What killed the Golden Age of Cartoons?

Um, you guys realize it’s the government shutdown that leads directly to the mysterious apocalypse that destroys the U.S. and which I now currently wander around in delivering mail, right? I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but you should all start stocking up on underpants. Better than gold nowadays. Just sayin’.

Toon It Up

Darnell S.:

Dear Postman,

I've seen it written everywhere and even heard it on the Emmys, we're in a Golden Age of Television. Then it got me thinking, the last time I enjoyed this much television was the 80s, when us kids were in a Golden Age of Cartoons. There are some really good cartoons out there currently, like Legend of Korra, but about a year ago we had some great stuff like the Star Wars: Clone Wars, Tron Legacy, Avengers: EMH, Young Justice.

I also liked the He-Man reboot from 2004ish and the recently canceled Thundercats reboot. I loved the idea of using modern animation and storytelling with characters we know and love. I'd wouldn't mind seeing a modern Trek cartoon as a way to keep the 24th Century flame going or just to get new Trek on TV. Or maybe a fresh take on Silverhawks. Hell, even some fresh Ducktails adventures would be entertaining.

Why isn't animation catching fire?

There are so many reasons the Golden Age of Cartoons ended. Let me go through them one by one.


1) All the problems regular TV has had. Back in the ‘80s, there were fewer channels and alternative entertainment options for kids, so cartoons had a much larger audience. Practically every kid in the nation would be watching cartoons before they went to school in the morning, cartoons when they got home from school in the afternoon, and then cartoons on Saturday morning, and that’s how companies could afford to syndicate shows like Transformers and He-Man and G.I. Joe and air new episodes five days a week. Kids loved cartoons and were a massive, practically captive audience, which allowed not only a ton of cartoons to be made, but made them massive multimedia juggernauts.

2) Cartoons are no longer massive multimedia juggernauts. This is partially because of reason #1, but also because kids are savvier nowadays than the kids of the ‘80s. Back in the ‘80s, cartoons tied into toys and the toys tied into the cartoons and then there was more merchandise and so on into infinity. Kids today know when a show is a 22-minute commercial, and hate it accordingly. (Meanwhile, kids in the ‘80s were so stupid we thought "He-Man" was a name that wasn’t completely ridiculous.) Without those huge profits to be gained, less networks and companies are willing to spend the money and airtime to make cartoons, especially when they know their potential audience is smaller than ever before.


3) Many toy companies refuse to grow up. Those companies that do try to recreate the cartoon success of the ‘80s are doomed to fail, mostly because of the first two reasons, but also because kids don’t just buy toys like they used to — heck, even being tied to a movie is no guarantee of a toyline's success. So when the toyline fails, the cartoon gets inevitably canceled — e.g., the He-Man and ThunderCats reboots (also, I’m 99% sure Young Justice was canceled because of the failure of the toyline, although its possible that kids weren’t digging its serialized storytelling). It also doesn’t help when the cartoons keep one foot in the past, relying on nostalgia modern kids don’t have in the slightest. It also doesn’t help when the toys are crap.

Meanwhile, cartoons made for their own sake — The Last Airbender/Legend of Korra and Adventure Time come to mind — can build up fanbases on their own, and as Adventure Time has clearly learned, you can then start merchandising from there. There are some good cartoons nowadays — maybe even the same number of good cartoons as there were back in the ‘80s, because, seriously, a lot of them were terrible — but the cartoon/toy synergy just doesn’t exist like it used to, and audiences are so small that no cartoon can become an ‘80s-style pop culture juggernaut. I don’t know that cartoons were actually better in the “Golden Age of Cartoons” as much as they were more pervasive.. and accompanied by awesome toys. To tell the truth, I’d much rather watch Adventure Time than old episodes of Transformers.


There are a lot of other factors that go into this, of course: Clone Wars toys succeed more because they're tied to the Star Wars juggernaut. Tron: Legacy had no toys, but failed because very few people feel as strongly about Tron as I do. No one will ever care about Silverhawks again and woe to the people who try to relaunch the toys or the cartoon. As for DuckTales or TaleSpin or those other classics of our youths, I could see a relaunch happening as long as they weren’t overburdened with nostalgia, but they’ll always be bigger gambles than basing cartoons on Disney’s more recent animated movies or creating new shows altogether, so I imagine Disney will simply keep doing that. Sorry.


Avengers Assembly

Rebecca G.:

I know you’re a big Captain Marvel fan and I am too. What I’m wondering is why isn’t Marvel putting Captain Marvel in Avengers: Age of Ultron instead of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch? I think she’d be a much better choice, and then they could do a Captain Marvel movie easy. I doubt they’ll make a Quicksilver/Scarlet Witch movie any time soon, right?


You’re right. As for why Marvel chose Magneto’s kids over Carol Danvers, I think — and this is completely supposition, because Joss Whedon has stopped returning my calls (look, Joss, I was drunk and then I apologized, and it’s not like you didn’t know how I was going to react to Agent Coulson’s death in Avengers) — that there must be some sort of issue with Fox. I think Marvel had heard rumblings that Fox was thinking of adding Quicksilver to X-Men: Days of Future Past, and they wanted to claim Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch for themselves and the Avengers franchise. They had to move quick, so Whedon announced them for Age of Ultron, thinking that Fox would then back off. What Marvel didn’t figure is that Fox doesn’t give a shit about a shared cinematic Marvel universe or Marvel’s movies at all, and decided to have their own Quicksilver anyways because they have the rights to do so and why not. Any confusion about the two Quicksilvers kind of defaults to Marvel, since they’re the ones who care about things like continuity and “making sense.”

