Or, Why Movie Universes are suffering from Cosmic Inflation.
Movies, or more specifically, movie universes and franchises like Marvel, DC, the Hunger Games series, Harry Potter, Warhammer, the Divergent series, etc, are big. But are they getting too big?
The TV Analog
In television, a show is developed to run over a series of episodes. Depending on the run, this can be a handful like 6-10 or a longer run like Agents of SHIELD which weighs in at 22 episodes. Week to week, we tune in for the next instalment and watch character and plot arcs evolve both within each episode and throughout the series. There is usually a cliff-hanger to hook us for next season. It works because a week is not a long time. We mortals do a lot in real life (IRL) outside of our screen time, and the longer the gap between episodes the harder it is to engage with a show over the long term. I’m not a fan of the mid-season break personally and prefer to watch shows on-demand so I can follow the show either week-to-week or digest the content as I choose. Aside from the problems of story-lines getting too big for their own good, or series being cancelled with huge cliffhangers, television generally trundles on week-to-week, season to season until the story is told.
The Cinema Analog
However, when it comes to movies the expectations have now been taken to a whole new level by the studios by applying a similar model. We have to wait a year between ‘episodes.’ A lot happens IRL in a year and many of the subtleties are lost between episodes in the trilogy, septology or infinite regress of the universe. When each chapter is self-contained as the Harry Potter movies were (until the end) it is easy to watch them in isolation, enjoy the show, but also see the threads that connect each of the movies and draw us towards the final showdown. I found the same to be true of the Hunger Games, but when it came to Part III (Mockingjay) which was split into two, I felt frustrated and unsatisfied at the end of “Mockingjay Part I” as the movie was clearly incomplete and very different to it predecessors. It needed Part II to function, and for that, I would have to wait a year. I struggled the same way with the Hobbit trilogy – long periods between each film demanded feats of memory to connect the dots between what are essentially very long episodes in a story which eventually clocks in shorter than most TV series, and there are no recaps at the movie theatre like you get with a TV show – BANG, you’re often straight into the action where you left off, ready or not. The Mr Robot season is about 8 hours long (10 episodes), Game of Thrones 10 hours (10 episodes), and Agents of SHIELD about 17 hours (22 episodes), but they are ‘bite-sized’ chunks of 45-60 minutes scattered week-to-week, usually with a recap for a prologue. The four films of the Hunger Games total about 8 hours and the last half of that has a huge gap between the parts, and there are no recaps.
Film vs Movie
While Hollywood may be milking the money-making movie machine (after all it is a business and making money is the name of the game), and movie-goers are willing to accept that the ‘finale’ of their trilogy is extended to ‘explore the details’, many reviewers and critics are giving declining ratings for this approach. More and more is it seen as a cash-grab rather than making a tight film (a film is different to a movie) and this is negatively impacting the movie-goers experience. I watched Divergent recently as it looked good on paper and in the trailer. However, I found the movie lacking and clearly just Part I in the series despite its own rather flimsy story arc. I won’t be tuning in for Part II, though many people did. A similar story is unfolding with Warhammer and early reviews are finding the narrative hollow.
For the purpose of clarity, I see a film as the art of storytelling committed to celluloid or digital. It is complete in itself and explores character growth or descent and imbues an emotional response in the viewer. A movie is created for the sheer enjoyment of the viewer and to generate as much money as possible. What we see at the cinema can work equally on both scales, or be clearly more film than a movie or vice versa.
Cosmic Inflation of the Movie Universe
The real problem with the universes and franchises is that they are focusing more on the movie end of the spectrum, but by neglecting the film – the art of storytelling – the end result is not memorable however much money it generates. Each instalment is just another set of (often greater in scope) obstacles for existing characters we have become familiar with overcoming. Hero meets (another) villain, does some stuff, triumphs, hoorah! I think FILM CRIT HULK captured this sentiment expertly this week with The Dangers of Assumed Empathy on the Birth.Movies.Death site where he explored this issue with MARVEL Phase 2. Is there a reason I want to go to the next release in the universe’s canon? What’s my motivation? Where’s my incentive?
For some franchises, like 007 & Dr Who, Bourne, Star Trek, Star Wars and others there is a common universe in which an established character or set of characters goes through a complete journey and each movie or season is self-contained. While for others like the MARVEL universe there are so many characters (as there are in the comics) and so many cross-over options that you are almost forced to see each entry to be able to follow the threads completely. However, comics engage on a different level. I think MARVEL have realised this, and although Phase 2 has become repetitive, the set-up for Phase 3 introducing new characters (Dr Strange, Black Panther, etc) and exploring potential one-shots may revitalise what could lose momentum (and money). There is a through-line in the films but they are becoming less directly connected which allows more freedom to become complete once more (and have some fun like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant Man). Time will tell. DC, on the other hand, seem to have figured out the TV formula as they have numerous projects running on the small screen but are struggling to catch up with MARVEL’s lead on the big screen. Not to mention having a plot-line that takes a few years to come to fruition is a big ask of your audience. It might be fun to explore through lines in comics and cross-overs between each character’s own world but it’s hard to pull off cinematically. Plus, if we keep upping the ante (like ripping out chunks of the planet in Age of Ultron, then going for all-out destruction in X-Men: Apocalypse it’s hard to see where we go next (though I touched on this at the outset). X-Men have tried to do what was inevitable – reboot the universe as they do in the comics (after all, the same actors won’t be able to play the same character forever) since the characters are iconic – cf Dr Who or 007 again – and can be reincarnated in some form for a new audience. Yawn. Let’s move on shall we?
I am now inclined to wait for the movies to become available on streaming or Blu-Ray so I can rent them on demand to not miss a beat. I am now less invested in seeing the latest ‘big’ release as it happens because I know it is designed to be one-of-many (or at least part 1 of 2). As more movies adopt this path, we are going to be faced with so many different long-term investments of our time to remember the various plot and character arcs and the tide will turn back with audiences demanding more complete films. Regrettably, I am sure this trend in movies will continue for some time yet even though the cracks of cosmic inflation are already beginning to show.