This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
On the 26th March, Yahoo UK’s Tom Butler sat down with Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill for a brief filmed interview about Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice. Both Hollywood stars wore jumpers. Cavill looked relaxed and chipper. Affleck, on the other hand, wore the heavy-lidded look of someone suffering from jet lag.
It was that wan expression, as the pair were asked about the grim critical reaction to Batman V Superman, which saw the clip shared all over the world. As Cavill responded to the question (“What really matters is what the audience thinks…”), Affleck looked at the floor, unblinking. He appeared to nod gently as Cavill spoke eagerly, although it’s equally possible that he was just comforting himself by rocking backwards and forwards.
Within days, “Sad Affleck” had become a meme. This was thanks in no small part to a YouTube user who took a snippet of Affleck staring at the floor and laid a Simon & Garfunkel track over the top. Before the video was blocked for copyright infringement, it racked up over 22 million views on YouTube. At the time of writing, it’s less than a month since that original interview video was published on the web, yet the minor phenomenon it unexpectedly generated has already come and gone.
The Sad Affleck meme is the perfect case study for how rapidly jokes, images, and events can enter our consciousness thanks to the internet. There’s the initial seed of the idea – in this case, the interview; the evolution, which involved editing a piece of the interview and setting it to music, and then the rush of comments and general amusement as the meme takes hold. Sad Affleck even spawned a piece of merchandising – a shirt with multiple Affleck faces on it.
Before the web, pop culture phenomena took far longer to catch on. Take Star Wars, for example. Released on the 25th May 1977, the sci-fi fantasy created a clamor of interest among those who lined up to see it – intrigued, perhaps, by its snappy title and the exotic creatures glimpsed in its trailers. Yet Star Wars opened in just 32 theaters, with more due to be added over the preceding weeks; while it was perfectly normal for a movie to roll out gradually at the time, Fox had completely underestimated how popular Star Wars would become, and was forced to hurriedly rush out extra prints to send to theatres.
Within days, George Lucas, Fox and everyone else began to realise that audiences were beginning to warm to Star Wars in a way they hadn’t anticipated. Yet it would be another month before the true scale of its success began to be appreciated. “We were dismissing the lines on the basis that for the first three or four weeks it would probably be nothing but science fiction fans,” producer Gary Kurtz said in Chris Taylor’s book, How Star Wars Conquered The Universe. “It’s only after a month, and they were still there, that we realized it was becoming a self-perpetuating phenomenon.”
Star Wars’ late 70s spread wasn’t unlike that of a modern meme. The film spread as much by word of mouth as by its marketing, until the very fact that people were forming long queues to watch (and often rewatch) it soon became a subject of media interest all by itself. By the time the spring of 1977 had given way to the summer, Star Wars had become the definition of a must-see film – even those otherwise uninterested in genre cinema were going along just to be part of the cultural conversation. And with Fox still caught off-guard by the movie’s explosive growth, a burgeoning group of Star Wars fans began making their own unofficial badges and t-shirts.
To modern ears, this might all sound a bit quaint. We’ve now become so familiar with the current blockbuster landscape, where a major film makes the bulk of its money on its opening weekend before rapidly tailing off, that it’s difficult to imagine a film coming out of nowhere and becoming such a huge pop culture staple in 2016. The rise of home media – something still a small concern in the late 1970s – also makes the kind of repeat play Star Wars enjoyed a relative rarity. We might see an extended cut hit theatres on occasion (as Avatar did a while after its initial release in 2009), but not the annual Star Wars re-releases which paved the way for The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi in the early 1980s.
Compare the original Star Wars to last year’s The Force Awakens, which blasted past the $900 million mark in 50 days and has now been given its home release. Less than four months after The Force Awakens’ debut, Star Wars fans are already being asked to look ahead to the next big thing – Gareth Edwards’ spin-off Rogue One, out this December.
The simple fact is that, when it comes to entertainment – particularly of the geek variety – there’s more choice than ever. Whether it’s TV, books, comics, games or movies, there’s such a head-spinning amount of stuff to choose from that it’s more a case of trying to figure out how to fit it all into the average evening or weekend. The supply is huge, but the demand is clearly even higher; it’s no longer enough to have a Star Wars or superhero sequel every two or three years; Marvel quickly realized that filmgoers will happily go to the local multiplex to watch one every few months.
Other studios have, of course, cottoned on to this – which is why we’re getting Suicide Squad as well as Batman V Superman this year and Wonder Woman and Justice League in 2017. Likewise, Star Wars has swollen into a multimedia behemoth which will now take in annual sequels and spin-offs as well as the Rebels TV series and various related comics, games and other merchandise.
The irony of this quickening pace is that we’re often asked to spend far longer anticipating a movie than we are rewatching and dissecting it. The months (and sometimes years) leading up to a film’s launch are studded with posters, teaser trailers and set pictures, yet the movie itself generally has a matter of days to make its case at the box-office before it’s replaced by something else.
Now, this might piece might sound as though it’s devolving into “Old man yells at cloud” territory, but this isn’t my intention. In terms of geek culture, we’ve arguably never had it so good; the lively, global discussion surrounding movies and TV is what makes geekdom so exciting to be a part of. We enjoy combing through trailers for clues and sharing our theories on the web. It’s entertaining to speculate about what’s coming up next in our favourite comic or TV show, or argue about the relative merits of Jesse Eisenberg’s performance as Lex Luthor.
All the same, it’s worth pausing to consider that, as entertainment has become more plentiful and readily available over the past decade or so, the rate at which consume it and then set it aside has changed. Like internet memes, successful movies or TV episodes blaze spectacularly for a few days or weeks before they’re replaced by something else. The original Star Wars grew and grew over a period of months, its music, dialogue and imagery gradually permeating public consciousness.
Compare this to another sci-fi fantasy, Avatar, which became a huge blockbuster yet failed to linger in the same fashion. Jokes about Ferngully and other references to the film may have done the rounds in the first few months after Avatar’s release, but when was the last time you heard anybody quote a line from it? Do you often see someone walking down the street wearing an Avatar t-shirt?
In the 21st century, it’s not individual films or other bits of content that have a lasting impact, but the brands of which they’re a part. Few people quote from Iron Man 2 on a daily basis, but just about everyone in the world is familiar with Marvel. Talk of The Force Awakens will soon be eclipsed entirely by Rogue One, but the Star Wars brand will remain an ever-present constant. Maybe this is why Cameron’s decided to make no fewer than four sequels to his 2009 hit – to make a lasting impact in our high-speed modern consciousness, you have to build a brand.
Today, we’re used to gorging on pop culture rather than savoring every morsel, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But with our attention constantly shifting from one blockbuster to the next a few weeks later, it does seem as though entertainment is being processed and cast aside with increasing rapidity. It’s hardly surprising, then, that smaller, quieter films like Midnight Special or Eye In The Sky fight to be heard over the din of other franchises clamoring for our attention. With so much stuff whizzing past our eyes on any given day, the smaller, more nuanced movies have a greater tendency than ever to slip through the net.