Is franchise cinema mimicking TV storytelling?

Feature Mark Harrison 5 Dec 2013 - 07:01

Cliffhangers and mid-season breaks probably aren't the features of TV fans want the movies to adopt, are they?

This article contains spoilers for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Many column inches have been dedicated to the question of whether or not television is now better, or at least more satisfying, than cinema. After a summer blockbuster season that held quite a few big let-downs, US TV shows like Breaking Bad, Game Of Thrones and The Walking Dead have continued to get a much warmer reception from viewers.

But whichever side of the “film vs TV” debate you land on, can't it also be argued that while television has adopted the production value that previously set cinema apart, filmmakers and studios have also been influenced to take their time with storytelling, for better or worse?

The recent release of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the second of four films based on Suzanne Collins' trilogy of books, provides a timely example. Collins' final chapter, Mockingjay, will be adapted into two movies, to be released in November 2014 and November 2015. Director Francis Lawrence has already hinted that the extra screen-time will go to fill in some of the blanks that frustrated fans when the book was released.

But on the other hand, we're left with something of a cliffhanger until Mockingjay Part 1 comes out. If you've read the book or seen the movie, you'll know that Catching Fire ends with a daring escape from the 75th Hunger Games, in which Katniss Everdeen is rescued by the rebels who seek to bring down the evil regime of President Snow.

However, Katniss' allies, Peeta Mallark and instant fan-favourite Johanna Mason, are left in the arena, to the devices of Snow's Capitol. Oh, and District 12, the home of both Katniss and Peeta, is utterly eradicated by Snow to punish them, leading to the deaths of almost everyone they've ever known.

The film is 146 minutes long, and it carries quite a bit of weight around its middle in the process of being extremely faithful to the book, to the point where the cliffhanger almost feels like an anticlimax. Granted, it's immediately rescued by a haunting final shot of Jennifer Lawrence's face, (to paraphrase Rocky III, “She's not getting beat, she's getting mad!”) but it does leave us awaiting the next sequel.

On the subject of sequels, Joss Whedon recently opined to Entertainment Weekly: 'A sequel has to be its own movie. You’ve got to look to Godfather II and to The Empire Strikes Back—even though Empire committed the cardinal sin of not actually ending. Which at the time I was appalled by, and I still think it was a terrible idea. '

Yep, if that rings a bell, it's from the same interview in which Whedon incensed fanboys when other online outlets picked up on his quote about the ending of Empire: 'Well, it’s not an ending. It’s a come-back-next-week, or in three years. That upsets me. I go to movies expecting to have a whole experience. If I want a movie that doesn’t end, I’ll go to a French movie. A movie has to be complete within itself; it can’t just build off the first one or play variations.'

This is especially significant in terms of Whedon's role with Marvel Studies, because starting with the first appearance of Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury, it seems that they've actually built its brand on the come-back-next-week parts. But in the cinema, there's much more than a week to wait. It's more like a year, at the very least.

Marvel has generally kept the integrity of each film in its franchise-sprawling continuity by spinning the connecting hooks off into post-scripts in the end credits, and by maintaining a two-film-a-year rate that keeps things regular and allows crossover between features.

Recently, Thor: The Dark World closed on a stand-first for 2014's Guardians Of The Galaxy, which is an out-there concept whose closest neighbour in the on-screen Marvel universe thus far would be the god of thunder. Even with that in mind, the oblique references to Infinity gems and the Collector would be lost on the casual audience - by putting it in the credits, it whets the appetite of those in the know and doesn't alienate the larger crowd.

With The Avengers, audiences seem to have got the message that you should watch all of the Marvel movies in order to keep up to speed with things, but it's not essential. They've also expanded into Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D, but unless Agents Ward, Skye and co figure into an already-packed Avengers: Age Of Ultron, you don't have to have seen that to follow the films either.

While Marvel continues to diversify its in-continuity storytelling across different mediums all year round, there's a long, long wait between, for instance, Catching Fire and Mockingjay Part 1. The wait between the final two parts will likely feel even longer- Lionsgate had the same release schedule for Breaking Dawn, the conclusion to the Twilight saga, when that was cleft in twain for the big screen.

I'm not suggesting anything to the detriment of The Hunger Games fans or their attention spans, but as Whedon suggested, it's the difference between “come-back-next-week” and “come-back-in-three-years”. When excitement reaches a fever pitch, as it surely will over such a long time, you're only setting expectations too high to be fully satisfied.

You would think that whatever studios can learn from the long-form storytelling that gives us acclaimed quality television can only be good for movies, but here's hoping that the recent similarities are less about monetising “episodes” of a film franchise, and that Marvel Studios' example stands as a testament to the value of sound storytelling.

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As a 9 year old when Empire was released I was left with 3 years to imagine what would happen to my beloved heroes. I guess as a consequence, my action figure adventures of episode 6 were far more rewarding than the eventual ROTJ movie for me. When you're left with something that isn't totally resolved, it gives you a platform to be creative and get involved. Look at Doctor Who's missing years - massively creative in terms of writing, audios etc. As for Marvel, these films are spinning their own webs (minus Spiderman), and I think the extra commitment to keep abrest of story development from the viewer makes them feel more involved. Whether these films are successful in terms of the stories they tell are debatable, I don't know if The Avengers movies will hold up to anything from the original Star Wars trilogy in years to come, but they are keepping childrens imaginations alive, some kid is currently playing out his/her own version of Age Of Ultron as we speak, and it might even be better than the movie to come.

