Posted on Tuesday, July 19th, 2016 by Angie Han
A few weeks ago, Peter looked into some of the reasons that so many big-budget sequels — which once seemed like sure-bet propositions — have floundered or outright flopped this summer. But there have been a few notable exceptions, including the one that kicked off this brutal season: Captain America: Civil War. While competing studios struggle to get their own shared universes off the ground, Marvel has just released the thirteenth entry in its cinematic universe, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down. But how? Why? What makes Marvel so different? Why is this franchise succeeding when so many others have failed, and what other lessons should other would-be franchises take from it?
What Do We Want Out of Blockbuster Franchises?
In recent years, much digital ink has been spilled bemoaning Hollywood’s increasing obsession with blockbuster franchise-building at the expense of individual, original films. And it is a troubling pattern. There’s certainly something lost when studios are more willing to sink hundreds of millions of dollars into one safe, familiar product after another, rather than risk just a few million on something fresh and exciting just because it’s not based on existing IP.
But blockbuster franchises have their unique advantages too, and nowhere is that clearer than with Marvel. Here’s a cinematic universe that actually feels like a universe — vast and varied and full of weird corners just waiting to be discovered. When Marvel’s firing on all cylinders, the interconnectedness of their films don’t feel like limitations; they feel like possibilities. Knowing Ant-Man’s running around San Francisco doesn’t make it any harder to enjoy Thor’s adventures in Asgard, it just makes us more excited to see what’ll happen if and when they finally meet.
The Marvel franchise isn’t just a more expensive, more spaced out television series with more expensive installments. Nor is it a live-action comic book. It’s not just a series of films released under the same brand, with the same general tone (like Pixar or Disney Animation). It’s something else entirely. It’s cinematic storytelling on a grander scale.
While all of Marvel’s movies are connected, by virtue of belonging to the same universe and timeline, they’re not all intertwined. It’s quite possible to enjoy Guardians of the Galaxy without ever having seen The Avengers. Heck, you can understand Captain America: The Winter Soldier without ever watching another movie starring Captain America. But the reason Marvel feels like a cohesive continuity is because the individual installments do line up for anyone who cares to look. It’s not that every detail has to be perfectly consistent. We’re okay with certain actors having dual roles, for example, and we don’t bat an eye at the nonsense spewed by Marvel’s many scientist characters. But Marvel is pretty good about sticking to its own internal logic.
Contrast this to X-Men: Apocalypse, which is both entirely dependent on and completely dismissive of existing continuity. Even if you allow that X-Men: Days of Future Past reset the timeline post-1973, Apocalypse is full of details that don’t add up, like the characters’ ages. At the same time, Apocalypse depends on our recollection of previous films to make sense of the characters and storylines we see before us. Charles’ lingering concern for Erik makes no sense unless you know they were best friends in First Class, and the Wolverine / Jean Grey scene really only exists as a nod to other installments. While X-Men has problems beyond its sloppy plotting, a more rigorous attention to detail would be a good way to start fixing that franchise.