The geek have inherited the Earth. Hollywood is catering to fans of genre films like no other time in history. The summer box office is filled with the latest installment of a sweeping epics or shared universes. If you are like me, it is a great time to be alive.
But not everybody is happy with it. Film and TV critic Inkoo Kang has written a guest editorial over at The Hollywood Reporter’s Heat Vision blog titled “The Fans Have Inherited the Film Industry — and It’s a Problem for the Rest of Us.” In it, she bemoans the fact that the current state of interconnected film universes are exclusionary to casual filmgoers like her. That the fact that she has to catch up on 8 to 10 movies just to know what is going on makes her sad and long for the days of stand alone films she could enjoy without as much investment of time.
There might be an argument to make here but Kang isn’t the one to make it. Her column seems like a stealth entry in the “[FILL IN THE NAME OF A POPULAR GENRE OF FILMS] Must Go Away!” trend, one of the kind I am all too familiar with. But unlike those of the past, her argument doesn’t scratch too far below the surface. It is a superficial examination of what she is railing against, one that only goes as far as to make her point and no farther. One that screams for a counter-argument. That is what this article is.
Sequels, Spin-Offs and Film Series Are Nothing New.
My mother had a saying that went something like, “There’s no sense closing the barn door, after the horse got out.” That applies here, in a way. There have been sequels, spin-offs and film series in films for as long as there were films. And not just in genre films either–The Thin Man, The Godfather, and James Bond all had a sense of continuity to bring moviegoers back for more.
Heck, what we have today is just an aggrandized version of the film serials that were popular in the 1910s to the 1940s. Those were films that were parceled out over a dozen or more installments and required viewers to return to the theater every week to get a complete story. That’s a bigger investment of time than three or four films a year.
So, the trend towards shared universes and multi-part series is not a recent development but rather the evolution of a century long trend in films. Kang only plays the perfunctory lip service to this history but the fact remains that there have been exclusionary forms of cinematic entertainment for a long time. And the filmgoers were able to manage.
The Exclusionary Films Aren’t All That Exclusionary.
You get the feeling that Kang hasn’t even tried to watch any of the films she claims are exclusionary. Because if she did, she’d find that they weren’t keeping them out at all. I’m not big into Harry Potter but I am into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And I find that most of the film’s connection to the shared universe adds to the films but doesn’t hamper accessibility. Two examples for you. Now, I am running from memory here, so forgive me if I err. But in the two most recent stand-alone MCU films, Ant-Man and Doctor Strange, the scenes tying into the other Marvel films don’t take anything away from the overall narrative.
In Ant-Man, there are two MCU centric scenes (not including any “Easter Eggs” or post-credit sequences) in the film. First is the opening where Hank Pym resigns from S.H.I.E.L.D.. Now, if you are a regular watcher of Marvel films, you’ll know that he is confronting Iron Man’s dad and Captain America’s old girlfriend. If you aren’t, he’s confronting a government organization who was stealing his ideas. You lose nothing by coming into this scene as a newbie.
Later, Ant-Man has to sneak into the Avengers Compound to steal a McGuffin. You don’t really need to see the Avengers films to know they are a big deal in this universe. But the script gives us hints that they are in earlier dialogue. So, the difficulty level of the burglary is set. He faces Falcon during his infiltration. We don’t need any backstory about the Falcon. We know he’s an Avenger and he’s there to stop Ant-Man from stealing the McGuffin. That’s the purpose he serves in this film, and he works in this context. His prior MCU appearances add value to his showing up here, but are not needed to be seen for Ant-Man to be enjoyed.
And in Doctor Strange, the Eye of Agamotto, the good doctor’s weapon of choice, holds an infinity gem. If you’ve seen every MCU film, you know these are gems of unearthly power that have been popping up in other films. They will eventually be used by Thanos to fight the MCU characters in Avengers: Infinity War. If Doctor Strange is you first MCU film, then the Eye of Agamotto simply holds a gem of unearthly power that allows Strange to control time. Once again, if you are not a fan of all the MCU films, you aren’t left behind by these plot points.
These two films are examples of the first entries into what I’m sure will be sub-franchises in the MCU so they are designed to be easily accessible. But even the Captain America, Iron Man and Thor films, which will all have three entries before the year is out, spell out what the audiences need to know. Captain America’s friendship with Bucky Barnes is a prime example of this. That is an important plotline through all three Cap films, and each film reminds us of the level of that friendship either through dialogue or flashbacks.
Genre Fidelity Is Not The Same As Self-Repetition.
Where Kang’s argument moves from “I feel excluded from these shared universes” to “I wish they made better films” happens with this passage, which pretty much shoots her original point out of the water:
The passionate reaction to Wonder Woman, especially the tear-eliciting scenes of women in combat, has proven the need for a superheroine film. But for all its virtues, Patty Jenkins’ movie looks and feels a lot like every other comic-book adaptation. And as welcome as Rey’s ascendance as The Chosen One is in The Force Awakens, the installment is practically a beat-for-beat facsimile of A New Hope, the original Star Wars movie. “Franchise fatigue” may or may not be real, but there’s no question that the prevailing sequel/remake/spinoff trend has pushed original ideas in studio filmmaking to the margins.
