Twinkle, Twinkle: The Allure and Paradox of “Superstars”

Pumbaa: Hey, Timon, ever wonder what those sparkly dots are up there?
Timon: Pumbaa, I don’t wonder; I know.
Pumbaa: Oh. What are they?
Timon: They’re fireflies. Fireflies that, uh… got stuck up on that big bluish-black thing.
Pumbaa: Oh, gee. I always thought they were balls of gas burning billions of miles away.
Timon: Pumbaa, with you, everything’s gas.

The Lion King

At the New York Comic-Con this past year, I was coordinating with my party so we could all enjoy as much of the convention as possible. I told my best friend that meeting Felicia Day was the number one goal on my itinerary, then Jerry Lawler, this one chick from Battlestar Galactica whose name I can’t remember, and maybe Eliza Dushku if I felt like starving instead of buying food. Sitting in panels or, you know, buying comic books, wasn’t important. My friend, however, didn’t want to meet anyone.

Not because he doesn’t like the shows, but he doesn’t feel drawn to the “celebrity” like I am. He shares the same sentiment with my brother-in-law: Fuck you, I’m the one you should thank, I’m the one whose autograph you should ask for, because I pay your paycheck. It’s a perfectly logical sentiment, and in fact that’s what a smart person would say. Unfortunately, I’m a fool.

Later that day, I did meet Felicia Day, and her voice, poor girl, was worn out because she had been talking to fans all day. I paid $40 and I could barely hear her. But somehow, I didn’t mind it. I didn’t care, it was Felicia freakin’ Day. My friend went with the rest of the group to get autographs from the developers of BioShock: Infinite and promptly decided to give it to his cousins back home. Me? I hoard all my autographs.

I’m a sucker for celebrities.

The Celebrity

Among other things that the Twilight franchise is known for, it’s catapulting the careers of several young Hollywood talent into superstars. The films altogether have made well over $2 billion at the box office worldwide, images of Taylor Lautner, Kristen Stewart, and Robert Pattinson permeating everywhere. Although the films have left critics somewhat cold, many predicted the rise of the aforementioned leading performers. They have the look after all, and time is on their side. In ten years, these people will still be around, and we’ll still be paying to see them. Well, okay, maybe not you or me, but we as in the world? Yeah. We will.

…or will we? And if we will, why?

It’s not what you see. It’s who you see.

Taylor Lautner became a leading man in the 2011 film Abduction, an action-thriller on a $35 million budget. It’s a lot of pressure for an actor of his age, but many believed his Twilight fame was secure enough to make back the surprisingly high price tag. Unfortunately the Twi-hards did not show up, and the movie suffered in the domestic market, making only about $27 million in its opening weekend.

This special case is indicative of a much larger trend that has been going on for decades. Our obsession with “stars” is baffling yet logical, and our obsession has been looped right back to the Hollywood system, where somehow it succeeds and fails. I don’t know what to call it. A paradox?

Professional wrestling operates much in the same way as Hollywood (kind of), and it was here where I learned about the power of the star. There is something in wrestling called the “it factor,” an intangible filter that identifies who can be great, and who can be a superstar. The word “superstar” has often been ridiculed by wrestling purists, a symbolic rejection of Vince McMahon’s mission to marry mainstream entertainment with “pro wrasslin.” But nine times out of ten, those “wrestling purists” were probably drawn in initially by a “superstar,” like Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, or Ric Flair.

What makes a “Superstar”?

The “it factor” is very, very hard to pinpoint, and most of all it can be very subjective. The best way to describe the “it factor” is an aura. The person has presence, charisma, the room is drawn to them. Many people can have an “it factor,” they don’t need to be celebrities or athletes. They can just be people you talk to everyday. Do you know someone who is fun to be around? A person in your own life that you love listening to? Or someone you know can engage you in a great discussion while simultaneously having fun? That is “it” and it is translated into the mass media in the form of celebrities or media personalities.

A superstar, however, has more than just “it.” They have a larger-than-life attitude or personality that leaps off the screen and into your hearts. That is one of many reasons why people, including myself, are drawn to professional wrestling. We feel the aura of these men and women and we follow them for years, like sheep to a shepherd.

Very, very aggressive shepherds.

In many ways, celebrities promote themselves, their movies, and even vice-versa like a branded product.

Brands?

Our society is inundated with “super brands.” If you recall my previous post on advertising, I linked to several videos that investigated marketing and branding, in particular No Logo and The Persuaders. In short, many brands don’t just sell computers and shoes, but sell experiences. For example, Nike prides itself as being the embodiment and experience of sports. Sports leads to athletics, which leads to a healthy lifestyle. You buy Nike shoes not because you need shoes, but because you want to experience the feel of being an athlete who rises up to his or her daily challenges, and succeeds. Nike isn’t just a shoe, it’s health and success.

Taylor Lautner doesn’t sell Taylor Lautner, he sold the experience of Taylor Lautner. That is, an exotic-looking, handsome youth with rock-hard abs who embodies the 21st century ideal of masculine beauty. He’s a throwback to the cute boys your mom crushed on in high school, and the collective embodiment of all the guys that made high school for guys like me a living hell.

Hollywood “Superstars”

How does this all translate into movies and television? Easy. Like sheep, we follow certain personalities and brands like we do a friend. We like them on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, read blogs about what celebrity is wearing Chuck Taylor Converses (seriously)… They’re not just a movie star or pro wrestler. They’re a friend.

