You've probably noticed this already, but it's a really good time to be a fan of genre stuff. The past decade-and-a-half has seen an explosion of movies based on beloved novels and comics, and most of them have been pretty good. Better, in fact, than the similar explosion of SF and fantasy films of the '70s and '80s, because most of the people in charge of these productions were fans of the source material when they were adolescents, like Peter Jackson and The Lord of the Rings, or Joss Whedon and The Avengers. And some of the biggest fan-made projects are yet to come, including new Star Wars episodes from J.J. Abrams, Rian Johnson, and Gareth Edwards, an Aliens sequel from Neill Blomkamp, and countless Marvel and DC projects, all written and directed by a generation of filmmakers who grew up immersed in those fictional worlds.
For most fans, it's a dream come true — albeit vicariously, for 99.99% of us. But is it necessarily a good thing?
To answer this question, we need to go back and look at how the modern media franchise came into existence.
Star Wars is generally cited as the first major franchise of the contemporary era, but it's far from it. Before George Lucas' space fantasy, there was the Planet of the Apes series, which effectively set the rules for franchises to come. Movie sequels had been around for decades at that point, but they were mostly what the SF writer and critic James Blish called "template" series, in which there was very little continuity between episodes and the stories were largely self-contained. PotA, on the other hand, represented what Blish called "evolutionary" series, with a storyline that developed over a series of installments. In fact, PotA pioneered most of the key concepts in modern movie franchises: the first sequel was arguably a straight followup, but subsequent movies introduced narrative elements such as cliffhangers, soft reboots and sidequels. Long before Abrams' Star Trek, the series set up an alternate universe running parallel to the continuity of the original movie, even going so far as to imply a more optimistic outcome where apes and humans get along. (And let's not forget the mountains of toys and memorabilia, which almost certainly inspired Lucas to reserve the Star Wars merchandising rights to himself.)
Star Trek was even more important, because it redefined the relationship between fans and franchises. Unlike previous genre shows like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Lost in Space, Star Trek dealt heavily in worldbuilding, always hinting at a larger universe, of which the viewers only received fleeting glimpses. How did starships work? How big was the Federation, and what was its history? What were the particulars of Vulcan philosophy? What were Kirk and Spock's upbringings like? What were their sex lives like? It was questions like these that fans sought to answer and explore through fiction and essays in fan publications like Spockanalia and Trek. Fanzines had been a huge part of SF fandom since the '30s, but Star Trek marked the first time the form cross-fertilized with a television series, and after the show's cancellation in 1969, fan-produced publications flourished. Many of the semi-official books published during this time, like Bjo Trimble's Star Trek Concordance, began as fan works; David Gerrold was a fan before he sold "The Trouble With Tribbles" to co-producer Gene Coon (his first professional sale). And many of the spinoff series from the '80s through the '00s, including the Abrams films, draw upon elements from secondary sources like the Pocket novels and the '70s Filmation cartoon, in addition to the original network run, written by fans who'd grown up with the original series plus the expanded universe of derivative works.
But it's worth remembering that fan culture, while pervasive and vocal, was never all that powerful. True believers could keep a property like Star Trek alive and convince its owners that there was a big, loyal audience for movies and new TV series. But they were never in a position to dictate the content or direction of the franchise.
Consider Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Fans were thrilled at first, but despite a massive budget and stunning special effects, it's rather flat and affectless, lacking the charm and warmth of the original show. Gone are the humorous interchanges between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. In fact, Spock doesn't join the crew until nearly an hour into the movie, and when he arrives, he's cold and reserved from his kohlinar discipline, lacking the sarcastic wit of his younger self. The story focuses instead on Decker and Ilia, two brand-new supporting characters who depart at the end, never to be acknowledged again. Instead of emphasizing characters or dialogue, most of TMP consists of long, leisurely effects shots, and long, leisurely shots of the crew reacting to them. It's technically impressive, but it lacks an emotional core.
But then again, Gene Roddenberry was more interested in Star Trek as an idea than as a fiction. Where fans wanted a sense of continuity and familiarity, he wanted to explore the idea of a highly advanced, peaceful, spacegoing multicultural civilization exploring the universe with scientific curiosity, bravery, and compassion for sentient beings. (Note that the movie ditches the show's signature "To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before" tagline for the blander, oddly corporate sounding "The Human Adventure Is Just Beginning," which comes off like something a fiftysomething Don Draper might have come up with for a 3M campaign circa 1976 after drinking a fifth of Canadian Club.) Roddenberry felt that this theme had gotten watered down over the course of the original show due to network interference, and that TMP represented a purer version of this ethos, even if it felt nothing like the source material. In this respect, TMP can be thought of as a one-time-only "soft reboot," effectively undone by Wrath of Khan, which was explicitly a direct sequel to the original show, and originally planned as an elegiac farewell for the Enterprise and her crew.
