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Here’s a quandary more than a few moviegoers will face when they decide to see Spider-Man: Homecoming, a contender for this summer’s biggest movie: How much homework should they assign themselves in advance?
Set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — which currently hosts 16 films, another nine in production or development, and six planned or existing Netflix series — Homecoming features Tom Holland’s Peter Parker, who made his screen debut in the third Captain America movie, and Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark/Iron Man. Say, like me, that an audience member nurses a fondness for Spidey (that ’90s cartoon was tops), but wouldn’t call herself a comics or superhero buff. Should she prep for Homecoming by watching the trilogy capper Captain America: Civil War? Would that movie make much sense (or deliver its maximum emotional impact) for those who haven’t watched the first two installments? The Iron Man features were a while ago, too. And if you’re a casual Marveler, it’s hard to recall now what the relationship between super-soldier Steve Rogers and billionaire play-jerk Tony Stark was like in the two Avengers films. Before she knows it, that Spider-Fan is staring down a rabbit hole of at least eight (long) features before heading to the theater.
Movies were once inviting. Ticket-holders didn’t need to skim Wikipedia entries before getting in their car because they could follow a story from the start to its end. Sure, sequels and remakes have been around for more than a century, but the past decade has seen their takeover of the multiplex (in most of America, the only kind of theater around) — and a corresponding rise in the exclusionary nature of mainstream film culture.
As the media and entertainment industries continue to fragment, blockbusters like Wonder Woman and Get Out have remained one of the few cultural products we can all watch and discuss (and argue about) together. And so there’s something enormously dispiriting about the current transformation of our public square into a clubhouse, where the bar for entry gets higher with each new franchise installment. Disney’s not marching anyone into MCU Summer School at gunpoint — but viewers who don’t keep up with Marvel’s annual output (three features this year) are at risk of being confused when they do drop into the overstuffed “cinematic universes,” or of being shut out of a significant chunk of pop culture altogether.
The film business as a whole is in trouble, and so execs can’t be blamed for exploiting serialization to make each franchise feature feel like a chapter, rather than something that can be understood and appreciated as a stand-alone piece. For many fans, that’s fine: They were planning on watching all the Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Justice League movies anyway. The new Star Wars movies provide an opportunity for adult fans to share their love of Han Solo and Princess Leia with their children. The studios themselves are more than happy to monetize fan enthusiasm through merchandise, conventions, theme-park rides and the like. It’s a win-win for the industry and its most ardent consumers.
But today’s fan-centric culture is a raw deal for the rest of us. The long-running complaints against franchise culture — especially regarding the studios’ self-repetition — are thoroughly earned. Wonder Woman, The Fast and the Furious movies and the Star Wars episodes The Force Awakens and Rogue One are some examples of how greater gender, racial and LGBTQ inclusion has breathed some new air into familiar universes (while garnering some heartwarming PR). The passionate reaction to Wonder Woman, especially the tear-eliciting scenes of women in combat, has proven the need for a superheroine film. But for all its virtues, Patty Jenkins’ movie looks and feels a lot like every other comic-book adaptation. And as welcome as Rey’s ascendance as The Chosen One is in The Force Awakens, the installment is practically a beat-for-beat facsimile of A New Hope, the original Star Wars movie. “Franchise fatigue” may or may not be real, but there’s no question that the prevailing sequel/remake/spinoff trend has pushed original ideas in studio filmmaking to the margins.
Just as dismal is the reality that the industry is essentially training us in how to be entertained. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, for example, has created a new kind of viewer: One that searches for connective narrative tissue from film to film across what is planned to be dozens of features. Again, if you enjoy that particular way of engaging with a franchise, that’s great. But Disney evidently hopes to make casual fans into (possibly grudging) devotees. One of Spider-Man: Homecoming’s main draws is its relatively fresh starting point. But the studio’s ambition is for a casual Spider-Fan to eventually check out all six of the films in which Holland is contracted to play New York’s dorkiest swinger. And that’s just one filmic iteration of a single character.
The choice seems clear for those of us who want to feel plugged into today’s film culture: Stay on a grueling treadmill, consuming an endless stream of movies that vary little from one to the next, or choose to be left out. Twenty years ago, you might have missed Basic Instinct or There’s Something About Mary during its temporary perch over the culture, but you weren’t stuck hearing about it — with newer installments — for years after. And if you really wanted to know what Sharon Stone’s leg-crossing scene or Cameron Diaz’s frozen bangs were all about, you could catch up within a couple of hours. Having missed out on the Harry Potter train, I’m stuck in a kind of muggle’s purgatory, unsure what butterbeer is but not interested in watching eight movies (or reading seven books) to find out. (Yes, I can just Google it, but reading about it won’t help me understand why the idea has such a grasp on fans’ imaginations.) With each new Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movie, I will feel myself slipping further away from a generational touchstone.
The sequel grind can wear down goodwill among fans, too. I’d only ever call myself a “fanatic” about one franchise — The X-Files — and its much-hyped return last year only reminded me of the original series’ glaring faults. Similarly, a formerly Harry Potter-obsessed friend finds herself rolling her eyes anytime she sees any Fantastic Beasts news. Harry, Hermione and Ron already defeated Voldemort, the greatest threat the universe has ever seen. So why in the world would she care about some nobody like Beasts villain Grindelwald?
The geeks have inherited the Earth with the maneuvering of the studios, and together they’ve put up a wall between the corporate-designed fandom and everybody else. If the wall has to be there, I wish the door to get through wasn’t so frustratingly high — and getting higher every few months. There’s definitely a lot of us out here. So why does it feel so lonely?
Inkoo Kang is a film and television critic, most recently at MTV News.
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