But it’s still better for Marvel to establish their Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch sooner rather than later, and this Captain Marvel remains benched for the time being. I still have hopes we’ll get her origin during the course of Guardians of the Galaxy, but the lack of a big-name actress hired for a mysterious and unnamed GotG role points otherwise (although Marvel could have hired, say, Katee Sackhoff and has miraculously kept it secret). Or maybe they’re going to debut her in her own film in Phase 3. Or maybe Marvel is just as scared to make a movie centered around a superheroine instead of a superhero as Warner Bros./DC is, and is waiting to see how Wonder Woman does first. In which case they could be waiting a very long time.



Inspiration Points

Bernel P.:

Dear Rob,

Is there a fictional character that has significantly inspired you? I mean a character that you learned a great life lesson from, a character that even compelled you to apply his (or her) values to you life for the purpose of becoming a better person - that even though he's (or she's) not real, you still find him (or her) a worthy role model.

(For me that character has always been Spider-Man. That's why I'm greatly pissed with this current Superior Octo-Spidey development since it negates everything Spider-Man stands for).


I have three fictional characters that have greatly influenced my life, only two of which are nerdy. 1) He-Man. And not some cool version of He-Man, I mean the hippy-dippy one from the original cartoon who never actually punched anybody and gave his soft-spoken morals at the end. It’s possible I would have ended up a decent person without ceaselessly watching the Masters of the Universe cartoon, but I’m glad I didn’t risk it. 2) The protagonist of Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, whose calmness and self-assurance I admired at a time when I was pretty much insane and a mountain of self-doubt. 3) Ziggy Stardust, as in the David Bowie character.


There Can Be Only Several

Christopher S.:

As most nerds are wont to do, I was at the local comic book shop discussing which classic scifi/fantasy movie franchise would get the next remake. In this case, all roads eventually lead to The Highlander. My question is this: What list of actors do YOU think would best be able to pull of the roles of Connor MacLeod, Juan Sánchez Villa-Lobos Ramírez, and the Kurgan? My votes are Thomas Jane, Antonio Banderas, and Christopher Eccleston.

I honestly don't prefer Antonio for the role of Ramirez, but there is a surprising lack of Spanish actors over 50 with a fencer/swashbuckler's build. Perhaps an open casting call for aged Latino actors and we conveniently forget to tell Danny Trejo? Or maybe we jump the shark and cast a former Bond (Pierce Brosnan).


Nationally authentic casting: Kevin McKidd as the Highlander. Javier Bardem as Ramirez, and since the Kurgan was technically found in Russia (admittedly at about 1,000 B.C.), I nominate Vladimir Mashkov, who played the evil Sidorov in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. Ridiculous inaccurate national casting: Olivier Martinez as Connor. Vin Diesel as the Kurgan. And yes, Pierce Brosnan would have to play Ramirez.


Waiting on Wonder Woman

Brian L.:

Ive been hearing some talk that DC might finally try to push for a Wonder Woman film, but here's the thing, I dont think DC should make a Wonder Woman film right now. Thats not to say I wouldn't be down for seeing a Wonder Woman film, but I dont think now is the right time. I mean DC has shown they can make great Batman films, and one or two good Superman films, but their track record isnt the best.

Do we really want a Wonder Woman film asap if it means its Green Lantern quality? I think they should hold off on that character until they get the whole superhero who isn’t Batman or Superman thing down.


This sounds familiar! Like I said to Rebecca, I think if you want to wait for Warner Bros./DC to get their shit together before they make a Wonder Woman movie, you’re going to have to wait a verrrrrrry long time. Seeing as they’re only putting Batman and Superman on-screen together in 2015 (which I think has no small chance of being delayed) the only plan WB seems to have is taking its time.

But they waited plenty before they got around to making Green Lantern, and that patience clearly came to naught. So I don’t know if “waiting” really does them any good. Every superhero has his/her own challenges in getting translated to the big screen, and every movie needs the right script, the right cast, and the right director to be a success. Frankly, I think Warner Bros. is just as likely to screw up a Wonder Woman movie in 2016 as they are 2026.


The fact that Marvel has pulled off these consistently pretty good-to-great movies is defying the odds. But I think the people in charge of Marvel’s movie division get the characters, get what audiences what, and hire people to direct and write and star in the movies who also get it. It’s the competent hiring the competent. Meanwhile over at Warner Bros., maybe there’s a brilliant guy who has a master plan for the DC movie universe that would crush Marvel, but he has to deal with entrenched executives who only care about the bottom line, about merchandising, about toys, about profit, who never really that if you take the time to make a good film, these things can come and you have a good movie. Warner Bros. is a monolithic company that’s been in Hollywood forever, and I think their power structure is too entrenched to ever go away or get fixed. Meanwhile, Marvel basically just started with a bunch of scrappy guys who have the abilities and the freedom to do things right.

So why wait? Might as well make a Wonder Woman movie now and hope for the best. If only so they can catch up with the fans and the porn industry.


Do you have questions about anything scifi, fantasy, superhero, or nerd-related? Email the postman@io9.com! No question too difficult, no question too dumb! Obviously!


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