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April 11, 2016

When a Name Just Isn’t Enough

So apparently, there are a lot of people that are angry about The Walking Dead and its Season 6 finale.  I can’t say I’m one of them, because I dropped the series an episode or two into Season 5 (because I’m me, and apparently “I don’t like anything”).  But imagine my surprise when I run a Google search for the show -- typing in “the walking dead” and nothing else -- and plenty of articles pop up about the outrage.  Well, that, and apparently a ratings drop from last year’s finale.

As far as I can tell (no spoilers): some people have taken issue with the fact that the finale ended on a cliffhanger that basically went “Who will die?  Tune in six months from now for the answer!”  Or, as a couple of critics from The Atlantic put it, AMC expected people to sit through an hour and a half of stupidity and filler masquerading as buildup to reach a non-conclusion.  But those same critics noted that the finale exposed a lingering problem with the TV series: the only card in its hand, in the worst-case scenario, was playing the “who will die” card.  It was less about creating a good show and more about using tricks to make sure people would tune in again, and again, and again.  And, notably, they both implied plans to drop the show.

I guess the fact that I realized the problem long ago puts me well ahead of the curve -- and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel vindicated by others seeing things my way.  But it helps illustrate a point, a problem, and a paradigm shift in one fell swoop.  Shame that that swoop smells like zombies, but I can deal.

I’m not going to sit here and argue that The Walking Dead (the TV series) is objectively terrible, or impossible to enjoy.  It has a massive fanbase, and I would think that they have legitimate reasons to like the show.  Just because I personally don’t enjoy it doesn’t mean that others shouldn’t; they’re free to have their own tastes and opinions.  Plus, I’ve been an outsider to the series and the fandom since, like, 2014.  Who am I to jump back in and say “WROOOOOOOOOOOOOONG”?

But I wonder how things will progress from here on.  Has TWD done enough to earn the hatred of once-loyal fans?  Are viewers in droves going to walk away from AMC’s golden goose?  Probably not.  The show’s been on for too long, and become too entrenched in popular culture to shoo off its fanbase because of a single misstep.  Granted you could argue that there were tons of missteps and the Season 6 finale was simply the last straw, but there are a ton of people attached to TWD.  The characters, the world, the story, the name -- they’re all far too recognizable to be shrugged off so easily.

Aren’t they?

Probably.  Even if this is your first time reading this blog, you’ve probably noticed that a lot of productions out there are succeeding -- and merely coming into being -- because they’ve got some real weight behind them.  They have the brand, or the prestige, or the recognizable name, so people are incentivized to give it a look (or just flat-out be fans by default).  Word of mouth, nostalgia, whatever -- there’s money thrown behind a name, and money to be earned as a result.  That’s how it’s been for a while…but that might not be how it stays forever.

I got dragged to saw Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice on opening weekend, and there’s a part of me that’s ashamed to admit that.  I read the reviews, and I had the gut feeling that it wouldn’t be the ultimate crossover battle it could and should have been.  But I saw it regardless for the sake of writing about it, and seeing if Snyder and crew could redeem themselves after the debacle that was Man of SteelAs it turns out, they didn’t (which really shouldn’t come as a surprise).  But thinking back, there was something strange in the theater that day.

From start to finish, it was basically silent in there.

It wasn’t quite a full house, but it was still fairly full (to the point where seats were assigned beforehand).  Either way, nothing that transpired on-screen got a big reaction from the crowd.  Well, there were probably some quiet quips and conversations going on, but the hype levels scraped against the floor.  Nobody laughed at the minor “jokes”.  Nobody cheered when Wonder Woman appeared alongside her terrible theme song.  Nobody clapped when all was said and done.  I’d say that nobody shed a tear when certain terrible events transpired, but I can’t be sure -- or know if those tears were induced by a relentlessly-oppressive yet boredom-inducing tone. 

The obvious counter-example would be Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  In both my instances with that movie, people cheered whenever they had the chance.  People laughed at the jokes.  People clapped when the credits started to roll.  It was safe to say that the audience, up to and including the Captain Phasma cosplayer on my immediate right, walked away satisfied -- happy with what they’d seen on screen.  And sure, you can’t compare BvS to TFA one-to-one.  That’s like hating apples for not being oranges.

I have some hang-ups about TFA, but it’s still a movie that’s fine by me.  More importantly, it’s a movie that won armies of fans over across the world, and effectively vaporized the box office alongside its most precious records.  Would it have done that just because it was named Star Wars?  Probably.  But even with my hang-ups, I’ve got no problems admitting that there’s some serious quality in it, and that quality was well-received by the fans.  The name got things started, but the fans kept the name going.