Yes, Kang shows her hand here. Forget not being able to access these sequel-laden films, she’s really upset that all these “brand films” are crowding out “originality.” Gee, where have I heard that argument before?
However, that belies the fact that if a film resembles something that has come before it, it makes it more accessible, not less. If you can recognize a film’s structure from another example of a genre or an earlier installment of a franchise, you can catch on to storylines and plot points easier. It makes the franchise more inclusive. But does it make them unoriginal?
One then must ask, what is originality? Scholars have figured out that there are only six or seven basic plots in narrative fiction. Most protagonists follow a version of “The Hero’s Journey” developed by Joseph Campbell and others. Taking this into consideration, there are bound to be similarities in all forms of fiction. Where originality lies is in the execution of these plots.
Wonder Woman does follow a similar journey to a number of comic book film heroes. But one of my pet peeves was when critics dismissively mention that the film was the same as Captain America: The First Avenger because they both fought in World Wars. True, but if you think World War I was the same as World War II, you need to put the films aside for a bit and read a book. The world was a different place in each time period and putting a warrior for peace in a war where new technology made killing your enemy easier was a unique situation for the character.
And The Force Awakens does have a number of similarities to A New Hope, but calling the former a “beat-for-beat facsimile” is unfair. The theme of history repeating itself is strong in The Force Awakens. This time, the bad guys are trying to learn from their earlier mistakes by going bigger. And the heroes need to be smarter and stronger. The film welcomes the similarities with A New Hope. It’s all part of the plotline.
Pop Culture Unites People More On A Personal Level Than A Universal Level.
Kang bemoans the fact that the inaccessibility of the modern blockbuster has made it hard for her to relate to her fellow man:
As the media and entertainment industries continue to fragment, blockbusters like Wonder Woman and Get Out have remained one of the few cultural products we can all watch and discuss (and argue about) together. And so there’s something enormously dispiriting about the current transformation of our public square into a clubhouse, where the bar for entry gets higher with each new franchise installment.
Yes, the irony of Kang using Wonder Woman, the third installment of Warner Brothers’ DC Extended Universe, as an example of a film outside the shared universe factory is not lost.
The social impact of films is not lost on me. A good ice-breaker at cocktail parties will always be “Did you see the film?” I’m not denying the importance of that either. But the exclusive nature of films is also good in the social realm. Yes, having a “public square” of only accessible films would put people on an even keel, but being in the same “clubhouse” helps people bond on a much deeper level. My circle of friends are all bonded together through a love of the Star Wars films. Of course, there are different pop culture circles that make up parts of our friendship Venn diagram, but our friendship has developed over decades of talking about that franchise. As a result of this common bond, we have stayed together for decades, through marriages and divorces, births and deaths, and through time and distance.
That is the great thing that the “clubhouse” brings. Its not that I relishing excluding people like Kang. If you don’t like the same franchise I like, or are not willing to invest the same time as I did in it, fine. But the shared experience of being a fan of an extended universe builds a deeper connection that the superficial ones that would develop if all films were stand-alone and accessible.
Not All Pop Culture Is For Everyone…And That’s Okay.
At points in the article, Kang comes off as the person in a store full of people who came in off the street to beat the scorching summer’s heat asks the management to turn off the air-conditioning because she is cold.
The choice seems clear for those of us who want to feel plugged into today’s film culture: Stay on a grueling treadmill, consuming an endless stream of movies that vary little from one to the next, or choose to be left out.
See, reading that, if watching films was that much of a chore, the choice would be easy for me–leave me out. It’s not like the Star Wars franchise is lacking for viewers. It’s not like the Harry Potter franchise isn’t making billions of dollars at the box office.
And that’s the point. Millions of people have no problem making the effort to keep up with these franchises. To them, it isn’t a grueling treadmill. To them, the variety is just fine. They prove it again and again by spending their hard earned money at the cineplexes whenever a new installment comes out. If you don’t want to invest the time on catching up on previous installments or researching Google or Wikipedia, that’s not on them, that’s on you. They shouldn’t have to put their enjoyment behind just so you don’t feel left out.
If you are like Kang, there are options available to you. In the next two months, you have the opportunity to view franchise-free films such as Baby Driver, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Dunkirk, Atomic Blonde, The Dark Tower, Detroit, The Hitman’s Bodyguard and Logan Lucky. Not all are 100% original–Valerian is based on a European comic book, Dunkirk on a historical event, and The Dark Tower on a line of Stephen King novels that Sony hopes will spawn a franchise, etc–but all come without the baggage Kang complains about and more than likely will be the films your friends are talking about over the next few weeks. Go and support them.
Bottom line is, that the market dictates what we get. If something makes money, the studios will give us all of it than we can handle. Sequels, spin-offs and shared universes make billions of dollars nowadays. When that well dries up, that’s when you’ll see them go away. But until then, if they are not your cup of tea, choose to be left out. Because there are a lot more fans that choose to be let in.