It often feels as though Washington has run out of ideas: Policy debates break little new ground — often they aren’t even about policy at all. To understand the creative malaise that plagues our nation’s politics, and the incentives that threaten to prolong it, consider for a moment the latest “Star Wars” film.
There are hardly any new ideas in “The Last Jedi.” Although it is not quite as slavish as its predecessor, “The Force Awakens,” in its devotion to the original 1970s trilogy, it consists largely of recognizable elements, remixed and recycled. There are familiar heroes and villains, rousing battles on land and in space, and of course, some cute alien animals, called Porgs, which, after you leave the theater, are conveniently available to purchase in whatever size plushy you prefer.
The movie is well made and occasionally stirring and even satisfying. But it is never more than cinematic comfort food, and like all comfort food, its appeal rests primarily on a combination of palatability and nostalgia.
Disney has made the simplest of blockbuster bets. If you like “Star Wars,” you’ll like more “Star Wars”: A stand-alone film about a young Han Solo is due next summer, and another sequel in 2019. Disney has lined up the writer-director Rian Johnson to concoct a new trilogy (though probably not too new) ensuring that the story — or at least the brand — lives on.
Hollywood no longer tells straightforward stories. Instead it creates universes — sprawling, interlinked franchises that serve as advertisements for themselves while rewarding die-hard viewers who return again and again.
Political pros might call it a get-out-the-base strategy. In movie-geek terms, it’s fan service. In either case, the intent is to stimulate well-known pleasure centers while never straying too far from the formulas that have worked, in many cases, for decades. And in both politics and entertainment, the benefits and perils of this model are, if not precisely the same, strikingly similar.
There are clear financial incentives for this approach: Major studios are making fewer films than in previous decades, and the films they are making cost more to produce and market. November’s “Justice League” is reported to have cost about $400 million.
Political campaigns, similarly, have become astronomically expensive. Last year’s presidential election cost an estimated $2.4 billion, including primaries; a special election for a single House seat in Georgia this year cost more than $50 million.
With costs so high, both Hollywood and Washington have chosen to respond by focusing on products that already have a built-in audience. In the movie business, that means a glut of reboots and adaptations, sequels and spinoffs, and eventually, shared universes built on well-known properties. That’s also how every potentially lucrative pop culture brand — from “Transformers” to “The Fast and the Furious” to 1980s toy lines you’ve never heard of — ends up in line for the expanded-universe treatment. Yes, there are other types of films in theaters, especially around awards season, but these…