Muddled Mythology: Hollywood’s Gluttonous Appetite For Franchises Undermines Fantastical Films’ Potential to Inspire

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In the run-up to the release of this summer’s superhero saga Wonder Woman, articles hyping the film noted that it had taken 75 years for the title character to leap from comic books to the big screen.

By comparison, Batman and Superman—the Amazon princess’s male counterparts in the pages of DC Comics—became feature-film stars decades earlier. Once Wonder Woman broke big with a $100-million opening weekend, the dominant narrative surrounding the movie was an empowerment story about challenging patriarchy. That’s a valid interpretation, seeing as how the success of the Patty Jenkins-helmed blockbuster represents a milestone achievement for female-directed movies. Yet the connections between Wonder Woman and other DC movies speak to a subtler but equally important narrative: We’re in the age of muddled mythology.

Wonder Woman isn’t just a stand-alone adventure. It’s a continuation of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), in which Gal Gadot first played Wonder Woman, which means it’s also a quasi-sequel to the Superman picture Man of Steel (2013). In turn, Man of Steel was a quasi-sequel to three Batman movies released between 2005 and 2012, all directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Christian Bale. Oh, and Wonder Woman is a precursor to this fall’s Justice League, which features the warrior maiden alongside other DC characters.

But wait—there’s more! The title character in Jenkins’s Wonder Woman is not the same individual played by Lynda Carter in the 1970s TV series of the same name, or the same individual featured in comics published from the 1940s to the present, because each time the character gets transposed from one medium to the next, a new continuity is created. This aligns with the fact that the current live-action Batman, played by Ben Affleck, isn’t the same individual as Bale’s Batman, or the Caped Crusader voiced by Will Arnett in Lego-branded animated features, or Michael Keaton’s Batman of the ’80s and ’90s—who presumably was the same as George Clooney’s and Val Kilmer’s Dark Knights of the same era—or Adam West’s Batman of the ’60s, much less the original comic-book Batman created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in 1939. Except they’re all the same guy. In a manner of speaking.

You begin to see the problem. By endlessly repurposing the same brands—because, to a certain degree, these aren’t even characters anymore—Hollywood dilutes the purity that made the brands (formerly characters) interesting in the first place. Worse, when Hollywood filmmakers endeavor to weave intricate connections between installments—and especially when they fail in that effort—storytelling becomes hopelessly convoluted.

Why is any of this worth contemplating? Because escapist fantasies are myths—and myths matter. Generated with respect for the audience, mythical stories dramatize high ideals. Generated with carelessness or cynicism, these stories devolve into pointless spectacles, and they degrade what came before. For example, much as we might wish it so, we cannot un-see Jar Jar Binks, so even though the presence of that racially offensive character in the Star Wars franchise does not erase the many wonderful things the franchise contains, his presence cheapens the Star Wars brand in general. The same is true of movie-to-movie logic problems. When cinematic mythology gets muddled, anyone who has ever thrilled to this type of movie story suffers, because the art of telling such stories—and the joy of watching them—becomes just a little bit less special.

To see this phenomenon in action, one need only revisit the recent history of the Alien franchise.

Back to the Egg

The millions of fans who encountered Ridley Scott’s sci-fi/horror masterpiece Alien during its original run in 1979 were stunned by the so-called “chestburster” scene, during which an infant space creature explodes from the torso of a character played by John Hurt. Taken in context of the entire film, it wasn’t just the horrific gore of the “chestburster” scene that lodged the moment in our collective memory. Of commensurate significance was the imaginative power of the moment, conveying a spectacular stage in the life cycle of an extraterrestrial monster—a component of its mythology. Woven into that mythology were many fascinating ambiguities. To name just one, fans spent decades trying to decode the “Space Jockey,” a giant-sized extraterrestrial whose corpse appears in one sequence.

Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant opened in theaters this spring. Photograph by Mark Rogers / Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Nonetheless, it was with great trepidation that the faithful approached Prometheus (2012), the first installment of an Alien prequel series. A lot had happened since Scott cracked Hurt’s rib cage. James Cameron made an amazing sequel, Aliens (1986), but the series took a turn with David Fincher’s Alien3 (1992) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection (1997). Then came two Alien vs. Predator monster mashes. By the time Prometheus arrived, even the prospect of Scott’s return to the director’s chair was cause for only cautious optimism. Prometheus failed to vault that low bar, presenting a murky story about interstellar giants (kin to the “Space Jockey”) creating some sort of globular matter that evolves into the baseline DNA of the monster from the 1979 movie, an ancestor of which appears in the final frames of Prometheus.

Matters grew even more convoluted with Alien: Covenant, released earlier this year. While it’s a more enjoyable movie than Prometheus, heavier on thrills and lighter on impenetrable world-building, the prequel/sequel violates many rules established by the 1979 film. In the original picture, the title creature begins life inside an egg. Upon exposure to a human host, the egg splits open and spews a “facehugger,” which affixes to the host’s skull and pushes a fetus down the host’s throat. Several days later, the “facehugger” dies. Some time after that, the fetus exits its host—hello, chestburster!—as a teensy skittering alien. Subsequently, the creature kills, presumably absorbing biomass from its victims, and sheds skins through numerous evolutions until becoming an eight-foot-tall nightmare.

These rules were honored, more or less, until Alien: Covenant, in which alien DNA manifests as microscopic particles that enter human hosts through various orifices. Then, without benefit of the gestation period previously enshrined within the franchise’s mythology, chestbursting occurs hours after insemination, only the resulting alien is much more mature, in terms of physical development, than we’ve previously seen. The evolution continues at this inexplicably rapid pace, with monsters quickly achieving adult proportions.

And that’s not all. In Alien: Covenant, a robot named David (Michael Fassbender) performs genetic experiments on aliens, essentially becoming the author of the life cycle first depicted in the 1979 film. Except the cycle had already been demonstrated, in cruder form, during Prometheus. Complicating matters further is the ending of Alien: Covenant, which twists franchise mythology even more by presenting David as a sort of outer-space Noah, carrying an Ark of alien breeding stock into the celestial unknown.

Beyond pointlessly violating “rules,” these prequels have the unfortunate effect of diminishing the very films that inspired the prequels. The franchise’s original heroine, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), killed one creature in the first film and nuked a whole colony of them in the second. Yet the circumstances of the second picture were a logical outgrowth of the circumstances in the first. At the end of Alien: Covenant, we’re left with the impression that David plans to populate the universe with multiple colonies of monsters. Seen in that light, Ripley’s triumph over a single alien in the 1979 film seems inconsequential, and even her larger-scale victory in the 1986 follow-up is potentially a stopgap measure.

The end result of all of this nonsense is that in trying to “solve” the mysteries of the original film—which never needed solving, because they were so much more enjoyable as provocative enigmas—the overlords of the franchise created an absurd knot of pretzel logic.

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1 Comment

  1. ruthlesscanary

    August 15, 2017 at 11:41 am

    This article speaks exactly what I’ve been thinking about, this remaking of franchise films in Hollywood, said perfectly, “these stories devolve into pointless spectacles, and they degrade what came before.” It is a shame to lose what made these stories work in the first place, its’ mythology, just to add more spectacle so the wider audience can be so in awe with what they see that they don’t even notice the lackluster storytelling. It does seem as though Hollywood has lost its’ imagination with rehash after rehash =/

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