Is 2023 the Year of the Self-Aware Blockbuster?

The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

Yes. But Read the Rest Anyway.

So far in 2023 we have seen three separate long-running franchises put out a new entry that is explicitly the first installment in a two-part story. Fast X, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse all end on blatant cliffhangers that leave multiple characters dangling over multiple dangers that won’t get resolved until some (strikes-dictated) later date.

(Seriously, movie studios, hurry up and make a fair deal to the goddamn people who actually make your goddamn movies.)

And there’s another commonality linking these three odd half-movies. All three new entries in their respective long-running series involve a villain/antagonist who knows that they are appearing in a new entry of a long-running series.

Across the Spider-Verse is the most blatant example, since meta-commentary on Spider-Man is encoded into the DNA of this particular series. Still, it’s something of a shock to see the extremes Across takes this too, with the intimidating Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac) explaining that not only are there “canon events” that occur in ever Spider-Person’s life (bit by a radioactive spider, responsible for a loved one’s death in order to learn with great power comes great responsibility, etc.) but that these canon events are actually foundational to each reality. Try to break from the canon, try to tell a Spider-Man story without playing the tried and true hits, and the universe crumbles.

O’Hara illustrates his point by playing a series of recordings (ie, clips) from other incarnations of Spider-Man, including footage from the live action movies starring Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield.

Fast X deploys a similar trick, with new villain Dante (Jason Momoa) tricking Dominic Toretto (you know who plays Dominic Toretto) into visiting Dante’s empty lair, where Dante has prepared, you guessed it, a video presentation involving clips from the other Fast & Furious movies. Dante, we’re given to understand, has built all his schemes and plans around the tropes that Dom and the Fast Family ordinarily deploy. The most clever twist in this exceedingly silly movie comes directly from this, with Dante gleefully subverting the tradition of Dom’s gearhead charisma winning a lawman over to the outlaw side.

And then there’s Mission: Impossible. For a series built on trickery, maybe its most fiendish bait-and-switch was how effectively the Dead Reckoning (Part 1) marketing hid that the seventh Mission movie was about Tom Cruise fighting HAL.

Gabriel (Esai Morales) is the human face of the opposition, so it’s his handsome mug getting a pint-sized Cruise fist put through it. But the true threat is a monstrous AI program that has gained sentience and like all artificial intelligence in movies (and probably real life if we’re being honest) has used its new self-awareness to take one look at humankind and decided there needs to be a fire sale on the planet.

“Fire sale” as in, get rid of us.

Not necessarily with fire.

But fire will probably be involved, yeah.

Relevant to our discussion here is the manner in which this AI, dubbed “The Entity” manifests. Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie doesn’t go as blatant with the meta-commentary as X or Across, but Reckoning still tilts at the same thematic territory, as Gabriel, as The Entity’s avatar, repeatedly reminds Cruise’s Ethan Hunt that they are playing out the latest iteration of a story that’s been told many times.

The algorithm has, and here we may sense McQuarrie’s tongue sliding ever so slightly into his cheek, looked at the code controlling its reality and determined that, since this is a Mission: Impossible movie, Ethan Hunt is the only person who can defeat it.

So once again we have a villain who knows they operate in a world ruled by recurring narrative tropes, structures, and devices, which means they, and only they, are free to do whatever the please while the heroes remain enslaved by the tenets of their fictional domain.

I saw a few people describe Dead Reckoning as escalating the stakes of Mission: Impossible to such heights that it essentially becomes Tom Cruise vs. God, and there is something to that.

But really what we find in each of these examples are franchises that have been around for so long, they have run into the unyielding bars of familiarity, from which it is only a hop and skip over into the territory of self-parody.

A cynical way to look at it would be to argue that these characters and worlds they inhabit have become exhausted and are now utterly useless as reflections/refractions of our real world and can only work as commentary on themselves. Pop culture commenting on itself is nothing new, but the specificity of these three movies in these three franchises all pulling the exact same move at the exact same time that feels noteworthy.

