The Epic's Future and Cultural Backlash (Marveliad: Eps. VII + VIII)
This page covers Episodes VII + VIII of “The Marveliad", which started with: Cinematic Universes Aren't New; They're the Oldest Stories on Earth
EPISODE VII: BUNCH OF JACKASSES, STANDING IN A CIRCLE
If the appeal of cinematic universes is so profound and the timing so right, it’s interesting to consider why the MCU has succeeded beyond all others.
That a comic book publisher would have a significant advantage is not surprising. For decades, they produced a staggering number of stories and characters, in many cases a new villain every issue. But like the oral epics, the ones that resonated with creators and fans were remembered, re-used and expanded. Marvel, for example, is estimated to own the rights to some 6,000+ characters – only a few with any salience or value but some which are worth billions. This vast library of content gives the MCU's producers an ability to look across scores of already audience-tested stories, many of which are different retellings of the same plotlines, then 'cherry pick' the best ones. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is essentially 'the best of' eight decades of Marvel comic creativity.
This advantage does not seem to have benefited Marvel's longtime comics foe, DC, however. Despite some enormous successes (Aquaman, Wonder Woman and now Joker), the company has retreated from an envisioned integrated universe to instead focus on unconnected solo films (to the point of having two versions of franchise releasing films within a year of one another and yet again resetting its two most popular characters, Batman and Superman). And some of Marvel's most popular IP failed to support a universe elsewhere. Sony’s Spider-Man franchise, which once intended to include a web of films focused on the franchise’s heroes and its villains, collapsed after the second entry, a failure that led Sony to loan the IP to Disney for inclusion in the MCU.
But the universe failures have not been limited to other comic book worlds. Universal Pictures has tried twice since 2014 to create its own universe around its legacy horror IP, Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy. Both efforts were cancelled after a single picture. And starting in 2016, Legendary and Lionsgate each announced plans to build separate cinematic universes around Robin Hood, King Arthur, and the Power Rangers. Again, each of these were cancelled after a single release. Legendary’s Monsterverse, which was intended to unite behemoths such as King Kong and Godzilla, sputtered by its third film, which grossed barely half as much as the first in the United States. Paramount/Hasbro’s toy universe, which was at one point was intended to crossover Transformers, GI: Joe, Micronauts, Visionaries; Knights of the Magical Light, M.A.S.K. and Rom, never even started. Even the mighty Star Wars has struggled to branch out of its core Skywalker storyline. Its second spinoff film, Solo, grossed 50% less than the worst performing of the prior nine films and lost $77MM.
So why has the MCU epic worked so well when others have not, or at least, at nowhere near the scale? It could be that no one else had the necessary patience to build affinity and connections film by film, or that the underlying Marvel mythology was so much stronger than any other source material, or simply that execution matters in casting, writing, directing. It is probably all those factors. But perhaps the answer is also that a culture will embrace only a few epics at any one time, and maybe only one. There are a number of reasons why this may be true.
First, the sheer volume of characters and plot required to adequately understand an epic takes significant personal ‘investment.’ While dedicated enthusiasts happily absorb and follow the details of many universes simultaneously, for casual fans constraints of leisure time, attention and memory may make it more practical to focus on a few they know well. We can imagine a small percentage of the addressable market eager to keep up with ten universes, for example, but a far larger one willing to stay up-to-date on one or two. Similarly, the emotional attachment that comes with spending years with these characters cannot be quickly displaced by a new story.
As a result, fans of the ‘market leader’ might resist a competitor, and this competitor will struggle to offer narratives of comparable depth, nuance or narrative scope. DC’s MCU competitor tried to shortcut this problem. Instead of launching its characters in individual films, as the MCU did, DC chose to rapidly bring them together. The second DCEU entry, for example, united its three biggest characters: Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. The fifth entry then reunited the trio and added the Flash and Aquaman. Audiences recoiled; it was hard to care for a character you only just met and who received less than ten minutes of screen time.
