Call for Comments: Movie Franchising and Cinematic Universes

Don’t worry, there are no Avengers: Infinity War spoilers in this post. That said,  I’m pretty sure that international podcasting law requires that all shows talk about the movie next week in some way shape or form. Somehow podcasts devoted to knitting are going to have to come up with a way of discussing patterns on how knit a functional Infinity Gauntlet or something. It’s just a rule! Since our show is all about pop culture and focuses heavily on comics in general (because of who Wayne and I are) it’s sort of just a given that we’d have to address it in some way or form. I mean, rules are rules.

That said, I don’t know that I want to just talk about the movie in general. We’re not really a review show. That’s what my blog is for (and I’ll be writing my review of the film up there in a bit, and I’ll link it here when I’m done). Instead I thought it would be interesting to use this opportunity to talk about the idea of media franchises in general, especially with movies.

I had an opportunity to see Infinity War last night. I actually have tickets to go see it this afternoon with my wife, Stephanie… but then, on a lark last night, I decided “hey, I have MoviePass… and it sure would be nice to not have to ban myself from the Internet until after I’ve caught the film” so I went to a late night showing. Wayne will also be seeing it on Saturday. So I’ sure we’ll talk about the movie a bit on the episode, but again, this post at least should be spoiler free. Because it’s not the details of the film that I’m interested in right now, so much as the concept. Namely, the idea that this is… a different sort of film than just about anything else I’ve ever seen before.

Or is it…

Everyone seems to think so. And it certainly feels that way. It’s the 19th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise. And, without getting into details right now, it doesn’t feel like a singular movie in the way we normally think about movies. It is very much the latest (and biggest) chapter in a longform story. It’s like a season finale on an epic TV show. And it really does feel like something that has never been attempted before. It doesn’t stand on its own… and I don’t want it to. It’s not about that.

But there’s been other movie franchises as well. Maybe not of this scale, with this many separate characters and interweaving storylines. But in a sense, this is what Star Wars always was… or Star Trek. And while those franchises do have a feeling that each movie is a complete standalone entry, they’re often really not. In fact, when you get down to it, two of my/everyone’s favorite entries in those (Empire Strikes Back and Wrath of Khan) really don’t stand alone AT ALL!

So the question becomes, how do we view the movie franchise? Obviously, they’re something that every studio wants, because they sort of guarantee repeat business at the box office. But they feel like something different than a standard movie. The story is not bounded by the single episode. At the same time, they feel different than a TV series or collection of novels as well. Not just because of the scale, but because they seem to work in a different way.

And the MCU films seem to be trying something even more different than what other franchises are doing. Where Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are clearly a series of connected chapters designed to be viewed linearly as a continuing story and James Bond and Friday the 13th have loosely connected narratives where it sort of doesn’t matter if you see all of them, and for the most part the order isn’t even super relevant (and in some cases, might very well be contradictory). The MCU seems to be doing something different than either of them. It’s sort of mixes the idea of cinematic story telling with the way comics have  always been done in shared universes. Here are interconnected stories — they all relate — and you drop in on them from time to time and see how they are progressing. And what’s interesting about the MCU is that there is sort of a sense that they continue to progress while you’re not watching (How the fuck did Tony get all of his Iron Man suits back between Iron Man 3 and Avengers: Age of Ultron? Look, he just did, ok… deal with it!)

And yet, somehow it works? And other franchises also work or don’t work to varying extents. And I’m not just talking about film series that I enjoy. I would argue that the Transformers franchise has certainly made this work. Whereas the DCEU has had problems and the Dark Universe failed after only one film. I also don’t think it’s as “new” as we might pretend it is. Many films worked this way at one point, most notably (to me) the Andy Hardy film series.

So I’m interested in discussing HOW this works. Why does it work? Why does it not work? What makes us interested in franchises in our films… and how do we judge them in a different way than we do a regular film, or even a TV series (which seems like a different thing as well).

What are your thoughts? And would anyone be interested in being on next week’s show to discuss it?

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