Universe building is constantly on the minds of studios and audiences members when it comes to movies these days. While Marvel Studios’ rampant success with the creation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has spurred on more studios than ever to create multi-film spanning fictional worlds, sequels have long been the staple of Hollywood. After all, banking on audiences coming to see the return of characters and worlds they love provides a much greater chance of major profits. If you can propel every film you make by tying it into something else, it’s clear that studios are going to want a piece of the action.
While I have previously written about what it takes to make a great sequel and why third films are so difficult, there is a third piece of this puzzle that is becoming more prevalent than ever – creating a first film with an entire series in mind before it even hits theaters.
This is different than filming an entire series at once, like The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, or simply having hopes that there will be more movies to come, like the James Bond Franchise. Rather, this type of moviemaking has so many pieces in place for the second, third, fourth, and countless spinoff films that the original film is immediately under the gun to check countless boxes during the creation process. While the endless possibilities postulated by a film that promises a massive universe that will be explored, it is often dead-eyed money-making plans that take precedence over the wonder of artistic exploration and creativity in a massive world.
That’s a problem.
Limiting Creative Choices
The most powerful stories in films, books, and television frequently come from a single mind leading a dedicated team or a small group of creators banding together to make something special. While outside input and the talents of others brought into a production often elevate the material, creative meddling from executives and financiers rarely results in an artistically sound and exciting story.
When a studio mandates the fates of characters, the introductions of various concepts, and the effects that an event has on a fictional world, countless limitations arise. This means that in order to have a character be in place for a different film five years from now, several story beats must be hit and certain narrative developments must be avoided at all cost. If a studio dictates what Point C is, it is up to directors and writers to develop Points A and B retroactively in order to get to this eventual Point C. Where is the creativity and art when so much has been predetermined?
Sure, no one was going to kill Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but there was no thought given to setting up future adventures in the first film. Jones was clearly a franchise character from the start, but Steven Spielberg and George Lucas simply wanted to tell a story they loved in a style that harkened back to their childhoods. They weren’t thinking about where each sequel would tie into the next.
The same can be said about the original Star Wars. While the Star Wars Universe is massive now and the original film eventually became known as Episode IV: A New Hope, Lucas originally set out to simply tell a space opera about the fight between good and evil. In fact, the movie was just called Star Wars, with the subtitle added prior to the debut of The Empire Strikes Back. While his ideas on sequels and how much he planned from the start has always been murky, it’s become clear that elements like Darth Vader being Luke Skywalker’s father and the evil of Emperor Palpatine were most certainly not in place when Lucas made the original movie. The power of the sequels sprang from the success of the original, which laid the bedrock for a massive franchise by simply focusing on creating a great story set in a captivating universe. Yes, Lucas kept Darth Vader alive, which most certainly came in handy for sequels. But there is no sequel baiting in the original Star Wars. The good guys win, the Death Star blows up, and the heroes get medals. Except for Chewbacca. End of story.
In today’s movie landscape, heroes have their fates predetermined far before a script is ever started and multiple touchpoints are forced into place in order to set up events in films that won’t be released until years from now. While creativity, strong direction, and captivating acting may liven up the proceedings, these films run the risk of feeling like products, not art. When blockbusters based on preexisting properties are focused on by movie studios more than ever and more and more of these action epics are constrained by the demands of pre-set franchise building, more movies will eschew exciting decisions and artistic freedom in favor of churning out another product.
Watering Down Narratives
Even the most sprawling space epic or massive fantasy journey has focus and drive when it is done well. There are themes, ideas, and a focused story that drive these narratives, even when they take place on a massive scale. Many films that are intended as the first in a massive franchise or a stepping stone to a much bigger sequel have a split focus between telling their story and getting everything else in place for the future.
With some notable exceptions, many films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have maintained a creative spark and revolved around exciting characters in thrilling stories. However, the growing influence of setting up more films is taking its toll on their creativity. When a single film must progress the stories of multiple characters for the sake of their own individual movies, how can it possibly have time to form its own compelling narrative thrust and tell a meaningful standalone tale?
