It’s not been the finest month for old-age powerhouses at the US box office. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s comeback film proper, The Last Stand, made a disastrom. His old sparring partner Sylvester Stallone might have looked in better shape after his successful Rambo and Rocky resurrections of recent years, but his revenge thriller Bullet to the Head did even worse: only m. Bruce Willis took the safest course, sticking to a tested property for his A Good Day to Die Hard, and came out tidiest: m and counting. But that’s still John McClane‘s worst performance on home turf (even before inflation-adjustment).
The results cast serious doubts about the future viability of the 1980s head-boy brigade – especially Schwarzenegger and Stallone, who are respectively eight and nine years older than Willis. It’s the first clear sign that age might now be working against them – except in cases where they make a song and dance of it, like in meathead-carehome franchise The Expendables. Not only are the Hollywood trio battling their own bodies, their dimming star wattage, and perhaps the diminishing importance of star power itself, they also have to contend against a little commented-on feature of the American film market: a marked prejudice against anything old.
It’s not just action stars saggy of pec who are affected, but drooping concepts, too; sequels, especially. If you examine the returns for repeat instalments, something quickly becomes apparent: franchises tend to run out of steam faster at the US box office, and hold up better internationally. Die Hard, to take an example at hand, follows the pattern, with a couple of unexpected swerves:
1. Die Hard, 1988 (m US domestic/m overseas)
2. Die Hard 2: Die Harder, 1990 (m/m)
3. Die Hard: With a Vengeance, 1995 (m/m)
4. Live Free or Die Hard, 2007 (m/m)
5. A Good Day to Die Hard, 2013 (m/m)
The US domestic gross drops away as the titles get more comical; apart from the store of good faith that buoyed up the first sequel in 1990, and a resurgence of interest after a 12-year-gap for the fourth film (which perhaps also explains the slight drop in overseas box office for Live Free – the franchise had to reintroduce itself to a vastly altered international landscape). The fifth film hasn’t finished its global run yet, so it should finish nearer the fourth’s take.
The US domestic gross quickly levels off, or falls away as sequels pile up; growth is sustained longer abroad. That’s the rule here, and it holds true more often than not. It’s correct for The Expendables followup, Spider-Man, Batman and Men in Black. Shrek and the Ice Age menagerie have seen the same trend. This tendency almost seems counterintuitive: the received idea is that US audiences, the same ones who run screaming from arthouse and subtitled films, are fundamentally risk-averse and conservative. Actually, in the mainstream commercial arena, they’re the most discerning, driven by an appetite for fresh spectacle and novelty, more easily becoming impatient with shopworn formulae.
The sequels rush has been fuelled by overseas markets: by the need to create franchises that insure against the risk of launching a film in culturally diverse territories. One way of interpreting the international audience’s greater appetite for sequels is that, at blockbuster level, most countries are passive consumers for what Hollywood puts out – rather than producing their own spectaculars. If you’ll pardon a colossal generalisation, they are sometimes in an aspirational position vis-à-vis US culture; films and attitudes that might seem cheesy or ripe for iconic comment in the States – like John McClane’s yippie-kay-ayisms – often haven’t passed their sell-by date abroad, so the potential for repeat business is higher. The noughties fantasy and sci-fi films spritzed with eau de Matrix (like the Resident Evil series) are good examples. They are strong international sellers, with a long box-office half-life for any sequels. Ditto the overseas march of the emptily stylised Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters: big hauls in Russia, Mexico and Brazil – three strongly capitalistic markets, with a low share for domestic films, that tend to drink Hollywood’s Kool-Aid flavour of the month. If anyone is huffing and puffing for a Hansel & Gretel sequel, blame these territories.
Such are the hand-me-downs the US offers to the world. Mainstream America, though, always demands nothing less than the newfangled, the brightest and the best. It’s hard to prove definitively that this disregard for used goods is what scuppered Schwarzenegger and co’s latest round of films (their shaky quality could have been the clincher). How the brawny triumvirate do with their films of the next couple of years should tell us whether they’re at the mercy of wider cultural forces or not.
If they are, then perhaps America simply can’t bear to watch its former bristling star quarterbacks thick of waist and out of breath. It might just say too much: that US culture is hitting superannuation point at the same time. One of its biggest tricks of the last decade – in the name of ushering in the new expected by domestic audiences – has been returning to the old: the tidal wave of nostalgia-borne remakes, almost as if American culture wants to climb into its Hot Tub Time Machine and experience its own genesis, as if for the first time. The paradox put me in mind of a famous line, currently ringing out hoarsely from the end of Baz Luhrmann‘s The Great Gatsby trailer: “Can’t repeat the past? Why – of course you can.”
• Next week’s After Hollywood will look at the gulf between arthouse and mainstream in Romania. What global cinematic stories would you like to see covered in the column? Let us know in the comments below.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Seit 1996 bin ich freier Mitarbeiter der Salzgitter-Zeitung, als Experte für das Geschehen im hiesigen Kreisfußball. Daneben sind meine Kolumnen seit 2005 fester Bestandteil im Lokalteil der Salzgitter-Zeitung. Zusammen mit Frau und Tochter sowie zwei gefräßigen wie faulen Stubentigern versuche ich das zu meistern, was das Leben, das Universum und der ganze Rest an Absurditäten für uns bereithalten.