I fully admit, I have no point with this post. This is more or less thought work for some later post, as the topic really is how both a fandom and the work they are fans of changes with time. This should be evident in itself, clear as a cloudless sky, but what changes this whole thing is how every long-running franchise we have lives in bursts. Bursts seems to be a bit arbitrary term for what is essentially eras, like how we split the history of American comic books into Golden, Silver and Dark Ages and so on. These are, however, too long periods as there were changes during these eras to the comic books, especially to single brand and books that came and went. Take Marvel’s New Universe imprint as an example of a burst. It hit the scene in 1986 and became defunct in 1989. New Universe was about the idea of realistic superheroes, heroes that might be just outside your window. Despite having hard times to properly launch the imprint due to budgets being cut, New Universe sold well and many of the characters have appeared later in the mainline Marvel comics. The reason is was cancelled wasn’t due to lack of sales, but because of internal politics decided to reallocate the workforce for more lucrative and promising titles. A re-imagining of the concept as newuniversal was published in 2007 to celebrate New Universe‘s 20yh anniversary, but from what I gather, the reception was lukewarm. While we can trace New Universe‘s source influences to the usual suspects in the more dark and adult comics of the decade, it is in the end a similar burst in the scene. It didn’t really have much effect on the overall comic scene, as the 1990’s eXtreme comics were anything but realistic. More brutal for sure, lacking some of that down-to-earth material 1980’s brought with it in titles like American Flagg and Watchmen.
New Universe itself may not have been an influence to the larger comic industry, but its initial pitch was. The mastermind behind New Universe, Jim Shooter, had originally proposed to cancel all then-current Marvel books and reboot the whole thing. This was rejected, but would later be put into action in a modified form as the Ultimate imprint. All-new, All Different would later realise Marvel’s first proper reboot, though its end -result setting with modified timeline is open to debate regarding its quality and intentions.
Comics change things all the time and we have these bursts that may change them wholesale. Sometimes it does leave long-standing influence, sometimes it doesn’t. Nevertheless, each time the comics have changed and the fans have to take as it comes.
That is not to say the fans are inanimate objects that buy everything their favourite brand shits out. There are those who fall into the trap of consumerism based on creators or brands, but as we saw with the fall of American comic industry in the 1990’s with the near destruction of the market, consumers don’t exactly go on all fours and beg to be creamed. After all the cover gimmicks, the hikes in prices for no other reason other than they could be upped, destruction of classic characters and them being replaced with carbon copies, rampant and constant crossovers across multiple titles and ultimately the sheer lack of quality content towards the end pushed everyone but the hardest of the core away. It didn’t help that during the first decade of the new millennium, Japanese comics were becoming more and more mainstream entertainment among a generation ready to pick up comics and read.
Entertainment doesn’t need to reflects its time or era. Often a work that is heavy on pop-culture humour gets old within few years, as such referential humour is relevant only for that moment in time. Unsurprisingly, most media is tethered to the era when it was made in. We can’t expect some science fiction movie made in the 1950’s to have the same level of polish and effects as we have now. Yet, outside the mechanical and technical advancements, the writing and acting can be still trump modern works just by sheer quality. Technically speaking, we may have better education and far more information in our hands compared to the works of old, but what’s the point of all that if they aren’t being utilised and used for their full effect? We can do anything with modern technology in entertainment, yet that limitless potential hinders us. With no limitations to break, there is no innovation and creative thinking. Just ideas thrown unto the paper and then realised, little of value created. To use an example, George Lucas’ legacy isn’t Star Wars, it’s the technology to allow film makers to realise their visions with all the technology he and ILM have pioneered during the last forty years. None of the modern blockbusters, or perhaps even CG as we known it nowadays, would be if not for the techniques and mechanism explored and realised in the late 1970’s and 1980’s.
Special effects, however, is not why thing like Star Wars became popular or a phenomena. The Star Wars debuted in the right time at the right place. Movies like it were not made at the time any more. Both adults and children got caught by the relatively simple story and its characters. The movie’s approach with a documentary style filming gave Star Wars the gravitas it needed, intricate model work helping in giving everything that lived in atmosphere. New faces with no attached career defined the characters. Despite all the problems with the production, of which we know so much due to the sheer amount of documentation made of it, Star Wars was a movie that was needed. The only reason why modern some argue that Star Wars movies are influential only when you watch them as a child is because we have so many other works that are made in similar swash-buckling adventure form with high spirit and a positive view on the world. Star Wars isn’t unique in the grand scale of movie history, with it following old movie serials and it being mimicked to hell and back, but it still stands apart from the rest with the sheer quality and agelessness it has.
