Pretty much all cultures have looked to their sacred narratives for guidance and identity in times of tribulation. The pagan bonfire, the religious temple, and the studio boardroom serve comparable social functions — and bear similar ideas about their proximity to the Gods.
“Nothing is new,” it’s said. And while that is true, it’s also true that many of the most ambitious and lavishly produced tales of today are especially reliant on remakes, reboots, and sequels of established intellectual properties.
Drawing on proven properties is nothing new and many are quite good— “The Godfather” was a best-selling novel, after all — but in recent decades, we seem to have started devouring our ideas almost faster than we can recycle them. Partly this is due to hedged bets based on financial considerations. In a crowded field of TV shows, cable, film, and the Internet, tapping into an audience’s pre-existing relationship with beloved characters can make or break a studio’s $250 million investment in a project.
But supply is — usually — driven by demand. And a difficulty in selling new ideas likely reflects a larger trend of social regression. The future has always been a murky and unsettling place, and marching in with clear eyes is no small thing.
Donald Trump is himself an established intellectual property. His Presidential persona is a physically and mentally degenerated version of his reality TV incarnation, with a farcical dash of his 80s businessman shark. As the nation’s pre-eminent guide to the national narrative, his Steve Bannon-inspired view of America is backwards-looking, cruel, and bleak. Whatever lay ahead will surely be bad. Trump has mused about the inevitability of nuclear war. Bannon espoused a belief that the West can only be revitalized and purified through a world-shattering war with Islam. This, in itself, is nothing new. Most powerful ideologies promise paradise only through obedience and sacrifice. Martyrdom gets you the virgins, revolution gives you the means of production, and watering the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots brings democracy. Certainly the New Testament, that original reboot of Bible, leads the reader to God’s grace only after a guiding them through a harrowing Apocalypse.
The accepted, traditionlist narrative of post-war America is unusual in that it holds that we’ve already faced our great ordeals and have achieved our utopia. By defeating the Nazis, Soviets, and Terrorists, and by virtue of honest men simply punching the clock at the end of the day, we’ve built a nation of exceptionalism, prosperity, equality, and innovation. American consumption has driven free markets and reshaped the world in its image. Its unyielding optimism promises that each generation a better quality of life than the one that preceded it. Infinite growth can be achieved despite a world of finite resources. Its institutions are, like the outcomes of the stories it holds so close to its heart, governed by a fundamental justice. Luke Skywalker will beat Darth Vader, not just because we want him to, but because it’s meant to be. Michael Corleone may defeat his enemies, but lose his soul and family because every sin has a price.
The arc of the moral universe is long, but bends towards justice. To suggest otherwise can lead one into less interrogated and less comfortable American narratives involving race, poverty, and foreign interventionism.
Trump’s reign has so far reversed course for America by not only acknowledging these darker narratives, but by embracing them with pride: Multiculturalism is a failed experiment, those born into poverty are “losers”, and America bears no responsibility for moral leadership. It is “America First,” a death wish narrative of empire and fascism whose greatest ambition is the construction of a joyless, ethno-state fortress locked into a death spiral with history. If it fails to recognize tomorrow’s problems, it’s because “America First” seeks to live in a state of perpetual “now”.
The truth is that Pollyanna and Cassandra lack the insight to save us from climate change, antibiotic resistant bacteria, resource depletion, income inequality, the refugee crisis, genetic manipulation, foreign and domestic terrorism, and the abuse of emerging technologies. Nor can we afford to build our fact-free realities with pseudo-science, fantasy, and conspiracy theory.
And yes, I will admit that it doesn’t really matter whether six more Spider-Man movies will be produced in the next decade, people will like them. Or if they finally make the adaptation of “Candy Land” we’ve been promised for so long.
What matters is that we resolve ourselves to heavier creative lifting, either in building new narrative solutions or drawing new lessons from older belief systems. Because if we truly reject the inevitability of a doomed future, of a world that dies with us or a generation or two after us, then we’ll need an articulate vision of the future that recognizes the challenges we’ll face.
And, maybe builds a world worth living in.