I think the point here is completely invalid. Yes with movies you have to wait about a year or so to see how the big cliffhanger is resolved. But isn't that exactly the same fo tv shows? Think about GoT's massive season 2 cliffhnager ending. Which like Catching Fire is not the same ending as the book has. It took almost a year for tv viewers to find out how that was resolved. But no one complained. As regular tv vewers we're used to that kinda thing. In fact there was actually quite a fair bit of complaining when season 3 didn't end on a cliffhanger. With several book readers suggesting the most eerie and haunting moment of practically the whole series as a better season closer. (something to look forward to in season 4 guys!) So not only have we come to accept seasons ending with a big cliffhanger. We've come to expect it. If we can do it so can the cinema crowd.

*end rant*

It actually goes full circle. The early cine-serials such as the original Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon used cliffhangers to attract paying customers back each week for a new episode. When TV came around, those old cine-serials were recycled for TV establishig cliffhanger as useful tool, this time to attract viewers to see advertisements by sponsors. And now, cliffhangers are back for cinema. I wonder if we're going to get special cinematic serials again?

the problem with cliffhanger endings with movies, is if the movie lacks a sense of being a complete movie in its own right. it might be a conservative view but i believe in order to fully leave an audience satisfied the movie must have themes that are explored and resolved and character arcs that somehow express sometime of growth within the character(unless the point of the film is that the character's failing is a lack of growth) and have their core conflict reach a climax. iron man 1 and 3, the thors and captain america work due to their themes about responsibility, true bravery versus propaganda, sibling rivalry etc that are resolved, whilst threads are left hanging for further adventures.

the films that fail in my opinion are the ones that seem like their just treading water by repeating themes or placing their characters in a stasis or devolving their growth so they won't be too changed for their next adventure like iron man 2.

the new hunger games annoyed me because the film sets up this competion as the most brutal that our heroine will need all her wits to survive, only to have her rescued by others and have it revealed in a clumsy exposition scene that she was basically a pawn of the revolution and that off camera her home district has been wiped out and one of her love interests has been captured. glare into camera. to be continued. after 2 hours 30 mins, it felt like a cheat

Surely the MCU is mimicking comic books?
Individual titles (Iron Man, Thor etc) in a shared universe (so cameos and references) coming together for big crossover events (The Avengers 1 & 2).

if it was good enough for Shakespeare with Henry IV part one
and two then it should be good enough for Whedon and Hollywood!

"This is especially significant in terms of Whedon's role with Marvel Studies, because starting with the first appearance of Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury, it seems that they've actually built its brand on the come-back-next-week parts."

I respectfully disagree. All the Marvel movies have had satisfying, self contained solutions. The post-credits sequences are little more than nods towards intertextual connectivity. They're saying "there's more of this to come". They are never at the detriment of narrative resolution. In that respect, those post-credits bits are similar to the title card that used to pop up after a James Bond movie "James Bond will return..."

They'd have to have reduced the price to a lot less than a tenner a shot to get me going weekly!!

Even X2, which shared many traits with ESB, had a satisfactory (if rather sad) ending.

Not even a mention of Lord of the Rings?

I did go on to say that Marvel films maintain this by bumping the come-back-next-week parts into the credits, rather than having them as the climax of the film's story. That's excepting Iron Man 2, which seems almost like a whole movie of "come back next week" by dint of the story being weaker than either its predecessor or its sequal. Thanks for your comment!

No, it is simply following format of the source material, may it be novels or graphic novels/comics.

Really I would actually a good template for people to follow would be Harry Potter. Self-contained to a point still with their cliffhangers, so you can wait for the next one.

Oh shut up.

Movies have and always will be better then TV. Case Closed.

That is a very good and interesting example. Henry IV part 1 works well in its own right as it shows the development of Hal into a the heroic figure but still ends with the King saying:
"Myself and you, son Harry, will towards Wales to fight with Glendower and the Earl of March. Rebellion in this laud shall lose his sway, meeting the check of such another day; and since this business so fair is done, let us not leave till all our own be won."
Leaving it open for what is essentially a heroic trilogy.

"James Bond will return"? If you wait until the very end of the credits of a Marvel Studios film you will see "[insert Avenger] will return...".

Wwarehouse 13 had a huge cliffhanger and its still not back on yet

Hunger Games seems to be a bit of an unfair choice to use, though. It's an adaptation of existing material and it's even pointed out in the articl thate, given the odd change here and there, it's a very faithful adaptation. It ends exactly where the book ends.

Empire is different in that respect. It chose to not end, where stuff like Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings, the Millennium trilogy and even Twilight were all following the stories set out by their source material.

But then where do two-part films come in? Matrix Reloaded/Revolutions, Kill Bill, Piates Dead Man's Chest/At World's End? People's opinions on he quality of any of those aside, is knowing specifically that a film without source material isn't going to end any different? Is it maybe part of the reason people tend to lambast one or both parts of those films?

Well. I went off on one a bit there.

Nope. It depends. Breaking Bad is much better than Twilight. Case Closed.

I can completely see Joss Whedon's point there, with regard to 'The Empire Strikes Back'. I'm not generally keen on films that leave huge parts of the plot unresolved and end on a cliffhanger - for one thing, you're cheating the audience out of a resolution to the story. For another, you're expecting them to wait at least a year for the next part of the story - by which point it's entirely possible they'll have forgotten what happened at the end of the last part...

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