Poke around the internet this week and you’ll find them everywhere: articles with headlines like What You Need to Know Before Seeing The Avengers. Movie sites love pieces like this, beginner’s guides to help the uninitiated get excited about the latest major release. Sure, in a perfect world, the only thing you’d need to know before seeing any movie would be what time it starts. But in today’s franchise-heavy world, where would-be blockbusters are obligated to waste at least five percent of their run time setting up a potential sequel, can we really expect a film to stand on its own, separate from what came before?
When I first started thinking about this post, I was still reeling over The Avengers – namely, its frequent disregard for newcomers. Much of the film’s first act requires a great deal of knowledge of what happened in previous Marvel movies, and to someone who’s never seen a previous Marvel movie, the lack of exposition will result in confusion and frustration. Who’s that? Where are they? What are they talking about? Why is everyone cheering because a beefy blond guy suddenly showed up?
My initial theory was quite simple: every film should be its own thing, and no outside knowledge of the text should be required. It’s a complaint I’ve had with plenty of book-to-screen adaptations. Take Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City (please!), which plows through its handful of storylines so haphazardly, I was only able to keep up because I had read the source material first. Similar complaints have been made about such varied works as Dune, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (all unseen by me), which boil down to “if I hadn’t read the book, I’d have been completely lost.” This, of course, goes completely against the idea of an adaptation, which is to bring a familiar tale to a new audience via a new medium. If you need your audience to be previously familiar with the elements of your story, you have failed as a storyteller.
But the more I considered this, the more complicated my theory became. While the first film in a series should be considered an entry point for anyone, no matter what they know of, say, Tony Stark’s adventures in comic book panels, is it truly fair to say a sequel (or second sequel, or third, or…) must equally work as an entry point for someone who didn’t bother with its predecessor? As someone who’s read too many comics where too much space is wasted with dialogue where characters repeat each others’ names and superpowers and backstories in order to bring new readers up to date, I can certainly see why the later Harry Potter movies are better off without lengthy scenes loaded with seven years’ worth of exposition. Similarly, the Star Wars series, excellent examples (yes, even the prequels) of in medias res, repeatedly drop the viewer in the middle of the action and let him/her play catch up with no ill effect.
And yet modern Hollywood seems obsessed with this notion of the long game, resulting in two major problems. First, by assuming most of its tentpole releases will have built-in audiences, studios tend to waste time selling the crowd on the next entry in the series, instead of, you know, focusing on the story they’re telling right now. Consider Captain America, a perfectly good adventure flick ruined by this “set up the next one” mindset. The story’s conclusion is flat-out nonexistent; instead of building to a fitting climax, the script clumsily morphs into a prologue to The Avengers. Its final scene is nothing more than a teaser trailer.
This is what Hollywood wants these days: movies without end, franchise entries which blur from one to the other, always keeping the fans looking forward to the next one, never caring if the story they’re telling works as a satisfactory whole. If the sequel never comes, no harm done, the first film and its incomplete plot still raked in enough cash, and that’s all that matters, right?
The second problem comes not on the big screen but the small one. Season- and series-wide story arcs remain quite popular (or, at least, trendy) on television, especially cable. Call it the Lost Factor: programs are no longer compelled to contain their stories to a single episode, to the point that someone interested in Game of Thrones wouldn’t be able to channel surf over to a mid-season episode and enjoy the hour the same way they could with CSI. (True, CSI gives its characters their own personal arcs, but not to the same degree. The police procedural format demands a case open and close within an hour or two, asking no long term commitment from its audience.) Such long-form storytelling rewards its fanbase for their commitment, but it also inadvertently punishes new viewers by asking them to play catch up on DVD before they can join in.
Which brings us back to the original question: how much exposition must a film provide to work on its own, and how much exposition must a film not provide in order to avoid redundancy as part of a franchise? The first example that came to mind in terms of a comfortable middle ground is Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, which rewards fans by suggesting a continuation of Mission: Impossible III‘s personal angle while smoothly working the exposition into the story itself to allow anyone who missed the previous chapter to not miss a beat.
The best example, though, is probably The Dark Knight, which does everything which would otherwise cause me to complain – callbacks to characters and events from the earlier film, a finale which works hard to set up the sequel – but does it the right way. The callbacks (most notably, the under-explained return of the Scarecrow) are mostly handled early enough in the movie to not interfere with the main plot while also playing out as part of a broader storytelling element that works without any knowledge of Batman Begins; the finale feels open-ended but actually manages to create a proper closing for this particular chapter, summing up the title character’s strange journey into myth. The film fits with Batman Begins as part of a larger epic but also manages to stand completely on its own when necessary.
That’s a lesson Marvel – and all the major studios – would do well to learn. Rather than waste our time (and money) figuring out how to remind fans another sequel is already on its way, let’s save the multi-film set-ups for after the credits, removed from the story proper, or, better still, let’s not include them at all. Let’s let films be their own thing, owing a debt to but not constrained by the greater pop culture web surrounding them. And for Pete’s sake, let’s start making movies whose stories actually bother to end.