I’ll start that again.
By and large we’re more normal than we’d care to admit, just as prone to the same habits as those we’d refer to as “normal people”, just as susceptible to hype and we still tend to spawn a cycle of trends. It may not be clothing or music trends as such, but there is one field in which we dominate the culture… or maybe the field impacts us more deeply than others?
Couldn’t say, cause and effect is a bit fuzzy here. Here’s a retrospective on genres in film and television.
Rise of the Action Hero
Let’s start somewhere in the 80’s, during the Schwarzenegger years. From Conan the Barbarian onwards he was the mainstay of anything that meant he could hold an oversized weapon and yell loudly, defining fantasy, sci-fi and general gunplay well into the 90’s. The Terminator, Predator, Total Recall may have had strong and inescapable sci-fi themes, but there’s no denying that action was the order of the day.
Mel Gibson’s pre-crazy years saw the Lethal Weapons take centre stage, while Mad Max was more of a slow-burn. Willis’ Die Hard and Cruise’s Top Gun were defining film series of the late 80’s to early 90’s on the big screen, with Mission Impossible not far behind. Television was home to the A-Team, Knight Rider, Magnum P.I. and M.A.S.H being amongst the big hitters.
Now, action is far from dead. R.E.D, the Expendables, yet more Mission Impossible films are keeping the love alive, but as it must – indeed as all trends must – it has taken a back seat to other genres that were growing in popularity.
Science Fiction held it’s place on TV too, with classics like Star Trek TNG, and Red Dwarf taking the small screen, and Alien and Predator taking the cinema. While they were big, they were only the start of the genre’s rise to power. If you read through the list of action films from the 90’s to the 2000’s, plain action seems to all but dry up in favour of encroaching science fiction titles.
This was the decade that saw Star Trek lose its near-total monopoly on the space-faring market. As the polarising Deep Space 9 series entered the field so too were series like Babylon 5 and Stargate’s successful film turned into a television franchise to rival Roddenberry’s own. Shortly after that the deeply cheesy and yet gloriously epic Jim Henson entry to the circuit Farscape captured more than a few hearts and minds, along with the gritty reboot to Battlestar Gallactica that continues to see a lot of love and affection today.
The Star Wars prequels – despite their controversy – took the world by storm around the same time, paving the way for a battery of supporting TV series and games. There were four relatively successful Star Trek: The Next Generation films, sadly the only spin-off to the original series find their way to cinematic release, unless you consider the Abrams universe to be a spin-off rather than a reboot.
Around the space-faring juggernauts were the smaller success stories. The joyous spoof Galaxy Quest, space-haunting Event Horizon, and the masterpiece of The Fifth Element to name a few future classics, and the cartoon features Titan AE and Treasure Planet.
Sci-fi isn’t dead, far from it, and it doesn’t take Guardians of the Galaxy to keep it alive and well. But there’s no denying the focus took a swing from around 2008.
Now we are firmly into the present, but starting way back in the start of the millennium with the X-Men, building into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Dark Knight trilogy and DC’s fumbling attempts to capture the same magic, although it’s rather working for most of their TV projects, even better on their animated features. The Flash and Arrow are both superb series, although we sadly lost Constantine and are now stuck with Legends of Tomorrow…
In truth we can go even further back through the cartoon series of the 90’s, all the way back through the live action versions of the Hulk, Captain America and Spider-Man (how ever ill fated those last two may have proven) and not forgetting the immortally campy Adam West Batman years, but it’s only been recently that the super-hero genre has gained some serious credulity.
Stepping off the beaten path we find super-powered greats like Unbreakable, Hancock, Push, or Chronicle, but I won’t over discuss those here as I’ve already written plenty about them in the past, but I never really touched on one of the saddest losses of the age, creatively called Heroes. The show had an excellent start to life, and really promised a kind of real-world-hero team narrative that we sadly lost to the writers strike and the embarrassing continuation of the narrative that they tried to give us. Not Heroes: Reborn, I haven’t seen it yet, I am not judging it, please advise in the comments.
This is the genre du jour, and it’s going strong despite some people feeling it’s outstaying its welcome. Some people, not me. The genres above haven’t vanished, not in the slightest, and the age of heroes does not look set to end for quite some time to come, but what’s coming next?
Maybe this one’s optimism on my part. Truth be told, fantasy has never really gone away when you look back through the history of film and television, from the classic Greek epics brought to life by Ray Harryhausen’s monsters, Labyrinth, the Never Ending Story, through the Hercules/Xena days all the way into Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, but its time must sure be due.
Now Game of Thrones is very much leading the way in terms of bringing fantasy worlds to the masses right now, and there are attempts to mimic its success springing up like weeds, most recent of which being the Beowulf drama series that’s kind of fumbling its way through the poem, but far better series have tragically failed, like 2011’s Camelot starring Eva Green (of whom I am an unashamed fan) which lasted only one short lived season.
Where fantasy is on the rise is online! The gamers, the LARPers, the theatrical types have dragged together every ounce of their capabilities and funnelled every penny they can scrape together and raise through other people to bring Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder or dozens of other similar games and properties just like it. Check out series like Journey Quest (and maybe support season 3), Standard Action, or the new SBS series Wizards of Aus.