The Disappearance, Return and Dominance of the Epic (Marveliad: Eps. III, IV + V)
This page covers Episodes III, IV + V of “The Marveliad", which started with: Cinematic Universes Aren't New; They're the Oldest Stories on Earth
EPISODE III: BROKE UP? LIKE A BAND? LIKE THE BEATLES?
If the rise of cinematic universes reflects our fundamental desire for the epic form, why did they ever go away? Much of the answer has to do with the transition to what we now call modernity. As early capitalism fostered a nascent middle class obsessed with education, attainment, and achievement, narratives began to shift from quests and conflicts between magical families toward realistic and personal stories of individuals.
Shakespeare’s so-called Henriad, a set of four plays (or eight; debates endure), is recognizably part of the epic tradition. But by 1600, the Bard does something ostensibly modern. He writes a Hamlet with vivid inner life. Soon after, Cervantes’ Don Quixote turned the epic on its head as a parody of chivalric culture. His ‘hero’ is a delusional man who only thinks he is a hero. And John Milton’s Paradise Lost is an epic of Biblical Eden, yet it features the personal journey of an upwardly-mobile and surprisingly sympathetic Satan.
This trend toward more human-scale and introspective stories accelerated in the 18th century with the proliferation and industrialization of print literature. The novel was established as a central storytelling medium. Writers like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Gustave Flaubert developed a new language to depict normal people, their happiness and sadness, quirks and foibles, their psychologies. Fantastic elements remained popular, but they were now used to detail human truths, as Mary Shelley did, when she portrayed the scientific ambition and personal alienation of Victor Frankenstein, and as Bram Stoker did in Dracula, with its Victorian disgust for crime and corruption, immigrants and disease. In fact, both novels are written in epistolary form (letters) – a creative choice that firmly plants the reader inside the minds of individual characters and their realistic situations.
Performative theater embraced this transition, too. The most important playwrights of the 19th century, such as Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, and Oscar Wilde, deliberately avoided epic scenes and themes, or co-opted them for critique. Ibsen’s Doll House overturned the perfect family and provided a shocking depiction of female liberation. George Bernard Shaw borrowed the Greek myth of Pygmalion to explore the painful reality of a lower-class woman elevated to high society. Along came a new method of acting, pioneered by Stanislavski, wherein performers abandoned the rhetorical traditions of heroic verse and embraced techniques grounded in the psychology of the self.
By the early 20th century, the literary community had aligned on the superiority of the novel over the epic. A now-famous essay by Soviet literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin argued these differences. To him, only the novel could engage modern reality, investigate subjective experience, and interrogate the reader’s own beliefs and self-image. In contrast, the epic form forced storytelling into a ‘valorized’ past that placed the audience at a distance from the subject matter. The narrative ambitions of the epic – to be divine, timeless and universally appealing – meant that there was little room for ambiguity. A character was symbolic. He or she was exactly as they appeared, always. The epic was like marble, frozen and perfect; the novel was like clay. It was shaped by the author and the characters themselves, ever-changing and reacting to the real world and the unique psyches of its readers.
And so by the time cinema became established as the leading media form, ‘serious’ filmmakers had adopted the realism of the novel and the techniques and talent of modern theater. In comedies and dramas, directors like Wyler, Ford, Chaplin, Huston, Wilder, Hawks and Kazan used the camera to show inner turmoil and social conflict. In his recent defense of ‘cinema,’ Martin Scorsese aptly defined its purpose as “human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” (Bakhtin probably would have agreed.)
As this occurred, the term ‘epic’ was redefined. When a studio promoted one of its films as an ‘epic,’ it was marketing the grandeur of its cinematography, stirring score and set piece. Examples here include Lawrence of Arabia, Casablanca, Doctor Zhivago, Citizen Kane, Planet of the Apes, and Jurassic Park. While these films might even include vivid, expansive universes that were full of side characters, the narrative itself remained focused on the lead and his/her conquest. Even big Bible or Rome pictures, such as Ben Hur, Spartacus and The Last Temptation of Christ, tended to be psychological studies of the main character. Sometimes, the term ‘epic’ would specifically be used to describe the enormity of a character’s transformation, as with Howard Beale in Network, Walter White in Breaking Bad, or Maximus Decimus Meridius in Gladiator.
EPISODE IV: I AM INEVITABLE
Despite the shift to singular protagonists and personal struggles, a version of the classical epic endured, bubbling under the surface of modernism, and in some cases, as a deliberate rejection of it.
