It seems to be becoming a requirement to know about a film’s predecessors before it takes place in theaters – but it doesn’t have to be that way.
One of the many remarkable factors of this summer Top Gun Mavericka sequel to a 35-plus-year-old film that now has a shot at being the highest-grossing American film of 2022, is how confident it is to be simple.
It’s a film that of course touches on its 1986 predecessor, but I’d also say there’s no requirement to have watched it in the first place. The key things you need to remove from Superior gun to make the most of Top Gun Maverick are explained effectively and well in the new movie. The responsibility then rests on the forward story rather than the backward one.
I compare this with the now on Disney+ Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. At the time of this writing, it’s a movie that’s approaching $1 billion in business in theaters around the world and was for some time the biggest movie of the year. And the thing is, if you want to make the most of the new strange doctor movie, you will be expected to put the work into it.
It’s interesting to compare the two films. In the case of strange doctor followed – and better people than me have long made that point – you need at least some notes from Cliff on the state of the Marvel Cinematic Universe if you want to get the most out of it. In fact, I had gone a little further: I think you need a good prior knowledge for the narration of the film to work properly. There are emotional beats that rely on unexplained topics in the movie, and it’s a tough movie to understand as a complete stranger to the Marvel world.
Prior knowledge, basically, is not absolutely necessary, but highly recommended. Not only from viewing the Wanda Vision television show, which I have never seen and therefore I could not have told you initially how much it affects Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (although someone filled in the gaps for me). But also the flippant mention of things like the disappearance of five years. He is well known to those who attended the avengers movies to date, but to a stranger? It’s never explained. Then there are the threads of the previous strange doctor movie (not unreasonable), and characters going in and out of, well, you know if you’ve seen it.
Lots of fun for the fans and playing directly to that audience, and the fandom base is clearly such a size that it all works. The box office receipts confirm this.
In fairness too, Spider-Man: No Coming Home did a lot of research on how much prescience one could expect from an audience. Arguably, the most beloved sequence in this particular movie – involving a reunion of webslingers – relies on at least eight homework movies to make the most of it. In this particular scene, I would say a lot of its details are lost on you if you didn’t have that foreknowledge. And I say that like someone who was sitting in a movie theater grinning from ear to ear.
Marvel movies are in a stronger position than most to achieve this of course. When your movies and TV shows are devoured by seemingly the bulk of the audience in the first place, it buys you built-in confidence and earned confidence too.
However, I also detect a growing recoil. My personal view is that Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness pushed the level of supposed knowledge as far as the company has gone before, as it tried to fill in what you needed to know about a TV show as well as previous movies. I’ll also admit I’m in the minority opinion – looking at box office returns – but I still don’t think that made it a particularly good fist.
But then neither something like this summer Jurassic World Dominion (pictured above) which builds on the narrative of five previous films a bit more than I expected. It’s one thing to nod to other films, as the film generously does, but it’s another to tie together a quintet of previous films dating back nearly three decades straight through the plot and character. A bet, and you have to be on your game to withdraw it.
I think in the case of Jurassic 6 it works to varying degrees, although definitely Domination is heavily weighted accordingly. There’s ultimately so much to juggle that the movie here and now ahead 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 I do. Familiarity breeds far more dollars than contempt.
But I come back to this: there is an inherent danger in taking an audience for granted.
I already wrote some thoughts on Pixar Light year – why did Lightyear stumble? – who grabs a deckchair and tries to sit right next to the toy story movies. In this case, the plot you need to know is pretty much covered by a map at the start explaining its ties to the franchise. But even then, there are characters and touchpoints that weave into the story.
I would also add that Fantastic Beasts: Dumbledore’s Secrets – a franchise with other issues, which I’ve discussed before (where for the stutter franchise) – ended up trying to do something outside of the Harry Potter film series, but was phased out over time as the creatives felt the public slip away. Interestingly – again, there’s a lot of ingredients as to why – more towards the original eight-film series, the fantastic beasts the longer the films have gone (including assuming audiences will know some of the major references and/or ongoing), the lower the ratings. This, however, seems like an exception rather than the rule.
There are many other examples, of course. But with some of the blockbusters of the last 12 months in particular, my thinking now is this: things that were once easter eggs have now moved into the main narrative.
An easter egg was, I don’t know, a Pizza Planet truck in a Pixar movie. Or Disney hiding a Mickey Mouse in an animated film. Or find a little reference to a comic book moment in a superhero movie (à la The Batman).
Now? Easter eggs are increasingly becoming the plot. They are less of an aside for dedicated fans, a nod and recognition for them. Now they are becoming a requirement. That if you want to get the most out of the blockbuster before you, you need to have done your homework.
So far it’s working, but also, I can’t help but go back to Top Gun Maverick. It’s a movie that juggled iterating past story beats better than any recent blockbuster I can remember, and it’s become a very wide church for its audience. Few people would have bet it would pass $1 billion at the worldwide box office once, or surpass a major Marvel movie. But here we are. And its overriding lesson may well be to give audiences a lively evening, without leaving them scratching their heads over certain references.
This, for me at least, is very, very welcome.
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