I cannot for the life of me recall where I learned this, so if anyone reading this can point to me where I will gladly appreciate it: In a documentary concerning the celebrity (I think that was it), a (social psychologist? media critic? journalist?) theorized that in the rise of the middle-class desk jobs, where we are surrounded by cubicles and cut off from our coworkers, we filled in these empty relationships with people we’re familiar with from the media. We’re happy for Tom and Katie, worried about Brad and Angelina, mourn the break-ups of Nick and Jessica or Ashton and Demi, and we all learn this from tabloid magazines or entertainment news outlets we check during lunch hour. Now, granted, it’s a pretty good theory, but to me it has its flaws, especially since some of the biggest celebrity stalkers I’ve heard don’t even have a job. Still, it’s logical enough to make sense.

Celebrities aren’t just people we admire like a religious figure, or a model to mold our lives from. They’re friends. And we support our friends, right?

This support is what Hollywood banks from. To ensure that a project will have enough success, investments are made. Thus, Hollywood utilizes the “star system” to get “friends” (celebrities) we know and are familiar with to make up for a movie that may fail — and understand that any movie, any, can fail.

It’s why Garrett Hedlund will be Kaneda and Kristen Stewart is in the lead to play Kei in the upcoming Akira remake. The spirit of Twilight… will be in Akira. Yup. Although off-topic, I do want to point out the near lack of Asian-American actors signed for this project, except Ken Watanabe as The Colonel. Considering this film’s status as a remake, I fear they may remove any sense of decency the original character had, but that’s just my pessimism talking. Another topic for another day.

Here’s a piece of cold, hard truth for you: Hollywood kind of doesn’t give a shit about what you think. Sure, Hollywood does depend on your money to operate, but that’s the problem. The above “brand experience” I talked about in correlating with celebrities? They don’t care. What they see are financial patterns of success/failure. Twilight made money? Awesome. So let’s get that Bella chick to play the lead in this American remake of a science-fiction cyberpunk anime that dealt with adolescence and youth, rebellion, government corruption, and psychic awareness in a post-apocalyptic future that echoed cultural anxieties that only Japan as a nation felt they endured at that time. Sweet, bro!

Look, we’re not entirely powerless. If there’s anything 2011 has proved to me, is that the people do hold the power to incite change. You just have to know how to play the game.

If fans didn’t speak up, this picture wouldn’t exist.

Getting The Gang Together: “The Super Friends” Movies

The culmination of the star system, a system that is surely hitting past the threshold where newer stars will be needed as the older ones retire, is something that I liked to call the “super friends movies.”

N-no. No.

You know these kinds movies. You’re excited for them. You can’t wait. They’re all on your “must see 2012” list for sure. These are the movies that gather the stars together for the big payday, hoping to bank on the laundry list of stars they’ve gathered for one screening. You’re not getting just two or three, but seven, eight, or more. You know what these movies are.

Here, let’s play a game. It’s my favorite. It’s called, “Which Movie Made Over $215 Million Worldwide And Took The #1 Spot In The Domestic Market?”

This should be a question on ‘Scene It?’

Answer: Both.

This trend in movies that hoards a bunch of “our friends” for one movie has etched itself as a special kind of movie in Hollywood today. It transcends the theater experience into an event, and I have to admit it: I’m a sucker for it. I often cite seeing Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and The Expendables in one day as one of the best movie-going experiences I’ve had, and I was lucky enough to share it with several of my friends at the time. In 2012, The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises are released, movies that also live up to the “super friends” trope. It’s not even 2012 yet and already I’m out $20 and change.

2011 did prove that the formula can be a failure, as New Year’s Eve raked in only $13 million its opening weekend, and that very weekend was the lowest box office record since 2008. But if one failure is enough to stop a trending steamroller, then the world’s attention span has… ooooh!  …gone to hell.

I can’t help but feel somewhat responsible. I actually kind of love these big movies (okay, except for the romantic comedy ones, and that’s not because I have a penis). No, to me, it’s the event. The gathering of all these personalities that transcend the screen on their own. To get them all in one is a formula for a nuclear explosion. Look above at my own banner. Most of them are pictures of me with several “branded” celebrities. I often tell people movies are more than just movies to me, they’re experiences. When I watch The Dark Knight Rises this summer, I’m not in it just for Batman, the superhero. I’m in it because it’s Batman, the dark hero who goes against all odds in a corrupt Gotham City. The film is a monument to our anxieties of a 21st century community: we’re worried over terrorist threats yet we want all the soldiers home, we’re struggling over bills to pay and escape in our 60-inch flat-screens, we’re angry at the 1% yet can’t relate to the loud 99%. That is the experience of the Nolan trilogy, a summation of 21st century uncertainties, wrapped in a fantasy world that mimics our own. Truly, the Batman movies are the zeitgeist of our culture and entertainment.

And it’s filled with stars.

I can’t help but feel like I’m a victim of my own condemnation. I hate the star system, for it can prevent new and fresh talent from deserving their time. I hate how it acts as a filter for what is successful and what isn’t, as it is an incredibly flawed form of measurements. Another Katherine Heigl movie? Yay!

Yet, I can’t help but feel wrapped up in the experience, the brand. My “friends” whom I admire, gathering for one day to put on something special. The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers, I’m excited for them as much as the next guy.

I hate the system, but I love what it can bring me.

Paradox.

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