Looking over the other blockbusters of 2023, the self-aware streak abounds. “John Wick vs. The World” has always been the vibe of that particular series, but Chapter 4 makes him literally the Main Character of Reality, with two different antagonists stepping up to save his life at two different points because it isn’t narratively convenient for Keanu to die yet.

Creed III’s villain is not only an echo/reversal of the dynamic from the original Rocky, he actually calls out that that’s what he’s doing.

Oh, and we should go ahead and mention The Flash, a movie that has next to nothing under the hood beyond serving as a feature length apology/redo for the missteps of the DC cinematic universe up to that point. With its cameos and its near-fetishistic prioritization of corporate strategy and synergy over all other concerns, The Flash represents the end of the line for this sort of meta-movie. However charming and well-executed it may be in parts, The Flash is a pod-person copy of a blockbuster, about nothing except itself  and the larger conversation surrounding whatever plans Warner Bros. had for their superhero movies.

But the meta-movie doesn’t have to be a negative. Dead Reckoning is a great time. Across the Spider-Verse is simply Great.

And we should probably talk a little about Barbie, which doesn’t totally fit into this narrative but sort of does. Barbie is after all a movie about a toy that is in constant conversation with the fact that it’s a movie about a toy. More than any sort of gendered polemic, Barbie is a movie about Barbie (and Ken). It’s not just a movie grappling with what Barbie means, it’s a movie in which BARBIE HERSELF grapples with what Barbie means. The excellence of Barbie suggests that just because a blockbuster film is focused inwards, does not mean it can’t also speak outwards to the concerns and interests of the real world audience.

But if we want to see the new form of the meta-blockbuster taken to the realms of true artistry, we need only look to a filmmaker who Hollywood has lagged behind for over twenty-five years. In 2021, Lana Wachowski released The Matrix Resurrections on the world and neatly predicted and subverted every trend we’ve been discussing here today.

The Matrix Resurrections is simultaneously a direct continuation of the original trilogy AND a legacyquel/soft reboot passing of the torch AND, and this where we come in, a comprehensive deconstruction of The Matrix, its sequels, and its cultural impact. And yes, that means that there are scenes in a Matrix sequel in which the characters watch The Matrix. Wachowski even goes so far as to include a sequence in which an especially-haggard Neo (you know who plays Neo) sits in a board room and is forced to listen to inane conversations that seek to boil down what made the original Matrix so special. Was it the philosophy? The special effects? Or, as one cretin espouses, did we just want to see a hot lady in tight leather fire guns in a slow motion?

But rather than running into those unyielding bars of familiarity that have ensnared the other series discussed here, Wachowski blasts through them like they aren’t even there. Now, as then, there is no spoon. Lana and her collaborators revisiting The Matrix served to deepen the original work, expanding its binary description of the world to now encompass the seismic differences between 1999 and 2021. Cracking open The Matrix created room for it to grow. Turning its themes on their heads allowed us to see them that much more clearly.

It’s possible to view this wave of meta-blockbusters as a symptom of the stagnation and rot of blockbuster, mainstream film. The super-franchises that have defined so much of the 21st century cinema have run their course and have left themselves nowhere to go. Depending on how harsh a metaphor you wish to deploy, you might say either that they should be put out to pasture, or given the Of Mice and Men treatment.

It’s time for new stories, new characters. It’s time for studios to take risks, to bet on worlds we haven’t seen yet, on journeys yet to be taken.

But even so, there remains something fascinating about these meta-movies, in dialogue not only with themselves but with the decades of social and cultural upheaval that have happened concurrently with each new installment. It’s old hat by now to point out that Dominic Toretto and his family started out stealing DVD players, and now they use their cars to defeat nuclear submarines, travel through space, and stop a bomb from exploding the Vatican. Is it any wonder that by now, even the characters within these movies feel the need to stop, look around, and ask aloud just how in the hell they got there?

In 2023, we’re all asking the same question.

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