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Diminishing Returns (or Killing the Sacred Cow) Part II

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A movie franchise, a series of books, or a band  figure out exactly what the audience wants, the product they create is huge, but at the same time pretty much dilutes what was special about the product in the first place.   Everything that follows is weaker than what preceded it.

The following are some examples of this phenomenon, when an artist (or group of artists) create something that is both the best thing and then, inevitably, the worst thing for their art.

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

Mike Myers hit it out of the park, comedically if not box-office-wise, with this 1997 spoof of 60’s spy movies.  He created not one, but two of the most original comic characters of the last 20 years, and comparisons to Peter Sellers began flying.  In fact, Dr. Evil became the breakaway favorite of this movie- there was no shortage of people putting their pinkie finger up to their mouths and saying “One million dollars!” Actually, there were a lot of Austin Powers imitations, too, but I can’t seem to remember any of them. Of course, when it came time to make the sequels, Myers gave us more Dr. Evil- that IS what we wanted, after all, right?  And if we liked Dr. Evil, we were going to love Fat Bastard!  And Goldmember!  By the end, both the characters of Dr. Evil and Austin himself seemed to be forgotten, drifting about in a series of recycled jokes.  This is one of those movies where the two sequels damage the quality of the original, which in its time, was just that- original.  And really, really funny.  And a movie I will probably never see again.

Lethal Weapon 2

Speaking of watering down your original characters by the addition of cast members, lets take a look at the Lethal Weapon series.  The original dealt mainly with Riggs and Murtaugh, two mismatched LA cops who were tasked with taking down a heroin ring. Riggs seemed honestly unhinged, and Murtaugh, as the family man, was a great counterpoint to that. There were funny moments, but by and large, Lethal Weapon was more of an action/drama than an action/comedy.  When Lethal Weapon 2 came around in 1989, the creators shook things up by adding more comedy and Joe Pesci to the proceedings, and the movie fired on all cylinders. It is one of those sequels that a lot of people think top the original.  Adding Pesci was a great idea for this movie- it gave Riggs and Murtaugh a new dynamic to their relationship and it didn’t seem like they were recycling the chemistry from the first movie. Plus, the three of them together were really funny.  So… the key to the success of this franchise must be adding more comedy and more cast members?  Lethal Weapon 3 and 4 were pretty embarrassing, with the addition of Rene Russo and Chris Rock, plus keeping Pesci around although there was absolutely no reason to do so. And the “comedy” became pretty unfunny fairly fast- the scene in Lethal Weapon 4 where they are trying to get a Chinese mobster to talk through dental laughing gas?  Jebus.

Beastie Boys’ Ill Communication

Ill Communication found the Beastie’s peaking for a second time.  After the huge success of License to Ill, their fantastic second album Paul’s Boutique went largely unnoticed by the masses. In 1992, they came back with Check Your Head– and they were playing their own instruments!  This album put them back on the map, but more importantly, it was the third time in a row that that band had recreated itself from the ground up. So in ’94, the Boys released Ill Communication, and the world was more than ready to embrace them into its collective bosom. Never mind that it sounded a whole lot like Check– the songs were there, and cool as ever. Also, “Sabotage” had what must be the greatest video ever attached to it. However, there was also a song on it called “The Update”- MC’d by MCA, it was all about environmental concerns.  Now… putting your beliefs into your lyrics/rhymes isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and the B-Boys should be commended for their stands against domestic violence, the environment, and George W. Bush.  Its just that it had a tendency to get a bit preachy, reaching its nadir with To the Five Boroughs, which was a basically an album-long critique of the politics of the Bush administration.  There have been great stuff on Beastie albums post-Ill, but that album was the first signal as to where the band was heading- records that are more responsible but definitely less fun.

Return of the Jedi-

Ewoks.  What more needs to be said about these little guys?  Teddy Bears mingling with Han Solo and co.?  Was this the same series that ended Empire Strikes Back with one of the darkest cliffhangers in movie history?  Again, Teddy Bears of the forest?  George Lucas decided to finish up the original trilogy in a much more kid-friendly way, and fans (rightfully) haven’t stopped bitching about it since. The miracle is that he managed to barely pull it off- Jedi remains a pretty good (if not great) movie, although it is the least of the originals. Remember, the first half of the movie is all Jabba, and that’s great.  Plus, the three-pronged climax provided one of the most relentless and exciting finales of the entire series. Also, it was a huge hit, thus it can be assumed that audiences loved that it was more kid-friendly, right?  The next trilogy really suffered from this attitude- Anikan “Ani” Skywalker’s pod-race?  Jar Jar Binks?  Christ.  Our beloved Star Wars saga had been dumbed down, and Return of the Jedi was the beginning of the end.


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