(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: here’s the problem with our biggest movies relying too heavily on nostalgia.)

The end of any particular year in film and the beginning of the next – to say nothing of the transition between two entire decades – affords us the opportunity to introspect and pinpoint certain filmmaking trends and tendencies that stand out from the crowd, that recur over and over again and become representative of a larger ethos over time. Unfortunately for the ever-vocal “No politics in my entertainment!” crowd, this tends to manifest on an instinctive level for any artist trying to communicate through the movies they make. Human beings are natural storytellers, after all, which is why storytelling encompasses all our combined hopes, fears, triumphs, and flaws of any given moment.

So if movies can’t be neatly excised from the context of their time (as with all art, really), how did this past year put a bow on a decade of pop culture and what did it tell us about our unique and most pressing concerns? Looking back at the films that resonated most tangibly, it seems safe to say that one of the biggest themes of the past year was, well, looking back.

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is probably the clearest embodiment of this idea, taking a wistfully revisionist trek through late-1960s Hollywood and yearning for a past where real-world icons such as Sharon Tate never had to die so young or aging characters such as Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth could scratch and claw their way back from irrelevance. There’s also It: Chapter Two, in which Andy Muschietti completes his two-part adaptation of the epic Stephen King novel by exploring how childhood trauma can linger well into adulthood and all the ways our past can inform our future (as well as how we can break free of such cycles). You could even count Disney’s photorealistic – not live-action! – remake of The Lion King as an integral and perhaps overly-literal part of this trend, painstakingly recreating the look, feel, and even individual shots straight from the original animated movie, often to its detriment.

But somewhat fittingly, it’s in two of last year’s most dominant and highly-anticipated movies, Avengers: Endgame and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, that 2019’s overarching message on nostalgia shines through most transparently. In one way or another, their pervasiveness and immense influence on the rest of the industry at large means even the most casual of moviegoers will feel the repercussions of this trend – for better or for worse.

So what exactly can we take away from these two juggernauts and their uncannily similar worldviews? What, if anything, might this suggest about the future of blockbuster filmmaking? And perhaps most importantly, how do we even contextualize what nostalgia actually is in the first place?

The Nexus of Nostalgia

When talking about movies (or anything else armed with such pop culture cachet), there’s an oft-ignored truth that remains as such whether one acknowledges it or not: in reality, we’re never only talking about movies. As with any artform, movies are just one of countless ways to help us relate to ourselves, others, and our surrounding world at large. In fact, this might help explain (though certainly doesn’t justify) why discussions surrounding such profoundly shared cultural artifacts, especially Star Wars, can become so intense at times. Fandom has undeniably become a more toxic, more destructive force throughout the last decade and beyond, but there’s also equally as strong reasons why passion – the honest, sincere, good-faith kind – will always have a place among the things we love.

In that spirit, let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: no, nostalgia in and of itself isn’t inherently “bad”.

As Don Draper so memorably put it in a classic episode of Mad Men, “Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent… in Greek, nostalgia literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.” Whether it’s reminiscing of a time when relationships with friends and family used to be much stronger, or simply craving that feeling of a movie transporting us to a more innocent childhood full of possibilities ahead of us, nostalgia is simply a fact of everyday life. Granted, in-context it’s hard to ignore that Draper is speaking so passionately while attempting to sell a product to a group of businessmen and, impossibly gifted salesman that he is, playing on our universal longing for the past as he himself can’t help but buy into his own hollow words at the same time… so perhaps this serves as even more of a fitting example of the double-sided nature of nostalgia itself.

It almost goes without saying that any blockbuster trying to conclude more than a decade’s worth of storytelling comes with certain built-in expectations – call it nostalgia, bringing a narrative full circle, or even fan-service if you like. In any case, there’s a natural (and not wholly misguided) presumption that certain franchise-ending films are burdened with a task that few other entries ever have to reckon with, and it’d be disingenuous to ignore this or act as if the mere existence of these qualities somehow cheapens the story being told.

Instead, we ought to ask ourselves whether such a focus on nostalgia impedes and comes at the cost of all else. As with anything in the human experience that our entertainment so desperately tries to recreate, nostalgia is a prime candidate for the dreaded “Too much of a good thing” label. And nowhere else in 2019 was this more nakedly on display than in Avengers: Endgame and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

An Endgame… But To What End?

One of the unequivocal highlights of Endgame takes the form of the so-called “time heist”, a prolonged sequence throughout the middle act where directors Joe and Anthony Russo finally get back to their television roots (in a refreshing break from any of their other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, these scenes gleefully channel the spirit of the Russos’ previous work on the show Community) as the Avengers skip through several different time periods in an attempt to procure the Infinity Stones from the past and undo the genocide committed by the mad titan Thanos at the end of Infinity War.

