The Magic Kingdom of Intellectual Property

A Cuban-American friend of mine from Miami, remarking on the divisions of his native state, monologued once that “the only thing keeping us together is Mickey. The Jacksonville ghetto, the Panhandle hicks, the rich Jews in West Palm Beach, el barrio and Little Haiti down south, the gays in South Beach and the rednecks at Daytona- what brings us together? Mickey, really. We all hate each other but we all love the Mouse.”

Which is, I suppose, more generally applicable to 21st century America- not perhaps to the particular Magic Kingdom of theme parks built amid the orange groves, but to the more general kingdom of intellectual property-based entertainment. Much but not all of this kingdom is actually owned by Disney, of course, Star Wars and Pixar and Marvel now as well as Ariel and Dumbo and Cruela DeVil. But it extends beyond the House that Walt Built, to Game of Thrones and the Walking Dead, the Lord of the Rings and Superman and of course Harry Potter.

The key commonality is that each of these exists as a territory for merchandising as much as a narrative or set of narratives; my son remarked that it made no sense to have mass marketing of Rogue One-themed toys before the movie even came out, when kids had no attachment to any of the characters, but I argued that the expectation was that by Christmas, when the toys would arrive under the tree, kids would already have seen the movie and be properly primed to want to play with the characters. Kids’ affections can be adequately assumed away in advance, for the sufficiently well-targeted movie, as can to a degree adults’ affections as well, if the Ramsay Bolton and Walter White bobblehead toys for sale at my local Barnes and Nobel are any guide.

The biggest problem with the Kingdom of Intellectual Property isn’t that mass entertainment is ruthlessly commercial, of course- how could it be anything else?- but that it creates a sense of sameness across the culture. Within a given imaginative world, such sameness is to be expected, or even beneficial (my favorite parts of A Force Awakens were Rey’s home in the fallen Imperial Walker and the chase within the ruined Star Destroyer), but both narratively and visually, there is often a sense that everywhere in the Kingdom is pretty much the same:image

Largely this is the result of the laziness that CGI allows and engenders. While the care and trouble of old-style models-and-mirrors special effects required that each new fantastic image be used enough to integrate it into the plot, the ease of creation permitted by 3-d rendering means that every movie, especially in the PG13 bracket, tends to have the same images of mass urban destruction and alien life, regardless of the plot. The workman-like and generally likeable Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, while nominally a Harry Potter movie, could just as well be a 1920s-set XMen movie, with the same visions of New York streets ripped up and buildings torn down in seconds and same narrative opposition of a gifted elite concealing their power amid a repressive and reactionary past.

This sameness, intensified by the same plot guides being used over by screenwriters, contributes to the sense that the real heroes aren’t the characters onscreen at all, but the people creating  their simulated environment, that the real stars aren’t the actors gaping in front of greenscreens but the ones elegantly rendering the explosions that will replace them. (In a somewhat comic promo prior to the IMAX showing of Fantastic Beasts we saw on Friday, Michael Bay appears in heroic guise, directing multiple IMAX cameras interspersed between clips of giant CGI’d Transformers while various movie executives praise Bay’s genius.) Minecraft has made the pleasures of virtual world-building, as well as playing within a virtual world, an accessible near universal for whatever my kids’ generation, the successors to Millenials, ends up being called, and while no doubt they will spend many of their days within virtual worlds of one sort or another, exploring within the endless but repetitive Kingdom of Intellectual Property, they will also at least have learned that carving out their own corner as well as inhabiting it is always allowed.

6 thoughts on “The Magic Kingdom of Intellectual Property

  1. This little post is one of the most fascinating and original things I’ve ever read about modern film (heck, about modern pop culture) by anyone! You are a treasure!!

    One pleasure of CGI that remains for an older geek like me is to render on the screen amazing displays of action and spectacle that just weren’t available to older generations of filmmakers. Here I’m particularly thinking of all the comic book movies that have been made over the past 15+ years. As a kid growing up with those comic books (I’m 47 now) it remains a total delight to be able to see Doctor Strange enter cosmic realms or use his astral form on the big screen and fight his enemies with magic in a way that would have looked silly if a filmmaker had tried to achieve the same effect 30 years ago.

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    1. That’s how I felt about the Eagles scene at the end of the first Hobbit movie; it’s not a very good movie, but I felt this intense gratitude to the filmmakers for making visible, real the images that I’d carried around in my head for thirty years or more.

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      1. I always wanted to see someone realize the fight between Gandalf and the Balrog and Peter Jackson on the big screen. As you say, I had certain images in my head of what that would look like and it was such a delight to see Peter Jackson essentially bring those images to life.

        I went back and read what Tolkien wrote for that battle and his descriptions of monsters and/or fight scenes are rather sparse (as opposed to some of his lyrical landscape descriptions.) So in a way, some of those scenes were just perfect for a filmmaker of Jackson’s talents.

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      2. Yeah, it’s funny that the Gandalf versus the Balrog scene is both emblematic of what the Onion article is making fun of (in fact, the picture is probably a sillier version of the Balrog scene) and yet the Balrog scene is *incredibly* successful, maybe because the special effects are fulfilling the necessities of the story, and serve to highlight Ian McKellan’s acting rather than to overshadow it.

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