Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in Avengers Age of Ultron

Charismatic Characters

Speaking of X-Men: Apocalypse‘s paper-thin characters, that’s another area where Marvel is running circles around most of the competition. The casting team, the actors, the directors, the screenwriters, the choreographers — everyone works together to craft characters that are not only likable, but so three-dimensional they almost feel like real people. We know what makes Captain America tick, both on a personal level and on a moral one; we know how he comes across to other people; we know what his fighting style and his sense of humor are like; we know what makes him happy or sad or amused or confused; and our understanding of him only deepens as he evolves with each successive installment. Ditto Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Black Widow, and so on. At this point, honestly, I know more about some of these fictional people than I do my own real-life friends. And that’s key to Marvel’s success: one of the major reasons we return to these movies again and again is that we like these characters and are eager to see what they’re up to.

Marvel makes it all look so easy, but a glance at some other recent titles should be proof it’s not. The Huntsman: Winter’s War was built around the assumption that audiences were dying to see more of Eric and Ravenna. Universal learned the hard way that they were not. Charlize Theron’s scenery-chewing makes Ravenna fun in small doses, but she’s too flimsy a villain to hang an entire franchise on. And despite Chris Hemsworth’s best efforts, Eric barely registers at all. (Universal apparently felt the same way, going out of their way to downplay his role in the marketing.) After two films it feels like we still don’t know much about these characters, or why we’re supposed to care about them. Lovable characters aren’t the only reason to return to a franchise — I can’t wait to watch Mission: Impossible 6, for example, even though I don’t have particularly strong feelings about Ethan Hunt — but they sure do help.

Oh, and it bears mentioning here that A-list stars aren’t required to create fan-favorite characters. Hemsworth was already a relatively well-known star when he was cast as the Huntsman, because he’d already starred Thor — but when Marvel originally hand-picked him for Thor, almost no one outside of Australia knew who he was.

ryan coogler black panther

Introducing New Heroes

Oh, and when franchises want to introduce new leading characters into the mix? It helps to give them some room to breathe. Civil War entrusted Black Panther with a major storyline and character arc that helped us get excited for his solo movie coming in 2018 and even gave Spider-Man (who’s really pretty incidental to the plot) several beats to show off his personality and his moves. Marvel’s not the only one who’s figured this out — Creed and Star Wars: The Force Awakens both worked spectacularly well as “legacyquels” because they weren’t afraid to turn their attention away from the icons who used to be the franchise leads (Rocky and Han / Luke / Leia, respectively) and spend some real time and energy on the fresh faces.

When a film is afraid to lean on its new characters, it shows. Independence Day: Resurgence introduced a trio of new heroes but spent so little care on them that by the end of the movie they still barely qualified as character types, let alone full-fledged characters. The film set up some potentially interesting dynamics between them, like the animosity between Jake and Dylan, but even these undercooked subplots are shoved aside to make room for Judd Hirsch driving a school bus or some other such nonsense. (Which, to be fair, was pretty cute.) Had Independence Day: Resurgence did the work to develop these characters — and then trusted them to carry large portions of the movie on their own — they might have been more convincing as the face of the next generation for this franchise. As it stands now, they’re just a bunch of bland nobodies distracting from the older characters we actually care about.

Suicide Squad Trailer Mash-Up

Standalone Installments

As the end credits rolled on my (public) screening of Independence Day: Resurgence, a furious audience member began screaming at the screen: “Bullshit! What the fuck was that? We just watched a fucking preview!” And it was hard to disagree with her, honestly. The film’s pacing is off (as Vox has explained quite well) — it’s all set-up, and then all climax, and then it ends with a smirking scene that suggests this was all just set-up for another Independence Day movie. At no point does it feel like an actual, complete movie in and of itself. It’s not impossible to end a film by setting up mysteries and storylines for next time, and still leave audiences satisfied. Star Wars: The Force Awakens pulled this off quite adeptly. The difference is that Star Wars made sure we still went home feeling like we’d been on a fulfilling emotional journey. We saw Rey evolve from an anonymous dreamer to a full-fledged hero of the Resistance.

The temptation to end with teasers and cliffhangers is understandable. These films want to leave you begging for more. But they really only work if they’re coming at the end of a satisfying entry. When they don’t, they leave audiences feeling cheated. Captain America: Civil War builds on a lot of the films that came before it, and sets up a lot of the films that came after it. But even if you’ve never seen a Marvel movie before and never plan to see a Marvel movie again, you walk out with a reasonably complete arc. It’s no coincidence that the least-liked Marvel films (Iron Man 2 and Avengers: Age of Ultron) are the ones that seem more interested in laying groundwork than in telling a story. When Marvel does leave some threads dangling for next time, they’re usually presented as minor details rather than urgent mysteries — Guardians of the Galaxy mentions Peter Quill’s mysterious parentage in passing, for instance, but doesn’t really dwell on it. Or they’re saved for the end-credits stingers, so you’ve already gotten a complete movie before you get to them. To jump over to another Disney franchise, Star Wars: The Force Awakens pulls off a similar trick.

Despite a similar interest in serialization and continuity, film franchises are not television series, and individual sequels are not individual episodes. You can get away with a table-setting episode of Game of Thrones because fans know another episode is coming next week. It may be true that the Golden Age of Television is stealing some of cinema’s cultural capital, but movies aren’t going to beat television shows at their own game. TV is easier and cheaper to watch, and there are more viewing options than ever. If audiences are going out of their way to hit the theater, it’s because they want to see a movie — not pay $15 for a supersized episode of a really slow-moving television series.

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