Fans and moviegoers in general preferred the Harve Bennett-produced sequels — with some reservations — because they revived key elements from the show, like the chemistry between the Enterprise crew, comedic elements, and the Cold War-like tensions between the Federation and the Klingons. Roddenberry, who'd been reduced to the capacity of a consultant, disliked those movies for their "militarized" tone, and when he created The Next Generation in 1987, he sought to return to the utopian themes of the 1979 movie, down to the stilted dialogue and onesie-style uniforms. Poor health forced Roddenberry into a reduced position of authority beginning with the third season in 1989, which is generally considered the point at which TNG came into its own.
Something similar happened with George Lucas and the much-despised Star Wars prequels. Fans complain about plotholes, bad acting and dialogue, but for the most part they're not that much worse than in the original trilogy. In fact, if you read Lucas' early drafts of the original Star Wars, they're pretty close to the movie he wanted to make back in 1974: lots of crowded cities, "talking head" scenes, and mystical Jedi mumbo-jumbo in the Castaneda meets Frank Herbert vein. That was Lucas' original idea for what Star Wars was about, but fans wanted the fiction as it existed in the old movies, and to some extent, quasi-"official" Expanded Universe stories like Timothy Zahn's "Thrawn" trilogy. Just as Roddenberry saw Star Trek as a utopian vision of the future and not a space opera, Lucas saw Star Wars as a political allegory about the corrupting influences of greed and power (and don't forget the midi-chlorians!) in a democratic society slowly transitioning to an imperial power. We'll never know if the movies could have been improved with better screenwriters and directors working from Lucas' ideas — though considering that Tom Stoppard allegedly rewrote much of Revenge of the Sith, probably not — but even then, it's not entirely clear if the fans would have cared for the results. Star Wars was Lucas' train set, and he wasn't going to let anybody else — especially fans — dictate how he was going to play with it.
Except now it isn't. In 2012, Lucas sold Star Wars to Disney, who immediately began developing a new series of movies. At first, the studio planned a trilogy based on Lucas' ideas, but over the course of preproduction, franchise runners Kathleen Kennedy, Lawrence Kasdan, and J.J. Abrams threw out Lucas' treatments in favor of a new storyline. So the new movies will be the first Star Wars projects without Lucas' involvement or approval; at most he'll be a consultant, as Roddenberry was on the Trek sequels. It's unlikely that the new movies will build off the concepts that Lucas introduced in the prequels, which will no doubt come as a relief to fans of the original trilogy. Instead, the fiction is in the hands of fans-turned-filmmakers — folks like Abrams and Johnson, whose notion of a "good" Star Wars movie is no doubt radically different from the series' creator. (The hiring of Kasdan, who co-wrote Empire and Jedi, as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark, is the sort of thing that fans were clamoring for on message boards back in the summer of 1999, in the hopes of Lucas "fixing" the other prequels.) As fans become creators, they're less likely to be interested in the ideas behind the original concept, and are more invested in the fiction side: continuity, canon, particular elements of style — the "beats" that resonated with them in the first place. Consider it a popcorn variation of Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence.
But are fans really the best judges of what makes a franchise good?
Consider the Star Trek revival (or sideboot, or unquel). Abrams' indifference to the franchise is well documented — he wasn't a big fan of the original show, but he wanted to make a space adventure like Star Wars. On the other hand, the screenwriters, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, claimed to be huge Trek fans, and judging from the movies, I don't doubt that. Despite adhering to bad action/SF movie cliches (particularly Kirk's tedious Hero's Journey), they filled the movies with all sorts of fan service — Christopher Pike, young Spock's mental abuse at the hands of childhood bullies on Vulcan, the Kobayashi Maru, Sulu's swordplay, Tribbles, Orion coeds, Harry Mudd, Carol Marcus — that no casual viewer would appreciate. They even drew upon non-"canon" sources like Diane Duane's novel Spock's World to flesh out the story (and one might argue that they borrowed a lot of Diane Carey's 1986 novel Dreadnought! for Into Darkness). If you needed any further evidence of Kurtzman and Orci's fannishness, note that the real hero of the reboot is not Kirk, who's conceived as a callow frat boy, but Spock, who saves Kirk's bacon in both movies and gets the girl.
Despite all the canonical elements, neither "nü-Trek" movie is particularly good. (Disclaimer: I still enjoy the 2009 film.) The first movie is filled with more space opera dei ex machina than a bad Dan Simmons novel, but the sequel makes no sense at all — in essence, it serves only as fan service, to reintroduce Khan (without any explanation of the character's historical significance) and partly recreate the end of Star Trek II, badly. The writers were obsessed with mythology at the expense of narrative; they were too busy trying to establish their fannish bona fides to tell a coherent story. (Compare non-fan Nicholas Meyer, who made Wrath of Khan despite having barely watched the show before.)
