By Oliver Evans
Art by Ellen Wilkinson
Against Hollywood's sequel obsession.
In 2011, a meme began circulating online featuring an image of two identical versions of the Marvel comics character Spider-Man pointing at one another incredulously. The image was taken from a 1968 animated television series, which featured a villain impersonating the titular arachnid-hominid. At some point, a third pointing Spider-Man was added to the meme, possibly in reference to Marvel’s decision to reboot the character three times since the turn of the millennium.
2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, which brings together all three versions of the character, sees the meme recreated not once, but twice, and once again in a promotional release for the film. What is comedy if not repetition?
As charming as these nods can be for fans of the franchise, the fact that they were cooked up by a dollar-eyed strategist somwhere deep within the bowels of Marvel HQ detracts from the sincerity required to pull off such comedic effect. This monstrous mise en abyme of pointing Spider-Men, with its 2 billion dollar worldwide gross, is a fitting monument to Hollywood’s unstoppable cannibalisation of its own images, a spidery ouroboros clad in Lycra.
In the last twenty years, big budget studio cinema has begun to account for most global box office sales, with Hollywood increasingly reliant on recycled images. In 2022, eight of the ten most viewed theatrical releases globally were remakes or sequels. Since 2000, there has not been a year when a majority of the ten highest-grossing films worldwide were not sequels, remakes or adaptations. Since 1998, the highest grossing
film in a given year – with the exception of 2009 and 2013 – have been sequels.
Even then, the two exceptions, Avatar and Frozen respectively, have since spawned franchises of their own, replete with numerous sequels, spin-offs and products. Walk into any cinema auditorium today, and you are likely to experience déjà vu. Popular cinema is increasingly defined by the quality of having been 'already seen'.
Comic-book adaptations, propelled by advances in digital effects technology, emerged as the popular genre de rigueur in the early noughties. But it was not until the inauguration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) with 2008’s Iron Man that Hollywood executives finally found their Midas Touch. The basic idea behind the MCU is simple. Just as the characters in the original Marvel comics inhabited the same narrative continuity and appeared in crossover storylines, so would their cinematic counterparts.
This simple transposition of the comic-book model to the film franchise unlocked an almost limitless revenue potential. For one, the Marvel pantheon is vast, offering an inexhaustible supply of ready-made characters and storylines oven-ready for adaptation, alongside a prefabricated audience of dedicated fans. Unlike most serial narratives, long running comic-book universes like Marvel’s do not occupy a single continuity, instead subject to constant revision, or 'retconning'. This means there is almost infinite scope for reinvention. Studios can reboot a character when an actor’s contract runs out, or a change of direction is desired, without forcing a costly overhaul of the entire franchise.
In comic-book lore, characters can exist in multiple states because of 'the multiverse'. Under this fictional mechanism, different iterations of a character derive from an infinite proliferation of parallel universes containing every conceivable variation of reality. The MCU has recently introduced this multiverse concept to their films, allowing for the revival of characters from movies made before the formation of Marvel Studios in the early 1990s. Spiderman: No Way From Home, perhaps the best example of this phenomena, is now the sixth highest-grossing film of all time. Warner Bros. reportedly plans to follow suit with plans to bring back Michael Keaton and Ben Affleck to reprise their versions of Batman in the forthcoming film, The Flash.
The cumulative nature of the MCU is key to its success. Each new film comes with an already-invested audience guaranteed, while new viewers are forced to turn to an ever-expanding back catalogue on assorted streaming services in order to understand the labyrinthine canon which later films rely on. The modular structure of the franchise means unsuccessful properties can be quietly dropped without affecting its overall
coherence. Coherence comes instead from the overwhelmingly strong graphic identities of the characters. The pop modernist brilliance of original comic-book artists, whose character designs displayed a savvy understanding of iconicity, have been gleefully appropriated by modern-day marketing teams.
As these characters are redeployed across the broader media assemblage, their instantly recognisable emblems and brightly coloured costumes begin to exist more as logos than fictional characters. It is through this process of commodification, rather than any aesthetic sensibilities, that Marvel has built an empire. Essentially, the vital components of what made the original comics so appealing and, dare one say, subversive – comic sensibility, attention to graphic form, and budding political
commitments – are entirely erased.
The stratospheric success of the MCU, now the most profitable film franchise of all time, prompted a gold rush amongst the studios, all of whom quickly adopted the Marvel model. An almost decadent reliance on existing and repeatable material has set in amongst the Hollywood top brass. The 'Big Five' studios, who together take 80-85% of US box office revenue, have all since invested in similar franchises.
