Serialization has always been a major part of pop culture. Even before we were eagerly waiting for the next episode of Game of Thrones, Victorians were left biting their nails as the likes of Thomas Hardy literally left characters hanging off cliffs in serialized novels. However, serialization has also always held a somewhat tenuous position within the cultural canon. The reason is clear. While great works can come in serialized form (see the GOT reference and I guess Hardy if you’re feeling generous), the motivation behind it has always been largely fiscal. Stories are produced in parts or continued into perpetuity because audiences will keep buying if they’re already invested in the characters or narrative, or just to find out if some poor bastard falls off a cliff.
The newest money-making cog in the serialization machine is the idea of cinematic universes. Studios can ensure ticket sales by linking films through shared events and characters or just suggesting that they exist in the same world. It allows for more films than traditional franchises as franchises can be linked to other franchises (what experts call franchise-ception). It is something Marvel is credited with pioneering and many have tried to replicate the business model of creating individual films that build to some major crossover even to varying levels of success (the pure money-making behemoth that was the The Avengers basically broke studio executives’ minds).
Now, the advent of the cinematic universe has also meant the advent of a bunch of new narrative issues. Films are attempting to put the maximum number of butts in the maximum number of seats, especially in those big cross-over entries. And those big crossover events do put more butts in more seats than the standalone films that build up to them. But part of seriality is inter-textuality. Umberto Eco points this out in his book The Limits of Interpretation. Eco points out that serial narratives rely on audience familiarity either with other issues or episodes of the specific text or similar texts. He gives examples from works such as the Indiana Jones franchise which references itself by redoing the classic scene in Raiders where Indy shoots the guy with the knife in Temple of Doom (a moment that Joss Whedon cites as the beginning of the end for culture; I’m not kidding) or E.T. which features a reference to Star Wars by having a kid wear a Yoda costume on Halloween. Part of enjoying E.T. becomes having seen Star Wars and you get a kick out of that scene in Temple of Doom because you saw Raiders. Now those are relatively small moments in those films. Cinematic Universes take that concept and turn it up to eleven. Yes, there are small Easter eggs that work on a smaller scale. But whole plotlines and even characters work by calling on the audiences’ knowledge of previous films; yet, we can clearly see that all audiences aren’t necessarily familiar with the series as a whole. According to Box Office Mojo, Man of Steel grossed $668,045,518 in its theatrical run, while Batman v. Superman grossed $873,260,194. How do you create a cohesive narrative when literally thousands of people in your audience haven’t seen the preceding volume?
The above picture actually offers a nice transition into the next big narrative issue. How do you organically work in references that build interest in or set up future entries? Batman v. Superman decided weird dream sequences in an already convoluted plot were the way to go. Oh, and you can’t forget having one character email what amounts to a series of TV spots for future films to another character and then have character two watch them all in the middle of the buildup to the titular action scene. Classic storytelling. And before anyone claims I’m just hating on DC, I’d like to point out that I also shat on Universal earlier. I would also like to point out that Marvel has both problems. Like, they have these problems a lot.
Disparity between ticket sales for standalone films and crossovers films causing narrative issues? Yep, Marvel’s got them by the bucketful. Let us return to Box Office Mojo. Captain America: The Winter Soldier grossed $714,264,267 and Avengers: Age of Ultron made over a billion dollars because damn it, this business model works! But some major shit went down in Winter Soldier. SHIELD was revealed to be a part of Hydra, Nick Fury faked his death, and Captain America’s long dead friend was revealed to be not so much dead, giving Cap a major new motivation at the end of the film. But thousands of people buying tickets for Age of Ultron didn’t see Winter Soldier. So, what happens? Nick Fury shows up and brings both SHIELD personnel and equipment with him, with no mention of the fact that SHIELD freakin’ collapsed. Cap’s pledge to find his friend? Dismissed in a few lines of dialogue vague enough to be inoffensive to the uninitiated (and royally piss off some people who are maybe a little too invested in Bucky Barnes). So much for a perfectly cohesive and intricately connected universe. If major universe shifting events don’t actually impact the universe, what exactly is the point?
But on the other hand, the inter-textuality of cinematic universes can become too burdensome when acknowledged fully. Why? Well, that disparity in levels of audience knowledge. I actually have anecdotal evidence (the strongest kind of evidence) of this. Captain America: Civil War brought the Bucky plot back front and center, which makes sense. It’s another Captain America movie; people who have seen it will most likely have seen Winter Soldier. But Civil War was also basically Avengers 2.5 and like the other Avengers movies it grossed more than Captain America films generally do (it too broke the billion-dollar mark). I literally had someone tell me that they had no idea who Bucky was and while they enjoyed the movie, they had no idea what was going on.
When part of your audience doesn’t know what the hell is going on, it’s kinda a problem. I can hear what you’re saying. “But Stephanie, they shouldn’t be seeing the third installment in a series and expecting to understand everything if they didn’t see the other movies. Isn’t it his or her fault?” you ask your computer screen in vain (I can’t actually hear you, despite claiming I could. That was a bald-faced lie conjured up for creative writing purposes). Except, up until Civil War the Marvel movies could largely stand on their own or within their own franchises. Civil War was essentially gibberish if you hadn’t seen not only the Captain America movies but also Age of Ultron. Previously, omitting or explaining things or keeping things frustratingly vague kept the films accessible. No matter how irritating for the folks coughing up the cash twice a year to catch every installment, these narrative choices still allowed audiences to enter the Marvel Cinematic Universe at any point in the series. The inter-textuality of the MCU rewarded audiences for seeing all entries but didn’t shut out new viewers. Those narrative fixes, however, are harder to organically add. The stories build on each other because that is the nature of serialized narratives.
We could talk about the other issue (having to include references to future entries in the universe) but we all know it’s there. After all, it practically drove Joss Whedon insane enough to forget that having to work within the confines of a cinematic universe drove him insane and now he’s working for DC.
Cinematic universes often come across as places where creativity goes to die. Directors and writers are forced to not just consider the film they want to make but also how it sets up things for future installments. Style must be managed and cohesive across entries. A lot of people find the environment stifling. Edgar Wright left Ant-Man because of this and like I said before, Whedon nearly lost his mind because Kevin Feige made him include a scene where Thor takes a magical bath.
So, that’s it for culture right? Everyone and their mother is invested in creating their own cinematic universe and the model is clearly untenable. It’s just too narratively burdensome. Plots are getting too complicated and the inter-textuality is eventually going to be too alienating to audiences. No one wants to have to sit through an Aquaman movie just to understand what’s going on in the new Batman movie. And creators don’t want to make them because the inter-textuality restricts what they can do. The film industry is going to collapse in on itself and we’re all going to have to go back to reading books. Probably books by Thomas Hardy, blech.
But wait! What’s that? A masked figure is swinging into view. Bringing hope for inter-textuality as a tool for creativity, a brighter future for cinematic universes, and a Lego Death Star (corporate synergy, anyone?). That’s right. Next time we’re talking about what Spider-Man: Homecoming does right when it comes to universe building and serial storytelling. This article about serialization is now part of a series (what experts call series-ception).