The Superhero Accretion Dilemma
Superhero movies have a problem. This problem is endemic, evidently, to their nature and I am uncertain it can be solved unless our expectations of superhero movies change fundamentally. In brief: if a superhero movie is made and it is successful, another one, by definition, will also be made. However, as this movie must surpass the original, the makers of the film invariably choose to expand the next film in scope, cast, and budget. The result is a movie that is not as good as the first, but just as successful. This leads to a third, and the same thing happens (only the third is not as good as the second) and so on until, at last, the final film in the franchise either fizzles, the cast gets tired and moves on, or it dies some other, more esoteric death (perhaps involving the death of a cast member, legal issues, scandals, etc.).
Allow me to explain in more detail.
Stage One: We begin, first, with a superhero. This superhero has his own movie and it is his (or, more rarely, her) story. We see how they become who they are, we are introduced to their struggles and are hopefully inspired by their ability to overcome their foes. Huzzah, huzzah – everything is wonderful.
This first movie is, by far, the easiest to get right – one main character, one external and internal conflict, one story arc to manage, one villain to face, and so on. It is basic, mythic, Campbellian storytelling that human beings have been doing since Gilgamesh. Now, notably, the movie can easily still be terrible, but so long as it makes money at the box office, it hardly matters. Stage 2 approaches.
Stage Two: So, now we’ve got this movie studio that feels it’s discovered a money-making machine, and they’ll be damned if they don’t capitalize. The thing is, though, that you can’t just make the same movie twice – you’ve got to move forward, wow the audience, blow their minds. So they add more moving parts to the story.
It should be noted that there is no objective reason the second story has to be worse than the first. Indeed, some franchises actually do improve in the second installment (Captain America: Winter Soldier, for instance). If they do so, however, it is because of two things: (1) the second story didn’t incorporate more characters, but instead incorporated more complex character conflicts for the hero to resolve or (2) the first movie was terrible and there was nowhere to go but up.
Much of the time, however, neither of these things is the case. You wind up a movie that is pretty much like the first one, only louder and bigger and needlessly more complicated. It can still be pretty entertaining (Iron Man 2) or notable (Batman Returns), but it lacks a certain something that the first one had.
That something, by the way? It’s called “authenticity in storytelling.”
Stage Three: If it ain’t broke, why fix it, right? The second movie made money, so surely the strategy of the producers was the correct one: bigger is better (forgetting, of course, that the audience was coming to the theater on the promise of the first film, not the quality of the second)! But now they need to make another movie! And it needs to be even biggerer! HOW CAN THIS BE ACCOMPLISHED?!
Easy! This time you don’t just add one or two new characters to the mix! You add an additional 2 or 3 on top of the last film. New love interests (everybody loves love quadrangles, right?), the return of an old villain who teams up with a new villain and then both of them encounter a third villain who is tangentially related to the first villain in some way (looking at you, Spider-Man 3), the artificial raising of the stakes (first he saved the city, next time he saved the county, now he is going to save the city from the county and, therefore, the WHOLE WORLD WILL WATCH!), and on and on and on. And of course there are new allies, new sidekicks, new sideplots, and soon the whole thing becomes unwieldy. Everybody needs a story arc, but not everyone gets one (the movie’s got to fit into 2 hours, people!), and so characterization becomes more hand-wavy, more cliche. Our main guy? The hero we tuned in to see? His screen time is reduced, his arc is more predictable, and he very likely fails to undergo significant growth.
But, for all that, the damned movie is still fun, right? Well, maybe. A lot of franchises die right here, a lot of actors get tired of all the green-screening nonsense. If they go on, however…
Stage Four: MOVIE ARMAGEDDON! Now the franchise is so damned popular, it can have everybody in it. Distinguished actors from across the globe sign on for cameo roles that nerds freak out over. The special effects are absurd abominations for the eyes. People actively forget there’s supposed to be a plot. Character growth? Bah! We want explosions and our hero standing on the crushed remnants of the enemy android army. The only dialogue should be witty banter or over-the-top, Gandalf-in-Return of the King-esque speeches about it “being time” and “time growing short” and how “the time has finally come.” The movie is a complete and utter clusterfuck. Nothing makes sense, almost no character has sufficient screen time to be interesting, and all of us are basically going just to see how it all works out, just like people attend playoff games after their teams are knocked out – just to see what happens, ultimately, and to tell other people about it. It’s not a story anymore, it’s an event. And this is the end. It can go no further.
The MCU Anomaly
Now, I know there are those of you out there who are holding up Marvel’s interlocking franchises as proof that this dilemma has a solution. The solution, of course, is that you have individual movie franchises that keep things a little small (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, etc.) and then giant ensemble movies where you don’t need to do character development as much because we all already know these people (The Avengers). This, however, is not solving the problem, it is merely dragging it out. The individual films still tend to degrade (Iron Man 3, anyone?), the giant ensemble movies are still fun-but-stupid (Avengers: Age of Ultron was nonsensical, folks), and we are still locked in a steady, downward slope that even new Stage One films (Dr. Strange!) will only serve to slow a bit before they, also, are wrapped up in the morass. Basically, what I’m telling you is that The Infinity War Part 2 is going to be the greatest movie clusterfuck of all time.
And I’m totally going to be there to see it.