On February 9th, 1997, “The Simpsons” surpassed “The Flintstones” to become the longest running prime-time animated series in television history. To mark the occasion, the show cooked up a brilliantly timely episode about brand extension and obsolescence. In “The Itchy & Scratchie & Poochie Show,” the ratings on the long-successful “Itchy & Scratchy” cartoon have fallen off a cliff. Searching for a way to revitalize its stale formula, executives create Poochie, a Frankenstein monster of test-marketed stupidity: a rapping surfer dog who’s “a half Joe Camel, a third Fonzarelli.”
Advertising ensures a massive audience for Poochie’s debut, but the character is so horrifyingly inane that the same executives who demanded his creation immediately plot to get rid of him. Desperate to save his job, the voice of Poochie — Homer Simpson, naturally — offers a room full of of “Itchy & Scratchy” writers these helpful suggestions:
“One, Poochie needs to be louder, angrier, and have access to a time machine. Two, whenever Poochie’s not onscreen, all the other characters should be asking ‘Where’s Poochie?'”
Homer’s pleas fall on deaf ears and Poochie is eliminated, but the “kung-fu hippie from Gangster City” still lives on in spirit at our modern movie theaters, where an increasing and alarming number of movie sequels look like they were designed according to Homer’s specifications. They’re grittier, more violent, and, weirdly, often involve time travel. As brands replace big stars and good stories as cinema’s most valuable commodities, filmmakers find themselves increasingly hamstrung by the need to extend franchises past the point where their original creators and stars (and logic, and momentum, and character motivation) have bowed out, inspiring bizarre, series-extending plots where new heroes basically run around yelling “Where’s Poochie?”
Consider the latest and possibly the most egregious example, “The Bourne Legacy.” Matt Damon didn’t want to make another film about amnesiac secret agent Jason Bourne and his battles against corrupt government forces, but Universal Pictures was understandably hesitant about killing off one of their most lucrative cash cows. Without Damon’s involvement, they concocted “The Bourne Legacy,” featuring another Bourne-esque super-spy named Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) on the run from the same(ish) corrupt government forces. Cross is Homer’s dream of the ultimate Poochie: with his memories intact and a series of genetic enhancements to his muscles and brain, he’s a louder, angrier version of Bourne. He also might have a time machine; this 2012 movie travels back to 2007 to retcon him into moments between scenes of the final Damon Bourne, “The Bourne Ultimatum.”
Renner is a fine action hero, somehow gruff and sensitive all at once, and his haunted countenance goes a long way toward filling in the gaps in Cross’ backstory — which is fortunate since the movie spends way more time on the minutia of its former hero’s life than with the basic ingredients of its current one’s. Cross is almost totally irrelevant to the actual plot; he’s only here to provide the requisite action beats between the scenes of characters talking about Bourne (who isn’t around to provide the requisite action beats himself). The whole thing is one gigantic contradiction: while the CIA scrambles to cut any and all ties to Bourne, the filmmakers scramble to invent ties between Bourne and Cross. “Legacy” is less a movie than a placeholder designed to keep a franchise warm until Matt Damon wants to return to it.
2012 has been the year of Poochified sequels right from the get-go. On January 20th, Screen Gems released an unusual film entitled “Underworld: Awakening,” the fourth installment in the werewolves-versus-vampires franchise. The series’ primary heroes — vampire Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and hybrid Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman) — had already departed for greener career pastures before the third “Underworld,” 2009’s “Rise of the Lycans”; “Awakening” brought Beckinsale back into the fold without her co-star. This time around, Selene gets captured and imprisoned, and awakens twelve years in the future (Louder! Angrier! Access to a time machine!), where she goes on a man-wolf-vampire-hunt for the missing Corvin. Sadly, she’s in for a long and fruitless search; how’s she going to find a guy when the actor who plays him isn’t even in the movie?
Earlier this summer Sony gave us “Men in Black III,” in which Will Smith’s Agent J travelled back in time (Louder! Angrier! Access to a time machine!) to save his missing partner K — played in the first two films, and a couple scenes of this one, seemingly at gunpoint, by Tommy Lee Jones. The time travel story was basically just a confusing means to an end: namely as a way to write out Jones for most of the movie (“Where’s K?!?”) and to create a younger protagonist who could either reteam with Smith again or headline his own spinoff “MIB” series set in the 1960s.
Brolin’s presence in “MIB III” appears to be part of a tangential trend pertaining to big budget sequels: introducing new actors and characters to long-running franchises in order to establish viable backup plans for future installments. It’s the movie star equivalent of a fire extinguisher in a glass case; in case of sequel emergency, break glass. The last “Indiana Jones” famously included Shia LaBeouf’s Mutt Williams who, George Lucas repeatedly threatened, could be spun off as the star of his own future sequels (“Indiana Jones and the Search For the Lost Indiana Jones” perhaps?). Likewise, “The Dark Knight Rises” ends just as — SPOILER ALERT — Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character prepares to take up the mantle of Batman as Gotham City’s next caped crusader. If Robert Downey Jr.’s salary demands get too high for “Iron Man 4,” Marvel’s already got a potential replacement: Don Cheadle’s War Machine. And, of course, Renner himself has already played a Poochie-like figure before, as Tom Cruise’s sidekick-cum-understudy in last year’s “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.”
One of Renner’s few genuinely compelling scenes in “The Bourne Legacy” involves a brief flashback to Aaron Cross’ life before the CIA decided to liquidate his organization. He’s in the field with his superior officer, Col. Eric Byer (Edward Norton), in the immediate aftermath of a morally questionable military operation. In order to assuage the soldier’s guilt about their actions, Byer tells Cross that they are both “sin-eaters,” the people who do our nation’s dirty work so the rest of us don’t have to. “We are morally indefensible,” he tells Cross, “and absolutely necessary.”
Byer might as well be talking about the movie we’re currently watching — and about all sequels burdened with The Poochie Legacy. But what does it say about our world that “The Simpsons”‘ indictment of idiotic groupthink now seems more reasonable than the decisions of actual movie studios? At least the “Itchy & Scratchy” staff killed off Poochie.
The sum total of all these sequels about missing characters is a pervasive sense of malaise at the multiplex, a place that feels increasingly defined by absences. A ticket to “The Bourne Legacy,” after all, is a ticket to not see Matt Damon, or to kind of see him, or to see someone who sort of looks and acts like him in a plot that looks like something he would do. Most modern blockbusters are exercises in nostalgia; they take popular childhood properties from the ’70s and ’80s and update them on the big screen (Louder! Angrier! Access to a time machine!). But instead of satisfying our collective nostalgia, Poochie sequels create it, presumably because the only way to satisfy it at that point is to release more sequels.
The thinking behind these movies goes something like this: “We have a proven audience for Property X. We know people like it and we know we can sell it, so let’s find someone else to carry on the Project X name and convince people it’s exactly the same thing they enjoyed before.” Poochie sequels are sort of like New Coke; they look exactly like the product you’ve always known and loved, but something ephemeral about them has changed. The constant references to past, better films just serve to remind us how far these franchises have fallen.
One last note about “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” episode of “The Simpsons.” In addition to breaking “The Flintstones”‘ prime-time record, the episode is famous for another reason: it introduced the Comic Book Guy’s legendary catchphrase “Worst episode ever!” The two milestones might be related. There’s more to say, but I have to go now. My planet needs me.