The Poppies of Terra #1 - New Ideas
By Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
Welcome to The Poppies of Terra. What’s up with the name of the column, you ask? Well, I’m planning to use this space to talk mainly about pop culture, and since that type of entertainment can be pretty addictive, the poppy seems like an apt reference point. So, poppies it is.
Also: I like evoking favorite writers whenever possible. Enter Thomas M. Disch. His second novel (original name: Mankind Under the Leash) was titled The Puppies of Terra in the UK. That always struck me as a title worth riffing on.
Finally, pointing to our shared Terran provenance in the title–to the best of my knowledge, everyone reading this will be from Earth–during these fractious times is not necessarily a bad thing. And if we happen to be overtaken by aliens or AIs during the colum’s lifetime, we can easily rename it The Poppies of Flarbellon-7 or The Poppies of Roxy or some such.
Hopefully, the column will be around for a while without the need for rejiggering. In fact, that seems like a good first topic to explore: our collective desire to keep the things that entertain us going for as long as they possibly can.
Informal studies show that best-selling books have been getting bigger (genre novels, most definitely). Likewise, box-office behemoths are getting longer. If we’re going to make an investment, it seems, we want it to count. But even books with a glut of pages or films with engorged running times are often not enough to satisfy our needs.
We want stories to go on and on and on–which means sequels, prequels, reboots, re-imainings, requels, spinoffs, crossovers, sidequels, interquels, intraquels, legacy sequels, tributary sequels, and my own personal favorite, spiritual sequels.
Despite marketing folks coming up with cutesy titles following pleading-for-respectability colons to distract us from the fact that we’re actually sitting down to consume the umpteenth iteration of styrofoam-narrative big-bucks product, 2023 is the Year of the Sequel.
Consider: Ant-Man 3 (Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania), Creed III, Scream VI, Shazam 2 (Shazam! Fury of the Gods), John Wick: Chapter 4, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Fast & Furious 10 (Fast X), Indiana Jones 5 (Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny), Insidious 5 (Insidious: The Red Door), Mission: Impossible 7 (Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One), Captain Marvel 2 (The Marvels), The Meg 2: The Trench, The Nun 2, Saw X, and Dune: Part Two. Incidentally, that adds up to 66. I’m sure in a few years we’ll break triple digits.
A few others are more stealthy in their approach, but nevertheless still count as series entries: the recent Children of the Corn is in fact the eleventh CotC movie, and the forthcoming Evil Dead Rise (somebody stop me from howling with Deadite joy) is the fifth Evil Dead movie. I’m sure I’ve missed ten or twenty others.
The sequel with the highest numerical title I experienced theatrically as a kid was Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. My dad took me to see it when I was eight years old and I loved every minute of it. As we exited the mall multiplex, I thought I would apply my newly acquired flying powers to soar down to the level below us. Wisely, my dad insisted we take the escalator instead. Thanks to his healthy respect for the force of gravity, I’m writing these words thirty-five years later.
I don’t remember if my eight-year-old-brain had any specific reaction to the fact that the Superman picture was part four. Did it add mystique to the proceedings? A sense of reverence? I know I’d watched the previous three movies–if I hadn’t, would I have experienced something analogous to FoMO?
Growing up in the 80s, series were most definitely around, but they didn’t dominate the pop landscape like today. Most of the films I watched growing up, and most of the books I read, were standalones. They were like poems. Brief encounters, amenable companions of the soul during a spry jaunt through the adjacent neighborhoods of imagination and possibility.
I think today we long for something more in our entertainment, because it’s something we’re getting less of in real life.
A sense of stability.
We want to build long-term relationships with the stories we love.
These narratives are no longer travelers quipping a few wisdom nuggets as they pass us by, cousins popping in for an amusing afternoon, avuncular presences coming into town to gossip over a long weekend.
No. They're settling down, moving in, and casting roots.
They're our new partners.
Pandemics may disrupt the world, relationships may come and go, jobs and domiciles may change, social media virality will ebb and flow, the weather might seismically swing, and the technology of our everyday lives evolve ever faster, but the odds are good that instance Twenty-Nine of your Universe of Choice will be reliably awaiting your pleasure, ready to engage at your command.
Who knows, maybe AIs will get to the point where they can produce permutations of beloved franchises that are customized for individual brains, maximizing pleasure for every imaginable set of neurons. We’ll both watch the one-hundred-and-fifteenth MCU movie over the weekend, but my version will have an ending that’s 3.3% sadder than yours.
Sequels are also inherently optimistic. They represent another chance. Another shot to get things right--or righter.
If the continuity of our conciousness is a story, today is yesterday's sequel. It's an opportunity to improve the tale, to make it more interesting before our minds go dark again for several hours--or, for that matter, permanently. You bet we want a tomorrow.
Is it inherently bad that a film or book is a sequel, or more broadly, part of a series? I don't think so. The axis I’m interested in is quality. Execution. The skill and care that went into its elaboration.
You might hold a different view. Maybe for you the stink of cynical cash-grab clings to these works. No matter how praised or financially successful, you just can’t get past the part where this is the second remake of the origin story of characters from a live-action adaptation of a set of graphic novels inspired by a video game based on a toy line created for a cartoon series that you didn’t even think was noteworthy in the first place. I hear you. Heck, I'll admit that as someone who watched every single sequel listed above shown so far this year in a theater, I’m part of “the problem.”
But as far as I’m concerned, if that means that more movies like John Wick: Chapter 4 are made, it also means I’m part of “the solution.” Pop perpetuation is our new High Table. In the film, the Marquis Vincent de Gramont espouses “new ideas, new rules, new management.”
Look how well that works out.