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Cynical Hollywood Has Forgotten the Power of Joy

They just don’t make movies like they used to.” That’s a common sentiment these days. You don’t need to wade too deep into conversations about the entertainment industry to discover a dissatisfaction with the uninspired fare Hollywood is belching out each week. In fact, a simple glance at the box-office numbers paints a clear picture, with a steady stream of high-budget blockbuster movies bombing as audiences demonstrate their displeasure by keeping their wallets closed.

Are movies actually getting worse? If so, why?  

Are Movies Getting Worse?

In one sense, the deteriorating quality of films is partially an illusion. The current movie industry always seems inferior to what came before. As a guy who worked at a video-rental store in college, trust me that there were plenty of awful movies back then too. But we only remember the good ones. Years from now, people will likely remember films like Avatar, Top Gun: Maverick, Avengers: Endgame, and Christopher Nolan’s filmography while conveniently forgetting lackluster Marvel shows and soulless Disney adaptations. To measure the worst of today against the best of previous decades will always leave the scales slanted to the latter.

Yet criticism that today’s films lack the quality, originality, or competency of past greats is valid. Advances in technology has altered filmmaking and arguably contributed to a decrease in quality. CGI has become a lazy crutch, making films look glossier, more artificial, and less immersive than they did decades ago.

Famously, the mechanical shark in JAWS worked less effectively than intended, forcing Steven Spielberg to rely more heavily on suggestion than on spectacle. The result was one of the greatest, most tense blockbuster films ever made. Less is often more, even when technology can deliver “more” with increased ease. It’s notable that many of the most trusted figures in the industry, such as Christopher Nolan and Tom Cruise, are celebrated for their “old school” moviemaking.

Another factor is volume. Films and TV shows have gone from “art” to “content,” creating a gluttonous loop in which audiences are worn out by the constant stream of entertainment rather than exhilarated by it. There are many reasons why audiences are growing fatigued by the entertainment industry. One potential reason that receives little coverage is the tone. It’s not just that audiences have become cynical toward Hollywood; the entertainment industry itself has become increasingly cynical. Movies may not be objectively worse than in the past, but they feel noticeably less joyful.  

Gritty & Cynical

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny begins with an extended opening sequence featuring a de-aged Harrison Ford. After this fun throwback, the film transitions to many years later when the famed archeologist is a grumpy old man in a reclining chair, broken down by the hardships of the world and dealing with the painful separation from his wife. Mortality is a fact of life, but there is something sad about seeing an archetypal hero brought so low by the scars of the real world. The controversial Rian Johnson-directed The Last Jedi took a similar approach with Luke Skywalker. No longer the idealistic hero, Luke had become world-weary, cynical, and broken.

At the time, the depiction of Luke Skywalker was a lightning rod for passionate criticism and discussion. In hindsight, it was merely among the first pebbles to trickle down the slope of a rockslide. Since then, countless films have followed suit. Today’s filmmakers seem intent on rejecting the initial wonder that drew audiences toward a character or property and instead revisiting them through cynical adult eyes.

A glaring example is the current fixation on childhood toys and icons. Director J. J. Abrams recently shared that the Hot Wheels movie (yes, they are making a Hot Wheels movie) will be “emotional, grounded, and gritty.” Just what audiences expect from a movie based on those fun, $1 toy cars we collected as kids.

Likewise, a movie based on Barney, the purple dinosaur who taught kids to love one another, will be returning to screens soon, but not how you remember him. One of the execs involved recently shared:

“We’re leaning into the Millennial angst of the property rather than fine-tuning this for kids….It’s really a play for adults. Not that it’s R-rated, but it’ll focus on some of the trials and tribulations of being 30-something, growing up with Barney—just the level of disenchantment within the generation.”

Even the upcoming Barbie movie has been marketed with the slogan, “If you love Barbie, this movie is for you. If you hate Barbie, this movie is for you.” The filmmakers are seeking to toe the line of celebrating the classic doll, while also probing problems and discontentment with the toy.

A Spoonful of Joy

Obviously, there is a degree of cherry-picking involved in the above examples, but this seems to be the prevailing sentiment: heroes let you down, nothing good lasts, and the things that once brought you joy were actually more problematic than your naïve childhood self realized (all this and more for only $15 at your local, sticky-floored AMC theater!).

Notably, the recent films that have achieved immense success in theaters have diverged from the trend of cynicism. The Super Mario Bros. Movie was a box-office phenomenon. A recognizable IP and a boatload of goodwill only contribute to first sale tickets; but a film doesn’t make $1.34 billion on that alone. Audiences returned because it unashamedly celebrated something they loved. It was joyful, and joy is contagious.

The same might be said for Top Gun: Maverick. Decades had passed, but Maverick avoided the “Luke Skywalker” treatment. He was a happy guy with a need for speed, not a depressed loner needing to rediscover his purpose in a harsh world.

To be clear, movies can do far more than offer comforting or diverting entertainment. Movies don’t all need to be idealistic, escapist fantasies. The early Pixar movies are celebrated for striking a delicate balance between exploring the challenging parts of life as well as the joys and wonders that make it worth living.

Infusing joy into movies is not the same as cheap fantasy or idealism. Adding joy doesn’t mean ignoring hardships; it’s about rejecting the cynical, nihilistic mindset that suggests that such hardships are all there is. It’s about accepting that it’s okay for the heroes of our past to lead happy lives, experiencing victory until the end. It’s okay if beloved fictional couples stay happily married. Occasionally, we can celebrate the uncomplicated joys of our nostalgic past. Films can inspire us to rise above the mire of everyday life, not just remind us that pain is unavoidable, and even heroes ultimately succumb to the same dreary fate.

Rejecting the notion that children should be sheltered from violent or more mature stories, C. S. Lewis once wrote, “Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book.”

Stories should reflect the realities of life—both the painful and the heroic. By focusing on the cynical and painful, today’s movies are not more realistic than escapist tales; they are merely slanted toward the other extreme. There is goodness and joy in the world. Stories used to be a powerful vehicle to remind us of this liberating truth. Until present-day storytellers rediscover this purpose, audiences will remain trapped in a joyless loop; cynically consuming cynical “content” even as we enjoy it less and less.

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