Franchise fatigue, and yearning for an ending.
I can’t remember precisely when it was that I realized it, but earlier this year I started thinking that what I really wanted out of my entertainment was an ending. And then the more I thought about it, the more I wondered when it was that I last saw something that was intentionally created to have a distinct beginning, middle, and definitive end.
Or as we used to call it, “a complete story.”
I’m tired of appetizers - I want a full meal. I’m tired of chapters - give me the whole story. I’m tired of feeling like everything on offer is always ongoing, and will never provide an actual…conclusion.
Perhaps it was coming out of Infinity War - a movie all my friends thought was life-changing, and affirming of their emotional, temporal, and financial investment into the MCU - but which made me feel like I’d paid full price for half of a movie with as close to zero stakes as I could remember. As I walked out, I remember thinking to myself “I just watched an entire movie where none of it mattered.”
Let’s be real, Black Panther 2 was announced before Infinity War, so we already know that what was presented as irreversible consequence … isn’t. In fact, it’s easily arguable that despite the final scene of Infinity War, Marvel expects the audience to anticipate that none of the stakes are real.
Maybe I can explain it this way: in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (which, to be clear, is not only my favorite Marvel film, but I think possible the best Marvel film) there’s a precisely zero percent chance that he dies at the end. However, it’s set up as a possibility, and is one of the main stakes pushing the character forward and aiming to provide tension. But in the end it’s a fake threat that asks more than simple suspension of disbelief.
The story wants you to believe it could happen. Ditto Thor. Ditto Black Panther. Ditto almost every Marvel film. But we know they won’t. Not until they get to the thing the studio has been building towards. Which has already been announced. Please be excited about that too. But it doesn’t need to be that way - personal survival isn’t the only way to create stakes for a character; there are plenty of manners to do so where that’s not a driving force. But we know it won’t happen, because we know that it’s almost the only thing in the story that can’t happen.
So we’re doing this weird dance between the studio and the audience, of fake expectation and fake audience reaction; of pretend stakes and pretend plot fulfillment. Of a knowing wink and nod substituting for actual growth or change. Of permanent impermanence. And in the end, as much as I love seeing my younger geek fantasies becoming real twice a year, year after year, I’m left feeling like the result is somehow being intentionally and deliberately made…hollow.
I don’t mean to just pick on Marvel here. They’re a symptom, not the cause. They’re giving audiences what audiences are showing they’ll pay for - fuck, myself included. But I think it is fair to say that in an era of unprecedented purposeful deception in the real world, perhaps what I yearn for right now is authenticity in the intentions of my entertainment.
I understand why this environment exists - in fact, I wrote a short essay almost fifteen years ago on why the growing social, mobile, and online entertainment offerings meant that “known quantities” would have an almost unbeatable advantage at the box office. In short - there’s more everyday noise to break through, so the less you have to explain to the audience *what* something is, the more you can the precious moments where you have their attention explaining *why* they should care. And in that environment, the perpetual machine means you never need to provide context - it’s just “another of the thing you already know about.” It’s also why we have so many “branded” film properties from toys, reboots, reimaginings, and other plays on nostalgia or familiarity.
Let’s deviate for a brief moment. Escapism is important. Full stop. Back when I was in college, I used to tell my friend that she - studying to be a social worker - was making a difference in the world, while I - studying film - was making frivolous pretty pictures. She (rightfully) would point out that escapism is meaningful. Having the ability to visit new places and experience the world through other people’s eyes is not only how we escape our daily woes, but how we learn about what exists beyond just our own experiences.
She’s right, too - as an easy example, Will and Grace is why we have gay marriage in America today. Seeing gay men in our living rooms, week after week is what made the American public understand that much of their fears, uncertainties, and doubts about gay men were unfounded. Gay men weren’t that different from the rest of us, with professional difficulties, social anxieties, and day-to-day problems that were, if not *identical* than close enough for the world to relate.
So I’m not knocking escapism - I love a good popcorn flick as much as the next person. But I’m feeling like as films needed to demonstrate the capacity for infinite sequels, where “change” can never be more than incremental so as to never upset the magic formula or the larger intersecting “universe” of spinoffs and related franchises, something authentic within the storytelling and its intentions was lost.
The thing that makes a story good is that it ends. I believe that firmly. A story is an exercise in building toward a payoff, with arcs and details that support and color the final reveal. But when a story never reaches that final reveal, only a temporary refrain, we never feel as if we get the full story. It’s always incomplete. It’s always partial. Even when a chapter is wonderful, it’s not a whole book.
So at the end of the day, what am I actually saying here - that sequels are wrong? That franchises are bad? No, I don’t think actually think that. Some stories do indeed need more space than a single film can allow. One of my favorite filmic experiences is the Lord Of The Rings trilogy (I already see your joke about me valuing endings too much - we can skip it.) But that story wouldn’t be nearly so impactful or fulfilling or *meaningful* if there were new chapters every year, forever, never letting us actually examine the complete journey of the characters or how they changed. The Lord of the Rings is brilliant because it ends. (Five times. There - I did the joke for you.)
And it’s the same in other media as well. With Harry Potter, we knew there were seven stories to be told, all moving towards one conclusion. Yes, each was a chapter, but there was a defined end-point that was inevitable, and all plot lines pointed and moved the characters towards that end. The satisfaction that came with the experience, of finding new characters and plot threads and debating questions for years between entries, was inexorably tied to the knowledge that the end would bring finality to those questions and characters and threads. There was a definitive end with definitive answers. That’s the difference.
Stakes require endings. Game of Thrones is only interesting because we know it will end. Breaking Bad was interesting because we knew it would end. The Godfather was interesting because it ended. We could get emotionally invested because knew our questions would be answered, that it was all leading somewhere, and the arcs and journeys of the characters would be completed. If we expected these stories to go on forever, they would be much less compelling - I firmly believe this.
But worst of all - beyond the simple dissatisfaction that comes with cinematic blue balls - in seeking to build something that could last forever, we may have unintentionally created the absolute worst-case scenario for the actual fans of those properties.
One day there will be a last James Bond. A last Indiana Jones. A last Fast & Furious. A last Star Wars. A last Marvel film. One day there will be no more - but it won’t come because the series finished the overarching story that interconnected all the plot threads and the narrative universe is finally completed - it will come because we just don’t care any more.
It will come because it’s not profitable enough to greenlight another one. Because they no longer capture our imaginations. Stopgap endings and denouements perpetually just out of reach will give way to subtle disinterest and over-saturation. Recent success still fresh in the backs of minds, they’ll continue to hope that the next one will bring life back to the franchise and fans. And the next. And the next.
Until one day the sober calculus is made, and the franchise is taken off of life support. A story designed to be told forever, to expand infinitely in all directions - eternally incomplete. The final entry not a bang, but a whimper; inevitably a whimper.
For want of an end, the story is lost - and to me, there’s something tremendously sad about that.
Next week we’ll talk about seeing in yourself what others see in you.