How to Pull On 20 Years’ Worth of Pop Culture Memories (and Profit)

If you know, you know—and that’s what the latest Spider-Man is counting on.

Last month, I taught a three-week “crash course” in the Art of Communication and Presentation, our department’s general education course on public speaking. It was a class I’d had on my radar for a while and despite the compact period, I had a blast with it. It helped that part of my setup was getting the students to speak from their personal experience and studies, that way they were able to bring the content they wanted into the space and I could focus on helping them communicate it effectively. There were a number of standout presentations, but one hit particularly close to home: a brief informative talk on nostalgia and how it engages the “reward centers” in our brains. It was a perfectly timed because it spoke to something I had been stewing on for the whole month, namely the hat-trick of pop culture offerings trading on twenty-plus years of nostalgia: Spider-Man: No Way Home, The Matrix: Resurrections, and the Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts reunion. All three built on franchises that began in the late 1990s/early 2000s and all engaged, in some form or fashion, with what it actually means to be invested in said franchises. Warning: Spoilers abound.

Option 1: Bring It All Together

It was clear early on that Marvel’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, the third in Tom Holland’s (more or less) standalone stint as the friendly neighborhood web-slinger, was going to loop in some familiar faces from the past. The return of Doctor Octopus, followed by a bevy of other villains from two sets of previous installments, pointed to a clear strategy: use the studio’s multiverse angle to bring all of the previous Sony pictures into the lineup. But the villains, a conveniently Sinister Six in number if not in name, preceded the real pay-off: the return of Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield as the Peter Parkers of their own universes. The result is a film that very much lives in the house Into the Spiderverse built: heavy on spectacle, witty in its repartee, and surprisingly good at balancing a vast host of characters (truly, this is the exception that proves the “too many villains spoil the sequel” rule).

Annoyingly, despite seeing this move from a mile away, the sight of the Spider-Men of yore stepping through the portal and into the “official” realm of Marvel still made me a little giddy. It’s not surprising, really: the Maguire films in particular were a standout of the early superhero era and an easy plug into a new geekdom that was rising in power while I was still in Zambia. It’s hard to believe now but those original films were, along with the X-Men franchise, proof of concept for the unprecedented project Marvel would take on later. The team behind No Way Home knew about that capital and played into it in a few ways. The cheekiest was a series of meme references, my favorite of which is this post’s featured image (I wish I could say I rolled my eyes when Norman Osborne, newly arrived in the MCU, popped this one off, but I didn’t). It was cute, yes, but also very mindful of the internet cache ol’ Web-Head has accumulated over the past twenty years. More poignantly, No Way Home gives each Spider-Man a chance to rectify failures in his own universe. In Maguire-Parker’s case, that’s counseling Holland-Parker against the corrosive powers of hate and vengeance; in Garfield-Parker’s case, it’s pulling off the saving catch that eluded him in his second outing and led to the death of Gwen Stacy. Ultimately, those pay-offs fit nicely into the film’s overall theme of accepting the consequences of one’s actions and accounting for one’s mistakes.

Is the mix of convenient narrative callbacks, internet-friendly in-jokes, and retconning that puts to bed the long-running issues between Marvel and Sony partly cynical and maybe even part of a larger plan to open the door for future installments? You bet. Is it fan service par excellence? Absolutely. Is it done well? I certainly thought so. Of all the pieces I touch on here, Spider-Man: No Way Home knows exactly what it is doing and does it most effectively, partly because it supports all its throwbacks with narrative heft. Say what you will about Marvel and their sure-fire, high-dollar formula, but they know how to fine-tune their product.

Option 2: Call It What It Is

While the old superhero movies were great, nothing moved Teenage Jared quite like The Matrix. For all Adult Jared’s jadedness, I was ready to geek out all over again with The Matrix: Resurrections, and “all over again” is appropriate here because that is essentially what the new(ish) team in The Matrix has to do for Neo: re-rescue him from The Matrix and the gooey grasp of the bad machines. This is because Neo has, as we eventually learn, been resurrected (see?) and reinstalled into the Matrix itself. And how do they keep him trapped in his new reality? By making his alter-ego, Thomas Anderson, the celebrated creator of a video game called…The Matrix. Despite his previous successes, Neo – I mean, Thomas Anderson – is dissatisfied with his life. His therapy is going nowhere, his new game Binary is stalling, and he finds himself unable to work up the nerve to approach the lovely Tiffany (who we know as Trinity, also newly-entrapped in the Matrix). When a new set of unplugged freedom fighters breaks through to him, Thomas Anderson – I mean, Neo – has to figure out for himself what is real and what isn’t, even as everything he thought he knew about himself starts to unravel.

