Earlier this year, the Internet exploded over New Yorker critic Richard Brody’s review of Avengers: Infinity War. Brody had written that the nineteenth entry Marvel Cinematic Universe resembled nothing more than a “two-and-a-half-hour variant on a single episode in a television series.” He specifically singled out the film’s disinterest in reintroducing characters from previous films, complaining that characters simply appeared and disappeared with no context for their characterization beyond their earlier appearances in the series. This particular criticism was the subject of much online ridicule. “You… do you… do you not know how sequels work?” one Twitter user wrote.
But here’s the thing: Brody was right. Most sequels at least deign to briefly reintroduce their characters, their quibbles and character traits. The original Avengers is a master class in this kind of SparkNotes audience catch-up. You don’t have to have seen the five preceding Marvel movies to immediately understand that Tony Snark is snarky and irritable and that Steve Rogers is principled and out-of-place, you just have to watch the first twenty minutes of the movie. Ironically, that first twenty minutes of the 2012 Avengers is what gets singled out by audiences as the weakest portion of the film. That’s a valid reaction (The first set piece in this $200 million dollar blockbuster should not be a visually incoherent car chase), but without that first twenty minutes, nothing that comes after functions anywhere near as smoothly.
Infinity War doesn’t have that opening twenty minutes. It assumes its audience has seen all twenty, and proceeds from there. It’s dense and nerdy, and for the uninitiated, borderline incomprehensible. But in that at least, Infinity War isn’t alone. This was a year full of blockbusters that read like Wikipedia entries, full of deep-dive geeky gobbledegook and lacking any attention for casual audiences who wander into a movie without doing all of their homework. As cinematic universes devour the global box office, Hollywood studios are growing less and less interested in the kind of classical meat-and-potatoes storytelling that made those universes successful to begin with. Instead, they’re choosing to double down on a house of cards that’s bound to collapse–and in a few cases already has.
2018 kicked off with the admirably self-contained Black Panther, a film that creates its own Afrocentric world unto itself without relying on the larger world-building of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Less than three months later, the same company released Infinity War, a film that leans heavily on its audience’s preestablished affection for that world, Wakanda. But Infinity War doesn’t even bother to include the thriving metropolitan futurescape that appeared in Black Panther. It pans past a blurry skyline, slaps a “WAKANDA” title card on the screen, and cuts to…..a big green field. 99% of Infinity War‘s Wakanda screentime takes place in this bland Windows XP screensaver. It asks its audience to care about the fate of Wakanda, but instead of actually doing any of the work required to create that emotion, it leans on the Wakanda of Black Panther, a Wakanda that exists entirely offscreen and only in a hypothetical audience’s memory.
That dependence on memory is what fellow Disney May release Solo: A Star Wars Story banked on. The film, yet another prequel to the original 1977 Star Wars, was until very recently the most Wikipedia-entry-adjacent of this crop of 2018 blockbusters. Solo is basically nothing more than a series of checked boxes on a list of Han Solo early life events. Meet Chewie? Check. Get laser gun? Check. Meet Lando? Check. Do Kessel Run? Check. And on and on until the film stops short at an utterly unexpected check, jarring the audience from its nostalgic stupor and prompting confused, whispered conversations with seatmates. “Is that Darth Maul?” “Isn’t he dead?” “Is this set before the prequels?” Maul’s cameo, which comes at the very tail end of Solo‘s fractured narrative, is like tonal whiplash for viewers that have spent the last two hours being pandered to with references to films so culturally omnipresent that children know who Luke Skywalker’s parents are before he does. Suddenly, instead of tediously filling in the gaps of Han Solo’s past, Solo abruptly becomes a Star Wars: The Clone Wars homage, one that requires knowledge of six seasons of a Cartoon Network children’s program to comprehend. It’s baffling, off-putting, and utterly unsustainable as a piece of mainstream entertainment.
But Solo’s full-frontal assault on the basic rules of screenwriting pales in comparison to the incompetent world-building on display in November’s Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. The sequel to J.K. Rowling’s 2016 attempt to expand her Harry Potter universe into a globe-trotting prequel adventure, Grindelwald is a film so overstuffed with nonsensical fan service and bloated, impossibly complicated exposition that it almost literally explodes. In one particularly befuddling scene set directly before the climax, two characters face off with dueling flashbacks in a desperate attempt to explain an entirely different character’s tangled family history. At one point, Leta Lestrange (the tragically wronged Zoë Kravitz) has to produce a literal family tree to properly explain exactly what’s going on. It doesn’t help. Even for a dyed-in-the-wool Potter fanatic, Crimes of Grindelwald is dizzyingly confusing. Fantastic Beasts proponents have argued that the film is worthwhile because it sets up further entries in the series, entries that will presumably benefit from the heavy lifting done here. For that to be true, it would help if Grindelwald did any heavy lifting to make its own narrative make sense. As is, it seems likely it will remain a connect-the-dots curiosity, devoted to tying knots between characters and existing wholly in service to entirely different films.
There were plenty of other films this year that felt uncommonly devoted to coloring in spaces that in another era would have been covered in a tie-in comic book or paperback novel. Ant-Man and the Wasp was more amiable and well-made than Infinity War but ultimately had to revert post-credits to an existence totally in service to the larger Marvel machine. Infinity War itself, the supposed event of all events, ultimately felt more like it was idly setting up chess pieces for the real finale in next year’s Avengers 4. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom shook up the dinosphere but did nothing worthwhile on its own beyond teeing up yet another sequel that will see prehistoric beasts rampaging through the streets of Las Vegas. The Cloverfield Paradox had no importance beyond the built-in fascination of its title. All of these films have that one thing in common: the feeling that their only reason for existence is to serve as required reading for a totally separate movie that hasn’t even been released yet. Solo‘s failure, tied up as it is in many other complicated factors, is an early indication that this brand of studio marketing won’t hold forever. Sooner or later, audiences will stop seeing the myriad movies or television shows that they need to see in order to understand the latest MCU film, and once that happens, the entire system will have to reevaluate itself.
Fortunately, the path forward is simple. Only one of this year’s massive blockbusters got to have its cake and eat it too. Christopher McQuarrie‘s masterful Mission: Impossible – Fallout screenplay doesn’t shy away from the larger continuity of the other Mission: Impossible films. To the contrary, McQuarrie wholeheartedly embraces a character like Michelle Monaghan’s Julia, who hasn’t appeared in a meaningful way since 2006’s Mission: Impossible III. McQuarrie gives her a pivotal role in Fallout, but he doesn’t assume the audience knows exactly who she is. He plants the seed of her reappearance early in the film, in a quietly emotional monologue from Ving Rhames’ Luther. That scene tells an unfamiliar viewer everything they need to know about Julia: that she was married to Cruise’s Ethan, that they separated out of fear for her safety and for the safety of people around them, and that Ethan still loves her. And then the movie moves on, free to use Julia as it pleases. That isn’t just good franchise management; it’s good screenwriting, making sure everything necessary to the film’s narrative is present in the final cut, and not drifting around in the ether of the franchise’s past. It’s vintage opening-act Avengers set-up. Sure, if you’ve seen the previous films in the series, you don’t necessarily need it. But once it’s gone, as it so often is in our current crop of blockbusters, you certainly realize that something’s missing.