BvS doesn’t exactly have the same glowing circumstances.  It’ll still make money, and a good amount of it, but it’s making records for all the wrong reasons.  Besides, shouldn’t it be the number-one record breaker?  Two of the comic world’s biggest names, characters who have saved the day since before Star Wars was even a picosecond of the wildest fever dream, have taken to the big screen with enough funding to make Fort Knox explode -- and all of this is in a climate where, love it or hate it, superhero movies are a tour de force.

Batman and Superman (and Wonder Woman, too) are the major players in a major blockbuster.  And as it stands, they’ve only gone to show that having recognizable names don’t automatically equal success.  There has to be a good story in there, somewhere, somehow.  Otherwise, you just turn into a laughingstock.

Or...maybe not.

Like I said, BvS is on track to make money; it’s not as if it’s some irredeemable financial failure that plunges a sword into WB’s heart.  But it signals that having prestigious names can only earn you so much; short-term gains are a given (for now), but what about the long-term plan?  What happens when brand loyalty erodes because fans have been burned by your product?  What happens when you pin the future of your company on something vast numbers of people either hate, or tell potential customers not to partake?  What happens when you ask customers to come back for more, but fail to demonstrate in your first or second or third outing that you’re worthy of their respect, let alone their money?

To be fair, the future depends on two fairly rosy sentiments.  One: people will be wiser about the media they consume from here on, and won’t just indulge because the latest installment is up and running.  Two: the failures of one product will have genuine ramifications for the creator(s), which in turn will demand some genuine course correction to win back the crowd.  Considering that we live in a world where there are four Michael Bay Transformers movie (with a fifth tightening around our necks), you could say that this whole sentiment is rendered moot.

But since this is my post on my blog, I’d say that the tides might be starting to change.  The Transformers movies may make money, but they aren’t exactly raking in the respect.  BvS is the same way.  The Divergent series just got its third movie, but I feel like only the die-hard fans care at this point (and even then…).  Then you hear about stuff like Jumanji getting a remake for some reason, and it comes off as a baffling decision at best.  Who is it for?  What’s the creative vision?  Do they even have one, or did they just find a name worth exploiting?  And sure, sometimes names can be exploited to great effect (the recent Planet of the Apes movies, for example).  Other times, you get RoboCop ’14, whose greatest accomplishment was its title card theme…which is just a slight update to the theme that existed years prior.

Make no mistake; this isn’t a problem exclusive to Hollywood.  The video game industry has thrived on brands, names, and franchises for years, and it’s practically the AAA world’s life blood at this point.  Uncharted 4 is on the way, with Halo 6 looming on the horizon.  Call of Duty shows up to begin its annual song and dance, year after year.  Street Fighter should have died after the mess of a first game, but here we are with Street Fighter V -- to say nothing of other returnees like Killer Instinct, Tekken 7, and Guilty Gear Xrd.  And do I need to say anything about Nintendo?

Actually, I do.

The Big N has taken plenty of heat in the past for relying on updates to a small stable of franchises -- Mario, Zelda, and Pokémon chief among them.   Granted the paradox there is that people want them to revive other big names -- F-Zero and Earthbound are some examples I’ve seen -- but the point is that names and brands that have endured the ages are kind of the company’s thing.  The asterisk here is that Nintendo games generally have the quality and uniqueness needed to justify new entries.  Majora’s Mask and Skyward Sword may share kisses under the same umbrella, but they couldn’t be farther apart.

It’s not the name that Nintendo always sells.  It’s the consistency -- the constant promise of quality.

Not every company seems to understand that.  Ubisoft doesn’t.  People basically begged them to lay off on the yearly releases, and they’re just now caving after the Unity debacle and the drop in sales that Syndicate endured (itself a game that felt like a stopgap).  Then you’ve got revivals, reboots, and reimaginings that miss the point at best, or feel like cynical cash grabs at worst.  DmC slapped the name onto a game that didn’t deserve it.  The Bureau: XCOM Declassified tried and failed to coast on the goodwill of XCOM: Enemy Unknown.  I don’t think anyone wants to talk about EA’s semi-recent take on Dungeon Keeper.  I certainly don’t want to talk about Square-Enix and its simultaneous coasting via and desperation with Final Fantasy.

The list of mined names doesn’t stop at movies or video games.  What about Netflix scoring Fuller House and a new version of Voltron?  What about the anime industry bringing back new installments of Sailor Moon, Digimon, Yu-Gi-Oh, AND Dragon Ball (with the industry itself half-built on taking popular names and brands from the manga/light novel world and converting them into moving adaptations)?  What about Harry Potter getting even more official content in the months to come, in spite of a pretty conclusive ending?  Hell, what about my precious toku shows like Kamen Rider and Super Sentai, which are in the midst of their 45th and 40th anniversaries, respectively -- and the former of the two is trotting out the original Kamen Rider Segata Sanshiro Takeshi Hongo once again to celebrate?

