Archive for Franchise

WandaVision not Television: Franchise on the Small Screen

Posted in Conferences, Franchise as form, papers, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 24 June 2021 by Ben

What follows are my notes for my SFRA talk this past weekend.

WandaVision not Television: Franchise on the Small Screen

So I have been interested in franchise for a while and have been presenting on the subject at SFRA and elsewhere for the past few years. In these presentations and in a few roundtables I have mainly discussed filmic instances of franchise, such as Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens and the Iron Man and Captain America trilogies. My shift here to a discussion of what used to be called television has to do with what seem to me new ways franchises are making use of the medium and our nostalgia for it. Examples of this shift to original serialized streaming content that develop franchise storyworlds at critical moments in the history of a franchise include WandaVision and the Mandalorian and, more recently, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki. My cautious and perhaps vague thesis regarding these “shows” states that they represent processes within Star Wars and the MCU distinct from older instances of franchise television such as Star Trek: The Original Series or The Next Generation, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, or even Marvel’s Agents of Shield.

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Two conference proposals: on WandaVision and The Mandalorian (for SFRA 2021) and on Afropessimism, Afrofuturism, and History (for Imagining the Impossible)

Posted in Conferences, Franchise as form, papers, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , on 10 February 2021 by Ben

Benjamin J. Robertson

Proposal for SFRA 2021

WandaVision not Television: Franchise on the Small Screen

Recent instances of franchise on the small screen, such as Marvel’s WandaVision and Star Wars’s The Madalorian, demonstrate the challenges scholars of genre and media face when analyzing franchise texts. Specifically, insofar as they participate in older/other media forms, here television but elsewhere film or video games, instances of franchise obscure their participation in franchise itself, a production model that we can trace back to at least the first James Bond films that has now evolved into something more like a narrative form. This obfuscation occurs not on the levels of production, marketing, or consumption. It occurs at the level of meaning and interpretation. As a quasi-narrative forms, franchise is difficult if not impossible to analyze and understand all at once as complete texts (and individual franchises present their own, unique difficulties to critics). At the same time, individual texts within the franchise remain difficult to understand outside of the franchise framework that conditions them whatever meaning they possess.

This paper takes WandaVision and The Madalorian as case studies of the franchise form’s new incursion into television programming in the context of streaming services such as Disney+. Previous instances of franchise on television (such as Marvel’s Daredevil or Star Wars’s The Clone Wars) follow the production models of conventional television programming. WandaVision and The Madalorian challenge such models in several ways. Most importantly, each demonstrates the potential of franchise to incorporate perhaps any aspect of cultural production into itself even as it undermines the conventional limits and affordances of various media. WandaVision remediates the American television sitcom as a container for social conflicts, one that evolves over the course of its lifespan starting with the rather banal narratives of the 1950s and moving through subsequent decades that saw the sitcom form deal with questions of race, gender, sexuality, death, and so on. At the same time, complexities and conflicts specific to the MCU cannot be contained by the sitcom at all and force WandaVision into the meta-discourse of franchise and thus destroy our capacity to understand it or interpret it as television. The Mandalorian remediates its own franchise by way of the toys that have always been at its commercial heart. Individual episodes of the show seem less concerned with advancing an overall franchise narrative (or even presenting new narrative ideas for each episode) than they do with providing backdrops against which action figures, speeder bikes, and sandcrawlers perform the set pieces at the heart of the sort of play nostalgic fans participated in as children. Taken together, and in relation to other new instances of franchise, these shows underscore our need for new interpretive frameworks, new theories of media, and a new concern for monopolies on cultural production. This last concern is no longer simply about one or two corporations that control the production, distribution, and exhibition of texts. It is now a concern that these corporations are coming to own the very forms these texts take.

