The New Franchises

About a month ago, Franklin Harris wrote an intriguing post on the subject of the new movie franchises:

Marvel Comics didn’t invent serialized storytelling, but it may have perfected it.

During the publisher’s formative years, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and the rest of the Marvel “bullpen” created a unified world, in which characters from one comic book might pop up in another, if only for a cameo, with little or no fanfare. Just a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man dropping by to say hello.

Fifty years later, the comics publisher-turned-Disney-owned entertainment juggernaut looks to revolutionize serialized storytelling in ways that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

Franklin goes on to describe the way a movie-TV Marvelverse is being built brick by brick. The movies are no longer movies in the traditional sense; they are stories told in a self-contained universe. And he goes on to argue that Star Wars is about to go down the same path, with the spate of new movies Disney has authorized.

I think it’s an interesting point. Spinoffs are nothing new, of course. Television has been a particular proving ground for spinoffs (Happy Days, All the Family, the X-files). Movies have done it before as well. But what Marvel is doing is something very different. It’s far more cohesive, far more thought out. They clearly started out from the beginning with this sort of multi-media multi-movie universe in mind, laying down the first Avengers movies as prequels toward 2012′s epic.

My only disagreement is that I think he has the order reversed. Star Wars got there first, at least as far as movies go.

Back in the 90′s and early 00′s, the LucasArts studio produced a series of absolutely incredible video games. Set in the Star Wars universe, these ranged from flight simulators that allowed you to refight the battles of the movies (X-Wing, Tie-Fighter, X-Wing Alliance) to first-person shooters that allowed you to be a Jedi in the New Republic (Dark Forces, Jedi Knight) to a first-person role-playing game set thousands of years earlier (Knight of the Old Republic). The video games not only reproduced the movies, they expanded the material there into a larger context. For example, X-Wing covered the rebellion’s desperate flight from Yavin to Hoth. X-Wing Alliance had the plot of Return of the Jedi as only a portion of the larger story of a smuggler family. And characters from the movies — Luke, Lando, C3PO — would pop in for the occasional cameo. This expanded universe included television as well. General Grievous — one of the villains of Revenge of the Sith — was actually introduced in the Clone Wars cartoon. In fact, in 2006, Neal Stephenson wrote that one of the problems with the prequels was that much of the narrative heft had been moved to the video games and cartoons leaving the movies as pure spectacle, the climax to a saga that had been set up on small screens.

Science fiction has spawned this sort of expanded universe for a long time, of course. Besides Star Wars, Doctor Who and Star Trek had lots of novels, spin-offs, etc. But even there, we are now seeing more cohesion. Doctor Who, in particular, has incorporated K-9 and Company, Torchwood and the audio dramas. What Marvel has done is taken this to the next step: create an interlaced franchise of movies, TV shows and comics.

Star Wars is now following Marvel to this next step. But I suspect other franchises are going to as well. The Hobbit could have been made as one movie but has been expanded to three with enormous amounts of extra narrative added, so that Bilbo’s journey is just part of a bigger saga, complete with cameos from the first trilogy. And I suspect Peter Jackson is not done with Middle Earth. Tolkien’s world is especially ripe for a Marvel-esque multi-media approach since he created the world first and the stories second. The Tolkienverse is already fully formed. I suspect a few movies will come out of the Silmarillion in the mid-future. Or maybe a television series.

We really are moving into a different era of entertainment. The rise of the home theater has had a much more profound effect on television and movies than anyone could have foreseen. You’re now expected to watch every episode of a TV series and expected to break out your Iron Man DVD to see some foreshadowing you missed. Thirty years ago, Star Wars was unique in spreading a saga over three movies. Now many franchises are doing it. Twenty years ago, Babylon 5 was unique in telling a television story over a 5-year arc. Now almost every drama is doing it (although usually not as well). One of the most popular shows — Game of Thrones — is unspooling a ridiculously complicated story and HBO is banking millions on the idea that George Martin will give them an ending. Binge watching of TV series and movies is now the norm.

It’s no longer enough to just watch; these days you have to immerse.

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