From Marvel superheroes to Lucas Film's Jedi, The Walt Disney Company holds the rights to great contemporary stories, which it ridicules rather than renews, says Thomas Schauder, professor of philosophy.
Chronique Phil 'of actu. The Walt Disney Company, founded in 1923, is today one of the most powerful firms in the world, and unquestionably the first in terms of entertainment. She is at the head of one of the largest pools of creativity in the world, and most importantly she holds the rights to almost all the great stories of the contemporary era. And yet she is unable to do anything about it.
With the purchase of Marvel in 2009, Lucas Films in 2012 and 21st Century Fox announced last week, Disney imagines having to manage "brands" and a "catalog", forgetting the reasons his past success and that of his recent "acquisitions": the ability to take over the traditional mythical structures (the initiatory journey, the friendship or love between two beings that opposes everything, the victory of the trick on the force, etc.).
Creations like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, beyond taking over the structure of some comics like The Avengers and crossing the cinema with the television series, finally want new mythologies, in which the heroes and the gods are known and easily identifiable , which allows to vary their adventures without risking losing the interest of the public.
Although in terms of quality it is not Hesiod, it does not, it pays big. And what about the "franchise" Star Wars, its millions of fans and the prodigious amount of books, video games, comics it has generated? Beyond a juicy market, it is indeed a "factory of dreams", a factory of myths.
We can not appreciate the "universe" Marvel or Star Wars, or enjoy one and not the other. The question is not there. It must be admitted that these "universes" function by their mythical dimension, if we accept the definition given by the historian Jean-Pierre Vernant:
"[Le mythe] appears as a story from the depths of time and would be there before any storyteller starts narration. In this sense, the mythical narrative does not belong to individual invention or creative fantasy, but to transmission and memory. (…) It is not fixed in a definitive form. It always contains variants, multiple versions that the storyteller finds at his disposal, that he chooses according to the circumstances, his public or his preferences, and where he can subtract, add, modify if it seems good to him. "(The Universe, the gods, the men, 1999).
It is clear that this definition applies perfectly well to Star Wars (George Lucas was very much inspired by the works of the mythologist Joseph Campbell): a story out of time ("long ago, in a distant galaxy"), based on characters and archetypal paths (the formation of the hero with a wise master, the very "first degree" struggle of good against evil) allowing infinite variation of the elements.
But the story of Marvel's superheroes also realizes this mythic potential: over the generations, different authors and designers, then directors, have brought their vision of the characters without them becoming "other". In both cases, the result is there: they hold an important place in the culture because their structures are easily identifiable and thus universal.
From an economic point of view, even downright cynical, the expected benefit of Disney is simple and clear: these myths allow an infinity of variations, so an infinity of films and other derived products, and they are perfectly identifiable, so the public will be always there (as evidenced by the incredible commercial success, if not critical, of the eighth installment of Star Wars).
Yes … but the turn of the latest productions reveals a paradox.
The squeaky laugh against the myth
Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi seemed perfectly in line with a heavy trend in recent blockbusters: the desire to deconstruct the myth. For this, we start by making fun of it, by adding small scenes in which the character is in a ridiculous position, or by breaking the codes of the genre (for example, the sudden stop of the music in full rise).
Then, the heroes are freed from the attributes that make them identifiable (the hammer in Thor: Ragnarok, the lightsaber in The Last Jedi), as we deprive the child of his "transitional object" (his blanket if you prefer) for him mean it's time to grow up.
Finally, we explicitly admit that we must make "clean slate" of the past (those who went to see the film know what I'm talking about), that is to say, get rid of the bulky weight of the structure to create a new.
From a commercial point of view, this will is understandable because it allows to exploit the vein to infinity by defeating the expectations of fans, that is to say those who already know in advance the variations that can admit the myth. But I think there is also a less intentional and deeper reason: the difficulty of creating myths and dreams today.
Myths, as we have seen, are based on simple elements, arranged in a structure that does not move much. But we live in a very fluid and complex world. It has become difficult to identify a camp of good and a camp of evil, even though the myth is based on this kind of "first degree".
Similarly, the notion of "triumph" is completely at odds with the current ideology of "adaptation," and that is why I spoke of childhood earlier. It is generally believed that growing up is adapting to the real world and not fighting against it or taking refuge in an imaginary world.
But it is this imaginary world which is that of the super-powers that make it possible to get out of the worst situations. By making heroes more human, that is to say both weaker and less one-sided, they lose their impact on the imagination.
Have fun instead of dreaming
What remains then to the viewer who is ordered to lose his illusions, to dramatize situations and relativize the importance of his heroes? A reflection on the state of the world? It would be too good! Even though they are more ironic, these films are still terribly moralistic (Disney having invented a particular ecological speech, distilled here and there, perfectly repugnant when we know the amount of crap that their parks vomit daily) .
No. The only thing that the spectator will see is entertainment, the capture of his gaze with special effects that are more and more impressive and more and more meaningless; this entertainment, Blaise Pascal wrote, that one seeks "because one can not remain at home with pleasure", because one does not know how to "rest in a room", that is to say to take time to be bored, to think, to dream (Pensées, 1670).
However, all human beings need to dream, because this is how one can escape the constraints of the outside world. And adults need to satisfy this part of childhood, as much as they need myths that allow them to form a community. The idea that is currently in vogue, that we have to be "efficient", "maximize the profitability" of our time and avoid as much as possible inactivity goes hand in hand with a "machinic" vision of man.
And the best proof is that these Disney blockbusters do not give the viewer time to breathe and feel emotions (in the last Star Wars, the scene where Luke learns Han Solo's death lasts only a few seconds, and we pass to something else).
Disney is sitting on a gold mine and is turning it into lead. His studios are more revealing to each production their inability to create novelty, which pushes them to make the most of the existing veins, while making them lose interest.
When one knows their past, and that of the firms of which they are now the owners, the word "regrettable" is still too weak. They are mistaken in believing that the public does not want novelty, and they are mistaken if they believe that we are no longer capable of dreaming.
Some reading ? – Blaise Pascal, Thoughts, Folio Gallimard, 2004 – Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, I've read, 2013 – Jean-Pierre Vernant, The Universe, The Gods, Men, Points, 2014
This column is interrupted during the end of the year, to resume every Wednesday from January 10.
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