Give the People What They Want... or Maybe Not

Part of the beauty of weblogs is that I don’t have to plan my writing out too coherently. I can ramble on and on before making my point. So sit tight — I do have a point to today’s entry, but I’m gonna take my own sweet time getting there.

My wife hates Christmas lists. The way she sees it — and I find it tough to argue with this one — is that lists limit gift choices to a narrow set of preselected items. She’s a little more tolerant of registries, but only in that they allow the gift giver to ensure that, say, a particular china pattern will match what the recipient already has (even so, she’s more likely to avoid the china altogether). And with the types of celebrations registries are traditionally associated with, there’s often a little more distance between the parties, making gift choices more difficult (there’s a whole rant to be made here about the recent proliferation of registries, but we’ll save that for another day).

My parents, on the other hand, insist on wish lists. While I do spend a good deal of time with them — one advantage of living nearby — their interests and mine are frequently... shall we say, divergent. We don’t have a lot of shared activities, making it more of a hurdle to think of appropriate gifts.

I suppose the problem with such lists is that they boil down to giving someone what they want, rather than what they could really use. Or perhaps more accurately, what they say they want, rather than what — in the larger scheme — they really want. You see this mentality in the political arena all the time — long gone are the days when a politician will risk making an unpopular but necessary choice, and we’re left with staggering deficits and head-in-the-sand attitudes toward anything resembling long-term consequences. But nowhere is this obsession with catering to professed wants more prevalent than in the entertainment industry. Witness the homogenization — and subsequent necrosis — of music radio. Local stations — which need to capture a substantial portion of a market in order to generate enough advertising revenue to stay afloat — started catering to the output of focus groups and market researchers, and any programming originality or creativity went out the window. That’s supposedly the argument that satellite radio marketers are making: More stations, broadcast nationally, can afford to develop “niche” markets (though they have yet to produce a viable business model).

Of course, by deviating from the expressed wishes of the market you wish to serve, you run the risk of going completely off base, not to mention transferring your own preferences onto others — I can just picture some self-righteous right-winger imagining I’d enjoy the Left Behind series, for example. In the gift department, my father-in-law has a tendency toward gifts that don’t quite meld with the recipient’s desires — ten points for originality, but a substantially lower score in terms of present appropriateness. In the entertainment department, well, George Lucas gave us Jar-Jar.

Which brings us to one of the most vocal — and often least valuable — segments of the moviegoing population: The fanboys. The group that screams that the X-Men film franchise should run indefinitely. That we really do need to see an Indiana Jones 4. That — forget the acting — the Star Wars films just need more action, and more Boba Fett. That the talkback feature of Ain’t-It-Cool News is the greatest thing since... well, Ain’t-It-Cool News itself.

Now, the problem isn’t that these people — and, to be fair, I can’t deny at least a tangential connection to them — are expressing their wishes. Nor is it that their wishes lack creative (let alone commercial) viability — though it seems those instances are all too often few and far between. But those wishes belong to a small — if vocal — minority of the population. So in giving those opinions too much credence, one runs the risk not only of catering too much to popular opinion, but also of catering to the wrong opinion. Not as much of a problem if you’re specifically targeting that audience, but disastrous if you’re also trying to garner critical or popular appeal.

And it’s in that light that I’d like to comment on a new short film that’s sweeping the fanboy circuit: Batman: Dead End (see, I told you I had a point). Now this isn’t an official Warner Brothers offering, but a short film that a group of professional filmmakers put together to showcase their talents. As such, they can’t sell it, and even their free distribution options are limited — you’re not going to find it at your local video store, but you may be able to track down a copy on the Internet. The filmmakers’ expressed intent — at least according to what I’ve been able to determine through the filters of the fanboy legions — was to correct what was wrong with the various “official” treatments of the Batman character. Gone is the rubber suit of Tim Burton’s version. Gone is the overtly homosexual imagery of Joel Schumacher’s (not to mention the ’60s “camp” style). The production design is reminiscent of the (justifiably) popular artwork of comic artist Alex Ross. The Joker is not subject to Jack Nicholson’s wry, laconic interpretation, but the hypermanic villian of such comics as Alan Moore’s seminal Batman: The Killing Joke.

In truth, the filmmakers — led by writer/director Sandy Collora — have done an admirable job in their “correction,” as far as that goes. And there really are some remarkable images — both in terms of production design and cinematography. But throughout the piece, there is a feeling of catering to the fanboy audience. There’s no character development to speak of; the piece is one long action sequence (without even a real conclusion). The acting is serviceable, but not remarkable. There’s a credulity-stretching twist featuring... well, I won’t spoil it, but here’s a vague little hint. And for such an action-centric film, the action sequences are frustratingly routine. The whole piece is oriented toward the visuals — as one might expect from the character’s comic-book origins (well, and the designer origins of the production team) — but it constantly feels as if the filmmakers were thinking, “What would the fanboys want to see here?”

Don’t get me wrong — the picture is impressive, and I got a real kick out of it. But to think — as the fanboy pundits would have us believe — that the Batman franchise would be saved were Warner Brothers only to make their movie just like this (let’s ignore the licensing problems Dead End introduces — you’ll understand when you see it) is ridiculous. Not that the Warner suits have a creative bone in their collective bodies, but they do have at least a basic understanding of market realities. Yeah, the fanboys might go see something like this, but the rest of the world sure wouldn’t. I do think there are things to be learned from this treatment (pay attention, Christopher Nolan), but let’s not get carried away, or we’ll have another Final Fantasy on our hands.

And nobody wants that.


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