Second, epics are easily expanded. Instead of allowing audiences to be lured to ‘outside’ stories, a dominant epic can include new characters and concepts ‘within’ their world. As the MCU has grown, for example, it has continually embraced new genres: the Captain America series shifted from WW2 war movie, to, in 2014’s Winter Soldier, a Watergate-era spy thriller. 2014’s other release, Guardians of the Galaxy, introduced a Star Wars-style space opera to the MCU. The Thor franchise even swapped the Shakespearean tone of its first two films with that of a satirical buddy comedy - and in doing so, transformed the previously stodgy Asgardian into one of the MCU’s most popular characters. Similarly, originators of challenging (and challenged) concepts can embed their ideas ‘within’ the epic to benefit from its large and engaged audience. Black Panther is a national liberation movie like Exodus, Gandhi or Malcolm X, but inside the MCU, it was the highest grossing non-Avengers title in the United States. Fox’s wounded X-Men franchise is likely to thrive once its characters are integrated, even if the movies are not creatively superior.
Third, epics work best when their conflicts and characters are appreciated as aspirational moral lessons and examples for their culture. Parents implicitly promote it to their children. Once an epic has been widely adopted and understood, it may be difficult to dislodge unless and until the culture’s values change.
These explanations may in turn explain a new strategy at Marvel: the pruning of non-MCU Marvel films and TV series. Over the past year, the company brought to a close its many Netflix series, such as Daredevil, other one-offs such as Agents of Shield and Cloak & Dagger, and announced the end of disconnected X-Men universe inherited from 21st Century Fox (the remaining film, New Mutants, is reportedly having all references to X-Men and Mutants removed). Marvel Television’s large slate of in-development Marvel universe series, such as Ghost Rider, have reportedly been cancelled as well. These shifts coincide with the elevation of Marvel Studios’ President Kevin Feige to Chief Creative Officer of Marvel Entertainment, and the MCU’s expansion into TV. To Feige, it does not make sense to have disconnected parts of an epic universe.
While the success of the MCU has led to the reigning in of Marvel, Star Wars has recently begun to open its back up in order to broaden its appeal. In particular, these efforts are focused on China, where overall familiarity and love for the franchise is low despite tens of millions in marketing invested to date. The issue is foundational: the original trilogy never saw theatrical release in the Middle Kingdom, and while the prequel trilogy did reach theaters, the Chinese box office was tiny at the time and the films were barely seen. To address this, Lucasfilm recently announced a partnership with Tencent's enormously popular Chinese fan-fiction platform to distribute 40 translated Star Wars novels, including the Thrawn books. This is a significant departure from Disney’s original Star Wars playbook; a year before the release of its first film, Disney announced that almost all of Star Wars’ Expanded Universe would be removed from the franchise canon. It is, however, consistent with Lucas’s own approach to myth building and fan engagement. Disney has even commissioned new Chinese Star Wars stories from Guowang Bixia, one of the most successful authors on Chinese Literature (the platform’s name). In particular, Guowang focuses on the xianxian genre of Asian epics, which Lucas himself aimed to emulate (the Jedi are closely modeled around Japanese samurai, even in name). It is Disney’s hope that by adopting the local epic model, via a native voice and distributed through a social platform, it can achieve what storytelling and marketing could not. Nothing could better demonstrated the adaptability of the epic form.
EPISODE VIII: THE ETERNALS?
Many of the greatest films draw upon elements of both the oral epic and modern narrative forms. But at their heart, each tradition represents different approaches to the purpose of storytelling. The epic provides an encompassing reality that is our world but better. It provides perfect heroes who serve as moral examples. Those characters inspire and delight us by making us feel connected to them. They are our champions. Modern literature and cinema seeks to expose the truth of imperfect individuals and societies. Its purpose is to force us to confront, with either humor, fear or pathos, our own true natures and conditions. It is willing to be unpopular, even unpleasant, in order to tell that truth.
For a decade now, epics have dominated theaters and, unlike prior genre trends, are only increasing their supremacy. Epics have numerous advantages. They appeal to people around the world. They prosper in a world of social media. They effectively cross-promote new properties. They exploit breakthroughs in visual technologies. They minimize the cost and control of talent. They are now rapidly gaining share in TV. And this is terrifying critics and auteurs alike
In recent weeks, many celebrated filmmakers have begun sounding the alarm. They are not wrong: ‘cinema’ is being squeezed out of the theater, as are the format’s leading voices. Martin Scorsese’s latest film, the Irishman, was passed on by each of the major film studios. It will instead be released on Netflix. Scorsese has said that “[the industry] needs to fight back at this practice of overwhelming the market with the blockbuster… we need the theater owners to step up for that to allow theaters to show films that are narrative films.”
