The Happy Time Murders just premiered last night. It is an R-Rated comedy that involves a murder in a Muppet-like universe. It is filled with sex, drugs, and violence. I did not see and I have no intention of seeing it, but it feels like the rock-bottom end of the Jim Henson legacy.
How did things get here?
Brian Henson, Jim's son, originally took up the mantle with beautiful grace. A Muppet Christmas Carol is, I daresay, the best Muppet movie that has been made and it was directed by Brian. But slowly over the years, the Muppets have devolved into a morally bankrupt and cynical enterprise. And while The Happy Time Murders are not directly related to the Muppets, it has Muppet DNA all over it. I have a feeling people will not want anything to do with the Muppets for a long time. But that is not the fault of this franchise per se.
It is the result of King Krusty Syndrome.
In The Simpsons episode "Guess Who's Coming to Criticize Dinner" (11x03), Homer and Lisa are at a dinner theater where Krusty the Clown is playing King Lear. He hasn't really read the script and he doesn't understand the material at all. Feeling like he needs to improve on it, he begins a series of awful jokes to get more laughs out of the audience. Instead they boo. Krusty's response, "Whoa, tough crowd. They're booing Shakespeare!"
King Krusty Syndrome is when someone takes control of an artistic medium, character, or franchise and makes ignorant changes that upset the fans. Ultimately, the blame for the ire is not placed upon the person making the changes but on the medium, character, or franchise itself.
Krusty did not understand what he was doing. He ignorantly tried to "improve" the material. When people got upset, he blamed the source.
You can see this take place with the comic book movie genre back in the late 1990's. Tim Burton's Batman was one of the greatest commercial hits of all time. It captured the darker tones of the comic book Batman that fans had been missing on the big screen for years. This spawned super hero movies and TV shows of varying degrees of quality.
But then Joel Schumacher directed to most awful film I have ever seen in the theaters: Batman and Robin. Burton's film had its flaws. But Schumacher's movie was a cacophony of every horrible, stupid thing that most people hated from the Batman TV series, with none of the nostalgic charm. The lines were awful, the acting was terrible, the story was non-sensical, the directing and art design were ludicrous, and the special effects were laughably bad.
Did the movie industry say, "We need to look back at what Batman successful and find out where we went astray?"
Instead, they said, "Whoa, tough crowd. They're booing Batman!"
They decided that the problem was super hero films in general. As a result, there was an effective moratorium on comic book movies for years. This involved killing Burton's Superman Lives starring Nicholas Cage.
To be fair to Schumacher, he apparently wanted to get back to the roots of Burton's Batman with a sequel called Batman Triumphant. But he was never given the chance. The executives (who probably had a strong hand in the inane tone of Batman and Robin) decided that people just didn't like super hero films.
King Krusty Syndrome killed super hero films for years.
I can see this in other industries as well. Many of the major comic book companies employ people who don't really understand the characters they publish. Brian Michael Bendis is a very good writer who is more talented than I will ever be. That said, he wrote Ultimate Spider-Man, which at one time I believe as Marvel's top selling book. It was in an alternate universe of Marvel characters that soon sprouted other titles and was praised by fans and critics alike. Then Bendis killed off Peter Parker and replaced him with his own new creation: Miles Morales. And unlike most comic book deaths, Peter Parker stayed dead. Eventually sales from the ultimate line decreased to the point where the entire alternate universe was ended.
"I guess people didn't like Ultimate Spider-Man."
No, they didn't like Miles Morales. For the most part, they still don't. And now he's getting his own movie.
Again to be fair, there were many factors that led to the demise of the Ultimate line. But it is hard to see how killing off Peter Parker and replacing him with someone far less appealing was a positive step. Bendis' early work on Ultimate Spider-Man was so successful, in part, because he understood the spirit of the main character. Reading those books felt like what it was like to read the character for the first time back in the 1960's. But remove that character and you remove what people love.
I believe the Marvel movies are about to run into the same potential problem. Captain Marvel is set to come out before Avengers 4. The character, played by Brie Larson, is said to be the central focus of the MCU after the original Avengers finish their contracts. The problem is that Captain Marvel comic books are horribly unpopular. Marvel keeps pushing her, even going so far as to say that in the Marvel universe she is "the most popular superhero in the world." But the character has become incredibly unappealing to fans. So far, Kevin Feige has done an excellent job of taking characters without strong comics appeal and making them hits, ala Guardians of the Galaxy. But if Captain Marvel fails to connect to audiences because of the way she is portrayed in the comics books, my fear is that once again the response will be:
"I guess people don't like super hero movies."
Star Wars fans can see this in their beloved franchise. I am convinced that Solo did not fail purely by its own merit. There were many problems with the production and marketing of that film. But the Star Wars fan base tends to be very forgiving, while vocal about their dislikes. If that was not the case, the prequel trilogy would not have made as much money as it did.
But Solo failed mainly because of Rogue One and The Last Jedi. While many critics loved the subversion of expectations found in these movies, fans were less than thrilled. And even though I stand by my praise for The Last Jedi, I completely understand why so many people were turned off and disgusted by what they saw. They believed that the characters they loved and the themes they cherished were betrayed by the last two films which replaced the classic sincerity for post-modern irony. Many were willing to take a mulligan on Rogue One, but The Last Jedi was a saga film that, in the minds of many, tainted Luke Skywalker. And so, fans are less willing to trust the stewards of Star Wars with their theatrical dollars and see Solo. And the reaction I read soon after Solo opened soft was:
"Tough crowd. They're booking Star Wars. I guess people don't like Star Wars anymore."
After twisting the property out of its original bent, the blame is set on the property, not the twisting.
This brings us to the Muppets.
The Muppest always had a small touch of satire to them, but they were filled with a sincere innocence at heart. As I wrote back in 2015 about the failed Muppets reboot TV show:
The rebooted Muppet movie from a few years ago had a lot of the trappings of the classic, optimistic old show but there was just a slight touch of cynicism that is poisonous to something like this. The sequel, Muppets Most Wanted, employed some of the most cynical humorists around like Tina Fey and Ricky Gervais.
Now the Muppets have fully embraced the cynicism and so have lost all of their joy.
There is nothing joyous about this show. Are there some funny jokes? Yes. But they lack any kind of heart or warmth.
In this first episode alone we had jokes about:
-Animal's several women
They've turned the Muppets into the cast from 30 Rock. And that is NOT a good thing.
It's not that the jokes were incredibly offensive per se. It's that they don't belong with the Muppets.
All of the affection that you have for the characters is completely lost. These are Muppets that have been destroyed and deformed to reflect modern Hollywood's own disgusting image. The Muppets are now defeated, self-loathing cynics who are emotionally broken and use humor as an outlet of their frustration and rage.
And now that frustration and rage has warped into the nigh-pornographic Happy Time Murders. Brian Henson has ground the legacy into a putrid concoction of vulgarity.
"I guess people don't like the Muppets anymore."
We love the Muppets. We love Star Wars! We love the MCU! We love comic books!
We just don't want a bunch of King Krusties "improving" the things we love by destroying the things we love about them.