Are extended film series alienating casual viewers?

The extended Marvel Cinematic Universe may have seemed to be around as long as some of the multiple variants of comic anthologies existed, but it’s only been 12 years since Iron Man. The initial blast of confidence via Robert Downey Jr.’s performance along with visuals to match the nonstop action of the movie propelled this flick to the top of the box office for weeks. It had been a while since we confidently received new content from Marvel, outside of the underrated Spider-Man films. Flash forward 12 years and we have TV, video game and above all hours of film content in the MCU canon.

Flash forward to 2015, and we have another resurrection over ten years in the making, with a comeback from Star Wars. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was an adrenaline shot to the heart for 80’s kids who grew up on the classic space opera and a fun introduction to the kids of those now adults. Star Wars had a successful bout in 1999 with the prequel trilogy financially, but those films are almost completely regarded as an insult to the originals. They certainly have their corny charm and easy accessibility to the young ones but they’re almost completely non-essential in respect to the original. When the new ones were released, there was also some backlash, but yet again these films were box office blasts.

With all of the success coming from both of these franchises, which amidst the climate of the less successful Bond films, or the occasional Transformers feature, its hard to see an end in sight. However, keeping up with these films can require some homework. One of the appeals to the series of the Marvel films is the long and winding journeys to their conclusions, which come in the form of the Captain America trilogy, or one of many of the origin stories which can range good: Captain Marvel, to great: Black Panther. The origin stories can be entered and viewed at any time by the casual viewer, which don't require any context from prior films, and can be a jumping in point for fans who might pick up the comics down the road. They have brought in fans from all over for their inclusive choices of heroes and focus on diversity in their narrative. The fans that stick around, the dedicated fans, they will stay for the sequels, go to the marathons and buy early bird tickets to those midnight releases. But I want to focus on the casual viewer.

What is the casual viewer? Let's take a detour to TV land and use an example from Megan Marrs, who breaks down the way audiences are targeted in an Upland Software article.

"The casual viewer will watch a show when it pops up on cable, but isn’t inclined to follow the white rabbit into the proverbial bunny hole of television. They prefer series style shows that have episodes with self-contained arcs, requiring the least amount of commitment." - Megan Marrs

This is easy to translate to film. Casual viewership implies that movie goers are just as likely to step out of their homes and head to the cinema to enjoy one of the latest action films or comedies or dramas. The idea of the "self-contained arc" is something that's difficult to pinpoint for comic book movies which exist in an expansive universe, because there's a lot to catch up on before you see some of their latest titles. Marvel movies might equate to the similarity of a show like Lost, which intrigues the viewer to keep watching and even binge the series, capitalizing on return viewership. Where things get tricky is when movies become congested with content, not just on the big screen but off screen as well, in books or television episodes. The show Agents of Shield may not be required viewing for some of the big screen Marvel films, but they key in some fans on easter eggs and surprises, sometimes even satisfying ends to arcs of character not introduced in the films. Agents of Shield is on its seventh season!! That's a lot of homework.

Then again this isn't necessarily an issue of how to catch up on homework to enjoy these films. But some may seem the endless amount of Netflix series on top of the full-length films as less of a treat and more of a tough project to tackle. If I was frozen in ice like Steve Rogers was in Captain America from the first Iron Man to the newest Avengers: Endgame, and the first thing I saw was that I had 22 other films to catch up on before I could even understand where the series left off, I'd go back to sleep...

....No but seriously there is a large amount of content to some of our favorite series, and that's because there is a lot of money to be made partially. It's also a treat to the non-casual viewers. Audiences who stick by and wait for the big releases in the Marvel and Star Wars series are owed the satisfaction of a long running narrative. This brings me back to Star Wars. The nice thing about these films is they mostly exist in threes. We have the three prequels. We have the three classics. And now, as of 2020, we have three sequels (threequels?). So we can digest these films in portions. The super fans can go to see them as they come out one after one, or the casual viewer can pop on a film marathon of the new ones on DVD or pay to see them in theaters. Now things get a little harrier when we look at Rogue One. This film may be my favorite Star Wars project since The Empire Strikes Back which is the series' masterpiece. It's riveting, fast-paced and feels like a throwback aesthetically. Contextually, the film exists as a verrrry direct prequel to A New Hope and in some ways, makes the very first Lucas release an even better story. Does Rogue One need to be seen after A New Hope to be appreciated? Not really! One could shimmy over to the originals after watching it, or just enjoy it for what it is: a space-adventure race to the clock. Enter Solo.

Solo is an extremely frustrating venture into another origin story, this time one based on a fan favorite hero. What could go wrong? We have a return to the character Han Solo and a new tale with new performers playing younger versions of the original cast. Solo almost works, it's fun at times and has a few nice performances. The ending to the film is a blunder in my opinion. Spoilers ahead: The film seems to conclude all of it's story-lines with a good old fashioned shoot out and the hero saving the day-I'm going to be honest, I don't remember it to well. What I do recall, was the frustrating and questionable cameo of an old character which to some may have felt exciting but to a lot of viewers seemed confusing. Andrew Liptak writes the following in an article for The Verge:

"The film’s biggest surprise to moviegoers was the cameo appearance of Darth Maul, who has gone from aspiring Sith Lord to galactic criminal overlord. Maul’s survival after his seemingly fatal fight with Obi-Wan Kenobi in The Phantom Menace has been apparent to fans for a while now: he popped up frequently in the animated Clone Wars series, and eventually met his end when he fought Kenobi again in Star Wars Rebels. " - Andrew Liptak

Can I just... ugh. I'm sorry if I sound jaded, but I don't necessarily feel the need to catch up on TV to enjoy a film. This moment in the film wouldn't be so infuriating if it wasn't so essential to the plot, that it left me in the dust. It's cool that films can be platforms for easter eggs, or the continuing narratives of TV shows, but dammit I didn't expect to watch an origin film and do homework to boot! This wasn't the film's only problem but it didn't help it's ability to keep me focused or remember any part of it significantly.

Am I a casual viewer? I'd like to say I come into the James Bond flicks with a sense of new enjoyment, having not seen many of the previous spy adventures. Will I go back and enjoy Sean Connery's bout one day? Maybe! As for Marvel movies I am all in baby. I have yet to miss one in the theaters, and although I don't watch all the shows, I feel included and accepted in the community because of the content I'm willing to wait for. What happens when a regular viewer steps into the theater and buys a ticket to Captain America: Civil War? They may have a lot of fun, its not in my place to say really. But movie's don't have recaps (normally). Will the continuing big production Hollywood blockbusters become more accessible over time? Or are we losing the ability to watch a film without context? I guess it's up to audiences to decide.

'Nuff said.

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