Benjamin J. Robertson

Proposal for Imagining the Impossible

Afropessmism and Afrofuturism: Re-imagining Fantastika after History

The scholarly discourses on Afropessmism, by Frank Wilderson and Christina Sharpe, for example, and Afrofuturism, by Kodwo Eshun and Alondra Nelson, for example, implicitly and explicitly adopt concepts and structures that derive from the several subgenres of fantastika, especially fantasy, science fiction, and horror. However, insofar as these discourses reject progress (Afropessmism) or seek to rethink the narrative threads that connect past to present and future (Afrofuturism), they also demonstrate the limitations and problems inherent to these subgenres, including fantasy’s nostalgia for a past of plenitude, science fiction’s imagining of a truly novel future that will break with the past, progress, and horror’s dismissal of all narrative structure and meaning. These problems, I argue, derive from fantastika’s origins in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, as described by John Clute, Fredric Jameson, and Carl Freedman, among others. Insofar as fantastika emerges in response to the advent of historical consciousness in the wakes of the bourgeois revolutions in France and North America and of industrial capitalism, it reflects on three basic understandings of history—that history is but is bad (fantasy), that history is and is good (science fiction), and that history is not (horror)—while only rarely reflecting on the historicity of history itself, on the fact that our idea of history was and is historically determined. Now, after the end of the metanarratives of the Enlightenment (Lyotard) and of history itself (Fukuyama, Flusser), fantastika continues to reflect the concerns of those who write and read it even as it undergoes transformations that challenge some of its original tendencies. This paper investigates Afropessimism and Afrofuturism as discourses that adopt, adapt, and undermine the historically conditioned “truths” of fantastika by way of points of view, concepts, and narratives structurally excluded from fantastika by way of the historical moment of its birth and the historical consciousness of that moment.

“Another world, another life”: Humans, Monsters, and Politics in Predator: South China Sea

Posted in None of this is normal, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 28 October 2019 by Ben

Here is the first paragraph to my contribution to Surreal Entanglements: Essays on Jeff VanderMeer’s Fiction, edited by Laura Shackelford and Louise Economides, on Jeff VanderMeer’s Predator novel. You’ll have to wait for the book to come out to read the whole thing…

“Another world, another life”: Humans, Monsters, and Politics in Predator: South China Sea

In the context of Jeff VanderMeer’s larger body of work, which so often imagines and describes the incompatibility of the human with the alien or monstrous, perhaps the least interesting aspect of Predator: South China Sea (hereafter P:SCS) is the Predator itself. In a recent tweet, VanderMeer makes clear why such is the case: “Oh, memories. My personal favorite part of writing [Predator: South China Sea], besides characters exploding into fungi…was having a scene with the Predator just lounging in his spaceship, farting and burping. I thought for sure Dark Horse/20th Century Fox would make me cut that. Buuuut they didn’t.” The Predator most familiar to a mass audience is that of the film series, which introduces it as an invisible and nigh-unstoppable killing machine. VanderMeer’s flatulent alien may be amusing to this audience, or to the smaller audience of the extended franchise. However, this moment of lowbrow humor also demonstrates the degree to which the Predator can be understood according to anthropocentric and anthropomorphic norms, especially insofar as this novel (and other texts and films in the series) makes clear how valuable Predator technology will be to world governments seeking to kill other humans with just as much enthusiasm as the Predator itself, if for allegedly different reasons. Of course, VanderMeer would have been constrained in how he was allowed to imagine and deploy the Predator given the fact that this novel participates in a larger storyworld determined by a history and physics he would have had to obey to avoid damaging that storyworld’s consistency and potential as a venue for future franchise development and profit. The effects of such constraints on a writer whose previous and subsequent work has been defined by ignoring constraints (those imposed by generic boundaries, for example) are certainly worth further study. However, I begin with this issue as a means to stage a confrontation between the anthropomorphic monster at the heart of the Predator series—an anthropomorphism that needs the monster to stand in this position insofar as it allows the series’s ongoingness and the staging of conflict after conflict between the Predator and the human—and the inhumanity of the larger universe in which that monster and the human exist.

Remarks for Avengers vs. Jedi Roundtable

Posted in Conferences, papers, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , on 4 July 2018 by Ben

Some opening remarks for a roundtable I was just on for SFRA 2018. The topic was Avengers vs. Jedi and mainly focused on the problem of franchise and media consolidation in late late post post modern capitalism or whatever we are calling it these days.

Also, to be clear, I coined the term “naustalgia.”