The reason why 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road is so exciting is because of its singular focus and true creativity. There’s no set up for a sequel, no baiting audiences with clues for a future installment, and no compromises for the sake of making more money, even though it is the latest installment in a franchise. It’s the antithesis of what Marvel Studios is doing. While it may result in a smaller box office in the long run, it’s also not a product being run off a conveyor belt.
Film is art. It makes money, but that’s because it is art that deeply connects with people around the world. When you take the art out of film, you get a soulless advertisement for your next movie, which also ends up being a soulless advertisement for the next movie. MCU movies are not there yet. But when the likes of DC Comics, Jurassic Park, Transformers, Independence Day, and Ghostbusters have all announced their intentions to create a cinematic universe as well, you know that money is top priority, not innovation in filmmaking.
The End is Never the End
Serialized television, hundreds of issues of comic books, and mega-sized film series mean that audiences around the world are more used to never-ending stories than ever before. But the most powerful stories end. In fact, the end of a story is often what makes it so satisfying and powerful. Endings force audiences to reflect on what has happened and to find meaning in the narrative, not simply wait for the next part. Just like death gives life meaning, endings give stories purpose.
When everyone knows that no matter what happens, the character and his or her surrounding world are guaranteed to continue in one fashion or another, there is something lost from the story. While that doesn’t mean that there are no satisfying stories found in larger film worlds, but it does mean that knowing a character’s predetermined fate limits the excitement a story brings. Of the many films found in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is most often the self-contained ones that are the most satisfying. While they may hints at things to come or have characters take part in another film, movies like the original Iron Man, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Guardians of the Galaxy have the most narrative heft and pure enjoyment, as they can be watched on their own again and again. Other MCU movies like Avengers: Age of Ultron or Iron Man 2 have too many dominoes to set up to be anywhere close to being well-rounded and enjoyable on their own.
Specifically, Avengers: Age of Ultron was hit with two major setbacks: the announcement of a full slate of follow-up films a few months prior to release and the burden of getting viewers primed for the next phase of the universe. How can there be any true dramatic tension when a studio has let the world know who lives, who dies, and where the story goes next before a film has even premiered? Yes, superhero movies are often predictable, but films shouldn’t be a stopping point on the way to another film.
Blowing Up in Studios’ Faces
It seems like every movie studio wants to be Babe Ruth – calling out their home run when they’ve barely made it to the plate. But even Marvel Studios took years before announcing The Avengers. They knew they had to make hits before they could call out the endgame. Of course, every movie head honcho thinks he or she has the next huge franchise ready to go. But countless failed paranormal teen romance franchises and faltering superhero stories are proof that not everything goes according to plan.
No failure was more abject or laughably public than Sony’s catastrophic Amazing Spider-Man franchise. While the first film in the series was a fairly simple reboot, the studio soon made it clear that they had big movie plans for The Wall-Crawler. Months before The Amazing Spider-Man 2 came out, Sony announced release dates for Part 3, Part 4, and a Sinister Six movie. Plus, they stated a Venom movie was in the works and hinted at other possible entries in the new Spider-Man Cinematic Universe.
Then, Amazing Spider-Man 2 came out.
Cue poor reviews and a disappointing box office. It didn’t take long for Sony to backpedal on their plans, switch around release dates, and tentatively announce different projects, the most baffling being an Aunt May-focused prequel film. Why would anyone think this was a good idea? The truth was that the cart has gotten far in front of the horse. The lure of a giant franchise and lots of money was more important than creating a solid story for the latest film, which then in turn undermined everything that could have come. The franchise collapsed hard and Sony partnered with Marvel Studios to save their character and, most importantly, their future profits.
The truth is, maybe we need more franchises to utterly bomb. Then studios may be forced to embrace originality once again.