1937 saw the release of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, with the Lord of the Rings following 17 years later. Tolkien was motivated by a desire to reintroduce the pre-literate epic. Despite the enormity of the task, his Middle Earth offered complex histories that spanned millennia, dozens of ‘side stories,’ several detailed languages, and countless lineages, timelines and backgrounds for plotlines and characters. Most of these details barely mattered to the story but Tolkien, a student of Norse and Germanic myths, saw them as essential. He insisted, for example, that his appendices were included in The Return of The King, even when translated. Like in the ancient epics, readers had to understand how everyone in the story was related and what that meant. And despite the fact it ultimately came out in the space age ‘50s, The Lord of the Rings thrived, becoming the best-selling non-religious book of all time. Tolkien’s friend, C.S. Lewis, had similarly massive success with his Christianity-inflected Narnia fantasy, also some of the most popular books ever published.
At around this time, comic books began growing in technical sophistication and popularity. Dozens of publishers emerged with titles in every possible genre, from cowboys to true romance to jungle adventures. But the ones that did best featured a ‘new’ character concept, the superhero. The most popular of these, like Action Comics’ Superman, sold more than half a million copies every month! After a decline following WW2, the industry consolidated and rebooted with an innovation a lot like Tolkien’s. Instead of separate individual stories, all of Marvel’s superhero characters were actually part of a single universe. DC Comics, which had experimented with similar notions (Justice Society of America!) in the early ‘40s, followed suit.
It was Marvel’s publisher/world-runner Stan Lee who really invented the integrated ‘comics’ universe concept. In little bubbles written in Stan’s own voice, a typical issue might cross-refer to four or five other titles. The commercial benefits were obvious. To better understand a comic book, one was expected to read (and buy!) several other series. It was a risky move -- if fans felt like they were being manipulated into buying issues they did not want, they might revolt – but Marvel made it work because the flow between the titles made its world feel real. Readers could imagine all these superheroes actually living together in New York City: the Fantastic Four in midtown and Doctor Strange in the Village. This setting was also emblematic of Marvel’s contrast with DC. Instead of aloof characters like Superman living in mythical locations like Metropolis, Stan Lee had a ‘friendly neighborhood Spiderman’ growing up in Queens, grappling with teenage crises and social issues.
When superheroes initially became popular in the ‘30s and ‘40s, they were added to the ‘B-movie’ lineup that was shown before the studio features of that period, along with Westerns, monster movies and science fiction. The subordinated status of these genre pictures led to underinvestment, which exacerbated the fact that few top writers, directors or actors wanted to work on such projects. A good example is the Universal Classic Monsters franchise of the 1920-1950s, perhaps the first ‘cinematic universe.’ It had some hits, but the franchise was never taken seriously creatively. Its ‘universe’ lacked any consistent continuity -- it was just crossovers -- and the same actor, Lon Chaney Jr. was reused to portray Wolfman, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Mummy. Once the studio system was broken by anti-trust, B-movies either upgraded to ‘quality’ one-off films, like the great Westerns of the ‘50s and ‘60s, or downgraded to ‘schlocky,’ like 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon. Some of the ‘shlock’ was successful, like a British reboot of Frankenstein in 1957. But superheroes left the screen altogether. Despite the frenetic efforts of Stan Lee to get film deals, comic book characters were not seen as sufficiently popular. They were only depicted in campy TV or cartoons.
Then came George Lucas. He sensed the enormous unmet demand for fantastic worlds and was inspired by the B-movies of his youth. Initially aiming for a Flash Gordon remake -- he was unable to acquire the rights to the ‘30s era comic strip -- Lucas’ original Star Wars universe was closely modeled around the comprehensive worldbuilding that Tolkien and Stan Lee had pioneered, as well as the ancient oral epics. To immerse his audience in an open-ended saga, Lucas positioned his first Star Wars movie as one chapter in the middle of a long galactic history. (Shortly thereafter, he enigmatically titled the first film Episode IV, even as he waffled on ever making Episodes I-III). To convey the visual reality of his world, he created his own pioneering special effects technology. The result was an enormous and unexpected hit.
20th Century Fox had been so cautious about Star Wars’ prospects that the studio gave Lucas the franchise’s IP and merchandising rights in exchange for a budget reduction. Lucas used this freedom to further explore and exploit his universe in comic books and novels. His ‘expanded universe’ was similarly successful. Marvel’s Star Wars comics were so popular that, according to the company’s editor-in-chief, during a late-‘70s downturn in sales, that franchise alone had saved the company from bankruptcy. Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy of books, released between 1991 and 1993, hit #1 on the New York Times best-seller list and have sold more than 15MM copies to date. Disney has since worked many of Zahn’s most popular stories and characters into its official Star Wars universe. Notably, Lucas set-up a proprietary games division in 1982 - a move that predated even the conclusion of his first Star Wars trilogy and the release of the first Nintendo console.
