Marvel shattered a bunch of box office records last weekend with “Avengers: Infinity War,” and it did so by turning its movies into the biggest TV show on the planet.
As the decade-in-the-making climax of a film franchise, “Infinity War” has frequently been compared to a season finale, with the Marvel’s many heroes, from Thor to Spider-Man to the Guardians of the Galaxy, finally coming together for a super-sized, high-stakes showdown with the Big Bad they’ve been circling for the last 18 installments.
One character boldly proclaims in the movie that “we’re in the end game now,” and it’s not a stretch to hear that line as some kind of meta commentary referencing the overarching story Marvel Studios has spent the last decade constructing.
This larger ambition may resemble that of a TV series, but it has its roots in the MCU’s comic book origins, argues Lauren O’Connor, librarian at the Writers Guild Foundation. “It’s in the comic book superhero DNA already,” she said in an interview. “Comic books by nature are serialized, checking in with the characters at different episodes.”
Indeed, “Infinity War” is adapted from a famous Marvel Comics event series from 1991, which saw many of the characters crossing over in service of one six-issue story. And the Marvel films bear many similarities to film serials from the early days of the movie business, which often included post-credits scene-like cliffhangers to draw audiences back for more.
“They used to draw pretty heavily on superheroes and radio shows,” said O’Connor. “You’d go to the movies every weekend and see a different installment of this one character’s story,” often with past stories having little bearing on what came next.
The new era of Marvel movies, however, takes a different, more TV-like approach. The narrative through-line from the first “Iron Man” to this year’s “Black Panther” may have been limited mostly to post-credits teasers, but “Infinity War” turns that on its head and makes no qualms about turning nearly all of those movies into required viewing. It’s no coincidence that directors Anthony and Joe Russo cut their teeth in television before moving to Marvel.
The superhero team-up draws on almost every movie Marvel has made in the last 10 years, uniting characters and paying off storylines in a way that bears much more in common with the finale episode of a TV show than a standalone movie. The casual viewer would take little away from “Infinity War” without experiencing the prior films.
The only difference being, as Marvel’s movies resemble episodic television, modern TV shows generally take an even more serialized approach. On a show like “Game of Thrones,” perhaps Marvel’s closest TV analog, character arcs play out across the entire series, with each episode cutting back and forth between storylines rather than relegating them to more-or-less self-contained episodes.
Creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff once referred to “Game of Thrones” as a “73-hour movie,” an almost comical way to describe a show that will have been on the air for eight years by its end, but one highly representative of the way so-called “prestige TV” has taken on increasingly intricate and serialized plotting.
According to Jason Squire, associate professor of cinematic arts at USC and editor of “The Movie Business Book,” that’s largely due to the way TV shows are generally ordered and produced (showrunners don’t have to worry about the ratings for the first episode before they’re allowed to make a second) and the recent boom in subscription-based television that has afforded writers the creative freedom to make their shows as knotty and unfriendly to casual viewers as they please.
Movie studios like Marvel don’t generally have the same luxury. The more serialized stories become, the more the burden on the audience grows. “A subscriber is more inclined to go to Netflix or HBO to see what’s new and follow-up, because they’ve already paid,” said Squire. “It’s much tougher to get people out of the house and into a theater.”
And with a franchise as big as “Avengers,” Marvel has to convince viewers to leave the house not just once, but dozens of times across several years.
It’s a big ask, but one with potentially huge returns. Studios are increasingly seeking out this type of tentpole franchise, attempting to secure a core fanbase guaranteed to show up at the box office again and again. Just look at WB’s race to match Marvel with its own “Justice League” franchise or Universal’s attempts to launch its “Dark Universe” series of films.
“Everybody’s trying to do a franchise. It’s totally understandable, from a business perspective,” said Squire. But if viewers can spend the weekend watching a season of “Game of Thrones,” “House of Cards” or the myriad other shows available on TV or its equivalent, movie studios need to do more to compete.
Only Marvel has proven its ability to get moviegoers to the theater time and time again, and that has afforded it some of the same creative freedom to require more of its viewers, the way a TV show would.
“Infinity War” can feature dozens of characters without bothering to re-introduce any of them to the audience. It can pick up story threads from previous movies without having to explain how we got to that point. It can shamelessly cue up the next installment without offering resolution.