The massive popularity of movies based on comic book characters and storylines seems obvious. But before Batman Begins and Iron Man, they were often a risky investment followed by a major flop. And now, both Marvel and DC have their own universes created through interconnecting movie franchises. With each new film, audiences are expected to be familiar with the ongoing storyline, characters, and sequences of events. That might seem like common sense, but this serialization is pretty new for movies. And it's turning us all into nerds.
Franchises are the big ticket in Hollywood. Almost everything has a sequel and trilogies are a dime a dozen. But most sequels can be easily understood and enjoyed without having seen any of the previous films. The classic example of this is James Bond. There are over 20 movies in the series, but you can watch them all in any order you want and still be able to understand the plot. This is typical of action movie franchises like Die Hard and Taken. Many comedy movie series are similar, like The Hangover. The basic premise is set up within the first few minutes of the movie and allows the audience to jump in regardless of their previous knowledge of the franchise. It's essentially a fresh start every time — regardless of how high the number is in the movie title.
But the universes Marvel and DC are creating on screen with their characters break this mold. Every Iron Man sequel builds on the plot set out in previous movies as well as events in other Marvel franchises. These movies are often full of cameos, references, and call backs. Audiences are just expected to keep up. Sure, these films can be enjoyed without much prior knowledge. However, Avengers: Infinity War is set to be a blockbuster in 2018 and is the culmination of 10 years of movies. The film will include basically every character that has been introduced in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And the plot will likely have far-reaching implications for each of the heroes in the story. Meaning, every single Marvel movie franchise will be affected by what happens. So if you only care about Spider-Man or Captain America, you kind of have to watch this movie to understand what will happen next. And that a huge change for Hollywood.
Yes, franchises like Die Hard and The Hangover do address events in the past. But this is usually limited to just a line or two and past events don't really affect future films. Just think about it. The plot lines of these franchises start to become ridiculous when you try to connect them all together. There isn't really any rational explanation for why John McClain always ends up in a hostage situation or why four friends can't party without blacking out and losing someone.
Marvel isn't the only one committed serialized stories in movies. There are rumors that the DC Extended Universe of movies will be rebooted with the upcoming Flash movie. Essentially, The Flash runs so fast that he goes back in time and creates an alternate universe. This could create a fresh start for most DC properties. This event would allow Warner Bros to recast Batman without much confusion. In the Hollywood before serialized stories, you could replace an actor and move on without mentioning it or addressing it. Like James Bond. But now, DC and Warner Bros feel compelled to adapt a complicated storyline to explain why some of their actors might be replaced.
In the decades before, this kind of storytelling was dismissed as something only comic book nerds wanted. Now it's almost a cultural staple. And honestly, Hollywood is playing a game of catch up. Serialized stories are the basic medium of any TV series nowadays. You can't even watch a 30-minute sit com without having to deal with character development and developing storylines. Netflix and Hulu originals have been creating popular serialized stories for years. There's a reason you can't wait for the next season of Stranger Things. You just have to know what happens next.
But this concept isn't entirely new in Hollywood. Star Wars is probably one of the earliest and most relevant examples. Each new film is another installment in the ongoing storyline. You can't really expect to watch The Last Jedi or The Force Awakens without having seen any other Star Wars movie. Disney and LucasFilm are taking the concept further with their anthology installments. Rogue One and the Han Solo origin film are intended to fill in the gaps the original episodes left open. And this is all to please the voracious appetite of committed long-time fans. It really wasn't that long ago that most films were created for the casual movie goer. Now, production studios are working to create large fan bases by providing rich lore and building a shared universe. This has already occurred with The Matrix trilogy and even the Fast and Furious franchise.
Comic book films have proved that movie goers enjoy serialized stories just as much as the graphic novel reader or the drama series binger. Like it or not, this kind of storytelling is here to stay. Might as well get nerdy with it.
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