Even Star Wars changed with time, though. I’d argue the end of Star Wars didn’t start with the Phantom Menace, but with The Shadows of the Empire. Possibly earlier. While some claim to be able to pin point the moment when a franchise or a brand dies, e.g. The Simpson‘s ThePrincipal and the Pauper, this progress takes longer time and can be doomed by a successful piece as well. Shadows of the Empire was a successful non-movie movie event, with the story franchised into toys and other stuff a movie usually has. However, after that there was a significant decline of quality in Star Wars related works, which also arguably applies to the Prequel trilogy as well. Disney’s purchase and subsequent release of their own reboot has shown that you can still make some money on Star Wars, but with modern popular culture being filled to the brim with its spiritual descendants, of which some do Star Wars better than Star Wars itself, the audience will opt for the better piece. The constant falling sales of Disney Star Wars has shown that there is no more demand for that franchise, at least not in its current form, or the form it has been since the late 1990’s. It’s not that the fans of those golden days have gone anywhere, but the franchise has changed. The successful burst Star Wars enjoyed are no longer there, each of them having less and less impact.
Similarly, while there are Star Wars-like works out there, modern Star Trek is suffering from replicating the works that were considered anti-Star Trekin their days, like the newer version of Battle Star Galactica. Television and film was already chock full of darker and grittier science fiction to an unhealthy degree. Even Deep Space Nine could be described as a deconstruction of Star Trek‘s core, but that’s actually intentional. It tested what the Roddenberrian ideals were and if they could survive when they were put under fire, and the end result was that they would. Modern Trek has all but abandoned Roddenberry’s ideal future in exchange of turning it into a platform for the writers and showrunners, as mentioned by Alex Kurtzman in their recent Comic Con recording. This burst in Star Trek means that it has changed its nature and intentions to something that has already saturated the market in this age of science fiction being less popular than in the past. Modern Star Trek is a good example of a product being changing its nature and another product filling its niche. The Orville, in all honesty, is a paler version of Star Trek with lesser writing compared to what it emulates, but if it is the only player on the market and delivering what fans want, it’s burst will be more notable. Fans won’t blindly follow to the swamp. Sometimes a facsimile is more than enough and can then become its own thing. Just look at all the Japanese RPGs that shot out from Ultima and Wizardry.
So time changes both the providers and the fans. Sometimes things change to the degree that future works simply supplant and replace what has come before, like what has happened to Tarzan. A classic franchise and worthy of visiting for sure, but it has no true place in modern culture. It has been revisited by superior works and it has been renewed for new audiences time and time again. Nevertheless, it has become obsolete. Whether or not Tarzan could capture modern audiences is unknown, but perhaps something in its vain will strike true with an audience that hasn’t been exposed to it.
That is also a sort of issue with long-running franchises. We have the works of old still in our hands. Despite us changing and the franchises changing, we can go back and read or watch the original works we fell in love with time and time again to the point of growing bored of them. We can explore a work only so far, until we have to move forwards to other venues. Returning to well explored work sometimes makes us meet with the grim reality of change, as we ultimately weigh media differently. A favourite movie we haven’t seen in a decade might turn out to be a dud on a rewatch, a book that defined your teen years turns out to be full of gringe.
Media industries and their franchises do have to change with time to meet new demands. Nothing can stay the same all the time. It is an impossible balancing act trying to cater to fans that have always been there while trying to expand to the younger audiences. Simply relying on a recognisable name won’t make the market turn to you, not nowadays. The Internet changed the way these brands compete, and the sheer amount of options out there are insane. The amount of bursts in our media landscape have become so many, that we see nothing but bursts.
I guess the point with this stream of mind is that changing a franchise to fit its time is incredibly difficult, but so is creating something new from the scratch. Old story in itself, but whenever we have these new hands on old IPs changing it in a way that pushes fans away that have been there for decades, something else will turn out and nab them. No, maybe it’s the other way around; fans are seeing what’s done within these franchises at the moment, and choose to walk away to spend their time and money on something else. Sometimes its on the old stuff, sometimes its on something else.
Perhaps it’s all service issue, in the end. Creators can do anything they like, but so can customers. There’s no agreement that either one needs to appease another, but generally you’d like make some money with your works. Well, meeting expectations and demands is often a good starting point over abandoning the spirit of the work. Worst of all, sometimes fans find themselves abandoning even the old works, effectively losing their fanaticism towards the overall franchise. That’s a mark of a franchise that’s both dying and becoming irrelevant. Be it comic books, games or movies, when consumers walk away, they will find something else.