OPINION: How franchise structure could save Marvel from narrative predictability
With the advent of the brilliant AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, it became apparent that a new epoch of franchise cinema is truly underway. If Indiana Jones or Batman could be thought of as the first intrepid, state-boundary-crossing chain restaurants, then the Marvel franchise is the gleaming McDonalds-esque behemoth; one capable of bringing in $678 million at the box office! Today our partners at Betway will take a look at the state of the global Cinematic Multiverse at large and how it can avoid pitfalls of narrative predictability.
Rather than be confined to a tawdry three-film arc, the fabric of the Marvel franchise is woven from multiple arcs, making its overall narrative structure a kind of fractal scarf of trilogies and sequels. Make no mistake though – however threadbare this metaphor may be – this marks a seminal moment in movie history.
Consider, if you will, Kathleen Kennedy’s quasi-ceremonial tweet acknowledging the MCU’s trouncing of Star Wars at the US box office. Not that the Force was with Lucas Film in foreign markets, either; despite the fan-pleasing Solo: A Star Wars Story. To date, Star Wars was unrivaled in its sheer financial heft and its ability to inspire rabid fandom – no longer.
A Cinematic Multiverse
But how did this happen? How could a Star Wars film flop after such popular films before it? Most likely, it’s down to a few factors: planning, execution and scope. Outside of Disney there is a Cinematic Multiverse which seems to struggle in building epic franchises, too. While the DC films have had similar mega-franchise designs, their execution has been decidedly unfavorable if box office receipts. The same can be said of the star-studded but ultimately tedious The Mummy, which was meant to kick off Universal’s Dark Universe franchise.
Elsewhere, we find mega franchises that have been planned and executed perfectly well, but whose narrative universes simply lack the ever-giving reservoir of plot and character supplied by decades’ worth of comic books. The Bond franchise, for example, may rival the MCU in terms of number of films but, due to the discontinuity of the films’ plots, there’s nothing like the momentum of interest audiences are able to find in Marvel, who’re able to build plot over sub-plot via side-plot through a host of intricately connected storylines.
And, when contrasted with Star Wars, the fever pitch of Marvel’s fandom is evident. While Star Wars merchandise is staying firmly put on the shelves of confused toy store owners, Marvel’s trans-media tentacles are busy worming their way into different revenue streams. Games like Marvel: Contest of Champions have been home runs on the in the mobile gaming market, alongside instant classic Marvel Strike Force. Although Marvel isn’t above some truly out-there real-world stunts if they think it will please the fans.
This may be another instance of Marvel’s good planning paying off: they’re jumping into digital markets just as action figurines start to gather dust. Marvel characters are now even taking up positions as guardians of fate in online slot games, as detailed by Betway. And we can expect to see the likes of Thor and Iron Man take up more digital plinths as the juggernaut franchise chugs on.
But can it keep going?
At this point, one might ask where exactly a franchise like this has left to go. One can imagine terminal velocity being reached after, say, the second Infinity-War-grade plotline. After all, it’s jaw-dropping to see Thanos kill half the cast the first time but the second or third time a Big Bad comes along, bearing a licence to kill major characters, the audience will know the score.
This is essentially what’s already happened. AVENGERS is generally considered the better of the first two Avengers films for the reason that we really didn’t know if Loki meant business. We knew Iron Man wouldn’t die in the Iron Man film but, in an Avengers film, what were the stakes? By Age of Ultron, it was clear that nobody too high up the chain was going to take the hit and many of the reviews of Age of Ultron mark it down for its superfluity and its distinct lack of dramatic tension.
Throw in the villain teased in all the films and a sequel to boot and you’ve got something the audience hasn’t seen before. Hey presto; dramatic tension achieved! And, to give Marvel their due, they didn’t waste it. It was exhilarating to watch hero after hero bite the dust by becoming dust at the film’s denouement, precisely because it re-introduced real threat.
However, it’s a narrative Ponzi scheme. We all know that half of them will be back up to fight in the followup to Avengers Infinity War, somehow – and then poof; just like that, we’re back at square one. The sad way for the franchise to go out then would be to keep on applying the same formula: raise the stakes by way of novel narrative structure/foreshadowing, kill half the cast, bring them back via increasingly bonkers plotting. Yawn.
There is, however, another possibility. Having recently acquired the rights to the X-Men franchise, Marvel could be poised to pull off the biggest cinematic universe merge in history. This has the revenue potential along the lines of the successful integration of football and Candy Crush into one trans-digital uber-sport. The X-Men re-boot trilogy wasn’t bad either. Apocalypse was a little silly and Days of Future Past was so-so – but that’s really only in comparison to the superlative First Class.
More importantly, the X-men will provide much-needed durability in the aforementioned narrative Ponzi scheme. The way forward is simple; bring everyone back in the followup to Avengers Infinity War. Meh. Make a few Marvel/X-Men crossovers and we’re interested again. Hint at some kind of Big Bad. Bring it all together in a crossover film and, again, we’re hooked. We’re essentially just watching Infinity Wars again but now we won’t notice because of the cross-franchise aspect.
And this is how Marvel can continue – by turning structural and commercial novelty into dramatic tension.