Of Sequels and Sagas
Browsing the Empire website’s blogs a while back I came across this piece by Helen O’Hara bemoaning the unwieldy nature of titles of franchise flicks. And, because I’m cursed with that kind of brain, it started me thinking.
Yes, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End is an awfully wordy way of saying ‘Pirates 3’. Yes, A Night At The Museum 2: Escape From The Smithsonian may make you want to beat your head against the wall almost as much as the prospect of the film itself…but this isn’t how we refer to them, is it?
In print, it’s all ‘Indy IV’ and ‘T2’, right? The aforementioned blog interestingly uses T2 as an example of getting a short title right – when, in fact, the film was called Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Not so much with the brevity.
But all this word-and-numberage suggests an interesting point about the way we view franchise films these days, and indeed how the studios see them. Written down, or typed up, we may call it ‘Indy IV’, on the BBFC certificate it may be Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but when you slump behind your desk on Monday morning and lean over to the person next to you, the question is phrased thus:
“Did you see Indiana Jones yet?”
No number, no subtitle. “Dude, have you seen Star Wars?” we asked after Episode Two: Attack of the Clones was released. (Shortly followed by “Didn’t it suck slightly less than Phantom Menace but still way more even than Jedi’s teddy bear warfare?”) Which leads me to conclude thus:
We talk about these movies the way we talk about TV shows.
“Did you see Lost?” is the question. Nobody asks “Hey, did you see Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Conversations With Dead People?” Nobody brings up “Prison Break 205”. The title is the whole thing, because while there’s always another episode, another series, there’s only one episode right now. Just as there’s only one movie right now. More so, in fact, because while you can see about 17 episodes of Friends in any given evening of broadcasting, there’s only one Bond in cinemas at a time.
As costly home video became the affordable DVD revolution, and as the internet began arriving in your home, a new texture began to emerge. Stories could be told in more interesting, more interconnected ways. There was a time when you couldn’t hinge a plot point in film three on something small established in film two. Of course not – people saw the last movie two years ago, they didn’t catch it again on DVD or TV, and they sure as hell weren’t blogging about it, sharing theories with other fans and eventually allowing the debates to descend into name-calling of the ‘retard’ variety.
Star Wars, irritatingly, is almost an exception, but when you’re a genuine cultural phenomenon so large the Earth’s rotation is affected, all bets are off. That said, the Empire Strike Back and Return of the Jedi are at pains to recap A New Hope’s smaller hints – to the point where Obi-Wan has to be revived to debate them. “You told me Vader betrayed and murdered my father” Luke whines in one clunkily-written scene. (Hey, remember when that was a noteworthy and rare flaw in Star Wars?)
There are no similar scenes in the prequel trilogy. There’s no “So when we talked about the young Jedi who killed his master…you meant yourself!” And the reason is simple – we’ve got the DVD, we caught the repeat on ITV, and Christ have we watched the debate go on and on and on online.
The James Bond movies were phenomenally huge too, but you didn’t need to see From Russia With Love to get Goldfinger. There’s no narrative to M, Q or Moneypenny; they’re just part of the formula. A few in-jokes and references aside, the films stood alone. Plenty of iconography, sod all narrative connection. The makers were so unconcerned about people even remembering recurring CIA agent Felix Leiter that he was recast for every one of his first five appearances.
It’s not like people didn’t notice these changes, it’s just that their importance seemed…less, somehow.
These days, when you build your franchise, you cast for a decade – if you can. (Katie Holmes will not be missed from The Dark Knight, but a better actor would have been a loss noted and felt by the public.) These days, when you tell your stories, you drop stuff in with every intention of bringing it back, knowing that you won’t need the acres of exposition you might once have required. These days, you get to do this stuff.
But with great narrative power comes…well, y’know. Films are both made and judged by fresh criteria. Much of the flack the still-entertaining-as-hell Spider-Man 3 took was for its structure. Too many new characters, too much to explain, and too much coincidence to get them all together,
We might not have been so harsh on some of these factors 20 years ago. But the first and second Spider-Man flicks arrived into a world where ‘The Saga’ was part of active consideration. Raimi and Marvel were layering in sequel-friendly characters like John Jameson and Curt Connors all the way through – then leaving them to the side, instead having to rush Eddie Brock, Gwen Stacy and Flint Marko into proceedings.
Where was Gwen when Parker was at school? Why wasn’t Brock in part two, fussing around the Daily Bugle? In times past, these would have been forgiveable choices, but the makers were too aware of our attention – showing villain-in-waiting Conners, sans arm, teaching Parker – to plead ignorance.
The Mission: Impossible series, meanwhile, can at least play the ignorance card. Cruise’s action vanity projects, while all fun in their ways, are lousy at the continuity game, recasting bosses and colleagues like…well, like they were Felix Leiter.
But it’s a new world now. Jason Bourne’s memory may be bollocksed, but the audience’s is just fine – to the point where the third film, The Bourne Ultimatum, doesn’t even bother to explain why some characters talk about ‘Treadstone’ while others refer to ‘Blackbriar’. (It’s at the end of the first movie, people. Do keep up.)
So while James Bond did the only thing a 40-year-old playboy agent can do – grow the hell up, and let one guy play Leiter for the era – Ethan Hunt played fast and loose…and won neither the expected box office dollars nor the critics’ approval.
The Matrix movies, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean – you need to pay attention. There will be a test. That glass vial you only saw in the special edition DVD? That’s going to be important.