Naturally, Tony Stark and Steve Rogers are forced to improvise when things don’t quite go according to plan during their sojourn to the events of 2012’s The Avengers. They jump to 1970’s-era New Jersey, the birthplace of the SHIELD program that produced Captain America and the facility that happens to house the Space Stone and Pym Particles needed for their time-jump back home. It’s here where Tony and Steve both encounter two important figures from their past who’ve since passed away – Tony’s estranged father Howard and Steve’s long-lost love Peggy Carter – and where Tony finds some measure of closure while the seeds are planted for Steve’s ultimate decision to return to the past and retire there in the arms of Peggy.

But as emotional and satisfying and full-circle as all this might feel, I can’t help but recall how this entire sequence left me with only one dumbfounded question… why?

Why, for instance, is it suddenly so important for Tony to reconcile with his dad now? The obvious retort is that Tony and Pepper have had a child together in the five years since “The Snap”, thus the act of paralleling Tony’s newfound fatherhood with his and Howard’s rocky relationship (to say the least) is the most straightforward path to grounding these time travel hijinks in emotion… but here’s where Marvel’s intricate continuity can come back to bite, because didn’t we already see Tony come to terms with his distant dad way back in Iron Man 2?

As messy and scattershot as that film was, at least it bothered to build his recurring daddy issues directly into his arc – or at least a semblance of one. In stark (yup, I went there) contrast, Endgame essentially just dumps this thematically isolated and oddly disconnected scene into the middle of the action, hoping that our vaguely warm and fuzzy feelings will lend it some actual meaning or purpose in the long run. Any justification for this specific character beat – as well as Tony’s final and most gif-worthy one-liner, “And I am Iron Man”, I’m sorry to say – comes from purely nostalgia-based, meta-textual reasons: “Everyone knows this is Tony Stark’s final victory lap in the MCU, so I guess we should try to bring things full-circle whether the character’s storyline calls for it or not!”

This misprioritized, backwards-looking approach also applies to the sudden emphasis on Steve and Peggy’s relationship in Endgame. It’s perhaps even more egregious here, however, despite being (relatively) more interwoven throughout the film. The problem is, Steve ultimately backtracking on much of his development to this point in order to have his happy ending with Peggy comes across as a singularly contradictory endnote. Remember, this is a character who has otherwise been defined by his steadfast commitment to wrestling with the past in order to find a new way forward and make peace with this unfamiliar modern world that he’s been thrust into. Not to mention that, even more so than his solo films, Avengers: Age of Ultron gives him a definitive arc all about coming to terms with his inability to settle down in civilian life (even a hypothetical one with Peggy) and accepting that his home would always be ahead of him rather than behind.

What was meant as a satisfyingly triumphant ending that allows a battle-weary hero some well-earned rest instead plays out as almost tragically myopic, taking some of the healthiest real-world values espoused by any Marvel superhero and betraying them in favor of manufacturing the most selfish epitome of wish-fulfillment possible – regardless of how much space and time had to be bent to do so. As if it weren’t bad enough that Peggy is given no actual opportunity to express her own wants and needs as an individual and instead serves as an ideal for Steve to project himself onto (there’s a certain Marvel television series that did give Peggy the dignity of her own choice, though it’s rather difficult to square this with that final shot in Endgame), just think of where this now leaves Steve Rogers, one of the stalwart pillars of the MCU. The completion of Captain America’s arc features him willfully and literally stuck in the past, an ending as slavishly devoted to the most regressive tenets of nostalgia as I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, little did we know that we’d be in for a heavy dose of déjà vu before the year was out.

Let the Past Die… or Not?

No, the villainous Kylo Ren’s distinctive quote, “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to,” isn’t quite intended to function as the main thesis of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. But as noted countless times in the wake of The Rise of Skywalker, it does resonate as a rather unintentionally amusing commentary on the state of the Star Wars franchise now that the Skywalker Saga is officially over.

After The Force Awakens was met with criticism in some corners over hewing too close to the structure and archetypes of A New Hope, J.J. Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio waste no time in announcing their staunch refusal to let the past die this time around too, as the very first line of the opening crawl makes abundantly clear: “The dead speak!” The return of Palpatine, ostensibly the franchise’s first and most shadowy villain, is more than just a mere plot twist or marketing ploy designed to drum up as much interest as possible in the grand finale – it’s a mission statement, an announcement of intent that instantly clarifies where this concluding chapter has its eyes and its heart set.

Of course, this emphasis on the past most affects the trajectory of our protagonist Rey. From the moment the nature of her parentage is brought up in clumsy fashion between Kylo Ren and the newly resurrected Palpatine to the even more hamfisted instances of random strangers repeatedly inquiring after Rey’s “family name”, it’s unmistakable that the film has been built around this reveal. Rey, as it turns out, isn’t the cruelly discarded baggage of a couple of no-name drunks. No, she’s apparently nothing less than the secret granddaughter of the former Emperor Palpatine himself, the latest in a legacy bloodline that seemingly echoes Luke Skywalker’s own revelation with his father Darth Vader for little more than, well, the sake of echoing it.

