinely good idea for a dark and grim super hero movie, then they can in fact point out that it worked for The Dark Knight.