By recuperating Neo and bringing him back out of the Matrix, the franchise essentially allows itself to start at square one and replay some of the greatest hits both literally (through footage from the previous films) and intertextually (Neo and the new Morpheus have a rematch in the dojo that takes on a more explosive tenor). However, Lana Wachowski, flying without original co-creator Lilly Wachowski, uses that retread to make a more pointed commentary about, well, retreads. In this “new” Matrix, the very dense world-building, bendy reality, and innovative camera work that made the original film so iconic is also what seems to make Anderson’s videogame-within-the-film so iconic. One of the major subplots even sees executives at Anderson’s firm comically picking over the best way to reboot the franchise with new and progressively more ridiculous ideas. When the “real” Matrix starts to break down, even some of the emerging anomalies, such as Reloaded‘s The Merovingian, are aware of their role in a larger story and none too happy about. In short, Wachowski puts all the challenges of living up to the past and the reckless need to “innovate” in the service of making the old new front and center, all while hitting familiar emotional and thematic marks.

The Matrix: Resurrections doesn’t work as seamlessly as Spider-Man: No Way Home. The commentary is heavy-handed at times, the binary-busting rules that humanize rather than vilify the machines are confusing (though they do reinforce the franchise’s cache as a trans allegory), the whole enterprise is constantly teetering on the verge of collapse due to the weight of its own meta-ness, and even the action sequences seem a bit rote. Nevertheless, it takes guts to question the very foundations of the franchise that made you. Then again, in a marketplace so saturated with “the currency of intertextuality” and multi-media franchise building, maybe it’s a safer move than it might seem.

Option 3: Make Nostalgia the Point

At first glance, the Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts special on HBO Max is sort of an outlier in this post. Nevertheless, because the first film it celebrates debuted two years after The Matrix and one year before the Maguire-led Spider-Man, and because the special itself was released at around the same time as these other nostalgia-wielders, it merits consideration. That’s not because it introduces anything surprising, because it doesn’t, at least not to hardcore Potterheads. Instead, it stages a kind of emotional homecoming for most of the cast members and several of the directors who basically lived the franchise for a significant period of their lives. Origin stories, such as how the main three cast members were found; charming but embarrassing reveals, such as the “love letter” a young Daniel Radcliffe wrote to Helen Bonham Carter; remembrances of cast members past, such as Richard Harris and Alan Rickman—all intermingle with a grateful, intense, sometimes wide-eyed reckoning with the magnitude of their work and the enduring legacy of the franchise built by these artists. The production team even goes to great pains to recreate some of the old sets, or at least something like them, making it all seem like a suitably magical high-school reunion.

In my view, that high-school reunion feel the special creates is precisely the point of the exercise and precisely the mode of nostalgia the special wants to invoke. By watching the “real” Harry, Ron, Hermione, Sirius, Weasley twins, and even Voldemort reminisce about their Potter memories, the audience is invited to share in the same nostalgia by proxy. It’s like the old adage that podcasts are like sitting on a conversation with people you only wish you were friends: there’s a sense of closeness there, a shared interest and collection of experiences, yet it’s all unfolded for you by more beautiful and articulate professionals. The message seems to be “yes, this is special to us, too!” This is pointed for a couple of reasons. First, because it very consciously celebrates the enduring legacy (and profitability) of the franchise by gesturing to the very same kinds of family ties that many consumers have made through reading the books and watching the films. Second, and this is my own take here, it suggests at some level that it is still okay to like Harry Potter and to treasure the memories. This allows the franchise to pivot beyond the problematic reputation of creator J.K. Rowling, a notable absentee from the special, save for some archival footage. According to Rowling’s reps, the author declined to participate because her previous comments suffice. That may be true, but what is also true is the degree to which large pockets of fans have questioned their attachments to the franchise due to Rowling’s outspoken views on trans women. In short, Rowling has become the kind of troublesome figure who prompts tired “separating the art from the artist” debates and suggests to some fans that they need to apologize for their fandom. What the special does is shift away from the author and toward the communal exercise of bonding over the film. After all, if these professionals can do it, then so can you.

Ultimately, all three features brought up complicated feelings. There was genuine pleasure in revisiting the memories I have with these properties. There was criticism of certain story arc, characterizations, and framing devices. There was cynicism about the way nostalgia was being manipulated to suit my desires and shame for the way it worked so all. Most of all, there was a vision of how twenty years’ worth of pop culture memories can be reframed, successfully or unsuccessfully, for a new time while maintaining or even repairing the sanctity of the original. That it happened at such large scales and in such similar timeframes points to both the stakes of these kinds of endeavors and to a sense that, maybe, some sort of corner is being turned. Maybe mash-ups are the next thing—consider, for example, that Marvel’s multiverse is only just getting started. Maybe self-critical re-treads will be the norm—the internet has plenty of fuel for that. Maybe there will be a greater need to protect the legacy of a property by putting a human face to those who made our memories for us—after all, Harry Potter‘s is not the first reunion HBO Max has staged. Whatever the case, there’s a chance I’ll turn up for it, even despite myself and even if it is just for the biochemical rewards.

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