There was a time when you called a few friends and said “Fancy seeing a film tonight?”. These days there is a danger that at least some of the party will have absolutely no idea what on Earth is happening.
Who are these characters that seem to have several films’ worth of history? Can I read everything on Wikipedia about this before coming to see the film again so it makes some sense?
The next summer blockbuster this year, Spider-Man: Homecoming, is a reboot. A re-reboot, in fact. It’s getting hard to keep up, there are so many Spidermen, Supermen, Batmen etc. But just how much homework will cinema-goers have to do before going, MTV Chief Critic Inkoo Kang asks for Hollywood Reporter.
This particular Spider-Man is a part of the massive Marvel Cinematic Universe, a currently 16-strong movie collection with a further nine in production or post-production, also encompassing a half-dozen tv/cable/streaming series.
Homecoming stars Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Those of us who have religiously watched Every Single Installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe offering will know he first popped up in last year’s Captain America: Civil War. Or rather, as it was revealed days ago, in 2010’s Iron Man 2; Peter Parker was the child fan of Iron Man who stands up to a rogue drone and is saved by Tony Stark.
See? If you were a casual observer, then you wouldn’t know that. If you don’t spend your days scouring the internet for news of Marvel characters, it’s just another unremarkable scene in a seven year old film. But to the Fans it’s a tiny, important patch of colour that builds life into the MCU.
And therein lies the problem.
How long should a casual Spider-fan devote to background research? As Inkoo puts it “Before she knows it, that Spider-Fan is staring down a rabbit hole of at least eight (long) features before heading to the theater.”
Franchises and fanservice are such a huge part of cinema now. With the rise of home cinema, streaming services, blu-ray, etc, Movie companies are increasingly using the baited hook of the “serialised” franchise to bring in revenue. If you can hook a fan, they will be there for Every Film, for conventions, for merchandising. They become a captive audience, in thrall to the next installment.
While the casual movie-goer may still enjoy each individual film, they won’t get as much out of it, can’t appreciate the interplay of characters built up over film after film. They may not remember, or even care, about the relationship between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark in Captain America: Civil War, much less why Spiderman was in it. And who are Steve Rogers and Tony Stark?
The past decade has seen the franchise series taking over the mainstream cinema, with slews of Batman, Superman, X-Men, Avengers, Transformers, Guardians of the Galaxy and Harry Potter dominating the screens. It’s becoming a kind of “cultural exclusion zone”. Casual observers not keeping up with the content are being pushed out of a huge core of pop culture.
Blockbusters like this year’s stand-alone (so far) Wonder Woman have shown there is a place for Superheroines (girls can be geeks too), giving even the most casual genre-toe-dipper food for discussion and argument. But, again, it is another comicbook adaptation that will spawn sequels and probably prequels.
The infinite remake/reboot/sequel/prequel/spinoff train powers through the film industry, pushing individuality and new film to the margins. Even sci-fi/fantasy Genre film, the current staple of cinema revenue, is marginalised. Why make Brian Aldis’s Hothouse or Clifford Simak’s City if you can just remake Star Wars: A New Hope (and The Force Awakens was virtually a facsimile) or put out another known-quantity franchise offering?
We are, Inkoo argues, being “trained” for a very specific type of entertainment. The MCU fan searches obsessively for tiny connective threads, and whacking great big ones too. They travel from film-to-film throughout the entire serial franchise. Blogs, forums and wikis abound with fan theory, minutiae, easter eggs and insider tit-bits.
Spider-Man: Homecoming may be a new start and an ‘in’ for new fans or casual theatregoers. But it is the thin end of a six-film contracted wedge.
Inkoo argues that for many, the choice in cinema now is to either jump on the identikit serialised franchise treadmill or be left out of modern film culture completely. Twenty years ago if you wanted to know the truth about the then-culture-hit Something About Mary‘s hair gel you just had the one film to watch. No sequels, no prequels, no serialisation.
Now Inkoo is left to lament missing out on the generational touchstone that was Harry Potter. Just what is Butterbeer and do we really have to watch eight films to understand why it has such a hold on so many fans? And the prequel Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them films (all planned five of them) only serve to push us further from the cultural well.
Even fans can be worn down by the eternal serialisation of sequels and prequels.
As Inkoo says of her Potter-fan friend, she “finds herself rolling her eyes anytime she sees any Fantastic Beasts news. Harry, Hermione and Ron already defeated Voldemort, the greatest threat the universe has ever seen. So why in the world would she care about some nobody like Beasts villain Grindelwald?”
The Geeks have inherited the Earth, Inkoo concludes. While I freely admit to more than occasional geekhood, I understand it’s not a Good Thing that the barrier between the “corporate designed fandoms” of the mainstream cinema and the casual theatre-goer is a little higher with every new film. The portal in that barrier is a huge step to climb over.
Studios need to make money, and serialised franchises, with their convention and merchandising opportunities, make money.
But plenty of people, millions of them, really don’t want to scour the internet for clues to what Thanos’ gauntlet is all about, or why it’s so sad to see Optimus Prime beat up Bumblebee. There needs to be a door kept open for the casual theatre-goer to enter into that world before exclusion becomes division and isolation.
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