Other writers and directors have embraced a ‘camouflage’ survival strategy. Todd Phillips has admitted he employed DC’s Batman IP to disguise a disturbing film about mental illness and sociopathy. Ryan Coogler used Black Panther to introduce audiences to issues of black separatism and integrationism. They succeeded. Joker was greenlit, and has already grossed $500MM worldwide. Tens of millions of people have now witnessed T’Challah and Killmonger’s debate. In so doing, Coogler and Phillips are part of the ancient scheme of reclaiming epics for deliberate purposes, just as Virgil did with the Aeneid and Dante did with the Divine Comedy.
This is a debate about compatibility. Auteur films are inherently unique products, not only to the writer, but also to the performers and viewers. Universes rely on consistency and continuity that go beyond each individual entry or voice. They are structured to never end or have troubling ambiguity. Stan Lee reportedly “always said” that the “secret to Marvel storytelling” was in fact the “illusion of change.” Even the aesthetics of superheroes reiterate this. To borrow from Bakhtin, visually, these characters are symbols. They actually wear unique logos on their bodies; even when the actor wearing it changes, the costume symbol continues.
So, it is no surprise that critics and scholars struggle to assess cinematic universes more than a decade after they began. The concept of a film critic, of criticism more broadly, is tied to the notion of a specific reviewable artwork - the painting, the play, the novel. Criticism is the contained work of a singular mind reviewing the contained work of a singular mind. In contrast, reviews of the latest MCU or Star Wars film usually end up focusing on the movie’s technical proficiency, its relationship with and/or comparison to the rest of the mega-franchise, or as some sort of statement on blockbuster culture itself. Critics are obligated to cover a film that will reach billions of people, but what new is there to be revealed in a review of Marvel 24 or 2019 Marvel #2 of 3?
This, of course, is what frustrated filmmakers like Coppola and Scorsese fear: that despite occupying almost every available screen, there is nothing to be learned from these movies, no truth exposed. When asked to address their complaints, Disney CEO Bob Iger cited the achievement of Black Panther. Then he added, “I don’t quite get what they’re trying to criticize us for, when we’re making films that people obviously are enjoying going to. Because they’re doing so by the millions."
In the real world, especially in our short-attention-span modern world, everything eventually ends, even franchises loved by millions. It is difficult now to know exactly where the MCU or Star Wars’ frailties will be, but some challenges are predictable. Eventually, most actors, writers and even ‘worldrunners’ will want to move on (The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and the Marvel Cinematic Universe have each seen top talent choose to exit after roughly a decade). Audience affection will eventually peak, meaning each additional entry is a battle between preserving current affinity and harming it. More casual fans might find a given epic has become so complex that it’s impossible to enjoy. Even the most avid fans might tire of the “illusion of change” and the constant passing down of a characters’ mantle. As a story proliferates and saturates, counter-culture versions inevitably pop up and seize attention (Deadpool, Joker and Alan Moore’s Watchmen are examples here). In doing so, they undermine the values and believability of the universe they are critiquing. International audiences, in Asia, Africa and Latin America, might look to their own cultures and creatives for replacements. New technologies and mediums may provide an alternative approach to storytelling (or story-playing) that newcomers are better positioned to address. The most likely cause of the MCU’s fall will be competition from a better, more compelling, even more all-encompassing epic.
There are answers to these challenges. Technology might soon make it possible for an actor to never retire. Adaptation can keep the world fresh and diverse. Aggressive pruning and rebooting can simplify it. Organizations can remain nimble by questioning their own culture and promoting outsiders. It has never been easier to involve the audience in the creation (or expansion) of a story.
But the Marvel Cinematic Universe, like any epic hero, will eventually give way to a new generation (just as Star Wars did). It’s likely that its successor will come from neither comic books nor superheroes, but it will certainly have a successor. To the chagrin of its critics, the ever-expanding epic is probably here to stay.
Rex Quondam Rexque Futurus.
Jonathan Glick & Matthew Ball
Special thanks to Gady Epstein