Why They Are Wrong about Optimism

The news came across my feed: between the first and second weekend, The Last Jedi had dropped $150 million—largest drop in the history of film. This happened, even though, of the reviews published before the movie was released, all but two praised it to the sky. The critics loved it.

Some fans loved it.

But other fans hate it. So much so that more than 65,000 have signed the petition to declare the movie un-canon and ask Disney to issue a new Episode VIII.

The same thing has been going on with Star Trek. Star Trek Discovery has some admirers, but it has lost the hearts of many who have been devote Star Trek fans for years. And the same thing has been going on with comic books and with DC superhero movies.

All these series laud their new direction. Those speaking for them say that the franchises have “grown up”, “adjusted to the times”, “become more mature.”

In case you don’t speak their jargon, that’s code for: the new versions are cynical. They mock or deconstruct the very thing that made the show beloved to begin with.

Why would they do this? I am beginning to wonder if it is partially because of lack of historical context. The implication is: “The older shows were overly simplistic, from a simpler age. We know better now.” But anyone who says that does not remember what moves were like back when Star Trek and Star Wars first came on the scene.

The 60s and 70s were not a simple time of optimism. They were quite cynical. There were movies like Crazy Larry and Dirty Mary—where the thieves get away with the crime and then, at the very last minute, are hit by a train and die for no reason—or Taxi Driver, the only movie I’ve ever walked out of, or a whole slew of movies like Deerhunter, about how crazy vets might snap at any moment.

Back then, many movies were subtle shades of gray, cynical and “mature.” And most of those subtle, cynical, and mature movies? I bet half the people reading this haven’t even heard of them.

They certainly aren’t still selling millions of dollars of toys forty year later.

But Star Wars and Star Trek stood out. Why? Because they brought hope. Episode IV, as the original Star Wars is known now, really was a New Hope.

There are many cynical SF movies out there. Some of them look splendid, but most of them aren’t remembered—except by aficionados. Cynicism is great for a quick kick in the pants. It can make people gasp or sneer. But it very seldom stays with us, unless we remember it in our nightmares. It certainly doesn’t give us something that is still inspiring our lives and careers decades later.

Hope is not naïve. It is not from a simpler age. It is not unsophisticated and childish—unless the story is badly written.

Hope is the thing we need most when the age around us becomes cynical. Hope is the power that cuts through the darkness. It is the thing that lasts when everything else fails.

Superheroes, Star Wars, Star Trek—they have all flourished because they brought us heroes—hope. When you kill the heroism, the hope, you kill what makes these stories strike our heart. Using the same names and costumes might allow them to eek along for a little while, but few people are fooled for long.

Which is why they stop buying tickets.

If you want a story to last, you need heroes. You need a light in the darkness. You need hope.