The movie star is dead: What Bad Grandpa besting The Counsellor means for cinema

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The audience knows what it wants. And right now, what it wants is much-loved characters – like The Hulk and Jackass’ Bad Grandpa – played right. Sorry, Brad.

In its opening weekend, Bad Grandpa – the new stunts-heavy offering from the Jackass crew – made more than twice the amount as The Counsellor, Ridley Scott’s star-studded Cormac McCarthy adaptation. Why is this? Are audiences truly getting stupider, to the point of eschewing a film of such tremendous pedigree for one in which a man in heavy facial prosthetics allows his foot-long rubber testicles to dangle out of his underwear in front of a child playing his grandson? Have we truly lost our capacity to discern between moronic light entertainment and proper art? Well, I contest that this just proves that audiences are a lot more switched on than we critics give them credit for.

There’s been a real shift in the audience’s priorities; we’re now more interested in the character than the star

Now bear with me. The titular ‘Grandpa’ of Bad Grandpa is a pre-existing character called Irving Zisman, an elderly man played by Johnny Knoxville. Zisman has, over the years, become something of a fan favourite amongst the Jackass audience, to the extent that they felt he would be able to carry what negligible narrative the film possesses himself based on his connection to a pre-existing audience. Johnny Knoxville the celebrity is unrecognisable under the heavy prosthetics used to make him appear elderly – it’s Zisman the fans want, the fictional octogenarian, not Johnny Knoxville.

Contrast this with the publicity for The Counsellor, touting the stars’, director’s and writer’s names heavily, but with very little lip-service given to plot or character. We can see that there’s been a real shift here in audience’s priorities; we’re more interested in the character than the star, or more accurately, more interested in charting a character’s progress between one media to the next than a famous actor’s unaccompanied cultural value.

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Zisman isn’t a great example of this process, because he possesses very little depth or interest – he’s more of a gag than a character himself. No, the true mark of this change is the continuing march of the staggeringly successful superhero genre, which seems to have utterly done away with the concept of the ‘Hollywood Star’ entirely. With the exception of Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L Jackson and the recently-reformed Robert Downey Jr, The Avengers – easily the highest-grossing superhero film to date – possesses few big-name stars.

The Avengers’ most popular characters were played by little-known character actors. But the audience deemed them successful

Its most popular characters, the characters audiences are clamouring to see in spin-off television shows and films, were played by hard-working character actors like Mark Ruffalo, Clark Gregg and Tom Hiddleston. Recognisable faces, yes, but not stars, not until they managed to encapsulate the actions, personalities and value systems of pre-existing characters being hotly scrutinised by fans. The audience watched, evaluated, and deemed them successful, not because they’re handsome or controversial, but because they managed to draw out precisely the elements that audiences felt were most important to their respective character’s pre-existing character arcs.

The two most recent Superman films are even better examples of this shift. Both films were heavily criticised, and not for the inclusion of an untested and relative unknown in the title role, but because, as films, they failed to encapsulate Superman as a character. For instance, following Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, complaints poured in from fans that Superman didn’t fight a super villain. Fair enough, Superman has super strength and can shoot lasers from his eyes, who wouldn’t want to see him fight something big and nasty enough to put those capabilities to the test?

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However it was the criticism levelled at Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel that truly brought home the point; audiences were disappointed that Superman didn’t save anybody, that he didn’t care about collateral damage. This is because, in the character’s progression from one medium to the next (comics to cartoon to television), he has been scrutinised to the point that we, as an audience, have been able to identify common and, now, sacrosanct character traits that he simply must possess.

Bad Grandpa’s success represents our progression from a celebrity-worshipping audience to active readers of a multi-media process

We have become narrative arbiters of these characters’ filmic depictions thanks to our ability to codify the multi-media yarn being spun about them. They have become democratised items thanks to us. Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson survives the events of The Avengers because we willed it, with our love for him, our ideas about his chance of survival and ability to plan contingencies and our persistent Twitter-based intrusion into the culture of film. So when you gripe about Bad Grandpa’s undeserved box-office success as I know you will, oh discerning reader, just remember that he represents our progression from a celebrity-worshipping, homogenously passive audience to individual and fully clued-up active readers of a multi-media process.

 

Featured image: 20th Century Fox

Inset images: Paramount; Marvel

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