“You’re not sending me to the cooler!” – Victor “Mr. Freeze” Fries
Seven words that did something even The Joker couldn’t do after nearly 75 years – Kill The Batman. But you know the line. You know the voice. The intonation. The visuals. Its brrrrothers. It’s been 17 years since Batman & Robin hit theaters, destroyed a franchise, and essentially (thankfully) forced the existence of Christopher Nolan’s genre-changing reboot. It was terrible, but it’s hard to think of many other superhero movies that are more memorable than Batman & Robin.
I see enough movies every year that it is very difficult for one to stick in my mind. Even genuinely good movies can quickly fall into a mental fog of loosely connected scenes, visual motifs, and half snippets of dialogue. For a movie to break through that cloud, it needs to be either supremely good … or supremely bad.
Obviously, most people go into a movie expecting to make (or watch) something good (Sharknados of the world aside). But what about when the opposite happens? There are bad movies that fade into the aether, becoming just another in a long list of time wasters. But there are also those that drop out of the bottom. Films that are failures on practically every level, the incompetence of which becomes legitimately shocking, especially when connected to a major motion picture.
Yet isn’t there value in that as well? Even the responses to a really bad and really good film are similar – you want to share it with others, you want to discuss it (really relishing the minutiae), and you want to watch it again and again. This love of The Terrible produced one of the greatest cult shows in history (Mystery Science Theater 3000) and has even made its way to podcasts with examples like Rifftrax and How Did This Get Made?
There are few better examples in the pantheon of memorable-bad vs. forgettable-bad than latter day George Lucas. For the former, it’s doubtful that anything can or will ever compare to the Star Wars prequels. All of the good memories people have of the original trilogy have their dark side complements with the rise and fall of little Ani. That is not a positive legacy for a movie to have to be sure…but when you consider the unequaled love and adoration people have for the original trilogy, the similar passion the prequels inspired (albeit in an opposite direction) becomes downright remarkable.
Decades of history flushed down the toilet in one word – “No.” Or rather “Noooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!” It’s been 15 years since Jar Jar Binks first graced our cineplexes, and he’s still a point of reference for horrible things – though his approval rating is better than Congress’s. And unlike a lot of movies, the dialogue from the prequels sticks with you- “I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything is soft and smooth.” “From my point of view, it is the Jedi who are evil.” “Love won’t save you, Padme. Only my new powers can do that!” “They’re like animals, and I slaughtered them like animals. I HATE THEM!”
The three films themselves are the most amazing primers in how not to make a movie. From plotting to set design to character development to blocking, the new old trilogy fails on every conceivable level. Yet very few movies are as fun to dissect and analyze as they are. You can watch hours-long videos taking down the film and still notice things years after the fact. For example, when did The Clone Wars end? (Though let me rephrase the question – did The Clone Wars end?)
On the flip side, we have Lucas’s other disappointing return to a groundbreaking franchise – Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Crystal Skull. Yes, people hated it. Yes, it received the Plinkett treatment. Yes, it was a disgrace to Indy. Yet even though it came out three years later than Revenge of the Sith, it doesn’t seem talked about as much…probably because it’s merely forgettable-bad. Crystal Skull is made worse because of its relationship to the first three movies, but it’s more-or-less a competent film. Not a good film. A heavily flawed film. But it’s fair, and even has a couple of bright spots.
A film with enough memorable-bad elements can transition to forgettable-bad when there is some talent involved who can dilute the worst qualities and bring it to some borderline level of at-least mediocrity. This is what happened with Crystal Skull. For all of his recent missteps, Steven Spielberg still knows his way around a movie set. The script, problematic as it was, had other eyes on it (screenwriter David Koepp, from a story by George Lucas). And Harrison Ford is Harrison Ford. Once the initial disappointment wore off, Crystal Skull became just another background movie, neither crippling nor bolstering the franchise.
The prequels, alternatively, were a one man show – George Lucas all the way. Of course, with a lot of memorable-bad movies, it’s generally a single person calling the shots. Auteurs who have complete control over a production have the ability to force a project to fit their singular vision (as ridiculous as it might be) and to block out any criticism and naysayers. Sometimes this gives us Citizen Kane. Sometimes this gives us The Room, which itself has obtained mythic status. With the prequels, it was painfully obvious that Lucas was the only voice allowed to be heard, and that no one (probably not even himself) knew what he was saying. (Ed: It’s still remarkable to me that these videos were actually released as part of the Episode III promotional efforts.)
Young adult franchises have fallen into a similar trap of memorable-bad vs. forgettable-bad with the vast majority of them being the latter. Everyone wants to have the critical and commercial acclaim of Hunger Games or Harry Potter. Nobody wants the Twilight stigma (though they most certainly want its cash). But franchises such as Divergent, Percy Jackson, and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones never broke in the way the vampire-werewolf-“human” love triangle did. We know “Team Edward;” we don’t know what Tris is all about.
But much like the Star Wars prequels (and unlike its contemporaries), The Twilight Saga can be fun to dissect. The gender relationship and mental health issues it presents give the movies an unintentional depth that is absent in other genre fare. Also like the prequels, this franchise comes from the mind of a single auteur, the books’ author Stephanie Meyer (despite the Hollywood folks behind each individual film). It also ends up being a showcase for terrible performances from mostly talented people (Taylor Lautner being the Hayden Christensen of this franchise). Characters sit around doing nothing, repetitive conversations cause no plot movement, an inconsistent mythology changes from film to film, but its utterly laughable concepts actually become part of our pop culture consciousness. Or maybe I should just say “sparkles.”
Regardless of the project, countless people put a lot of time and effort into making something that they hope to connect with audiences. I’m sure the creators feel somewhat disappointed when their years of work end up with them vilified by the Internet community (myself included). But as a viewer, I think it’s kind of special when a movie turns into the epitome of badness. For better or worse, there’s something to be said for a moment or line that sticks with you and inspires you to spread it around, no matter where on the spectrum it falls.