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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