It’s 2019, and society is collectively gearing up for one of the most ambitious film projects in cinematic history. Avengers: Endgame is among the most anticipated movies to ever be produced, concluding 22 films that were released over the course of ten years.
All of the characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been around for decades. The most heavily featured superhero in the group is Spider-Man, who has had several animated shows and two separate film series before he appeared in Disney’s MCU — but the use of old Intellectual Property is not exclusive to Marvel. We’re regularly treated to a slew of reboots and remakes that include Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, and Transformers.
In an age of seemingly unlimited creators and content options, why are we flooded with existing Intellectual Property that’s been around for decades?
They Make Money, Obviously
As much as we would like to imagine that films are made with the pursuit of creating good art and entertainment, the reality is that Hollywood is a huge money-making machine. Furthermore, film production is well known to be a risky investment, so financiers take precautions to ensure they will make a profit.
It’s no coincidence, then, that of the 25 highest grossing movies of all time, 23 of them are either sequels or reboots of existing IP. That’s because they are considered ‘safer’ investments than brand new stories.
These insane profits also explain Disney’s recent acquisitions. In 2009, the cinematic behemoth bought Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion dollars, cementing their position as the primary purveyor of superhero flicks, but they weren’t done. They bought Lucasfilm, who famously owned the Star Wars Franchise, in 2012 for $4.05 billion. Disney also nabbed the remaining Marvel IP when they bought Fox just last year for $65 billion.
This means that Disney owns the existing MCU, X-Men, and Star Wars — but also The Simpsons, Family Guy, Indiana Jones, The Fantastic Four, Toy Story, and much more. They basically own a monopoly on our collective childhoods.
Saying that the onslaught of reboots, remakes, and sequels is because companies like to make money is not a revelatory statement, so let’s take a look into why they make so much money.
Nostalgia is a Hell of a Drug
Looking back fondly to our childhood is an innately human experience. Personally speaking, I remember those elementary school lunches where I booted it home so I could catch the 90’s classic Batman: The Animated Series, which is probably why I was so damned excited for Christopher Nolan’s adaptation of the Dark Knight Trilogy — particularly The Dark Knight.
I remember gussying myself up in my finest Batman t-shirt to attend the premiere, and I wasn’t the only one. People sporting all varieties of Batman paraphernalia, ranging from t-shirts to full-on cosplay, were in attendance. It was great to see this community of strangers come together to collectively experience this one-time event, but objectively speaking, why did we get so excited?
Well, it turns out that nostalgia is a predictable cycle that happens within society. Writer Patrick Metzger named the phenomenon the Nostalgia Pendulum. According to Metzger, the pendulum predictably swings every thirty years, as those who consumed media in their childhood grow up to be the creators of culture in their adulthood.
But what about the consumers?
According to Dr Heidi Moawad, feelings of nostalgia flood the reward centres of our brains with happiness chemicals. Okay, I’m paraphrasing a bit there, but what’s interesting is that we don’t even need to have a strong attachment to the subject of nostalgia to experience these feelings of pleasure.
It’s also interesting to note that people who rated higher on the Affective Neuroscience Personality scale — an indicator of someone’s emotional sensitivity — typically felt stronger feelings of nostalgia. For this reason, nostalgia can be an effective tool for helping people cope with their anxiety.
Dr Moawad also concludes her study by noting that like anything that floods our brains with happiness, like sugar, alcohol, and drugs, nostalgia can be potentially addictive. So while it can be a valuable coping mechanism for many, some people might use these nostalgic resources to escape problems in their real lives.
Do You Have a Moment to Talk About Our Lord and Saviour Obi-Wan Kenobi?
There’s also an interesting relationship between existing media and spirituality. Because our lives are inundated with screens and technology, we tend to forget that mass media is an incredibly new aspect of the human experience. Even if you trace it back to the invention of the printing press, mass media has only existed for 580 of the 10,000 years of human history.
Before Tony Stark and Obi-Wan Kenobi, people mostly heard stories about creation myths or simple parables that would teach useful life lessons. Of course, many of these were sourced in the Bible and other religious texts, so it’s no wonder why many people find a spiritual connection to familiar stories from our youth.
With our modern technological realities, it’s easy to see why people are more likely to have their imaginations and ideas influenced by comics and film, than by Jesus in the bible.
According to comic writer and religious scholar A. David Lewis, comic readers connect to these narratives in a spiritual way. Comics allow them to have religious experiences that they would not otherwise encounter.
Beyond postulating on the subject, we can see real-world manifestations of this spiritual experience. Jediism is a real religion that has received official recognition in the United States, the United Kingdom, and even Turkey.
Whether these fledgeling Jedi Knights truly believe in the Force, simply adhere to the ideological tenets of the Jedi Order, or whether they’re merely trolls is undetermined, but it’s likely a complicated mixed bag. Either way, there are thousands of people who are official and dedicated members of the Jedi Order.
Why? Because We Love ’Em, That’s Why!
Saying that the current deluge of reboots, sequels and remakes of existing Intellectual Property is due to the financial realities of Hollywood is true, but there’s more going on here. The reality is that we, the consumers, can’t seem to get enough of the stuff. They provide us with feelings of nostalgia that affect our brains and actually make us happier.
It should be noted that while these media can be used to help us cope with the stresses and anxieties of modern life, they can also be addictive. While we typically associate addiction with substance abuse, media addiction is becoming a more widely accepted reality, as doctors and researchers are looking into the very real problems of video game addiction.
It also appears that these stories, filled with moral signals and battles of good vs. evil, also provides some people with a kind of spiritual guidance. Traditional religion provides a path of principles and morality for many people, and it appears that the same can be said of Star Wars and Superhero films. If someone finds needed solace in a story, it shouldn’t matter whether the characters are wearing robes or a suit of mechanical armour.
It’s yet to be seen if this wave of reboots and sequels will endure forever, but the Nostalgic pendulum seems to suggest that we’ll eventually re-enter a more neutral territory. But who knows? In 30 years we might just see a completely different storm of nostalgia-driven media. Reboots of things like Adventure Time, Avatar: The Last Airbender (what film?), and even Dora The Explorer. Oh, wait… the last one is already happening.