The post-mortem on the 2016 summer blockbusters does not look good. While a few superhero titles — such as Captain America: Civil War — made a splash with moviegoers and scored big at the box office, most of this summer’s tentpoles were a disappointing bag of reboots, sequels, and spinoffs that sank like stones with the public.
Given how much excitement there seems to be around familiar properties, the results might leave observers perplexed. How could gigantic, expensive movies programmed to be mindless summer fun — the majority of which were based on lucrative, pre-existing franchises — be so mind-numbingly awful? How did we end up with drivel like Independence Day: Resurgence, X-Men: Apocalypse, and Suicide Squad?
Good news: There are answers. We can make sense of it all. We just have to look in an unorthodox place: The “Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” of The Simpsons.
The nearly two-decade-old 1997 episode of The Simpsons is eerily prescient. Aired during the show’s eighth season, it’s is a 20-minute meta-commentary on the idea that a long-running show like The Simpsons would eventually struggle to stay original and relevant (even more confounding considering The Simpsons is still — for better or worse — alive 20 season later).
In the episode, Bart and Lisa’s beloved cartoon, Itchy & Scratchy, has hit an all-time low in the ratings. The boring and repetitive storylines of each ultra-violent adventure seem to blend into a tedious and predictable slog that is — gasp! — forcing kids like Bart and Lisa to actually peel themselves away from the TV to go outside and play for once. The show’s curmudgeonly host, Krusty the Clown, gives Itchy & Scratchy’s creator, the equally irritable Roger Meyers Jr., an ultimatum to fix the show or face cancellation.
Meyers and his Itchy & Scratchy studio executives soon hold a focus group with fans like Bart and Lisa, but they quickly find out that their viewers don’t necessarily provide any intelligible feedback.
“So you want a realistic, down-to-earth show thats totally off the wall and swarming with magic robots?” asks the perplexed moderator, after taking the kids’ suggestions. It’s up to Lisa to deliver a hard truth to the executives: “Theres not anything wrong with the Itchy & Scratchy Show. Its as good as ever,” she says. “But after so many years, the characters just can’t have the same impact they once had.”
This episode is obviously about The Simpsons itself, but it also applies to Hollywood today, which is reliant on repetitive, franchise-based blockbusters. Yes, the X-Men movies are lucrative and generally well-liked, but after so many years of watching the same kind of $200-million mutant spectacle, the excitement and charm has started to dissipate.
These blockbusters — and The Simpsons at the time — seem like a tragic product of their own success. As Krusty screams in a later scene, “This ain’t art, it’s business!”
Another equally fascinating comparison is derived from what Meyers and company do next. To keep Itchy & Scratchy relevant, their master plan is to create a new character named Poochie, a gimmicky canine companion voiced by Homer.
“We at the network want a dog with attitude, says a buzzword-happy studio executive. “You’ve heard the expression ‘let’s get busy.’ Well this is a dog who gets ‘biz-zay,’” she says to a room full of dumbfounded cartoon writers. Later, she suggests to Poochie’s designers that they should “Rasta-fy him by about 10 percent or so.”
The idea that studios could simply drum up excitement for a seemingly edgy new character parallels the stale offerings of the wannabe summer blockbusters of 2016. The same kind of lazy studio meddling seemed to be to blame for something as indolent as Independence Day: Resurgence. You can just imagine a board meeting where someone gets an unearned round of high fives for suggesting that the plot of the sequel should be that the aliens attack again — but cause even more damage.
The Simpsons episode then goes a step further by foreshadowing today’s entitled fan culture and impossible expectations that perpetuate such studio interference.
It first it lampoons impossibly nitpicky comments from fans, like when a comically stereotypical nerd asks Homer at an Itchy & Scratchy signing event: “In episode 2F09, when Itchy plays Scratchy’s skeleton like a xylophone, he strikes the same rib twice in succession, yet he produces two clearly different tones. Are we to believe that this is some sort of a magic xylophone or something?”
June Bellamy, Homer’s fellow voice actor co-star, turns to him exhausted, saying, “I can’t deal with these hardcore fans.”
When the big Poochie episode finally arrives, Krusty introduces it with a grossly overwrought prelude in a tone familiar to highly excitable blockbuster fanboys: “Once in a great while, we are privileged to experience a television event so extraordinary, it becomes part of our shared heritage,” he says, comparing the Poochie episode to man landing on the moon.
When the fans of Springfield finally get a look at Poochie, the characters contrived catchphrases and canned coolness forces the deflated viewers to react in disgust.
Like the haphazard style of this summer’s Suicide Squad, which also had a comically prolonged rollout and a disorganized tone, Poochie is nothing more than an inorganic product of a desperate attempt at giving fans what they think they want. “Poochie was a soulless byproduct of committee thinking,” Lisa says to console a downtrodden Homer. But the people making these bad TV shows and movies aren’t all to blame.
Later, Comic Book Guy (The Simpsons’s spot-on exemplar of fan entitlement) labels Poochie’s appearance as the “worst episode ever.” He suggests to Bart that because he is a loyal viewer, the creators of Itchy & Scratchy owe him compensation for watching the terrible episode and he said, “I was on the internet within minutes registering my disgust throughout the world.” Bart offers a meta-retort:
“I know it wasn’t great, but what right do you have to complain? They’ve given you thousands of hours of entertainment for free,” he says. “What could they possibly owe you? I mean, if anything, you owe them.”
Of course, audiences pay for tickets, so the analogy doesn’t perfectly apply; they don’t owe studios anything. But as long as Hollywood continues to be confounded by the desires of audiences, summer blockbusters are likely to not get much better.