If you are a film or pop culture enthusiast like me, you’ve definitely noticed the amount of cinematic universes and movie franchises that have been flooding theaters for the past few years.
Since the release of Iron Man in 2008, Marvel Studios has released 20 different superhero movies that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This has directly contributed to the increase in cinematic soap operas. In other words, there is no such thing as a standalone superhero movie anymore. They are all intricately (and haphazardly) tied together in increasingly convoluted ways. This trend has leaked into other genres of film. It’s rare to see a successful one-off film (think: Titanic, The Goonies or E.T.) marketed as a blockbuster anymore. And it’s even rarer to see mid-budget dramas and comedies anymore because they’ve become so risky for studios. (Think: Lost in Translation, Pulp Fiction, There’s Something About Mary, or The Social Network.)
Movie franchises and cinematic universes have backed themselves into a corner; they've become overstuffed and chaotic from the constant pressure to sustain themselves for the sequels to come.
How the hell did we get to this point?
It's easy to just blame Hollywood's need for safe bets on comics and remakes, but that wouldn’t be fair. It’s actually the result of a slow drip evolution that started all the way back to Star Wars and Jaws in the late 1970s. Before those two films, there was no such thing as a summer blockbuster. Sure, there were a few rare, successful films that eventually led to sequels, but the kind of movies that spewed multimedia franchises — books, toys, video games, etc. — didn’t exist yet. Star Wars created them. That’s when Hollywood studio executives realized that when you grow something as an all-encompassing brand, you were guaranteeing the future success of anything remotely to do with it.
For a while the effect wasn't super noticeable. You still had trilogies and sequels but most movies were still one-offs. In the 1980s, Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones were huge, but there were years and years in between each sequel. When Back to the Future was made, it was the first time a studio made its sequels back to back in order to release them close together. After that, sequels came to be assumed and expected. And after Lord of the Rings and 2001’s Spiderman, the franchise model was created. In 2008 when Marvel came out with Iron Man, they reinvented the cinematic universe and here we are today.
It’s important to understand just how much the international market, especially China, factors into which movies get made. Movies like Transformers and Fast and the Furious don't need much translating in a foreign market. This is also the reason why the Asian American romantic comedy, Crazy Rich Asians didn't do well in China. Comedies are made for a domestic audience because the references are so culturally specific. What we find funny or amusing will not be found amusing overseas. Sarcasm is never understood. The same goes for indie flicks. And political films. If your movie doesn't have a shot at making a billion dollars and being successful in the increasingly important Chinese market, and if it doesn't have the potential to tie in with video games, theme park rides, and merchandise, there's a very slim chance it will even get made.
But the main reason we're hitting peak franchise era is because we are smack in the middle of a major cultural shift and an exciting time in television.
Up until 20 years ago, there were only four networks available and that's what everyone had to watch. When you have to create content for such a broad market, that content gets watered down and made for the lowest common denominator. This is why TV got nicknames like “the idiot box” and “the boob tube.” Television’s entire purpose was to sell soap, soft drinks and cars. So for high quality entertainment, people headed to the theaters for Hollywood films.
Back in the network TV days (1950s to early 2000s) it was pretty much impossible to make intelligent TV and complex storylines. It was too much to ask of an audience that had to wait week after week for a new episode.
Then HBO came along and changed everything. They started producing TV shows like The Wire and Band of Brothers. This coupled with the ability to binge a series because of the introduction of DVD box sets is what allowed television shows to become more complex and more intelligent. You can have a lot of character development with plenty of room for nuance. Characters don't have to reset and have all of their problems resolved at the end of the half hour.
In the 2010s, streaming services like Netflix came along and completed the cultural shift that ushered in the era of peak TV. Their model of releasing an entire series in one day was revolutionary and changed people’s viewing habits.
But Netflix doesn’t just stream TV series. With Netflix producing Oscar-nominated masterpieces like Roma and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, what we are currently witnessing is a dismantling and changing of the guard in Hollywood that is on par with the end of the silent film era and the collapse of the studio system. In the meantime, Hollywood will continue to pump out franchise features and movie “events” in their effort to grab our attention and get us out to the theaters.
Netflix has been the biggest disruptor in the way we view TV series and movies. But what will happen once Disney’s much talked about and long-awaited streaming service debuts in 2019? I don’t know the answer to that but I can’t wait to find out either. I do know this though: While the production studios and streaming services battle it out, it will be a consumer’s paradise. There is going to be a lot of amazing, innovative content coming our way since they’re all competing for our attention and dollars. Welcome to the golden age of television.
Where does this leave us?
Comic book movies and franchises are NOT ruining the film industry. But the kinds of movies that people like me want to watch are most likely going to be on TV via a streaming service like Netflix. TV got smarter and movies got dumber due to globalization. Film is no longer safe in its status as the home of serious, high-budget entertainment. TV was producing better-than-movie-quality content, and discerning viewers could choose to watch from the comfort of their own homes, whenever they wanted.
Like all relevant and popular art forms, film isn’t going anywhere any time soon. The film industry is one that has time and time again defined itself by change and innovation. Filmmaking changes every decade. Genres fade. Trends shift. We can, and should, mourn the passing of beloved types of films.
We are witnessing the end of the summer blockbuster as we have traditionally known it since the 1970s. While it’s sad for some hardcore movie lovers, it’s not the end of cinema, and certainly not the demise of studio filmmaking.