Ever since the first cathode ray tubes flickered to life in America’s living rooms, the byword in Hollywood has been “Make Movies Better” than TV.
Make them bigger, from Cinemascope to Cinerama to 70mm to IMAX 3D.
Give them better sound, better effects, epic stories.
Make movies with movie stars, not actors ticket-buyers can see for free on the “boob tube.”
But as small screen distractions have multiplied and viewing/gaming choices have swelled, big screen viewership has steadily shrunk, coinciding with the shrinking size of our viewing screens. It’s not all demographics, but an aging population is setting that stay-at-home trend, something younger homebodies try to ignore when they proclaim “We’re in a New Golden Age of TV!”
Like Walmart suppliers trapped in contracts that force them to slash prices and move American jobs overseas, studios have become ever more and more reliant on a small corner of their North American audience — comic book film fans, horror fans — and an increasingly important overseas marketplace.
And not to paint the foreign film fan with too broad a brush, but the main reason we’re doomed to see more “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies and “Transformers” installments is they’re still earning hundreds of millions in China and India, even though American audiences have, in general, moved on.
It’s the Age of Branding at the movies, proven properties, movies with name recognition are the ones studio chiefs who want to keep their jobs green light. “Wimpy Kid,” “Spider-Man,” “Insidious” and Dracula, “The Mummy” and any comic book or graphic novel that has a following has an edge. Half the marketing is already done.
But as is becoming increasingly obvious with the myriad Marvel, DC, horror and “Pirates” films and their ever-expanding “universe,” film studios are stealing storytelling style from the raft of limited-run TV series that so dominate water cooler culture in an era when the water cooler is now a Facebook page devoted to “House of Cards” or “Twin Peaks,” et. al.
Every movie in these broad sci-fi/fantasy/horror/action genres reach for an open ending, because no studio exec wants to be the one to leave “Planet of the Apes” or “The Accountant” money on the table. Nothing ever ends. There is no completion, no “closure.”
Nobody has moved further in this direction than Marvel, a studio which has created a generation of film fans who stay through the credits. The kicker at the end adds nothing to the film that precedes it, and on occasion, undercuts it. All these “teaser” scenes do is sell the next picture.
The vast continuum of Marvel Universe “Avengers” is a clever bit of engineering. Take the new “Spider-Man.” In giving us the third incarnation of the character in 15 years, Marvel skips repeating that spider-bite origin story to backdate him only to his introduction to “The Avengers” in “Captain America: Civil War.”
As a stand-alone film, that one made little sense, its conflicts, collaborations and forward motion masking the fact that these films have all become part of cross-marketing content to a willing audience. It’s all about drumming up interest in the next movie(s), rounding up more Marvels to the hoots of approval of an audience that isn’t insulted when it is pandered to. They expect it, demand it.’
The only reason there was a “Civil War” is Marvel needed to create factions for the spin-offs to have fights the “fans” are salivating to see. Yeah, I laughed at Thor’s “We work together” joke about being pitted against The Incredible Hulk in the “Thor Ragnarok” trailer, the use of classic rock (Led Zep, baby).
But let’s not confuse “interconnectedness” for story “depth” or density. Let’s not mistake pictures that are “populous” for films with complexity.’
Because the upshot of all this cross-referencing/cross-marketing is they’re telling what little “story” they bother to shove in there the way cable and streaming service series do — in tiny dribs and drabs, “saving” this or that for “later.” The movies take the “Raiders/Star Wars” ancient Saturday morning serial style of cliffhanger to its most cynical extremes.
You’re being played, toyed with, lured, pre-sold.
“Spider-Man: Homecoming” is all tease and tease out, every important thing — from Peter Parker’s first “real” love to villains who will seemingly be with us, forever, in the style of 1960s TV “Batman” episodes, with Iron Man as the deus ex machina, there to come to the rescue when the scenarists paint Peter Parker into a pickle.
There’s no finality to any of these serial stories, because the executives are waiting for the fans to let go first. Johnny Depp will be stuck in that eye-makeup forever, Mark Wahlberg will be eased out of “Transformers” because, well, most of the world just wants to watch those sassy, trash-talking robots. well, most of the world just wants to watch those sassy, trash-talking robots.
And these are all important, TV-driven changes to the medium. Hitchcock famously said a film should be like a short story, with a beginning, middle and end that can be absorbed in one comfortable sitting. Two hours and 22 minutes of “Spider-Man,” and the soap opera is just starting to soap up.
I will try, at the girlfriend’s request, any number of streaming series, with their tiny dollops of plot stretched out with layers of filler and “Character development.” “Kimmy Schmidt” to “Narcos,” “Divorce” to “Big Little Lies,” “Handmaid’s Tale” to “Gypsy.” Even the best of them drive me a little crazy, because the creators telegraph where things are going (even the cleverest of them) and then drag and drag and drag the saga out to make you think you’re eating a meal, when you’re standing around, nibbling on hors d’oeuvres.
It’s a “new normal” that’s inferior to the storytelling model it replaces, except to people who don’t want to admit they don’t go out any more. The exclamation point on this argument is the end result of “binge-watchable” connected movies. While I can sit through a chunk of the “Back to the Future” trilogy, where the movies almost stand alone, and can tolerate chunks of the “Star Wars” saga, and even select sections of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy rendered into four films, the “Hobbit” pictures will never get another second of my viewing time.
The Harry Potter films are better as stand-alones than binged (a couple of good directors had cracks at episodes). The “Transformers” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” are mere repetitions of a standard formula.
As are the Marvel movies and their generally inferior DC clones (the Bale/Nolan “Dark Knights” work only as stand-alones). If you’re watching numerous installments, in order, of the ever-expanding universe on a slow weekend, you might need to step back and take stock of where you’re allocating your hours.
I find myself a lone voice, bemoaning that silly films about superheroes, pirates and car robots and talking Apes inhabit the lines of an old, forgotten in the fear-mongering of Rapture preachers, Protestant hymn.
“World without end. Amen. Amen.”