[2022 has been a lot. A lot a lot. So for my annual Year in Review series, I wanted to focus mostly on somewhat lighter, pop culture kinds of topics, with just one much more serious exception. Here’s to a better year to come!]
On a problem and a possibility with our cultural moment of ubiquitous sequels.
A good bit of the frame for today’s post is parallel to write I wrote in this prior post about The Force Awakens (2015), nostalgia, and multi-generational storytelling. So if you don’t mind checking out that post and then coming back here, I’d appreciate it!
Welcome back! I haven’t had a chance to see the biggest blockbuster film of the year, Top Gun: Maverick, and I don’t know that I will as I believe the original Top Gun (1986) is one of the worst blockbuster films ever made. That’s a personal opinion, of course (although as that hyperlinked article reflects, I’m not alone in holding it), but I do think it illustrates a larger problem with the genuinely ubiquitous presence of sequels, prequels, reboots, and other uses of existing intellectual properties in our current pop culture zeitgeist. The more this kind of cultural product dominates the landscape, the more of these existing/prior works filmmakers and creators will have to return to—and there quite simply aren’t that many 1980s films (or works from any decade/moment) that have enough going on to make a sequel or reboot worthwhile or meaningful. I don’t think it’s my Star Wars fandom alone that distinguishes that film franchise, and its truly imaginative and culture-changing storytelling across so many decades and so many different media (into all of which a sequel like The Force Awakens slotted thoughtfully, as I argued in that prior post), from a simplistic and vapid individual blockbuster film like Top Gun.
So no, I don’t think we needed another Top Gun film. But from what I can tell (and again, haven’t seen it, so as always I welcome responses and challenges in comments!), Maverick does do one really interesting thing that is a positive possibility when it comes to these ubiquitous sequels (and that does link it to Force Awakens and the entire recent Star Wars trilogy): it actively thinks about time. That is, despite star Tom Cruise’s seeming agelessness, he is of course three and a half decades older than he was in the original film, and thus his character Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is likewise. Much like the smash hit TV show Cobra Kai (which I also haven’t seen, outside of clips here and there, but when does that stop an AmericanStudier?!), Maverick is thus able to not just continue the original story, but to reflect actively on the passage of time, on themes of continuity and change, on the relationships (limiting and enriching alike) between the past and the present. Maybe I’m biased because those are the kinds of questions that define every part of my work and career, but I believe we all can benefit from asking them, of our pop culture stories and our own identities and everything in between. If even silly blockbusters can help us do so, then count me in!
Next 2022 reflection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other parts of 2022 you’d reflect on?