patent-pending

More seriously, one of the ways I think we might distinguish between Star Wars and the MCU as franchises is by recognizing a difference between the former’s nostalgic logic and the latter’s easter egg logic. Franchises, I think, have to manage an audience’s affective response in order to maintain that audience’s interest in a sprawling storyworld and the media properties that express it. We all know that A New Hope is a key example of the nostalgia film insofar as it referred to eariler media properties such as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. I have argued and would continue to argue that, very simply put, the challenge for Stars Wars in the Disney era has to do with producing and managing nostalgia for earlier iterations of the franchise even as it produces and manages novelty. To be clear, I am drawing a distinction between nostalgia for previous but distinct media objects and nostalgia for the media objects that belong to an extant franchise. With this distinction in mind, we can see that the MCU has not had to worry about franchise nostalgia quite yet as it has come into existence and sprawled so quickly—18 going on 19 films in about a decade. There is, of course, nostalgia in it for fans of comics and fans of these characters, but there is no nostalgia yet for past iterations of the MCU (although I can imagine that coming shortly and I wonder what the effect will be). There are, however, easter eggs (and note that I am probably using the term in a somewhat heterodox manner here). Some of these easter eggs are minor in terms of the overall MCU arc but are cool for fans of the comics, such as Howard the Duck’s appearance in the end credit scene in the first Guardians of the Galaxy. I am not sure there is any nostalgia there, but if there is, again, it’s not for the MCU but for some pre-MCU media object. Some of the easter eggs are more significant for an anticipatory quality that becomes clearer in retrospect, such as the appearance of what turns out to be the fake Infinity Gauntlet in Thor. Finally, some of them are tremendously consequential for both their revelation of the present and their determination of the future, such as the appearance of Thanos in a post-credit scene at the end of The Avengers—which also includes a cool but inconsequential easter egg for comics fans, the mention of “courting death” by the Other as he describes the battle with humanity that just took place. (And I would note that the proliferation of end credit scenes is an escalation of the easter egg logic behind the MCU.) I want to keep this short, so I will refrain from theorizing the distinctions between nostalgia and easter egg as logics, but suffice it to say I think that they are at odds with one another in terms of how they manage audience’s affective expectations in relation to the coherence of the overall franchise. And, finally, I will note that one of the reasons Solo is so terrible is that it tries to introduce easter egg logic to a franchise structured by nostalgia, a nostalgia especially complex with regard to the iconic character whose name is in the title despite being, it turns out, an utterly random easter egg.

My SFRA 2018 Paper: Captain America and General Intellect: Abstraction in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Posted in Conferences, papers, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on 4 July 2018 by Ben

This is the paper I gave yesterday at SFRA 2018 in Milwaukee. It’s part of a future project on the franchise as form. It’s a bit rough, but some of the broad strokes are there I think.

Captain America and General Intellect: Abstraction in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

I am going to start with two quotes from within the MCU that speak to my interest in franchise. The first is from Hawkeye, in Age of Ultron: “The city is flying, we’re fighting an army of robots and I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense.” The second is from Baron Wolfgang von Strucker, in an end-credits scene to The Winter Soldier “This isn’t the age of spies. This is not even the age of heroes. This is the age of miracles … and there’s nothing more horrifying than a miracle.” I will come back to these quotes below, but for now suffice it to say that what holds the MCU together is not its genre or its historicity, but the fact that it does not make sense. This is miraculous.

So, I am interested in how we interpret a franchise, what methods we use, and how those methods must necessarily challenge older methods that privilege objects whose relative stability derives from their clear date of publication, release, or whatever. I am not primarily interested, here anyway, in franchise as a production model or as a means to leverage fan engagement. But when we speak of interpreting franchise we must ask what we are interpreting exactly. Can we can call a franchise, such as the MCU, Star Wars, Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games, a text? It would be difficult, I think, to call a franchise of any size a text, although we can say that franchises are made up of texts (all of which can be interpreted as such). We have other concepts available, including that of form. However, I am also not certain that franchises share clear formal characteristics such that we can easily compare them or establish a methodology that can account for all of them. Star Wars and Star Trek operate according to very different logics, I think, when we think about them at the level of franchise. Although they have both changed considerably over the courses of their respective histories, Star Trek begins with an episodic structure that still informs its overall development. By contrast, Star Wars begins with aspirations to a continuity and coherence of narrative that presents problems for its filmic iterations today. I realize that these are gross generalizations.

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Captain America and General Intellect: Abstraction in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or, my SFRA proposal)

Posted in Conferences, Franchise as form, papers, Writing with tags , , , , , , , on 25 March 2018 by Ben

Here is my proposal for SFRA 2018, in Milwaukee.  As with nearly all of my conference proposals, this one is a bit rough and is more a promise to think about something than the actual thought itself. In any case, I am planning to be done with Here at the end of all things in the first half of the summer, and this paper (along with my essay on Dragonlance and my review essay on The Force Awakens) represents a new research direction in which I consider franchise as form.

Captain America and General Intellect: Abstraction in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

“The city is flying, we’re fighting an army of robots and I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense.”

–Hawkeye

In the “Fragment on Machines,” Marx claims, “The development of fixed capital [i.e. machines] indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself has come under the control of the general intellect and has been transformed in accordance with it.” Otherwise put, the knowledge objectified or “stored” in fixed capital animates production itself. Moreover, the material lives of human beings are subsequently transformed by this transformation of production. Ideally, the production of machines would lead to a reduction in labor time and an increase in leisure. This revolution, of course, has never come to pass.

