The long-awaited big-screen adaption of Stephen King’s epic The Dark Tower series is coming out this week, and I couldn’t be more confused. It’s important that you understand that I’m not shitting on the trailer. I think it’s ultra cool, and it makes me want to go out and get into a futuristic cowboy fight. I’m just having a really hard time making sense of … well, just watch the trailer so that you can be confused too:
So a cowboy who can load his gun very well and his child sidekick who presumably cannot have to stop Matthew McConaughey from something something the Dark Tower? It all seems like a bunch of words pulled out of a cowboy hat were turned into a trailer, with no one ever realizing they had to make a whole movie. It doesn’t do a great job of actually getting across the movie it’s selling — and what it’s selling is an epic tale about the tragedy of modern Hollywood’s over-reliance on preexisting franchises with enormous expanded universes that can be mined endlessly for material.
The weirdness of The Dark Tower begins with the fact that it isn’t an adaptation of any of the books in the series it’s based on. It’s a sequel to the books. Eight books, to be more precise. See, The Dark Tower is an epic fantasy-horror series, published between 1982 and 2002, that tells a mythical and philosophical tale that somehow manages to be the connective tissue between over a dozen of author Stephen King’s non-Dark Tower books, while never straying from ultimately being all about I don’t know what because I’ve never read the books, and that’s the problem here.
I’ve written about how difficult it must be for a newcomer to get into the Marvel Cinematic Universe at this point, and I’m kind of afraid that this movie is going to have the same problem. Massive franchises that sprawl countless movies are a chore, but it’s ultimately the film industry getting onboard with the longform storytelling that comic books, novel series, and TV shows have been doing for years. Of all the properties in Hollywood trying to pull it off, Marvel’s the only one that’s found any kind of consistent success — or hell, any kind of groove whatsoever. Most other shared universes feel like a blind stumble toward cinematic relevance, but somehow, Marvel hasn’t yet drowned in a pool of its own ambition. And a big reason for that is something I wasn’t even aware of until The Dark Tower put it into perspective: Marvel movies have no connection to Marvel comics.
The source material is a jumping-off point, nothing more than decades’ worth of inspiration that the movies parse at their convenience, like they’re squeezing fruit for ripeness at the grocery store. Even the Netflix and ABC shows aren’t too dependent on the events of the films to dictate their storylines. What the producers of The Dark Tower movie are trying to do is sneakily create a more ambitious and much crazier version of what Marvel has been meticulously plotting for over a decade. The Dark Tower is kind of, sort of taking the Marvel a la carte approach, but it also wants to be a direct sequel to its source material. If you want to unlock the full story, you have to read the 4,250 book pages that came before it — even more if you want to understand all of the books’ references to other King works that he tossed in there like bread crumbs in a lake shaped like his face.
At this point, I’m not sure whether The Dark Tower is a movie or a shitty smartphone game that hides most of its content behind microtransactions.
I have no doubt that the producers thought about all this before going into production. There will probably be a few wink-and-nod moments alluding to the massive literary dinner that this hors d’oeuvre of a movie is indebted to. It might even ultimately be a half-decent idea to try to sneak a huge series of movies into theaters stacked on top of each other wearing a trench coat. It’s what Marvel did with Iron Man. It’s a hell of a lot more subtle than the previous plan of a Dark Tower trilogy with two seasons of a TV show that would’ve bridged the gaps between each movie. That plan was trying too hard to retain the series’ original form. The Dark Tower we’re getting now goes the other way by not wanting to fully acknowledge what it is, which brings us back to Marvel. Specifically, Stan Lee.
“Every comic book is someone’s first” is a Lee quote and ethic that ran through every issue he oversaw during his time as Marvel’s editor in chief. Most of the time, it led to the first couple of pages of every issue sounding like the summary your friend would have to give you when you got back from taking a dump in the middle of a movie. At its most clunky, it was Spider-Man pausing his adventure to think about some dull thing he said to Aunt May last week. However, when elegantly executed, anyone could understand everything from the get-go without requiring a two-hour lecture on all the complicated relationships that spawned from the intermingling adventures of the characters.
The Dark Tower is flipping off that ethos while launching audiences headfirst into a mountain of dense, complicated narrative without a helmet like a drunken carnival worker. Even if it’s difficult for an MCU newbie to get up to speed, at least Marvel has a cultural omnipresence that infuses people with a rudimentary understanding of the major players involved. Robert Downey Jr’s face has been plastered on the side of enough Burger King soda cups that, even if you’ve never seen an Iron Man movie, you get the gist of what the dude’s about.
I don’t doubt that as an individual film, The Dark Tower might be good ol’ summer blockbuster fun. It’s all the baggage of Hollywood’s goofy fetish for franchises that it’s dragging behind it that makes it such a perplexing circus, especially considering the most absurd fact of all: The movie’s only 95 minutes long.
An eight-book series that spawned a canonical video game and a prequel comic series is now all acting as a prequel to the movie, which means the prequel comics are a prequel-prequel to the movie. And if the movie’s a hit, they want to make more movies and a TV show that’s a prequel to all of those movies. And the movie that’s supposed to contain all this madness is shorter than Air Bud.
I guess what I’m really saying is, it all seems excessive for a movie that looks like it’s a really expensive gun trick video.
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