Pop Culture 2021: A Review

Hollywood in General: Nostalgia Addiction

Let’s break down three recent would-be blockbusters, how much they hinged on nostalgia, and how well they pulled it off.

Ghostbusters Afterlife

Image: Sony

…I get that Paul Rudd was the biggest star but why is the central character all the way on the left and in the background, I don’t like that.

Image: Sony

That’s better.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife rejoins the original Ghostbusters universe some three decades and change after the big ghost attacks in New York from the original movies (they never refer to the events of Ghostbusters 2 but I think we can assume they happened), as Egon Spengler dies fighting an unseen spectre at an isolated farmhouse, and his daughter and her two kids move into said farmhouse. Egon’s science-obsessed granddaughter Phoebe, with help from a classmate calling himself Podcast and her summer school teacher (Paul Rudd), and some nudging from Egon’s spirit, begins to piece together what Egon abandoned his teammates and moved out to flyover country to do: finish what they started in the original movie, and stop Gozer once and for all.

How nostalgic? Look this movie is filled with little Easter eggs, moments for hardcore fans to recognize. The stack of books, the Nestle Crunch wrapper in Egon’s old jumpsuit pocket, the Twinkie in Ecto-1’s glove compartment, the fact that Gozer the Gozerian is the villain again. But for the most part, they’re quick. New viewers might not know why there’s a Twinkie in the glove compartment, but we’re not spending a lot of time on it. It doesn’t get in the way of the story, which is about Callie Spengler coming to terms with her absent father and Phoebe finding a family legacy she’d never known. Maybe you won’t get as much out of the movie if you haven’t seen Ghostbusters, but Jesus Christ watch Ghostbusters already, watch it immediately.

How did it work? I. Loved. This movie.

Loved it. Loved it all the way through. With or without the little shoutouts and references. I loved Phoebe, I loved her attempts to tell jokes to fit in better, Paul Rudd was fun and charming, I even liked Podcast, and hearing there was a character named “Podcast” I was prepped to roll my eyes all the way out of my head. But he’s fun!

Some people say they forgot Ghostbusters is a comedy and play it too straight. I say I laughed the whole way through. Yes it has a lot more heart and emotional character arcs, but it’s still funny. Some people say “We never cared about how Gozer works,” I say having a small amount of lore to explain why, exactly, Gozer the Destructor needs Zuul and Vinz Clortho the demon dogs a) justifies their return appearance, and b) helps make Zuul and Vinz key to Phoebe’s attempts to fight back against Gozer the Traveler, a key way Egon held Gozer, Volguus Zildrohar, Lord of the Sebouillia at bay as long as he did.

I loved it, and more importantly, my niece loved it. My 11 year old niece watched a 12 year old girl save the world by being clever and good at science, and I loved that for her. So while the nostalgic touches are there, this is a movie for a new generation; the heroes are kids. Kids save the world. They play to the original fans, but make a story for the kids, and it works on both levels, this movie’s great and I love it.

Next?

The Matrix Resurrections

Image: Warner Bros.

Game designer Thomas Anderson, creator of the smash hit trilogy of Matrix video games, is having a crisis. He longs for a woman he sees at his coffee shop, eerily similar to Trinity from his games… and also strange cyberpunk people show up to his work during a bomb threat to tell him that the Matrix is real, he is in fact Neo, and he is once again stuck in the Matrix. But Neo can’t exist without Trinity, and so begins a heist that unlocks the dark secrets of the new Matrix.

From here I do have to spoil a couple of things. Short version, I dug it. As Matrix sequels go, it works.

How nostalgic? Okay gonna be honest… a non-trivial percentage of this movie is archival footage from the other movies. Like, aggressively at times. Multiple times they intercut shots of the new, recast Agent Smith with archival footage of Hugo Weaving because they don’t trust us to get that this guy is Agent Smith with a new face.

(Yeah, Hugo didn’t come back. Only four cast members from the first trilogy did. There are more cast members from Sense8 in this movie than cast from the original trilogy.)

(That’s fine I liked Sense8 and it makes sense that nearly all of the original characters are dead by this point)

It’s about people who grew up on legends of the first Matrix. So, yes, it does very much require memory of and fondness for the original Matrix to enjoy this one. But… it’s a sequel. Not a reboot, not a remake, not a fresh beginning. It’s a fourth installment. It’s not crazy to expect people to have seen the first one. That’s very easy to do these days.

How does it work? Pretty well. It’s about trauma, and love, and how the systems of power weaponize and monetize the very things people use to oppose them. It’s about how the world slips back into oppressive systems when the powerful are left to their own devices. It finds a way to bring back the machines vs. humans conflict without invalidating the bittersweet ending of Matrix Revolutions. It says that Neo’s victory did matter, even if the progress he fought for was at least partially rolled back over the years, which in the post-Trump world is maybe something we need to hear.

And I loved the audacity of writing “Warner Bros. is making us do this, and they’d do it without us if we said no” into the actual dialogue. Best lampshade-hang on why a movie was made since 21 Jump Street.