This paper considers franchiseas fixed capital. Franchise has become machinic in that it objectifies, stores, and privatizes the general intellect, most notably generic forms invented and deployed by a wide range of producers working within a cultural commons. Far from decreasing or eliminating socially necessary labor time, franchises leverage their worlds in order to demand more creative labor from producers. Moreover, they require increased expenditures of time and money from consumers who “labor” not only to see films, read comics, and play games that appear under this or that franchise’s auspices, but also to understand and interpret the world these texts produce and assume, one that cannot rely on a fixed reality to hold itself together. In this context, Hawkeye’s lament about his limitations and the lack of sense in the Marvel Cinematic Universe becomes a clear admission that the fixed capital of franchise serves to increase socially necessary labor time rather than “leisure.”

As a test case for thinking about about franchise as fixed capital and the effects thereof, I take the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The MCU is characterized by extreme abstraction. Every franchise develops its own internal logics as it borrows and then turns away from genre and other aspects of the general intellect. The MCU is largely built upon the incompatibility of its world with itself. Alien invasions and the existence of gods should transform the world, as should Tony Stark’s cell phone all by itself. Clint Barton (aka Hawkeye) lives within pastoral bliss, on a farm, even as he fights the greatest threats the universe can throw at Earth. And yet, the world, compartmentalized into different spaces each with no apparent relation to any other space, continues in its day to day operations as if nothing is happening.None of it fits together; none of this makes sense. And yet, as the franchise offers us new material at an ever increasing pace (at least four films in 2018 alone), producers and consumers work harder and harder to keep up. As Hawkeye says, immediately after the line cited above, “I’m going back out there because it’s my job.”

 

The Last Jedi’s Anti-nostalgia and Anti-Salvation

Posted in papers, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , on 19 December 2017 by Ben

I assume I was the last person to actually see The Last Jedi, or at least the last person who wrote a review of The Force Awakens about the way the franchise is developing and therefore has some sort of intellectual stake in this whole thing to actually see The Last Jedi. As such, I have mainly avoided all of the reviews and discussions of the film. So, if I say anything that’s been said or seem redundant to overall conversation, oh well I guess.

In my review of TFA for Science Fiction Film and Television, I made a case for interpreting Star Wars as a franchise. Plenty of work has been done to understand the nature of the media franchise in terms of world-building, production models, economics, multi-platform distribution, etc. However, less work (basically no work?) has been done to address the difficulty of how to interpret a given franchise, especially given the fact that every major franchise (Star Wars, Star Trek, Dr. Who, the MCU, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, etc.) is unique unto itself, developing its own internal logics according to manifold pressures both “internal” to it (the foundational narrative, the physics of the story world, etc.) and “external” to it (intellectual property law, the vagaries of corporate ownership, the visions of multiple creators, fan expectations, etc.). Needless to say the distinction between internal and external is blurry at best, and these pressures combine and re-combine in ways that are impossible to fully appreciate. In any case, while we have seen a lot of discussion of what happens in a franchise such as Star Wars as it expands across films, television, video games, novels and short stories, comics, toys, etc., we have not really developed a way to “close read” the resulting narratives in their complex relationship to one another.

In my review essay of The Force Awakens I suggested a focus on worlds in the context of the production history and reception of the Star Wars franchise. (Also, note that Gerry Canavan and I have just completed work on a special double issue of Extrapolation, on the question of “Mere Genre”, which attempts to think about how we, as critics, might deal with massive text sets of varying quality, such as Dragonlance, Star Wars and Star Trek, Blondie (the serial comic), Sweet Valley High, The Hunger Games, and Game of Thrones.) In my essay, I make a case that TFA had to clear the slate for future Star Wars films–hence its repetition of so many devices and plot lines that Star Wars fans have come to expect from the franchise (another Death Star, another hero’s journey, etc.). Moreover, TFA had to satisfy the contradictory expectations and desires of at least three groups of fans: the “original” fans of episodes IV, V, and VI, who very often hated episodes I, II, and III; the generation of fans who grew up with episodes I, II, and III and who may not have hated them because they were givens of a franchise rather than intrusions into one; and the fans who would first encounter Star Wars through TFA. there are other groups of course, including the hardcore fans of what are now know as Star Wars Legends (the former expanded universe, which has become non-canonical in the wake of Disney’s acquisition of the franchise). Likewise, every generation of fans is internally diverse. Nonetheless, I think that the logic holds: Disney and Abrams had to create a film that could allow the franchise to move forward and maintain/revive older fandoms while creating new ones. Oh yeah, it also had to do all of this with an aging cast from the original trilogy, not all of whom were happy to be a part of the next generation.

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