We, as a species, are addicted to narrative. We crave stories that explain our own nature to ourselves. Arguably there are no new stories, just new ways to tell the stories that are ingrained into our history and psyche. We tell the same stories over and over again and while I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with this on the whole, I believe that we are obliged to make a closer inspection of the stories and characters, also known as properties, that have come to dominate the hearts and minds of twenty first century consumers.
The access point to this essay is Disney, a giant media conglomerate founded in 1923 by Walt Disney and his brother Roy. Disney pioneered feature animated films before it began to evolve into a full studio which produced a broad range of films both animated and live action. Disney has always utilized fairy tales and folklore that do not fall under specific ownerships or copyright laws. It’s the use of these stories, and their universality, that contributed to making Disney a household name. Over time a chief criticism regarding Disney’s appropriation of stories is that the stories themselves become Disney-a-fied, re-written or re formed to be made more palatable for consumer audiences. What were once enchanting simple parables, unflinching morality tales, and even tragic horrors, became saccharine, family friendly fare. We all have our own feelings about Disney films, whether it’s reverence for their golden eras of musical cartoons, a nostalgic appreciation for their live action adventure films or the typical gushing aimed at the much lauded Pixar, yet for all those cash cows there are two of Disney’s divisions that one could consider bullet-proof: Star Wars and Marvel Entertainment.
Since acquiring Marvel Entertainment (2009, $4.2 Billion) and Lucasfilm (2012, $4.4 Billion), Marvel has gone on to generate over 5 billion dollars in international film gross while in 2015, Star Wars: The Force Awakens made just over 2 billion dollars. These are just films, to say nothing of merchandising. To understand the amount of intellectual property Disney wields, let’s break down the structure of both Lucasfilm and Marvel Entertainment.
-Star Wars and Indiana Jones as well as all subsidiary merchandising rights.
-Industrial Light and Magic. Since its founding by George Lucas in 1975 ILM has been a leading developer of special effects for whatever studio will pay for them.
-Skywalker Sound, founded alongside ILM in 1975, is considered the gold standard in film sound design
-Lucasarts, software publisher of all those great video games, from Monkey Island and Grim Fandango all the way to Star Wars: Battlefront.
-Marvel Comics. Not only does Disney have the ability to dictate what content goes into NEW comics they also own the entire back catalogue of material. Most of this material is not owned by the original creators. Stan Lee did not create most of those characters. He Co-Created most of the popular Marvel Characters with people like Jack The King Kirby (Fantastic Four, The X-Men, Thor, The Hulk, Iron Man) and Steve Ditko (Spider-Man), though over time Lee has become eponymous with most Marvel creations whether he had a hand in their creation or not. Most superheroes were created under a work for hire contract, in which all original ideas that an artist may create while working for a company, in this case Marvel, belong to the company not the creator. In many cases these creators do not receive proper attribution for the characters and worlds they created, let alone any financial compensation. There are artists who died in hospital beds because they couldn’t pay their bills, because Marvel, in large part due to the greed and ego of Stan Lee who would not arrange for, even though he had multiple opportunities to do so, a reasonable back payment for works which had become invaluable.
-Marvel Studios, you know, the best superhero movies? The cultural id that dominates our popular conversation and polarizes our attention? The tidal wave of popularity that has kept rising since 2008 and has generated billions of dollars. Film. Netflix. Cartoons. Merchandising.
Why do we like this stuff? Why has Star Wars and the Marvel Universe become such an indelible part of our modern cultural experience? In Marvel’s case it’s because they have had over sixty years to build a universe that functions autonomously, relying on inlaid logics, characters and rules to provide a simulated reality that has a range of history near impossible to have completely experienced. Marvel’s characters have a depth of morality and humanity that contains their supreme powers, they are our benevolent new gods. Star Wars is an ongoing opera that projects the story of a never ending war between good and evil, light and dark. Exhaustively documented since Joseph Campbell, Star Wars is the monomyth, or hero’s journey. Stretched, condensed, gender swapped, or tonally reversed, it’s still the same essential story. As long as it still has the word War in the title, the central theme of that franchise will always be evocative of moral struggle displayed with mortal consequences. The Rebellion vs the Empire is the same as the Resistance vs The New Order or the never ending struggle of Sith vs Jedi. We as a culture love to have a conceptual force of oppression to fight against. Both Star Wars and Marvel are intrinsically familiar to just about everyone in the media-consuming world as they connect us to a intoxicating nostalgia for something that may have never existed. These proprietary universes are emblematic of our conceptual resistance against tyranny or our struggle to conquer the evil, not just in the world, but in ourselves. That’s why we love them, they hold up morals, ethics and concepts that seem beyond our depressing terrestrial abilities and willpower. Yet this fandom is problematic, as too many of us love to worship the Jedi and their principles in theory while refusing to advance ourselves beyond the intellectual and social functionalities of a Tusken Raider. It is thick irony that we should pay money and lip service to the concepts of rebellion, or the virtues of super heroics, when we ourselves are complicit in the sustained status quo of celebrating indulgence, hyperbolic ego and greed. These familiar comfortable brands sustain the preservation of the status at the cost of tyranny. The films and their characters are rental beliefs and convictions, their cultural imprint is a collectable cup from 7-11 and a tattoo that reads official fan club.
