Last Action Hero is both ahead of its time and perfectly positioned *within* the era it was made, such is the paradox of a forgotten curiosity of 1990’s action cinema and the stratospheric career of Arnold Schwartzenegger.
Here’s my story and why I’m writing about Last Action Hero some twenty five years on from its release. I was 11 years old when Last Action Hero was released in cinemas, in the US one week after Steven Spielberg’s decade-defining Jurassic Park. In theory, I was the perfect age to consume a film which is entirely about the youthful obsession of a similarly-aged child, Austin O’Brien’s Danny Madigan, with action adventure cinema. Jurassic Park I badgered my parents to take me to see three times yet I didn’t go anywhere near Last Action Hero. It didn’t even register with me. It has taken me until age 36 to actually sit down and watch it, and this is after spending at least the last twenty years being an enormous fan of Schwarzenegger’s movies and career. Last Action Hero was always the Arnie film I missed.
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is my favourite story in all of fiction. Honestly. For all the hundreds of movies or TV shows I have seen, or books I have read, it always comes back to Dickens’ story of cold-hearted London businessman Ebernezer Scrooge and his Christmas Eve haunting by the three spirits who show him the error of his ways, and teach him to be as good a man as the good old world had ever seen. It’s a timeless, beautifully structured, gloriously heartfelt narrative which doesn’t just imbue the meaning of Christmas—a time we all take a breath and enjoy the people in our lives—but what it means to be a good human. With any great piece of fiction, an innumerable amount of takes and reinventions are destined to lie in its future – which leads us right to Scrooged.
Richard Donner’s comedic take on the Dickens legend feels particularly apposite in terms of the age it was written. Scrooged is post-Wall Street, the epitome of Reagan’s corporate America, hence why the choice is made to reinvent the character of Scrooge for a new age in Bill Murray’s vicious, irascible Frank Cross and make him a powerful TV executive. Everything about Frank’s life speaks to the consumerist, vacuous nature of entertainment the 1980’s truly gave birth to – he is a Scrooge for the MTV generation, appropriately. Donner’s film therefore provides a new way into Dickens’ story, which traditionally is adapted as either a straight TV or cinematic version of the 19th century parable, or a modern, updated take on the character of Scrooge.
The difference with Scrooged is that Dickens’ story is a construct within Frank’s existence itself; he may be presented as a modern Scrooge, and experience the same essential journey and epiphany as the character of Scrooge does, but the ‘meta’ approach to Scrooged sees an adaptation of A Christmas Carol as part of the story itself, with Buddy Hackett no less as an improbably accented Ebernezer. This creative choice makes Scrooged read as a satire on Christmas entertainment, as well as Dickens himself, while also playing out the same redemptive beat for the character of Frank. Everything about the film is done with a knowing wink of the eye and tongue very much in cheek. Even the title suggests Dickens is being *done* to our main character.
With the advent of Justice League, many fans and commentators are once again discussing the concept of the ‘Cinematic Universe’, given the formative attempts by DC Comics over the last several years to emulate the rampant success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the first truly successful and revolutionary cinematic model of an overarching mythological world of characters and narratives informing one another. Inevitably with the internet, it’s leading to a war of trolls – Marvelita haters and DC sceptics waging a pointless conflict over territorial ownership and trying the answer the utterly subjective question – ‘which is better?’. For every critic who tells you the MCU is technically stronger as a tapestry, you’ll easily find more than enough ‘DCEU’ defenders to race in with their Amazonian swords and claim everything Marvel has done is powerfully overrated. There can be no victor in such a battle.
In truth, discussion of the Cinematic Universe has never gone away. Hollywood and the blockbuster movie system has been utterly consumed and dominated by the power of a connected storytelling model, following the template Marvel Studios laid down. It has arguably changed the very fabric of the cinematic franchise. Following the essential advent of the ‘blockbuster’ in the mid-1970’s with Jaws and of course Star Wars, it took Hollywood a while to truly embrace the idea of creating what we accept as a ‘franchise’. Sequels had always existed – we can go back as far as 1916 indeed for the first recognised follow up, Thomas Dixon Jr’s The Fall of a Nation, which carried on the story from DW Griffith’s historically polarising The Birth of a Nation – but it was truly the 1980’s that gave birth to the notion of a franchise, once Star Wars developed sequels to George Lucas’ game-changing original movie and developed an entire cinematic eco-system around the property.
Sequels, nonetheless, remained *sequels*. Film number two. Taking the characters and situations from the first successful picture and moving them in new directions, though not always. Many sequels in the 80’s and 1990’s simply re-trod all of the same beats people loved about the first movies, mostly with diminishing returns. That’s what made The Empire Strikes Back so powerful; it took Star Wars and those characters truly in new, challenging directions and forever altered their destinations. Not every sequel took such a bold leap forward for its characters and narrative. Many played it safe, an accusation oddly levelled at some of the recent cinematic universes which were born out of the ashes of continuing storylines.