Lions Gate, Marvel and Serial Cinema
The most financially successful comic book film adaptation of all time, Marvel Studios’ The Avengers (2012) marks a turning point in the way cinema narratives function. Taking its lead from the successful low-to-medium budget Saw series (2003-10) and others, The Avengers with the Marvel superhero adaptations preceding it has explored and exploited the potential of overtly linked, open film narratives to a great degree of success.
Series of films are of course nothing new, the concept of the sequel emerging in cinema at least as far back as the 1930s and inevitably drawing on literary antecedents. Owing to the financial risk inherent in mounting a feature film production, latterly extending more and more into nine-figure sums, multi-part narrative sagas have tended to be shunned – at least where the first instalment is concerned. While The Godfather (1972) was drawn from an epic-scale source novel, its narrative was closed such that a follow-up was not immediately mandated. Star Wars (1977) may, according to its creator George Lucas, have been designed as a sprawling saga (initially) spanning a trilogy of films, but the prospect of high risk against low yield limited the openness of its ending to Darth Vader living to fight another day. Even as recently as The Matrix (1999) it was acceptable to establish a new status quo by a film’s conclusion but filmmakers still had to ensure that the prospect of continued adventures was not a certainty.
Star Wars stirred the pot to a degree, dictating that it was acceptable to follow a hyper-successful film with a sequel that anticipated a third episode. Other filmmakers were slow to follow, but Robert Zemeckis ran with Lucas’s idea in 1989/90 when he followed the gimmick-ended Back to the Future (1985) with back-to-back sequels. The Wachowski brothers took the reins in 2003 with their Matrix sequels while Peter Jackson entered similar territory in adapting The Lord of the Rings as three films telling a single story (2001-3).
Lions Gate Entertainment Corporation played the same game with their Saw series but used boosted box office confidence to extend the notion of serialised sequels into a seven-part series that was so densely back-plotted that it often suffered from having its episodes released a year apart.
Marvel – no stranger to the open-ended second film through their initial X-Men trilogy – hedged their bets despite a string of box office successes, or perhaps to maintain that success, and their experiment has yielded a significantly different but equally interesting approach to linked narratives.
They have opted for the “shared universe” approach, emulating their comic publications by tying disparate superhero characters into common stories via an adaptation of their Avengers comic line. It is an audacious structural thread to run between films, transforming largely independent narratives into the component parts of a grand first act in some greater story. That an Avengers follow-up, a Thor sequel and a third Iron Man instalment have already been announced suggests the level of intertwining Marvel are intent on, playing their superhero epics together as a complex story arc.
The approach has been an interesting one overall. Arguably scrapping the false start that was Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003) – though Louis Letterier’s 2008 The Incredible Hulk is significantly not a new origin story – Marvel Studios have produced films that are functionally closed barring a linking post-credits teaser (The Incredible Hulk, Jon Favreau’s 2008 Iron Man, Kenneth Branagh’s 2001 Thor), that are direct sequels (Favreau’s 2010 Iron Man 2) and that arguably exist as little more than linking episodes between established elements and Whedon’s pay-off movie (Joe Johnston’s 2011 Captain America: The First Avenger, the first in the run to be denied a proper ending).
Has the experiment been successful? Marvel have been wise to enlist the services of writer-director Whedon. His track record in television is one of a showrunner who can handle comic book styled fantasy narratives, who is familiar with the demands of complex story arcs and who has a great deal of experience in writing and directing epic-scale “pay-off” episodes that are sometimes ridiculously heavy on back-story.
To suggest his script, from a story by Whedon and past Marvel scribe Zak Penn, goes through a few fairly standard comic blockbuster motions is not entirely to denigrate it. Functioning as Part 6 of an ongoing story arc while accommodating no fewer than six established Marvel heroes (not counting Nick Fury), the script is jumping through a lot of preordained hoops. However, Whedon’s skill lies in the acrobatics he employs to do the leaping, deftly weaving an interesting if familiar story while maintaining a solid balance between superhero heavyweights.
As the film has raked in its production cost in the first twelve days of its release – followed by the continued matching and breaking of various box office records – one is forced to concede that audiences agree. It is unsurprising that the linking structure is successful as it is less demanding on even the most attentive audiences than the intricacies of the Saw franchise. Clearly, story arcs translate well to the big screen while tightly plotted serials do not. Perhaps that is for the best as it permits television drama to maintain a key point of difference it has held since its inception. The various experiments taking place in linking cinema narratives are an exciting sign of the potential for fresh storytelling approaches. In a climate of seemingly endless sequels, remakes and adaptations, this might be the ideal way to inject fresh imagination into safe bets.