Lucas’s open approach meant that Star Wars was an endlessly expanding epic. New species and characters continued to fill every inch of the galaxy, with good and evil dynasties battling for eons set long before, after or adjacent to the main films. Hollywood might have overlooked the epic form, but a decentralized web of writers and fans would do their best to build their own. Fans even assembled a six level system of story ‘canon’ so that inevitable conflicts could be better managed and understood.
In the decades after Star Wars, the popularity of epic-styled stories continued to grow. By the 1980s, the desire to spend more time in the universe of the Lord of the Rings had led to the proliferation of Dungeons and Dragons (estimates suggest 7-10MM Americans play the game each year). Comic books took a step towards sophistication and cinematic style with dark and well-written stories from Chris Claremont, Frank Miller, Alan Moore, and Grant Morrison. These would provide source material for the X-Men, Batman The Dark Knight, V for Vendetta, and Watchmen movies. Terry Pratchett’s 1983 fantasy series Discworld went on to sell more than 90MM copies, with Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series achieving 80MM. Stephen King’s Dark Tower novels, which were based around Tolkien and Arthurian legends, sold more than 10MM. 1996, meanwhile, saw the start of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, which has since sold close to 100MM copies (Martin frequently identifies Stan Lee and Tolkien as primary influences). In 1997, J.K. Rowling released the first entry in her Harry Potter series, which quickly became the biggest book since Lord of the Rings, with 120MM copies sold, and the best-selling series of all time, with 500MM+ total sales.
EPISODE V: MR. STARK, YOU’VE BECOME PART OF A BIGGER UNIVERSE, YOU JUST DON’T KNOW IT YET
Then in 2008, we get Iron Man and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Over the following ten years, the MCU quickly established itself as the most successful franchise the world has ever seen. Its 23 films averaged nearly $1B in worldwide box office hauls - enough to make it more than twice the size of the second and third biggest franchises. Its four Avengers films each rank in the top 10 highest-grossing films of all time (with the most recent entry holding the #1 spot). Furthermore, each of these 23 films was profitable and was considered “fresh” by critics on Rotten Tomatoes. Three titles received an A+ audience CinemaScore, an honor held by only 83 other films released since 1982. All but one title received an A- or better score (and that was 19 films ago). And despite Marvel’s overall dominance, the past decade also saw other epic franchises achieve new highs. The biggest film of 2011 was the eighth Harry Potter film, 2015, 2016 and 2017 were led by Star Wars, and the return of Jurassic Park became the third biggest film of all time (it’s now sixth).
The degree to which superhero and fantasy films have come to control the film industry is often likened to the success of Westerns and gangster movies between 1930-1960 (sometimes by Marvel’s own directors). To a similar end, it’s argued that the epic format, too, will eventually decline.
However, this analogy significantly understates the commercial dominance of the current ‘universe’ phenomena. The heyday of the gangster movie, the early 1930s, saw only one film of that genre in the top 10 in domestic box office in any year. Westerns enjoyed a much longer period in vogue and produced even more notable films. Yet in the thirty years known for producing ‘classic’ Westerns, 1939-69, only 14 of 300 Westerns were ever in the top ten in domestic box office. Only two years had two Western films in the top ten. Most years had none. In 2017, six of the ten box office leaders were 'universe movies' (three Marvel, two DC, one Star Wars), two others were sequels. In 2018, six again were superhero films (four of them, Marvel characters). All but two were set in epic-style worlds. 2019 will have four Marvel films, one DC film and a Star Wars title. This situation is not analogous to prior genre trends. This is a phase change.
A similar revolution has occurred on the small screen. The 2006 TV series LOST, which spanned a dozen ‘point of view’ characters caught in a mythological fight between good and evil that spanned millennia, was the second most popular show in the world during its debut season. The TV adaptation of the comic book epic The Walking Dead, which premiered in 2010, has spent eight of its ten seasons to date as the most watched scripted show among 18-49-year-olds on basic cable and five seasons as the biggest scripted show on television overall. When Walking Dead wasn’t the biggest show on cable, Game of Thrones was. The streaming wars have ramped up the quest for the next TV epic. The next few years will see HBO launch shows based on IP from His Dark Materials, Dune, The Watchmen and Circe. Netflix will also be releasing high budget adaptations of the Witcher series, the Chronicles of Narnia, a universe based on The Wizard of Oz, and the Japanese manga Cowboy Bebop. Amazon, meanwhile, is producing a series based on the Lord of the Rings and Wheel of Time. Oh, and beginning in 2020, the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be releasing at least two MCU TV series each year.
Given the inordinate success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and other epics, it’s interesting to consider why it took until the 2000s for the concept to return to the forefront.
To find out why, see the next entry in “The Marveliad": How Hollywood Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Epic (Marveliad Ep. VI)
Jonathan Glick & Matthew Ball