13 December 2020

Trix Are For Kids

There's a scene in The Matrix: Reloaded where Neo is greeted by a wide-eyed, nervous kid who thanks him for saving his life. This was brought up in a review at the time as a point of criticism, complaining that albeit this is the first time he's appeared, everyone acts like they already know him. 

For background, between the first and second Matrix films, there was a collection of animated shorts produced, collectively called The Animatrix. One story centers around a teenage boy who is becoming disenchanted with his humdrum daily life, not unlike Neo himself in the first film. Short story made shorter, the kid is freed of The Matrix, thanks in no small part to Neo's team. 

The criticism about the kid's "sudden" appearance strikes me as odd and, were I more of a cynic, was more of a pointed statement about Warner Bros. marketing of the Matrix franchise
I don't recall if I saw Animatrix before Reloaded, but here's how I think I would have interpreted the scene had I not. Neo is The One, a prophesied messiah who will turn the tide in the war against the machines. Obviously, someone like this is going to have fans. This kid is just one of those fans. He approaches Neo, thanks him for saving his life, Neo graciously accepts the thanks and the kid goes on his merry way. Neo is visibly uncomfortable at the adoration, and Trinity comforts him by telling him he's given hope to many.
The point is the kid is a face in the crowd. Actually, he's more like the face OF the crowd, the crowd being all those people who look up to Neo. It doesn't matter who the kid is in the grand scheme of things. That he has a small and mostly self-contained backstory in no way should work against his role in the film proper. In fact, there are several new faces in Reloaded who did not appear in any of the Animatrix shorts, yet everyone in the story already knows who these people are. So, why was there so much scorn and ire for this superfan's 15 seconds?
It's one matter to say a book is better than its film adaptation, that's the nature of the mediums. There are things you can do in a book that don't necessarily work in a film, and vice versa. It's quite a different matter to say that if you don't like a film, find it lacking or otherwise unenjoyable, that reading the book will actually enhance your enjoyment because it will fill in all the gaps left by the mov---


... Just... No.

They're called adaptations for a reason. They adapt a story to a different medium. If the book and film were supposed to be taken in tandem, then the film would be called a supplement. Sometimes I think that's why tie-in novels of movies are called novelizations. Hell, they're called "tie-ins" as well, that should tell you something.

Obviously, this is not to say once you read the book or see the movie, you've reaped all you can sow and never the twain shall meet. I love the film Under The Skin. I read the novel later. Which one I prefer is irrelevant as the film is an "adaptation" in the strongest sense, having virtually nothing in common with the book beyond the barest bones of the premise. 2001: A Space Odyssey has a similar standing with me. The book and the film are ultimately the same story, but told in very different ways. They are separate, but joined.

As I write this, there's one more episode in season 2 of The Mandalorian. It's been fun, but I worry about the longevity of the series. Season 1 played it safe in a good way, each episode essentially being a loving homage to a genre or trope, most notably "The Sanctuary" being 7 Samurai but in a galaxy far, far away. As a wise one once said, every author writes the same book, the craft being in how well you disguise that fact. 

Season 2 has by contrast taken more narrative risks, with a much bigger emphasis on the worldbuilding, calling back to not only the original trilogy, but more recent installments like the Clone Wars and Rebels animated series. While familiarity with these shows is not at all a requirement, it may begin to put holes in the "aesthetic before plot" philosophy that made Season 1 work so well. It's easy to upset that kind of balance. While shows are meant to grow over time, there's an old chestnut of wisdom from the late, great Stan Lee that comes to mind, "Every issue is someone's first."

In a way, Star Wars has had a similar history to the arcade industry. Once upon a time, the late 70's to early 80's, arcades were everywhere, and it seemed everyone loved them. A Pong machine was every bit as common a sight in a bar as a jukebox or a pool table. Nolan Bushnell insists he's met hundreds of couples who first met by playing Pong. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, the clock will inevitably strike midnight and the carriage turns into a pumpkin. A series of poor business decisions and an overall change in tastes led to the great gaming crash of 1982, which saw a number of arcades close down.