The space race in streaming services which has developed in recent years has only increased the imperative to own a lucrative franchise, offering a way to snag and retain new viewers. Netflix has recently acquired the entirety of Roald Dahl’s back-catalogue for this purpose, while Amazon’s recent Lord of the Rings television series is reported to have cost upwards of a billion dollars. As executives continue to work with a
vanishing pool of existing intellectual properties, these projects have tipped into the surreal, with Indie-quirk heroes Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach currently gearing up for the release of their Barbie film. Meanwhile, big-money properties like Spiderman and Batman have each been 'rebooted' three times in the last fifteen years. First as tragedy, second as farce.
This state of affairs has set the stage for a culture war of sorts amongst people who make and consume cinema. Several prominent auteurs, many of them alumni of the New Hollywoodera, have spoken out against the ‘Marvelisation’ of popular cinema. A salvo of comments from veteran directors in 2019 brought the issue further into the spotlight.
Martin Scorsese, speaking at the London Film Festival, compared Marvel movies to 'theme parks'. 'It’s not cinema', he said, 'it’s something else'. Francis Ford Coppola went further, branding Marvel 'despicable' and comparing the experience to watching 'the same movie over and over'. Ken Loach meanwhile described superhero films as 'market exercises,' 'made as commodities, like hamburgers'.
A similar confrontation has arisen between film critics and the fandoms which have emerged around these films. A growing disparity between the popular and critical reception of franchise films, symbolically played out in the contrasting critical and audience 'scores' on review aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes, has led to regular outpourings of vitriol from fans on social media who claim that critics are out of touch, snobbish and elitist.
The comments of Scorsese et al. may seem out of touch, or else overstated. After all, when has big-budget cinema not been a commercial endeavour? However, the crucial point of the critics of ‘Marvelisation’ is that the current franchise model is altering the way in which audiences understand and relate to cinema, and not for the better. The phenomenon of 'fan service' is only one manifestation of this changing relationship. The term refers to the strategic insertion of material designed to pander to long-term fans of a franchise such as easter eggs, cameos, and 'throwbacks' to older characters and storylines, even when coming at the cost of overall narrative coherence.
The practice has been largely spurred by the culture of online fandoms, with films now regularly referencing memes, fan theories and even incorporating potential plot points discussed on fan forums. Spiderman: No Way Home is a particularly extreme exercise in the practice; a three-hour, 200 million dollar film almost entirely constructed out of in-jokes, call-backs and material salvaged from the cutting room floor. The film reportedly only materialised after negative fan reaction led to the revival of a botched profit-sharing deal with Sony, who currently own the rights to the character.
Outside of the Marvel universe, fan service has been the driving force behind a revivalist trend which has seen veteran actors reprising their famous roles to help sell franchise reboots, as with the return of Laura Dern, Sam Neill and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic World: Dominion. Harrison Ford has made this kind of role a signature, with eye-watering salaries for curmudgeonly turns in Star Wars, Blade Runner and Indiana Jones sequels. As studios increasingly rely on the appeasement of fan audiences, a more transactional relationship is slowly being established between the viewer and the filmmaker, who relate to one another according to the marketized logic of supply and demand.
Once confined to the box-office, this process is seeping into the viewing experience itself. The studio is slowly commodifying the audience as well as the film. The democratic fellow-feeling of fan communities is being exploited as another opportunity for corporate gain. As studios rely less and less on the aesthetic merits of their films for box office success, repetition has replaced progression. The average film series now looks more iterative than it does serial. James Cameron’s recent Avatar: The Way of Water is a case in point. The film features almost exactly the same cast, structure and narrative beats as its predecessor, Avatar, including the same primary antagonist, the same evil humans seeking a precious fictional resource (changed however to an alien-whale goo this time around so perhaps there is hope yet!), and the same narrative of 'going native'.
Any changes in the film are purely cosmetic, with a new aquatic region of the planet Pandora showcasing the film’s use of cutting-edge CGI, 3-D and high frame-rate technology. In this regard, Avatar: The Way of Water more closely resembles a video game than a traditional sequel.
Last year, cult distributor A24 struck gold with their off-beat sleeper hit Everything Everywhere All At Once. A frontrunner in the 2023 Best Picture pack at the Oscars, the film wryly appropriates the superhero multiverse format to structure a humane indie drama about a struggling Asian American family. Everything Everywhere All At Once suggests that the superhero genre may be entering its post-classical, revisionist phase, as the Western did before it.
A genre’s entry into such deconstructivism usually signals the waning of its popular heyday. This may be true for the genre which began the current sequel era but, with studios currently greenlighting franchise entries ten years or more in advance, it does not look like the this model is going anywhere fast. One does, however, wonder how sustainable it will prove to be. Big-budget cinema will always be a commercial practice. The question is, to what extent?
OLIVER EVANS is suspended in gaffa.