Given that we're now midway through 2010, it may be a little late to go back and ponder the 2000s. But the release of Robin Hood set me to thinking about one weird trend of our deceased decade. I had all these epic ideas of completely explaining said trend (shades of college -- I will be the undergrad who discovers Shakespeare's Dark Lady!), only to find I'm at a bit of a loss for it. But it's worth talking about, anyway.
And if you're sitting here going "Is she going to talk about Robin Hood? What does that have to do with geekdom?" Well, good readers, folklore and history is full of geeks. It's our spawning pool. Without J.R.R. Tolkien and his love of dead language and desire for an English mythology, you wouldn't have hobbits. Without hobbits, you'd only have Robert E. Howard and his imitators, so it would be a much drier section of the bookstore. Besides, you don't need me to tell you geekdom is a giant hodgepodge of genres and ideas. (I'm sure I've frustrated many by focusing so much on comic books, but I've tried to be a topical columnist, and that's provided the most material. There's only so many vain hopes and misty retrospectives one can do, and this column hasn't lent itself well to either. My failing!)
Now, let me clear one thing up. I'm in the minority of actually really liking Robin Hood. But there's no doubt that it's the latest installment of a very tired and unappealing trend of explaining The Real Story Behind the Story. Again, let me stress I actually liked the movie, and dug Ridley Scott's little tweaks to the story. I've dug through enough dusty books to know Robin has never been one definitive story or figure. The earliest portrayals of him would shock everyone who has complained that Russell Crowe isn't their Robin Hood. But that's a better topic for a Motion History. (Shameless plug. But the online memory is short. I have to be a bit of a hussy!)
I'm not sure where this trend started. Part of me thinks it goes back to the 1990s, The X-Files, and The Matrix -- films and phenomenons that taught us to doubt the official stories and free our minds. I had this idea that the seeds of skepticism were planted in the 1990s, but didn't sprout until 2000. It was a symbolic and deliberate choice we took part in; a signal that we considered ourselves proud citizens of the future. It was a new millennium! We didn't need this old, musty folklore and legend. We rejected our silly Wild Wild West myths and revised it to match reality. Well, we could do the same with everything else. We didn't need magic and mysticism. It was time to reinvent old stories into something we could better identify with!
Well, that sounds good on digital paper (and I'm convinced it's probably at the root of it, somewhere), but that doesn't actually hold true when you look at film releases year by year. Our decade was dominated by two of the biggest fantasy franchises of all time -- Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings -- which suggests people had a real craving for high fantasy. No, neither one is pure mythology or folklore such as Robin Hood, but they draw heavily on them. So did The Chronicles of Narnia, which sparked less of a frenzy among moviegoers, but certainly speaks to that same hunger.
Instead, the trend seems to begin in 2004 with Troy. You remember Troy. It was kind of like the 300 of its day because of its similarly beautiful physiques. But it didn't spark catchphrases ('Hectoorrrrrrr!" just isn't as cool as "Tonight we dine in hell!") or come with merchandising. It was a flop. One of the biggest reasons it didn't light a fan fire was because everyone realized the Trojan War wasn't very interesting if you took the gods, goddesses, prophecies and magic out. It's really like every other war in history -- ugly, sad, and perhaps even futile.
Despite the obvious flaws in the trend, it persisted. King Arthur, Beowulf, Beowulf and Grendel, Tristan and Isolde, and now Robin Hood. One might even be tempted to throw in non-mythology films such as Becoming Jane or Hannibal Rising (the only times those two will ever be compared, ever) because they ultimately sought to ground their subjects in the real world with explanations for everything. Jane Austen couldn't have simply wrote Pride and Prejudice. She had to have actually lived it because there's no such thing as fiction or fantasy. (Hmmm. Maybe that's an offshoot we could call the Shakespeare in Love effect.)
My original argument was going to be that we're seeing the trend dissipate because we realized our collective unconscious cherishes the fiction. Stories like The Iliad, The Odyssey, and King Arthur have lingered as long as they have because we loved that they didn't take place in our world. We couldn't throw away all a long time ago, in a place far far away, because it was a necessary component to keep our imaginations flowing. My proof was going to be that we were seeking bigger and bigger heroes (Thor, Iron Man, Captain America) and returning to old favorites like Greek gods and King Arthur. But that doesn't hold true at all, particularly since the big superhero trend started in 2000. Granted, you could argue that most of them were based in some kind of sci-fi science (X-Men, Fantastic Four, even Batman Begins or Iron Man) but it's a slender argument. I truly don't believe Wolverine takes less of a suspension of disbelief than Excalibur. And if he does, how do you explain people embracing Gandalf and Harry Potter? You can't.
So, I've failed to do anything but note the brief rise and fall of a trend. (If it's truly over. The rush to make origin stories and prequels to films that don't need them suggests it's taking a new form.) But I think talking about it might be useful, at least as therapy. What does it say about our storytellers that so few realized the story is the story? Why did they delight in bringing us to the theater to tell us there was no Santa Claus? And what did we do as an audience to suggest that was what we wanted?