It should, in theory, be an all-win situation. We get rewarded for our attention, and the studios make more money because we need to see the second film again on disc to check the details we missed. Nobody mentioned the name of Davy Jones’ lost love in Dead Man’s Chest – and very few people knew who it was come the end of film two – but when we walked into film three, it was common knowledge. Some people saw it – proving a rare moment of clarity, it’s even on my old blog from the time – and the word spread. Because of a prop, an item in Jones’ possession that related to one seen elsewhere.
What might have been a revelation in film three became matter of course. (And in that, it has to be said, we may have lost out. We were robbed of a decent, clear revelation in film three.)
When people can see any big film any time they like, so filmmakers can rely more on audience memory. And when they can do that, their franchise films become more like TV shows; episodes in a constant series.
In an era when television is aiming to be ever more cinematic – in the scale of the storytelling, the visual style of the camerawork and design, hell, even in the casting of movie stars like Martin Sheen, the Baldwins and the Sutherlands – it’s an interesting switch.
TV, of course, is doing it’s own ‘banking on memory’ thing. 24, Lost, Heroes, Prison Break – when people are Sky+ing entire series, downloading on demand, picking up DVD box sets and setting up ShowPedias, you can push the same envelope right along with the movies. (And push harder, thanks to having far more episodes, and a much more tightly-contracted cast.)
So is all this cinema-saga stuff making for a richer experience? Are we benefiting from the added complexities this fledgling new form allows?
The Bourne series has become an absolute model for how to do it right. It’s hard to say how, given that the first film’s story was heavily improvised by director Doug Liman as he went along, and Paul Greengrass went through ten Starbucks’-worth of screenwriters to construct his two sequels. But there they are, coherent in story as well as in cast and style.
But it does seem they got lucky. Or, more generously, that Bourne benefited from creative intelligences who were able to paste oh-so-artfully over the cracks.
Raimi seemed to be pulling off the same trick, until part three of the Spidey saga arrived. Pirates looked to be onto a sure thing, with the writers having an unusually large influence on Bruckheimer productions, but the whole thing unravelled into a mess as the realities of release-date sequel-making – “Can you deliver by next month?” – led to clumsy scripts which tried too hard to be interconnected while never actually cohering.
In these circumstances the realities of film production create what I’ll idiotically refer to as the Babylon 5 Factor. B5 forever skated on the knife-edge of cancellation, so when it reached series four, so close to concluding a vaunted five-year arc you could taste the spoo, the makers elected to rush to the finish. The plot got wrapped up a year early for fear of not coming back.
Which is how almost every film functions. No guarantee of a sequel.
Plus your follow-up seeds have to be sown without distracting anyone. People become irked when stuff happens that has no place in the main story (“So is that going to be important later or not?”) and they become outright hostile when you finish on the promise of more to come. The Batman Begins conclusion – that chilling reveal of a joker playing card – is superb, but you still heard groans from the audience who saw it as crass marketeering. People don’t want the promise of more to be…obvious. Which is bizarre, because it’s what we expect, and desire, from a good TV pilot episode. ‘Show me what you can do, but then show me that it’s going to keep coming, that it’ll be just as cool every week.’
There’s no denying that a lot of franchises’ first films are trying to be pilots, however much groaning that gets from certain members of the audience. It’s across the board with superheroes especially – Spider-Man, Batman Begins, Fantastic Four…
We left X-Men feeling that the next film would be good, because this one promised a lot once the ‘pilot’ material was out of the way. It wasn’t, y’know, especially brilliant, but we saw potential, even if we weren’t happy about not getting the film we actually wanted quite yet.
Singer and Raimi did wonders with their second instalments of X-Men and Spider-Man, despite both having woefully average ‘world in jeopardy’ stories as their spines. They were elevated by terrific attention to detail, to character and theme. Their films were about something, beyond the basic threat. As with Bond Begins – sorry, Casino Royale – those are the times when your franchise flick becomes something special.
Still, we’re in a teething stage right now. Filmmakers are unsure how interlinked to make their movies, and they’re cursed by an audience that isn’t sure either. When it comes to not fumbling the franchise ball the Harry Potters remain a tediously safe bet, benefiting – as Rings did – from having locked-down source material and a commitment to faithful adaptation. (In Potter's case the commitment arguably shifts from the sensible and into the realms of the cowardly; Jackson at least had the nerve to take real liberties when the change in medium demanded.)
Meanwhile the Matrix sequels – despite having a firm, Pirates-esque commitment to two sequels – spiralled into incomprehensible guff, the creators given so much free rein that not only did understanding fly out the window, so did basic good storytelling. (Seriously, don’t build your series to a major conflict and then remove all your main characters from the battleground.) And it was arguably the sheer confidence in a captive audience, which a two-film commitment can likely give you, that pushed the Wachowskis down the self-indulgent slide.
Then there’s horror, and the Saw franchise. This guilty pleasure (boy, do I feel guilty about owning, and liking, these films) has become incomprehensible to newcomers. Watching Saw IV in the cinema, I was baffled. Too many B-list actors who look a little bit alike, all picked up from threads in movies II and III. I’d seen each previous film at least twice and still I was flummoxed.
Then I bought it on DVD, watched all four films in a day, got a handle on the saga again…and started Googling for news on Saw V.
Which I guess suggests that the format is here to stay. It’s financially worth the studios' while, that’s for sure. Intricate mythologies bring people back and back, many will become compelled to stick with them, handing over cash to keep this one fictional universe in check. To own, and understand, it all. To see everything. To become God…just a little.
It’s a clumsy mess right now, nobody’s completely nailed how to match the logistical issues – available actors and writers, budgets that have to wait for opening weekend figures…or, even worse, DVD sales – to the creative and marketing daydream. Nobody’s quite nailed how to build for a saga, yet please every studio executive and test audience on the way.
There’s an answer, of course. But…well, maybe I’ll leave that for part two.