It’s only a coincidence that I’m writing this on the day Man of Steel hits home video, and it has nothing to do with the approaching 35th anniversary of Superman: The Movie. Rather, it’s something I’ve been wondering during the discussions of the latest Marvel movie post-credits “stingers.” Thor: The Dark World finishes with three separate teases. The first (not a stinger) comes before the credits and hints at something that will presumably be dealt with in Thor 3. The next comes midway into the credits and introduces a character and teases plot that is part of the larger Marvel/Avengers franchise storyline. And the third is just a funny post-credits scene that I expect to be the vaguely reported link between the film and an upcoming Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode.
Personally, I have no problem with these or any stingers. The midway scene in Thor 2 is pretty goofy, though, and has been met with the usual confusion that, hopefully for Marvel’s sake, translates into curiosity instead of annoyance. And perhaps the way they’re done is a little tired, so maybe it is time to try something different. Like a prologue stinger. I don’t know if that phrase makes sense (I’m not totally sure of where the term stinger comes from), but here’s what I mean: set up the next film before the latest even begins. For the one and only example, as far as I know, look to the opening of the first Superman, which features the trial of General Zod, Ursa and Non and their banishment to the Phantom Zone before the plot at hand (Superman’s origin) begins. The characters don’t show up again until Superman II, where they’re the primary villains.
The original script actually had their being busted out of the prison included at the end of the first movie. I doubt the plan was to do it post-credits since Superman: The Movie had a then-record length for final credits sequence and audiences never would have known to stick around. But for whatever reason, the idea of an actual stinger-ish set-up was scrapped. So, their appearance at the start of the movie is the only tease we have. That set of movies could easily work with such a continuity since they were initially in production simultaneously. Warner Bros. even expected to release them back to back, which would have helped with moviegoers’ memories, and there was in fact a post-credit promise of “Next Year: Superman II,” which you can see on VHS copies (and on the Internet of course).
Narratively it makes sense to have the set up where it is, as Superman: The Movie is a straightforward chronological origin story. But really they could have saved the scene for the sequel. Have Superman II begin with a flashback to Krypton before it exploded to show the origin of the trio of villains. Maybe there could have even been some more backstory explanation of their crimes. It’d be sort of like Mario Puzo’s previous screenwriting effort, The Godfather Part II, where he takes us back to the origins of Vito Corleone before the events in The Godfather. But instead they went for the chronological route, and yet then they still had to reshow the whole thing over again at the head of Superman II as a recap anyway, to remind people.
The closest instance I know of where another movie sets up the plot of a sequel ahead of the plot of the movie at hand is Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (which like Superman II had a lengthy recap sequence ahead of its opening credits, at least for international markets). Early on in the movie we see a Klingon ambassador requesting the extradition of Captain Kirk for the killing of a Klingon crew and stealing their Bird of Prey ship during the events of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. And then this idea isn’t really revisited until two movies later, in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, although by that point Kirk winds up on trial primarily for other Klingon deaths that occur in the later movie (hey, he hates Klingons).
Could any movies today even get away with such a prolonged wait for a character or plot point to return or be dealt with in such a way as is done in Superman: The Movie and slightly Star Trek IV? Logistically, it doesn’t make sense for a movie like Thor: The Dark World, because both stingers involve points that come after the events of the movie’s story. Most of the other Marvel movies have similar scenes that could only be shown at the end. The only one that maybe could have been ahead of the plot is the stinger in Iron Man 2, which shows Agent Coulson finding the hammer Mjolnir in the desert and is a tease for the first Thor movie. But this certainly would have caught viewers off guard, especially since unlike the Superman instance it’s not really dealing with anything pertaining to the characters in the movie at present.
And logistically it could get complicated. Fortunately for the Superman movies the continuity worked in spite of the production problems and a longer wait for the sequel than was desired. Today we have occasional franchises filming simultaneous installments*, but most of the time that’s too much of a risk for a planned series that may not be successful enough out of the gate to warrant continuation in a sequel and beyond. And even when it’s pretty certain that a sequel will get a greenlight, it’s too fickle an industry right now to do so much advance plotting. The Man of Steel follow-up, for instance, sounds like it’s been reworked a lot from the original straight-sequel plans to now be a movie co-starring Batman and possibly more DC heroes. And that sort of thing can keep changing depending on reactions on the web. The best Man of Steel could do was include a sprinkling of LexCorp logos around Metropolis. Still, that could just be an “Easter egg” if Lex Luthor doesn’t wind up appearing in the next installment.
Does The Amazing Spider-Man have a prologue “stinger”? Last year’s reboot does something pretty similar to the prologue of Superman: The Movie. It opens with a moment early in Peter Parker’s life, the night his parents disappear. And we never find out what happened to them. There were scenes clearly cut between when the trailer was made and the theatrical release that imply we were supposed to find out more of the Parkers’ story, which Dr. Connors/The Lizard was to tell Peter/Spidey. Is this stuff being saved for The Amazing Spider-Man 2? The final scene — the real post-credits stinger for the first movie — hints that there is indeed some “truth” about Peter’s father that we’ll learn in the future. Campbell Scott, who plays the father in ASM isn’t listed in the credits for the next movie, though, so it’s unclear in what way we’ll find out anything.
Even with the previous Spider-Man movie incarnations, there were constantly characters and plot points being set up that could have been picked up anytime later. Like having Curt Connors appear before being turned into The Lizard (which never happened in Raimi’s trilogy) or featuring the character John Jameson in Spider-Man 2, making fans wonder if he’d turn into Man-Wolf down the line. But these are just fan-service Easter eggs and more innocently the utilization and familiarity with a whole universe of characters and context — until they could be expanded upon if desired. The X-Men movies have similar cameos and references throughout, too. It just fits for these sorts of movies to do that.
It would be more daring for a movie to directly and intently go for what was done in Superman: The Movie by trusting in a larger story and introducing characters and a plot point to be used later at the very start of a movie. The trick would be to make it seem natural to do so, not just have an isolated scene that feels out of place before the opening credits just to take my suggestion on a dare. And I think DC should be the brand to do it, since it originates with one of their movies. Have Diana Prince (Wonder Woman) show up in a prologue at the start of Man of Steel 2, aka Batman vs. Superman, and that’s it. Or some other such tease of a hero or villain. For one thing, it would make that franchise stand out opposed to Marvel’s now-standard post-credits stinger concept. While also being a nice nod to and call back of the heritage and literal beginning of not only DC superhero movies but really the whole superhero movie genre.
*On the subject of simultaneously shot productions, I’m reminded that Gollum was set up in the prologue of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and didn’t return in full until The Two Towers. This definitely counts, though Gollum’s appearance in Fellowship is also back story for events that take place in The Hobbit and not just to set him up for later. It’s also an adaptation of a trilogy that has a broad context going in, whereas films like Superman: The Movie, The Amazing Spider-Man and the Star Trek are original works — yes, original in that they’re based on properties but not exactly adapted from specific pre-written stories — without definite, foreknown direction or plan for what comes next.