Consider also the Hobbit Trilogy — two words that never should have been put next to each other. There's no doubt in my mind that Jackson loves Middle-Earth, and that he and his collaborators know the world and its history intimately. But transforming Tolkien's simple children's story into Episode I: The Dragon Menace was a really bad idea. The tone of the story is rooted in naïveté; it's told almost entirely from Bilbo's perspective, so neither he nor the readers knows of the wider, darker world beyond his point of view. Bringing in the White Council, Sauron, and the Nazgûl (looking more like rejects from a Nazareth LP cover than ever before) is certainly "period accurate" to a point, as supported by the Appendices in LotR, but tonally it's a mess, with a dimbulb YA romantic triangle from the stupidest circle of Screenwriting Hell. Jackson tries to recreate the key emotional moments of his earlier, deeply more earnest, vastly superior movies, but it's hard to empathize with any of the characters, even familiar heroes like McKellen's Gandalf. The result feels less like a prologue to LotR than bad fanfic — even going so far as to embrace bad fantasy fiction cliches inspired not by Tolkien but his armies of imitators.
But that's no reason to despair. Just because a filmmaker or showrunner is a fan, it doesn't necessarily follow that they'll make a lugubrious mess. Joss Whedon and James Gunn were huge comic book fans in their youth, but they made Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy as movies first, rather than "greatest hits" collections of scenes from beloved issues. Indeed, GotG has almost nothing to do with the original Star-Lord or the Guardians — and that's to its credit. The great strength of the Marvel movies is not that they adapt the characters and storylines directly to the movies, but they find the strongest elements of that universe and place them within a cinematic context. Similarly, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are clearly huge devotees of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire — after all, they were able to successfully suss out the identity of Jon Snow's mother — but they're not following the novels with absolute fidelity, which will likely (fingers crossed) result in a more focused, satisfying story that will nevertheless feel faithful to the spirit of Martin's saga. It could be argued that by cutting out a lot of the books' excess, Benioff and Weiss are actually going closer to the idea of Martin's fiction, rather than getting lost in superfluous detail that made the last two novels something of a chore to get through.
Still, can the same be said of the makers of the new Star Wars movies, or Blomkamp's Aliens sequel? Sometimes the distance between the creators' idea of a franchise and the fiction that exists in the fans' minds is too great. David Giler and Walter Hill, who could be considered the gatekeepers of the Alien franchise more than anybody else (yes, even Sir Ridley), had wanted to make another sequel as soon as Cameron's movie hit the theaters, but the idea was not Aliens 2. This was 1987, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and Giler and Hill became obsessed with the idea of the Aliens as disease, commissioning a variety of concepts from different writers and directors. William Gibson wrote a script about a plague of mutagenic xeno-spores loose on a shopping mall in space; Vincent Ward conceived of Ripley crash-landing on a wooden planet tended by monks. Eventually these and other concepts coalesced into David Fincher's Alien3, a movie that many fans of the franchise (most likely including a teenaged Blomkamp) despised. They would have preferred a continuation of the fiction established in Aliens — more Marines, more epic firefights, more corporate shenanigans, more dramatic showdowns — but instead they got a reworking of the franchise's central themes that abandoned almost all of the plot elements from the previous film (and, in a lot of ways, feels more like a direct sequel to the original Ridley Scott movie). Alien3 is flawed, and it's not particularly likable (though what Fincher movie is?) but it's an ambitious movie, a fatalistic anti-blockbuster released in an era of uplifting action vehicles. (In fact, it opened on the same day as Birdman Returns, which likely would have kicked it to the curb if it had been an actual movie.) Whether or not Blomkamp's movie nullifies the last two Ripley-centric movies (just a guess: YES), I have no doubt that the results will be Aliens 2. The diehard Alien fan in me, who is eternally 14, rejoices at the prospect, but an older part is depressed by the notion of a filmmaker "fixing" a franchise, as if it could be patched like buggy software, especially if it's nearly a quarter-century after the fact.
And I'm definitely concerned about the Star Wars sequels, which also sound like a "patch" after the universal disappointment surrounding the prequels, which, while deeply flawed, are still the idiosyncratic vision of an independent filmmaker (albeit one who is an eccentric, reclusive billionaire who likely sleeps on an enormous pile of money under a Jar Jar Binks comforter). Like Blomkamp's Alien sequel, I have no doubt that The Force Awakens and its many, many followups will be fun and visually impressive, but there's no doubt in my mind that they'll be Good Parts Versions of the stuff fans already like, a kind of Expanded Cinematic Universe. That's what the fans want, it's what the filmmakers want, and it's definitely what the studios want (though it took them a while to figure that out). But after the third or fourth spinoff, even fans might find themselves fatigued, wanting something different. Sequels used to go off on weird tangents that audiences didn't expect — an Alien3, a Batman Returns, a Phantom Menace. Not all of these movies are good; none of them are "fan favorites," and none of them would get made today. For better or worse, franchise movies are becoming a kind of fan fiction in and of themselves. But in such an environment, actual ideas will become elusive.