September 4th was Force Friday. A day for Geeks to be uncontrollably excited as countless pieces of merchandise from Star Wars: The Force Awakens were released simultaneously. This huge event, which included a marathon live unboxing event, whipped up a frenzy of excitement, yet at the same time diminished the power of the film to surprise those of us so desperate to see it.
I find myself torn by the sheer volume of “stuff” available now, not just for Star Wars, but for every major geek thread. I love that this is a great time to be geeky. There is no need to hide our passions. It’s okay to enthuse over comic books like it never has been before, and that is brilliant. I don’t want to go back to the days where I had to hide my D&D supplements in brown paper bags, but I fear there is a danger that geek passions are being distilled down to simply the acquisition of stuff.
That Disney now hold the rights to two of the biggest geek franchises (Marvel and Star Wars), is fabulous in terms of content production. More new films and TV shows are promised than we could ever have hoped for. The flip side of that coin is that the marketing machine has gone into overdrive. I don’t want to get into an argument over what being a geek means, but when my local supermarket carries stacks of yogurts and cereals plastered in Star Wars imagery, we’ve transcended from geek into mainstream.
Looking at the sheer volume of merchandise made available on Force Friday, I couldn’t help but feel that the things that we love have been taken, repackaged, and then sold back to us. We’re complicit in this transaction because we lap it up, consuming more and more of the stuff we already had in the first place.
Force Friday left me feeling that this is all back to front. For the original trilogy we bought the merchandise because we loved the films. Nowadays we buy the cool stuff and hope the film matches up to it. This hoping may even reduce our enjoyment of the end product. It will be hard for the movies to live up to the expectations we create with our new toys and mass speculation.
At its worst film-making becomes not a vehicle for telling stories but one for selling things. Editorial decisions are taken based on merchandising opportunities. There really is no need to redesign the lightsaber; it was pretty much perfect from the beginning. Except we all own a straight one, so it needs to be changed to ensure we all buy new ones. For those excited by having a customizable energy sword, remember, we all salivated over Darth Maul’s double-ender, and look how that turned out.
Then there’s the new chrome Stormtroopers. They look awesome, but then I can’t think of a single object in my house that wouldn’t look better in chrome. They are essentially the same as what has come before. This is also true for the orange and black X-Wing and the Tie Fighter with the “Go Faster” stripe. Lego has faithfully reproduced the models, but we already have them, just in different colors. Now I’ll probably have to buy them all again. With Lego the problem feels particularly acute, as virtually all the models end up in a giant tub waiting to be re-purposed for different things. In our house, which film version the bits came from is irrelevant after about two weeks of the original box being opened.
The droid from the new film, “BB-8,” is garnering lots of love and attention from all quarters of geekdom, and I concede he is very appealing. I just can’t shake the image of a Disney focus group with pictures of R2D2 and Olaf, and a brief to create “Rolaf the Snow-Droid.”
The problem isn’t confined to Star Wars. Avengers: Age of Ultron devoted many minutes of cinema just to showcase Ironman’s Hulkbuster suit, a scene that added nothing in terms of story and could have been handled in a much more interesting way. Then there are the scenes that made no sense, added in to keep the machine rolling forward.
Even children’s television programs are at it. All of my children love(d) The Octonauts. It’s a great show but every new episode now seems to come with a new vehicle, which shortly afterwards becomes available in the shops. Thomas and Friends, stories I loved as a child, has merely become a procession of execrable stories, each with a new train that can be converted in to cold hard cash.
It’s great there’s been a rampant explosion in geek acceptance, but I am uneasy that it is being driven by marketing departments. The geek dollar is strong. We’re often upwardly-mobile with disposable incomes. We also have a tendency to be obsessive collectors. A typical geek is a marketing department’s dream target and they are using our desires to milk us for as much as they can.
I probably sound like a man moaning that he feels sick from consuming too much fois gras and champagne. My concern is that the bubble might burst. That the hyper-production of geeky films will over-saturate the market. Quantity will overwhelm quality. Original thought will be pushed out in favor of the tried, tested and proven to sell.
Star Wars did not become a cultural phenomenon because of its ability to shift units. Marvel became popular because of its ideals and ideas, not because of its propensity to sell action figures. For me geekiness is about the creative process. The creation of something that people of a similar nature can buy into with their minds as well as their wallets, whether it be space operas, superheroes or swords and sorcery.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the occasional splurge on film related merchandise. I’d be lying if I pretended I didn’t. It’s just that events like Force Friday make me feel like I’m in the playground again, where the having is the most important thing. I don’t want my passion for something to be measured by how much money I’ve spent.
I believe that geekiness is more than just about the accumulation of things. It’s about the power of the imagination. My favorite geek-things are built, not bought. Cosplayers leave me in awe, as did fellow GeekDad Randy Slavey’s Portal Bedroom. The host of games creators toiling away at the Kickstarter coalface, for the love of what they are doing–they capture the essence of geek. The way in which geeks everywhere rallied around Ahmed Mohamed shows that many of you feel the same way.