About 10 years later, two things happen: Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat. Arcades were back in spotlight... for about a year. They drew in fans, no question, but the nature of fighting games (and more importantly their diehard fans) were largely unwelcoming to the two most important demographics from the pre-1982 heyday: women and casual gamers. Post-1993, the only arcade games that held any sort of broad appeal were either driving games or, at a stretch, gallery shooters.

Star Wars' trajectory went much the same way, right down to the timeline. Post-1983 the main series of films concludes with Return of the Jedi. It's well-received by critics and certainly brought in the fans like previous installments, but between George Lucas' interest in other projects along with a possible over saturation in the market of merchandise and spin-off media, it was clear the series had run its course. Fast forward to around 1991 and Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy kicks off with Heir to the Empire. Shortly thereafter, reissues of the action figures hit shelves, catching the attention of collectors. The Extended Universe as it's collectively known goes all the way back to Splinter of the Mind's Eye in 1978, but it's fair to say the early 90's is when it mushroomed into the massive... er, empire we know it as today. Much like the fighting game craze, this was a good thing... for about a year. The appeal was still there, but it was nowhere near as broad.

Interestingly enough, even Star Trek had the same problem. When the original series aired, science fiction had outgrown its reputation as appealing only to adolescent boys enamored with Sputnik and the start of the space program. This was in no small part thanks to Trek's noteworthy social commentary. That is, the sci-fi trappings were an aesthetic. The idyllic world of the Federation was a lens through which the goings-on in our troubled world could be put in perspective. By the time the Klingon Dictionary was published in 1993 (man, the 90's were really divisive times), it was more or less clear that the idea of the "casual" fan had become something of a dirty word. Sci-fi was now for sci-fi fans and anybody else who didn't want to sign up for the lifetime membership had to sit at the kids' table. That's mild hyperbole, but only mild.

This is not to say that having broad appeal to a casual market is inevitably a superior strategy for an intellectual property to take, only that it's different and, as a wise one once said, if you're going to eat tuna, expect bones. For comparison's sake, stand-up comedy has two main branches. There are those who punch up at the haves, and those who punch down at the have-nots. The former has many obvious examples, most with large audiences and whose very best enjoy a mainstream success. The latter is by no means taboo, but those few examples of making it work generally draw in smaller, but maybe more intimate crowds. There's an unspoken contract of sorts between the comedian and the audience that nobody is being put down before anybody else, that even the guy calling you stupid is speaking as much for himself as anybody. There's an overall feeling of, "We're all in this together." with both sides of the coin, but the proverbial "this" is what makes all the difference.

Disney has used The Mandalorian to push its new streaming platform, draw in that larger audience, the kind of larger audience that entails the kinds of returns on investment needed to put together a technically complex show like The Mandalorian. I don't doubt the "volume" or virtual set used for the series will see use by other properties (it'd be a shame if it didn't), but I think it's fair to say Disney may well be taking a loss on the show, probably a bigger one than it did on the Solo movie. The financial rituals of Hollywood are a curious case of byzantine bureaucracies and seedy shell games. I've even heard some factoid along the lines of, "No movie in the history of the industry has ever truly turned a profit because all the blockbusters are offset by the flops that outnumber them." I doubt it's that simple (complex?), but it is curious how a movie can absolutely fail to make any sort of impact, yet rarely hurt anyone involved, even directors, writers, and producers who bear the biggest burdens of all when it comes to the major creative decisions.

Even if the palace Uncle Walt built decides to drop the jet-setting bounty hunting samurai gunslinger with the bucket on his head and the slayer of frogs at his side, that will still leave us with 16 rock solid episodes of a show that will be enjoyed years later, whether it speaks only to the die-hards or pulls in the casuals.

Every episode is an entrance.

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