The world is one giant complicated mess, and as humans, we aren’t wired to deal with that. Given a chance, we will always simplify, reduce, and otherwise ignore rather than deal with possibilities. This is a gross generalization, and not everyone does this all the time. But we all do it sometime. And some of us do it a lot.
Setting aside the political, social, and religious connotations of this notion (and there are plenty of those indeed but that’s way too complicated to get into), I see it whenever humans immediately thrust one expression of media into competition with some similar expression. It basically seems to stem from a desire to keep things neat and tidy.
Two recent examples are the previews for the movies R.I.P.D and Pacific Rim. Both have been immediately subject to dismissal by some as merely copycats of popular movies. Drawing comparisons between R.I.P.D. and Men in Black isn’t very hard, and the trailer certainly doesn’t help in that. But Pacific Rim has almost nothing in common with Transformers aside from featuring large robots prominently. Yet I can already see the waves of comparisons coming.
I will say R.I.P.D. has a heck of a lot in common with M.I.B. Aesthetically, character-wise, and even thematically. But if you look beyond the M.I.B. comparison, you’ll see that this is because Hollywood movies tend to follow formulas. M.I.B. is a fantasy buddy cop movie, and it has a lot of the elements of the buddy cop genre. R.I.P.D. does too. I will say that the aesthetic choices for R.I.P.D. don’t really help it much, but then I think about how many action hero movies from the 80’s were pretty much the exact same film with different names and set pieces. Nobody accused Tango and Cash of being a ripoff of Lethal Weapon.
As for Pacific Rim, aside from the unusually large robots, it has almost nothing in common with Transformers. Even the robots are a heck of a lot bigger, and the bad guys are kaiju beasts from another dimension. But as I think of all the differences, I know the comparisons will roll forth and there’s not a damn thing to be done to stop them.
What’s interesting about human nature is that while we seem to have infinite room for certain genres, we tend to have room for only one “definitive” story in others. We can watch a dozen Holocaust movies, enjoy romantic comedies individually, horror, action, etc, and see them all as worthy of our time, but many of us can only like one “robot” story, one “fantasy secret agent” story, one “epic fantasy”, and so on.
I deal with this a bit in my own profession. Being labeled a “comedic fantasy writer” only really bothers me because it so often places me in one of those tiny categories. As soon as many people hear the label, they seem to throw me into a gladiator pit with other writers of that sub-genre where many walk in, but only one can win. It’s as if there’s an unspoken assumption that there can only be one definitive writer at a time, and everyone else is worthy of derision. This sort of cut throat mental survival of the fittest psychology does disservice to everyone (but especially me and we can agree that’s a real crime against humanity).
We all like to compile lists and to rank and collate the world. It can be fun to debate what is the best kung fu movie (Kung Fu Panda), superhero flick (The Incredibles), or kaiju adventure (Gamera: Revenge of Iris). But these should be fun, and with so many great stories out there, it’s absurd to suggest that there can be only one winner and nothing else is worth our time. That’s the danger of comparisons.
When you get right down to it, the world is complicated. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that. And a world where there’s room for only one awesome robot movie (or awesome fantasy novelologist) isn’t the world I live in.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,