I caved into peer pressure. I saw “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”—just like everyone else in the world—when it hit theaters in December. I didn’t want to go (pause for horrified gasp) because there would be blasters and giant Death Stars and lightsaber duels and reluctant heroes and endearing aliens and the Force and in the end everything would work out exactly like it should. Good would conquer evil, and George Lucas would pocket my cash. Turns out, I was right (minus the lightsaber duels).
The only surprising part of the movie was the previews. Every trailer teased a franchise movie. Sure, I expected a Marvel preview or two (you can’t seem to escape them nowadays), but every single trailer? “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2”! “Pirates of the Caribbean 5: Dead Men Tell No Tales”! “Transformers 5: The Last Knight”! (It’s a wonder Hasbro Studios hasn’t been sued for false advertising; I thought the last “Transformers” movie had heralded the “age of extinction.”) It was a mind-numbing barrage of banality as I sat waiting to see the eighth installment of the Star Wars Saga: Attack of the Franchise.
Sprawling multi-media behemoths have become the norm of today’s entertainment scene. The Marvel Cinematic Universe—with 21 films, 30 TV shows, and who knows how many action figures—has grossed over $10,909,062,400 in the nine years since “Iron Man.” Star Wars has netted $7,604,654,505 in its 42 years of operation, Harry Potter a modest $8,533,398,468. With “Batman vs. Superman” and “Suicide Squad,” DC Comics is following the trend. Oh, I forgot to mention the desperate let’s-split-the-final-movie-into-two-parts franchise-bid of Twilight and Hunger Games. Thor help us!
There’s a reason these franchises work. They’re familiar, sometimes to the point of nostalgia. We feel comfortable with the characters, villains, music, visuals, and storylines. We know what to expect. I buy the same cereal every time I go to CVS because I don’t have the time or money to risk anything other than Honey Bunches of Oats. Am I really going to gamble a Friday night on some mysterious stand-alone film I might not like?
But there’s danger in complacency, for both the artist and the audience alike. Plot lines become repetitive excuses for another jackpot blockbuster. “The Force Awakens” become “A New Hope” with a female lead and better special effects. Spider-Man gets three reboots in 15 years. A new alien (even more powerful than the last) invades the world and we need another swaggering hero team with good looks and clever quips to take him down. Artistic quality is sacrificed for box office quantities. Plot lines are stretched, characters contorted, and the same banal themes rehashed ad nauseam because a familiar brand keeps the audience coming back for more. Innovative filmmakers are pushed from the market, and audiences are neither intellectually challenged nor artistically intrigued. Jaded movie franchises are coasting on their brand names to commercial triumph.
Established in impregnable popularity, these films don’t need to be good anymore. We’re all going to see the next Avengers movie because it’s the next Avengers movie. It’s become a cultural staple. Massive success has introduced moral hazard into the film industry, threatening the creativity, novelty, and authenticity that made that success possible in the first place. Brand-name films are riding their own momentum into mediocrity.
Is the same thing happening at Harvard?
We were accepted into this college as students who, according to the admissions website, “stretch [ourselves],” “[work] to capacity,” and “have initiative” through our passions. But now that we’re in, now that we’ve made it here, it’s tempting to ride the Harvard brand to victory (especially with a 98 percent graduation rate). It’s tempting to give a decent effort in classes and extracurricular activities, finish with a decent GPA, have fun on the side, and let the Harvard diploma do the rest. One of my Class of 2020 peers said it best over dinner in Annenberg: “A Harvard degree is the best insurance policy you can have.” Choosing a concentration, challenging yourself, and producing high-quality work doesn’t matter. Harvard is a franchise, and the brand name ensures your commercial success.
But is that why we’re here? To sit comfortably on a world-renowned name? The Harvard brand isn’t a security—it’s an opportunity. The insurance of established success should make us more willing to innovate, take risks, and push our intellectual capacities. It should encourage us to stay true to the character and attitudes that got us in. After all, if Harvard produces complacent graduates instead of dynamic scholars, it will risk losing the exceptional standards that made its name great to begin with. We didn’t apply to a name. We applied to a school.
Complacency is an easy―even reasonable―habit. If it weren’t, Star Wars and Marvel movies would be substantially more interesting. The trick for today’s Harvard students will be using established success as a springboard for even greater achievement, not as an excuse to settle for mediocrity.
Lauren Spohn ’20 is a Crimson Editorial comper living in Holworthy Hall.