Let’s be fair here.  The examples I named aren’t perfect, easy-to-compare targets for derision and scorn.  Their circumstances are as varied as their mediums -- and their styles even more so.  But what matters most is the quality behind those franchises, and those brands, and those names.  Rule number one is (or should be) that you can do whatever you want with a creation, as long as you’re good enough. 

If you can successfully and effectively revive a franchise, or put a character on the big screen?  Go nuts.  If you can stay consistently good over a season, a decade, or what might as well be a generation, then let it rock.  There’s a level of frustration, knowing that the original stuff and fresh-faced creators can’t even get a foot in the door, but as long as the big names can earn their place, it’s easier to accept.

But it’s getting harder to accept.  Goodwill is constantly strained.  Trust is constantly tested.  Optimism is constantly dashed.  Opportunities are constantly missed.  Quality is constantly missing.  Not everyone is guilty of exploiting names, but the worst among them are reaching a point where all they have left is a name.  And in turn?  I genuinely believe that at some point, a big name isn’t going to be enough anymore, for any medium.

Why should it be?  Why should I have any faith in Justice League being good when the two movies in prior in the DC Cinematic Universe have shown a complete misunderstanding -- if not resentment -- of superheroes?  Why should I give Assassin’s Creed another shot when one game after another has shown how shallow and unsatisfying the whole franchise can be?  Why should I catch up with and re-enter The Walking Dead when I figured out years ago that it was just spinning its wheels until the next “shocking” moment?

That’s the danger here that I suspect people have already started to figure out.  Keep burning audiences over and over again, and they won’t associate names with quality, wonder, warm feelings, or even fun.  They’ll associate it with “awful” and “do not enter”.

And yet…I kind of feel bad about that sentiment.  I’ve gone over quite a few things via this blog, and in a number of cases I’ve come to the same conclusion: I need to drop this, because I’m not enjoying it anymore.  The Walking Dead.  Family Guy.  Infinite Stratos.  Transformers.  Ninja Turtles.  Halo.  God of War.  Call of Duty.  Watch Dogs.  Assassin’s Creed.  Splinter Cell.  Resident Evil.  Uncharted (even though I’ll probably be back for A Thief’s End, because I hate myself).  I’m one utterance of “destiny is destiny” away from swearing off Final Fantasy, and two separate demos for FF15 haven’t done much to change my mind.  The same goes for the DC Cinematic Universe in its current state.  Its first two movies have sucked, I’ve got zero hopes for Justice League, and frankly my goodwill is so shot that I could care less about Suicide Squad, even if Zack Snyder and his team aren’t involved.

I don’t know off the top of my head if that’s a full list.  I hope it is, though.  I don’t let my distaste get the better of me whenever I try something new; if I did, I would’ve said “Call of Duty sucks” like everyone else does, and not even bothered with Black Ops 3 -- or Black Ops 2, for that matter.  I give as much as I can a fair shake, even if there’s no evidence to suggest I’m in for a good time.  And it seems like all too often, it’s the stuff attached to the biggest names that draws the most ire.  When I have no choice but to think that it won’t get any better, I have to walk away.

But I hate that I have to walk away.  I hate that I have to cut loose a name -- a franchise with so much weight behind it, past, present, or future -- when so many others can find something to enjoy.  I hate it when a name just isn’t enough.  But I think I might hate it even more when, despite historical precedents and common sense, the name is still enough to make me interested.

There is absolutely no reason why I should give FF15 the time of day, except for the name and the promise it brings.  I should be ready to swear off DC movies for good until they get their act together, conclusively -- but I still have space in my heart for a good Wonder Woman movie, even though her first big-screen appearance has already been a disaster.  And damned if I don’t have some kind of perverse curiosity about how the upcoming Power Rangers movie will turn out.  There’s very little evidence to suggest that it’ll be good, but the name alone makes me want to scour the internet for information.

I’m falling for it.  And it might be setting me up for a big fall -- again, and again, and again.

The name is enough to get me, and scores of other people, interested.  But when judgment day arrives -- when the new game, or the new episode, or the new movie is ready to be viewed by the eyeballs of the poor unwashed masses -- and it ends up being a disappointment, then the name loses its power.  The creators (and shareholders from on high) may win by sucking wallets dry, but it’s a short-sighed way to live to another day.  Maybe that’s why there’s a reliance on a glut of strong names instead of a push for quality, or a push for something original.  Why work when you can coast?

The name is enough for now.  But someday soon, it won’t be.  Someday, I won’t get dragged to see the new DC/Zack Snyder movie, because it’ll be understood that the movie’s dead on arrival.  Someday, the big-budget game developers will wake up to find that day one sales have dipped -- a prophecy foretold by puny preorder numbers.  Someday, being a creator will mean creating something new, and not just digging up oldies from dusty toy boxes.  Someday, the industry -- every industry -- won’t be able to use names as crutches.

Someday, they’ll have to get good.  And I hope that day comes sooner rather than later.

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