It’s good. It’s good Matrix. It might not be on par with the first, but none of the sequels are, and as Matrix sequels go, this one’s good. The box office hasn’t been great, so this might be the last Matrix, but that’s fine. I’m okay leaving it here. That works. One trilogy, one decades-later return saying “No story truly ends, no victory is forever,” I’m good with it.

If you like Matrix, maybe check it out sometime.

And now the juggernaut.

Spider-Man: No Way Home

Image: Sony, still, to Marvel’s chagrin

Okay this is the most spoiled blockbuster in recent memory, and while I do wonder if this is the first movie in two years to make pre-pandemic money specifically because of how much got leaked, I don’t have to add to that, so… let’s see if I can cover this without giving away anything. Anything I didn’t already give away.

Peter Parker, having had his identity revealed to the world by Mysterio as a final fuck-you to Peter in Far From Home, finds that his life and the lives of those close to him are all suffering from the attention this has caused. Which… okay, there are exactly two characters in the entire MCU who have secret identities. And that’s including the entire Defenders line-up in case they’re all canon now. Spider-Man and Daredevil, that’s it, everyone else gets stopped in the street (or mens’ room) for selfies. But Mysterio also framed Peter for his death, so, yeah, that’s more of a problem. The world still thinks Mysterio was a hero and Spider-Man killed him, but it’s the public identity thing that annoys Peter, so after months of this he goes to Dr. Strange, asking for a spell to put that genie back in the bottle. The spell goes wrong because Peter didn’t think this through even a little, and soon New York is beset by villains of other worlds with vendettas against other Spider-Men.

So it’s like Endgame for Sony Spider-Man movies, or more accurately, Into the Spider-Verse but less cool or visionary. Yeah I said it. I said it and it’s true.

How nostalgic? Every strange visitor from another universe is a returning character from one of the other Sony Spider-Man movies. Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus, Jamie Foxx’s Electro, Sandman and the Lizard done with enough CG that Thomas Haden Church and Rhys Evans only had to do voice-over (assuming that is their voices)… and biggest and baddest of them all, as he should be, Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborne/Green Goblin. These are built for people to say “He’s from the other movie!” Sure they do their best to have someone sum up what the various villains’ deals are (Doc Ock sums up Osborne, Electro gives a recap on Lizard before bonding with Sandman over their shared origin of “fell into some science”), but these appearances, callback lines, and years-later resolutions and redemptions aren’t going to fully land if you haven’t seen all of the Spider-Mans. Most of the Spider-Mans. I still haven’t seen Amazing Spider-Man 2 but I’ve seen enough YouTubes about it that I got the gist of it, and this movie has a criminal lack of references to Into the Spider-Verse.

I’m just saying, they absolutely had the budget to add in a hand-drawn Spider-Ham voiced by John Mulaney, Who Framed Roger Rabbit style.

How does it work? Well I can only speak for mysef, someone who has seen every Spider-Man movie except one, but it all worked great for me. I liked that the return appearances were more than just fan service cameos; their returns meant something (except maybe Lizard), they had arcs, their returns had weight for the main story. I like that despite what the marketing would have us believe, Dr. Strange isn’t that big a part of the story. Sure his magic spell is our inciting incident, but he doesn’t overwhelm it the way Iron Man threatened to overwhelm the last two, even the one where he’s dead. The cast all showed up to work, and there are character combinations that are like the team-up of 11th and 10th Doctors Matt Smith and David Tennant in Day of the Doctor: it works so amazingly well I’m mad this is almost certainly the only time it will ever happen.

Wait, you liked all three, why is this a problem?

Because yes it’s worked so far, but man is it a dangerous trend to go all-in on.

Each of these films walks a tightrope, balancing “payoffs for fans of the old stuff” with “work for new viewers,” and to varying amounts they managed it, but never perfectly. Ghostbusters: Afterlife‘s frequent Easter eggs seemed to be saying “This isn’t that 2016 reboot, it’s just more of that thing you liked!” Matrix: Resurrections has multiple scenes that rely on archival footage to ensure you get the reference points. Spider-Man: No Way Home is a love letter to two decades’ worth of attempts to monetize Spider-Man. It’s a minor miracle they all pulled it off, and folly to believe it’ll keep happening if other franchises try it.

Nostalgia only carries you so far. A little bit of nostalgia baked into your story makes you Stranger Things and people love you; too much makes you Ready Player One and the only thing keeping you watchable is being directed by Steven Spielberg. Nostalgia made me think Michael Bay’s Transformers was a good movie for a minute there, but as that franchise went on it had less and less to offer audiences who cared about getting something more than giant robots, big explosions, and detailed explanations of Texas’ age of consent laws. Nostalgia’s doing exactly nothing for GI Joe, which Hasbro badly wants to be a Marvel-style cinematic universe but cannot find a large enough audience of people who still like GI Joe. Try to make yourself an Avengers: Endgame, and you risk ending up with a Rise of Skywalker.

Or, worse, you get Space Jam: A New Legacy. And then who are you helping.

So what’s coming?

Author: danny_g

Danny G, your humble host and blogger, has been working in community theatre since 1996, travelling the globe on and off since 1980, and caring more about nerd stuff than he should since before he can remember. And now he shares all of that with you.

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