Your favorite place is in ruins, and a really mean guy is behind it all. He’s so bad, he’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before. He’s the definition of fear, and other things which are very…unpleasant. Nothing will be the same ever again after this. Your favorite person or persons in the world will be pushed to the limit in a new adventure that will shatter their world, and yours. If you thought things couldn’t get harder, grittier, or contain more monotone music, you’d be wrong. The next installment in your favorite movie series is here, and it’s similarity to other movies is striking, but not unsurprising.
Sound familiar? Have you seen twenty versions of this trailer?
Calling the majority of big franchise movies formulaic would be almost a compliment at this point, because it would denote some sort of basic originality. But with the release of the Star Trek Into Darkness trailer, I’m worried that all of these popular franchise films have become not just formulaic, but straight-up copycats of one another.
To be clear: I like The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall, and I’ll probably like Star Trek Into Darkness, in spite of myself. Taken one at a time, none of the plot elements of these movies are all that bad. But, it does seem like there’s some sort of phantom uber-movie premise haunting all these various big-time flicks, forcing them to all end up—superficially at least—the same. Here’s what I mean:
Last week, the nerdsphere (and everyone else) was treated to the first teaser for Star Trek Into Darkness. I’m a rabid Star Trek fan from childhood—I was Spock for Halloween in both the 3rd and 4th grades—so a new Trek movie registers pretty high on the scale of major life events. And, like a breakup or a bad tax return, a disappointing new Trek movie could seriously mess up my whole year. So, the first nine minutes of Star Trek are being shown before The Hobbit? I’ll have to leave after those nine minutes and skip The Hobbit, because I’ll be too busy processing what the hell I’m going to do about not being able to time-travel and go see the new Star Trek right now. (Does The Hobbit have Spock? It does not.) I say all this to make clear how much I like Star Trek. I like every kind of Star Trek, even Enterprise.
BUT. The trailer for Star Trek Into Darkness is the new poster child for what can only be called the Big Franchise Film Epidemic. It presents a “story” which doesn’t seem remotely different from The Dark Knight Rises, or for that matter, Skyfall. Earth is under attack from a major asshole who is going to destroy everything the good guys hold dear and nothing will be the same anymore now that major asshole has blown everything up. (Remember how this also happened in the last Star Trek movie?) The bad guy is almost always going to be an English guy who is an awesome actor. If you can’t get Tom Hardy, get Tom Hiddleston. Or, if you’ve got the big J.J. Abrams guns, get Benedict Cumberbatch. If your main good guy is already English, find someone with a different accent. Is Javier Bardem around?
Skyfall, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Avengers are all eerily similar in structure. Sure, The Avengers features multiple characters joining to together to fight Bane Loki, but in the end it’s all about protecting their homeland from a bad guy. (Have we had enough with the terrorism stuff yet?) In both Skyfall and The Avengers, the bad guy is captured for a good period of time, only to escape and reveal that was all part of his ruse. The audience knows that this is going to happen, but somehow these films get away with it, creating tension out of something we all know is coming. We also know a giant, epic battle is likely going down in all these movies—it’s been happening ever since the The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Phantom Menace allowed for lots of extras to be dropped in via computer. Even Alice in Wonderland randomly needed to add in people running at each other and fighting; Breaking Dawn—Part 2, too!
If you’re not going to have people running at each other in some kind of battle scene, you better make a few of them fight in a giant inside/outside structure where they can leap from platform to platform, like in GoldenEye and all the Star Trek movies from 1994 until the present day. Luckily, in The Avengers, all the various buildings create lots of places for people to perch and leap.Oddly, Skyfall decided not to do this, but instead took a more Home Alone-inspired approach to its big fighting finale. This is one of the reasons why I’d argue Skyfall is slightly more original than the other movies I mentioned (in that at least it borrows from a less likely franchise).
I’d say this repetition is actually getting worse and worse, lately. Is there a particular reason why Star Trek Into Darkness has a poster that looks exactly like that of The Dark Knight Rises? Does it need to have the Transformers font? Do we need the oppressive BRAAAM Inception horns in the trailer? (Or as Vulture recently called this, The Super Loud Movie Noise of Our Time).
All that’s being accomplished in this trailer is one clear and loud message: Hey! Watch this movie! It has all the things you like in it! Here they are, reproduced exactly as they were in another movie.But why is this so bad? Who cares if all these movies are the same?
In the first Star Trek episode ever, “The Cage” a race of aliens called the Talosians is introduced. These guys got so into creating illusions with their minds that they forgot how the technology of their ancestors even worked. They forgot how to be original and grew bored and warped and immoral. Are the big-franchise filmmakers of today like the Talosians? Giant pulsing brains who’ve created the same illusion over and over, reusing the same formulas so often that they have forgotten how to be creative? How to take a risk?
Recently, I was watching Tim Burton’s Batman; I was so absorbed that it was a surprise to find myself suddenly watching the climax of the film. Batman crashes his nifty plane and then is jumping around a bunch of big ringing bells. He has to fight off a few henchmen (all who are clearly better stuntmen than Michael Keaton) but ultimately finds the Joker dancing around with his girlfriend. Batman says, “Excuse me,” and then gets to throw the “Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” line back in the Joker’s face before punching him like champ. That’s it. That’s the big finale. Simple. Personal. Good dialogue. Original. What was the cool line Batman said in The Dark Knight Rises? Wait for it: “I came to stop you.” (Which is basically just the spoken-word version of those ”BRAAAAAM” horns in all the trailers.)
These big awesome franchise movies may look slicker, but they’ve lost soul. Cumberbatch’s monologue in the new Star Trek Into Darkness trailer is the most generic thing I’ve ever heard. He might as well just be talking like Bane and saying “I’m Star Fleet’s reckoning,” before detonating the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. (Or worse, a space football field).
At least Khan had the class to quote Melville. These new movie bad guys are just quoting each other. The best thing that could happen now is for Loki, Bane, and Cumberbatch to storm all the Hollywood studios and demand action/sci-fi/genre movies with different elements. Hollywood’s reckoning? Get some diversity.
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.