I am going to see the new Star Wars film and I do enjoy the Marvel movies, but I’m struck with a profound mental pain when I think about either of them and their place in the culture. Star Wars in general, and particularly Rogue One‘s heavily marketed concept of rebels and rebellion is an eternal message, but there’s part of me that can’t help but feel it’s just too well designed for the current state of our planet. Doesn’t everything feel scripted these days? We are craving a rebellion, we’re craving inspiration to get out and change the world, but our methods are flawed and the leadership of our rebels is shrill and entitled. What I wonder is, if the majority’s desires to rally and affect change will be derailed by the haze of masturbatory satisfaction that follows indulging in a cross planetary narrative meant to salve the feelings we’re currently experiencing as a culture. Will Star Wars give us all the rebellion we need? What calls to rebellion are really being made when we buy a functioning BB-8? Are people mentally embracing the complex nuances of American history and identity when they put on a Captain America T-shirt? Do people consider the psychological torture that goes with Wolverine being a super regenerating amnesiac living weapon? Or do they just like the claws? What, you don’t wake up in a cold sweat thinking about how Spider-Man accidentally snapped his perfect girlfriend’s neck, while trying to save her life? The Hulk? Killed thousands of people who got in the way of a temper tantrum or two. Do people really identify with the white conformity of the Empire enough that they’ll get Tie Fighter tattoos or sport bumper stickers mocking the Alderaan genocide? People lose their shit over cultural appropriation, but don’t bat an eye at the idea of dressing up as or identifying with a storm trooper, a literal metaphor for the Nazis. The idea that we so willingly pledge our allegiance to something with WAR in the title is astounding when we claim to espouse so many other high morals and standards. It’s ok gang, this time around it’s the women who are doing the killing, thats equality. The sweeping christmas marketing campaign for Star Wars begins and I’m watching commercials with little kids gleefully shooting down faceless soldiers, rallying their friends to get a lightsaber or blaster and join the fight. In Star Wars, the Empire is a vast intergalactic tyranny that governs with an iron fist, forcing conformity and submission across the universes. In real life, Disney is a vast media conglomerate that presents us with a simple, comfortable, safe, resolvable version of our plight.
We are driven by our desire to engage with stories and narratives which we have become accustomed to, for those are the only things that have ever held any answers in the eyes of the consumer. Our desire for and satisfaction with Star Wars and Marvel has changed these two properties, once considered sanctuary for outsiders and purveyors of the counter culture, civil rights, and advanced thinking made simple, now they are symbols of our willing submission to the placating designs and social narratives of our corporate overlords. When George Lucas created Star Wars, it was about rebellion. It was about tapping in to the eternal struggle of good vs evil. He made a movie that rebelled against many of the sentiments of gloom and doom at a time of rising Cold War tensions. Star Wars was not anticipated to be a popular film, because it wasn’t the way things were done and instead it changed the world. With the success of Star Wars: A New Hope, George Lucas was able to utilize the profits of his merchandising and special effects companies so that he could freely develop his future films, without the interference of the studio systems and their inevitable focus testing. He staked it all on The Empire Strikes Back and I’m sure you can tell me how that turned out. Creative freedom was Lucas’s rebellion and it gave us an inspiring, if not wholly original, story to draw upon. The creative liberty that is engrained in the origins of Star Wars has become a manipulative piece of its identity. We still perceive it as an underdog. As a rebel. Something you’re not supposed to like, but you like it anyway ’cause fuck the man! The stories of Star Wars and Marvel are not written by individuals, with visions of worlds beyond our current imagination, they’re written in think tanks and board rooms, by men and women who have turned the brilliant metaphor of a story into a cold, hard calculation designed to hit every demographic possible. The superheroes didn’t fail, we sold them out.
To clarify, I do not think that the enjoyment of Star Wars and Marvel should be verboten, but I do feel that we should all take pause and consider the implications of placing so much of our cultural interest and faith in two properties that are a representatives of a real world Empire; the only type of empire that has endured the transition into the twenty first century unscathed, the corporate empire. Disney has seen political ideologies come and go, that Mouse blows his nose at Presidents and governments. Our popular and celebrated culture is all that really matters anymore. For what else has the ability to capture the hearts and minds of the populous more so than our art? To deny this would be to say that Harry Potter had no effect on the world’s youth, Adele never made an entire stadium cry or that Emperor elect Trump didn’t play a whole country’s hunger for a villain like a fiddle. It has always been the stories we tell each other that reinforce the narratives with which we approach our lives. It is far easier to escape to a world where great power intrinsically must come with great responsibility than it is to accept the powers and responsibilities we already possess. We yearn to become part of that story from a long time ago in a galaxy far far away, where the narrative dictates that we will overcome the nebulous oppression that surrounds us based on faith, dedication and the advice of old, typically white, men. I don’t discourage anyone from embracing fictitious narratives in their personal lives, it can give you hope. It can give you an escape and a reprieve from the cold bitterness of our present reality. But should you choose to represent yourself with the symbols and ideals of the superhero or align yourself with the light or dark side, take pause and consider that in our modern society, our culture is religion, the popular and enduring characters are now the gods who hold sway in our hearts and minds. If the morality and struggle of these heroic characters is worthy of our attention and obsession then should we not pledge our allegiance to those ideals in a way that goes beyond a sitting in a movie theatre lineup wearing a robe and toting a plastic sword, arguing who shot first, or endlessly weighing in on the casting of our new idols or the hiring of the next artistic lottery winner eager to play with big toys and money?
Many will shrug this off as a Scrooge-like humbug, the rantings of a Debbie Downer, but please don’t misunderstand me. I have loved Star Wars and Marvel with all my heart for as long as I have been able to read, but I don’t know if I can continue to reconcile the puppetry of the heroes of my youth as they are used to sway our attention with nostalgia, unconsciously aligning us ever more with the Dark Side.