East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

The adventure movie renaissance that never was

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This post is essentially me writing trying to put some order in my ideas.
(also, it goes online with only two recycled images, because my connection is playing up)
Take it for what it is.
My friend Lucy did a post, on her blog, about The Mummy, the 1999 movie featuring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. She pointed out hos it was originally planned to be a low-budget B, and then turned into an 80-million dollars blockbuster that made an inordinate amount of money but failed to launch a true and proper old-style adventure movie renaissance.

And she’s right. Consider all the low-budget (but fun) Indiana Jones clones we got in the 80s – movies that tried to re-capture the thrill and wonder of the original Spielberg film with lower budgets and inferior talent. Where are the Mummy clones post-1999?

Now, Lucy claims that any possible pulp adventure renaissance was nipped in the bud by the sudden surge of the new superhero movies.
Apart from the monstrous marketing machine backing the Marvel Cinematic Universe, superhero movies are, in general, easier and more accessible to the wide audience because everybody has seen at least one comic book in their life, while pulp adventure and old time adventure movies have become a niche interest.

There is a second factor, that I think is important, and Lucy did not consider, and it’s that while superficially similar (“empowerment fantasies”) the two genres differ substantially … or maybe I should say have come to differ substantially.

Adventure is action in an open geography.
Our heroes have to go from A to B to C in their quest or adventure. Adventure implies a wider world, one in which there are unknowns and wonders, and they are all out there for the taking.
Escapist narratives in their most basic sense, adventure stories often show us heroes that are on the road as a way to escape their “prison”.
In The Mummy, by looking for the lost city of Amunapthra, Evelyn is escaping both her role as a librarian and an academic world that would not allow a woman like her to go on expeditions and discover lost cities. At the same time, joining this adventure is for Rick O’Connel a ticket out of a literal prison.

In the end, adventure is a very optimistic genre – and you cannot really make it “dark & gritty” and shoot it all in desaturated colors.
Or you can try, but your Mummy movie will flop catastrophically.
Adventure can border on horror, but you cannot really inject it with darkness and hopelessness, because adventure is hope.

Conversely, superhero movies – 21st century superhero movies – work on a different level of escapism, and cater for other needs of the audience.
Superhero narratives are action in a self-contained environment.
If the classic adventure movie tells you “OK, your life sucks, but you can take it elsewhere and take a risk”, the 21st century superhero movie seems to say “there’s nowhere you can go, all you can do is thrash the room in which you are imprisoned.”
The classic “stand your ground” trope that is often reiterated in superhero movies carries a sense of hopelessness: you need to stand your ground because you don’t have, really, anywhere to run – which probably explains why you can absolutely do “dark & gritty” with superhero movies, and whole franchises have been built on the idea.
There is very little “happy go lucky” attitude in the modern superhero movie, and the audience likes it like that.
While the old adventure movies catered for a public that hoped to escape, see far distant lands and swash the buckle sometimes, superhero movies seem to be aimed at people that have a whole different sort of escape in mind, one that has to do with secret identities and kicking ass.
Maybe there’s also a component of the need to strike back after the 9/11 attacks, that somehow festered and became bottled aggression, superseding any other desire. Maybe there’s the effect of the permanent present in which so many of us are living.

Or maybe this is all something I am building to explain why I cannot really find any affection for recent superhero movies. Nolan’s first Batman was interesting and refreshing, but it became a template for the sort of entertainment I do not care about.
It is quite obvious that the wider public is similarly not interested or invested in my sort of adventure – the one in which you escape from the prison, instead of working to become the inmate everybody else fears.

A pity, really.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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