Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Great Movie Easter Egg Hunt

When I was watching "Spider-man: Homecoming," I was struck by how many little cameos, in-jokes, references, and homages were packed into the film, from the old 1960s cartoon theme song making an appearance during the opening credits, to former Spider-man candidate Donald Glover in a minor role, to the AI of Peter's Spider-man suit being voiced by Jennifer Connelly, who in real life is married to Paul Bettany, who voices JARVIS, the AI of the Iron Man suit.  

These were just the Easter Eggs that I caught myself.  When I went online after the movie, I found a staggering list of additional ones.  Apparently every thug that Spidey runs into during the film is a version of some future supervillain.  The school principal is a descendant of one of the Howling Commandos from the first "Captain America" film, which you'd only know if you managed to catch a glimpse of a photo in his office.  Even the license plates on some of the cars are issue numbers from the "Spider-man" comic book.  And then there's the incredibly obscure "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" reference.

Now, these Easter Eggs in "Spider-man: Homecoming" were handled well, and weren't distracting.  If you didn't happen to catch them, it didn't have much impact on your enjoyment of the rest of the film.  However, there have been many instances lately of Easter Egg heavy films handling these elements badly.  For instance, I think this is a big reason why the "Ghostbusters" reboot was such a clunker.  It felt like every five minutes, the movie had to stop dead in its tracks to acknowledge another famous face dropping in for a cameo, or to not-so-subtly point out another reference to the original film.  Or then you had the "Beauty and the Beast" remake, which seemed terrified to do anything differently than the animated version.   

I can't really blame the writers though.  Frequently, these Easter Eggs generate some of the most discussion about a film.  Watchers of remakes and reboots often are anticipating homages, and there's been a sort of gamification of the viewing experience, as filmmakers are now actively encouraging audience members to pore over every scene in search of the more obscure ones.  In PIXAR movies, we know to be on the lookout for the Pizza Planet truck, A113, and references to other PIXAR films.  Quentin Tarantino films frequently use the same brands, and many of the characters are distantly related to one another.  Fans have spent untold hours figuring out ways to connect disparate films together into vast cinematic universes, often based on the flimsiest of pretexts.

The internet culture around many big movies and television shows is a big reason for the greater scrutiny of media minutiae.  Fans love trivia and sharing trivia, and for a certain segment of them, the more obscure the better.  I noticed a few years ago that trailers were being taken apart frame by frame practically the minute they were released.  It's common now to find Youtube videos and articles detailing the specifics in exhaustive detail.  Filmmakers are responding in kind with more challenging Easter Eggs because they know that the fans are willing to go that extra mile to find them.  The creators of "Westworld" found out last year that even the tiniest clues, like a slightly different logo in a certain scene, could spill the beans on their big twist weeks in advance.  

Mostly, I don't think there's any harm to the greater proliferation of Easter Eggs when they're done well.  Both the filmmakers and the audience members seem to enjoy them.  The trouble comes when the writers lean too hard on the nostalgia, and get too attached to certain elements, leading to some reboots feeling like going down a checklist of all the good stuff from the original.  The reason the "Spider-man: Homecoming" references worked so well was because most of them were practically invisible.  Even if you didn't know that the two student newscasters were based on journalist characters from the comic book, they still worked fine as comic relief.

Personally, I'm not the kind of fan that goes looking for Easter Eggs, but it is fun to spot them when I do.  

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