If you are a male child of the '80s, this is a strange time to be going to the movies. A surprising number of weekends now see the release of films based on properties that were hot among the adolescent boy set during the Reagan era, or announcements of more in development.
The Transformers series is five flicks deep and preparing to splinter into a multi-threaded expanded movie universe. We’ve already seen a pair of G.I. Joe films, and there are plans to combine the franchise with Micronauts, Rom, and M.A.S.K. to form a sort of '80s toy universe, the toy-movie equivalent of a rock supergroup, sponsored by Hasbro. (The writing team behind the new franchise looks excellent.) Hell, there have even been rumors of a GoBots movie.
Last weekend, of course, saw the release of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, a sequel to the CGI-heavy 2014 reboot that lazily applied producer Michael Bay’s Transformers formula to yet another adolescent franchise built on toys, cartoons, and comic books that courted their adolescent audiences around the same time the Berlin Wall fell.
Every couple of years there’s an Expendables movie, featuring just about every action star who was big during the decade. Die Hard is being rebooted. Indie thriller directors are taking their cues from '80s genre stalwarts like John Carpenter and David Cronenberg. Shane Black is making buddy cop movies. There’s another Ghostbusters movie on the way.
Not all of the action concerns properties that originated in the 1980s. Star Wars, for example started in the '70s but was just as influential to those born in the early 1980s. Its cross-decade appeal has helped make it the biggest thing going at the US box office. The X-Men, who dominated Marvel Comics’ lineup throughout the '80s, are established big-screen stars. Marvel itself is now making movies in house, and is replicating the kinds of sprawling, giant-scale crossover events that helped define the company’s 1980s comics. Rival comics company DC is attempting to follow in Marvel’s footsteps, and just released a movie that drew heavily from the most famous and influential Batman comic of the decade.
Obviously these aren’t the only films being made; there's still any number of small and quirky options available, especially for those who live in bigger cities. But nostalgia-centric films account for a substantial share of Hollywood’s output, and they tend to be where movie studios put their biggest efforts.
It's easy to see why Hollywood loves '80s reboots that appeal to young men. But those reboots are getting increasingly sloppy.
I was born in 1981, which means this was the stuff that filled my early imagination. I spent my childhood watching the animated versions of Transformers and G.I. Joe. I practiced drawing by sketching Ninja Turtles characters in the margins of my homework. Sick days meant watching the entire Star Wars trilogy on VHS. I went over to friends’ houses to watch the R-rated Schwarzenegger and Stallone action movies that I wasn’t allowed to watch at home. Still stored away somewhere in my parents’ house is an entire collection of Super Powers toys, based on the DC Comics characters.
The point is I am the target audience for the lion's share of this material, the ideal consumer of a huge portion of Hollywood’s creative and economic energies. And in some (many!) ways, that’s great. I’ve always loved movies and pop entertainment, and it’s thrilling and gratifying to see the wildest dreams of my 8-year-old self staged on the big screen with the help of $250 million production budgets.
Plenty of these productions, of course, are mediocre — or worse. A surprising number of them are quite good, or at least worth seeing.
But too many of them base their appeal strictly on cheap nostalgic pandering. Take Out of the Shadows, for example: It was probably a mistake to expect much from the latest Ninja Turtles movie, especially given how dreadful its predecessor was. Yet I couldn’t help but feel disappointed by the uniform laziness of almost every aspect of the film.
The Ninja Turtles franchise is rooted a slew of truly bizarre ideas — pizza-munching turtle action heroes, a villainous alien brain-creature that controls a robotic host body, a mutant warthog for comic relief, a hockey-playing sidekick. It’s as if the Turtles' original creators, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, deliberately set out to make an adolescent adventure franchise as commercially implausible as possible, and the sheer, delirious weirdness is part of what makes it so memorable.
The new movie contains a lot of these elements — including Krang, the disembodied brain that's trying to take over the world — but makes no effort to embrace the outlandish possibilities a character like that offers. Visually, the creature is a bloated, computer-generated mess that mostly made me miss the delightfully funky practical effects work that Jim Henson’s Creature Shop contributed to the original film series.
In the end, Out of the Shadows rides entirely on viewers' preexisting fondness for its characters. And it left me with the odd feeling of being simultaneously underwhelmed and overserved. While there’s something appealing about seeing so many of my childhood favorites blown up into massive-budget epics, it’s also unexpectedly exhausting, in that there's almost too much material that I’m interested in, too many films that seem entirely focused on catering to me and my childhood interests.
Whether these films are good or bad, they are all essentially designed to be cinematic comfort food for guys who grew up in the '80s — and there’s far too much of it on the menu.
All moviegoers would benefit from a wider variety of movies aimed at a wider variety of audiences
That’s not challenging for me as a viewer, or for the other, mostly male moviegoers who flock to see these sorts of films. And it’s part of what has helped create such a strong sense of fan entitlement lately, and why writers like Devin Faraci are starting to argue that fandom is broken, obsessed with hounding creators who don’t cater exclusively to their wishes.
That attention can certainly be flattering and fun (there's little doubt I'll keep seeing and talking about these films), but there’s almost certainly too much of it, and the overabundance sometimes leaves me with the sense that my childhood is being strip-mined for parts. It also feels more than a little unfair when other groups — women in particular — are relatively forgotten.
It’s safe to say that my wife and my female friends, many of whom share plenty of my geeky pop culture obsessions, do not feel quite so wildly accounted for. (Films like this summer's women-led Ghostbusters reboot suggest that at least some efforts are being made, but they are the exception rather than the rule.)
It would be nice if Hollywood paid a little more attention to the interests and obsessions of demographics other than mine. It would also be nice if, well, people like me were challenged a little more, exposed to some other material beyond what’s easy and familiar and comforting. I like the adolescent cultural fixations of the 1980s as much as anyone (well, almost as much). But it’s time to move on.