It seems to be becoming a requirement to have knowledge of a film’s predecessors before taking your seat in the cinema – but it doesn’t have to be like that.
One of the many remarkable factors about this summer’s Top Gun Maverick, a sequel to a film over 35 years old that now has a chance of being 2022’s biggest grossing American movie, is how confident it is to be straightforward.
It’s a film that touches on its 1986 predecessor of course, yet also I’d suggest comes with zero requirement to have watched it in the first place. The key things you need to take from Top Gun to get the most out of Top Gun Maverick are explained efficiently and well in the new movie. The onus is then on the story ahead rather than the one behind.
I contrast that with the now-on-Disney+ Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness. At the time of writing, it’s a film that’s closing in on $1bn of business in cinemas around the world, and was for a while the biggest film of the year. And the thing is, if you want to get the most out of the new Doctor Strange movie, you’re going to be expected to have put the work in.
It’s interesting to contrast the two movies. In the case of the Doctor Strange follow-up – and better people than me have long made this argument – you require at the very least a few Cliff’s Notes on the state of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe if you want to get the most out of it. In fact, I’d got a bit further: I think you need a reasonable amount of foreknowledge for the film’s narrative to properly work. There are emotional beats that rely on matters not explained in the film, and it’s a hard film to come to as a complete outsider to the Marvel world.
Foreknowledge, basically, is not utterly required, but strongly recommended. Not just from a viewing of the WandaVision TV show, which I never saw and thus couldn’t initially have told you how much it affects Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness (although someone filled in the gaps for me). But also the casual mention of things like five years disappearing. It’s well known to those who’ve sat through the Avengers movies to date, but to an outsider? It’s never explained. Then there are threads from the previous Doctor Strange movie (not unreasonable), and characters dropping in and out from, well, you know if you’ve seen it.
A lot of fan delight and playing directly to that audience, and the base of fandom is clearly of such size that it all works. The box office receipts back that up.
In fairness too, Spider-Man: No Way Home did a lot of pathfinding in how much foreknowledge could be expected of an audience. Arguably the most loved sequence in that particular movie – involving a meeting of webslingers – relies on at least eight films of homework to get the most out of it. In that particular scene, I’d suggest that a lot of its detail is lost on you if you didn’t have that foreknowledge. And I say this as someone who sat in a cinema grinning at it from ear to ear.
Marvel films are in a stronger position than most to pull this off of course. When your movies and TV shows are devoured by seemingly the bulk of the audience in the first place, that buys you an in-built confidence, and an earned confidence too.
Still, I’m detecting growing pushback too. My personal view is that Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness pushed the level of assumed knowledge as far as the firm has done before, as it tried to fill in what you needed to know about a TV show as well as previous movies. I also concede I’m in the minority view – looking at the box office returns – but I still don’t think it made a particularly good fist of it.
But then nor did something like this summer’s Jurassic World Dominion (pictured above) that builds on the narrative of five previous films a little more than I was expecting. It’s one thing to put in nods to other films, as the film liberally does, but it’s another to tie together a quintet of previous movies dating back nearly three decades directly through plot and character. A gamble, and you have to be on your game to pull it off.
I think in the case of Jurassic 6 it works to varying degrees, although undoubtedly Dominion is heavily weighed down as a consequence. There ends up being so much to juggle that the here and now film in front of us is held back because of it. But again, looking at the box office, the filmmakers and the studio know the audience better than me. Familiarity breeds far more dollars than contempt.
But I come back to this: there’s an inherent danger in taking an audience for granted.
I’ve already penned a few thoughts on Pixar’s Lightyear – why has Lightyear stumbled? – that gets itself a deckchair and tries to sit right alongside the Toy Story movies. In that case, the plot you need to know is pretty much covered by a card at the start explaining its links to the franchise. But even then, there are character and touchpoints that weave themselves into the story.
I’d add too that Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets Of Dumbledore – a franchise with other problems, that I’ve discussed before (where next for the stuttering franchise) – has ended up trying to do something outside of the core Harry Potter series of films, but gradually been pulled back in as the creatives felt the audience slip away. Interestingly – again, there are plenty of ingredients as to why – the more towards the original run of eight films the Fantastic Beasts films has gone (including assuming that the audience will know some of the key things references and/or going on), the lower the audience numbers have been. That, though, feels like an exception rather than the rule.
There are lots of further examples, of course. But with some of the blockbusters of the last 12 months in particular, my thinking is now this: things that used to be Easter Eggs have now moved into the main narrative.
An Easter egg used to be, I don’t know, a Pizza Planet truck in a Pixar film. Or Disney hiding a Mickey Mouse in an animated movie. Or finding a little reference to a comic book moment in a superhero movie (a la The Batman).
Now? The Easter eggs are becoming more of the plot. They’re less an aside for dedicated fans, a wink and acknowledgement to them. Now, they’re on the road to becoming a requirement. That if you want to get the most out of the blockbuster in front of you, you need to have done homework.
At the moment, it’s working, but also, I can’t help but come back to Top Gun Maverick. That’s a film that’s juggled reiterating previous story beats better than any recent blockbuster I can remember, and it’s become a very broad church for its audiences. Few would have bet on it passing $1bn at the global box office once upon a time, or outgrossing a major Marvel movie. But here we are. And its overriding lesson might just be give the audience a rollicking night out, without leaving them scratching their heads as to certain references.
That, for me at least, is very, very welcome.
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