The modern cinemascape is dominated by sequels. Building off a universally beloved property into a full-on franchise is Hollywood’s quickest path to a big day at the box office, and it’s proven effective time and again. Not all stories lend themselves to a follow-up film set directly after the ending of the first. The easy workaround to this problem has seen the rise of the prequel. Everyone loves an origin story, and it gives a studio a fair amount of creative license to play around with characters. When Warner Bros. took on the Peter Pan prequel story Pan, you can bet they thought they’d stumbled on a solid gold idea. Sadly, it was closer to fool’s gold.
Pan‘s first weekend at the box office pretty much embodied the term “flop”: Worldwide, it managed to haul in a paltry $40.5 million, despite its bloated production budget of $150 million. While not quite in John Carter territory in terms of failure, Pan is precariously close to the edge just a week into its wide release. As it is with all flops, the studio is left the question what went wrong. Could it be that people are sick of the Peter Pan story? Or is there simply no story left to tell that hasn’t already been covered? The answer here is much bigger than simply the source material (although that certainly didn’t help it).
In their review giving Pan a C+ letter grade, AV Club makes an astute observation concerning the premise of the film. In it, Peter is the “Chosen One,” prophesied as the one who will save Neverland once and for all. As a YA trope as old as the genre itself, herein lies the fundamental problem.
Here, one could make the same points that have been made over and over about all the other movies and YA franchises in which protagonism is an inherited condition; perhaps it’s better to just note that a hero without agency isn’t really a hero, and move on. The thing about clichés is that it’s hard to say anything new about them.
AV Club moves on to describe the myriad of other issues the plagued the film: the predictably tone deaf handling of Neverland’s indigenous natives, the flat story, the “surplus of motifs,” the list goes on. Most importantly here though, Pan is a movie that leaned into the “Chosen One” narrative without bothering to see if the foundations were stable. AV Club is right on in its evaluation that “a hero without agency isn’t really a hero,” and here we see the fatal flaw of a movie that doomed itself for failure the second the screenplay came off the press.
The idea of the “Chosen One” in YA tells our protagonist one thing: That they were born inherently better than their peers, and that they were destined for greatness. It’s what every awkward, uncertain teenager wants to be told themselves, and as such it’s been exploited as a plot device in everything from Twilight to Divergent. More and more though, the trope is falling on deaf ears, thanks in large part to overexposure. Even teens can recognize a tired cliché if you use it too many times, and when you attach it to an already flimsy story in Pan, it’s not hard to see through the CGI to the heart of the issue.
Pan will likely be talked about as a flop for years to come thanks to a number of failures. More than this, it marks the terminal velocity for the “Chosen One” story. We’re seeing firsthand the exhaustion that comes with removing the autonomy of our protagonist in favor of a Messiah story. Perhaps audiences are finally ready for a better class of tropes. It’s only a matter of time before Hollywood catches on; the more money they lose, the more they’ll realize it’s time for a change.
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