To be clear, going back on certain plot points and character beats established in the previous movies of the trilogy isn’t automatically a drawback – after all, this is far from the first Star Wars trilogy to do so. Rather, it’s investigating the “how” and “why” of it all that has led to as much pushback as there’s been among critics and fans alike. Even The Force Awakens, for all its constant winks and nods that drove social media to speculate about Rey’s parentage for years after its release, makes a point of Rey being told in no uncertain terms that  “…the belonging you seek is not behind you, it is ahead.” The Last Jedi, as you might remember, tries to definitively put that question to bed with Rey’s Force vision in the Ahch-To cave and her subsequent confession to Kylo that she’s known all along that her parents really were “nobody”. What The Rise of Skywalker does with her ret-conned Palpatine backstory reveal, however, is throw a wrench in her steadily forward-moving arc and drag her back to the shackles of lineage and ancestry.

In fact, Rey’s journey of self-discovery in the Sequel Trilogy isn’t too dissimilar from Steve Rogers’ story throughout the MCU. Like Steve, Rey’s crippling flaw has to do with the past – in her case, the uncertainty of it and her encroaching fear of truly being “Rey from nowhere” with “no place in this story”. And for two-thirds of the trilogy, she continued making progress in becoming a fully-realized and confident hero capable of looking ahead to what her path as a burgeoning Jedi had in store.

Until The Rise of Skywalker, at least, which takes a page (an entire chapter, really) out of the Endgame playbook. Being trapped in a conclusion so filled to the brim with plot that it leaves no room for much of any actual character work does neither Rey nor Steve any favors, but it’s in the framing and implication of their respective final shots – arguably the most important one that ought to sum up the entire goal of a film – that the parallels between both movies become impossible to ignore.

After dispatching the threat of the Emperor and taking part in a shameless reenactment of the victory celebration at the end of Return of the Jedi, the coda of Skywalker shows Rey landing on Tatooine to pay her respects at Luke’s old home. Upon glimpsing the ghostly forms of Luke and Leia and declaring her chosen family name as “Skywalker” (thus renouncing her parents who heroically saved her life at the cost of their own, apparently?), Rey looks off to the horizon and the twin setting suns as John Williams’ iconic “The Force Theme” blares in the background and we cut to credits – yet another nostalgia-indebted character endpoint that all but derails Rey’s arc in favor of grafting Luke Skywalker’s distinct iconography onto her own.

As with Steve Rogers, Rey ends her story as a hopeless prisoner of the past, as collateral damage of filmmakers unable or unwilling to imagine the potential of what their beloved childhood favorites could be because they can’t look beyond what they have always been.

So Where Do We Go From Here?

We might have an impending blockbuster problem on our hands.

If that seems a little rash or cynical, well, it’s hard to dispute that we’ve already seen a certain “Just do the original again, but MORE!” pattern become more prominent among franchise films in recent years. Consider J.J. Abrams now with multiple movies in the Star Wars universe (and even Star Trek, too!), Colin Trevorrow with 2015’s Jurassic World, Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day: Resurgence, and even Simon Kinberg being given a second chance to write and direct X-Men: Dark Phoenix but more or less (re)making all the same mistakes as in X-Men: The Last Stand, to name but a few.

By no means is this to suggest that Avengers: Endgame or The Rise of Skywalker are solely responsible for the proliferation of this “sequels-as-stealth-remakes” marketing scheme. With the debut of multiple trailers for upcoming legacy sequels treating franchise IP as some holy grail of divine iconography, indications are this trend isn’t slowing down anytime soon – and that’s without any influence from 2019’s two defining blockbusters. But there remains the inescapable reality that all the trends and mindsets linking these movies come down to one common cause: an overzealous prominence of nostalgia.

So is our blockbuster landscape inevitable, doomed to have one foot firmly planted in the territory of safe and familiar? Well, not exactly.

We did just experience an impeccable trilogy of Planet of the Apes movies (a reboot, at that!), one that got most of its callbacks and nostalgia out of the way with the very first entry back in 2011 and subsequently delivered sequels that only improved upon the last before culminating with Matt Reeves’ biblical epic War for the Planet of the Apes. Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise have confirmed again and again with the latest Mission: Impossible sequels that there’s an audience willing to show up for new and fresh ideas. And of course, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road keeps proving its staying power year in and year out, appearing at or near the top of countless “Best of” lists to commemorate the last decade of movies.

As long as we keep supporting and signal-boosting the gems that manage to sneak through the studio system, we’ll always have another The Last Jedi or Black Panther worth celebrating. Though our current events feel at a highly incendiary crossroads, perhaps the 2020s will mark a more hopeful, forward-looking turning point where we learn from our past to face an uncertain future together. Whatever happens, we can count on our entertainment – especially blockbusters – reflecting and commenting upon it every step of the way.

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