Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The case for live-action movie anthologies

This was Batman Photo credit

The reviews are out, and it's official: DC's Batman vs. Superman is terrible. This was the best review I've read so far, which highlights the tension between business and artistic incentives as a driver of movie crappiness. Marvel has made billions on its superhero franchise idea, and DC naturally wants to cash in. But more than most industries, first-mover advantage counts for a lot in Hollywood.

Marvel's movie franchise was in some ways planned from the start, but generally-speaking it grew from the bottom-up over time: linkages and references between movies and characters were inserted as easter eggs and post-credit sequences. This allowed individual movies to maintain coherence and boosted the mystery and excitement among nerds.

Much of the criticism of Batman vs Superman concerns the top-down attempt to force a many-charactered franchise into existence via one film. This seems right to me: Marvel's success stemmed from the novelty of its approach, and the progressive nature of its hype. DC is unable to recreate the first, and unwilling to do the second.

So here's my suggestion for DC: instead of trying to replicate Marvel's vast connected universe by jumping directly to GO, look to other strategies that can rapidly create the foundation for many films. Specifically, look to the anthology.

This was also Batman. In the same movie. Photo Credit

Why a live-action DC anthology would be awesome

I'm already on record in supporting short stories: they allow for quick pacing and a narrative mysteriousness that's pleasurable but unsustainable over the length of a feature-film. Beyond this underappreciated benefit, doing an anthology film would solve several problems for DC.

  1. Novelty DC has suffered by trying to copy Marvel's recipe. A set of live-action short films, following the same character or different characters, would be wildly unique and garner much enthusiasm simply because it has never been done before by a big studio.

  2. Speed DC is trying to catch up and build several money-making vehicles ASAP. By stringing together several short films, many characters and storylines could be reasonably included within a 2-3 hour timeframe.

  3. Narrative coherence Instead of sacrificing artistic quality by stuffing many characters into a single narrative, a DC anthology film could introduce many characters over many individually-coherent narratives.

  4. Precedent DC has actually done something similar to this before, in the fantastic animated anthology Batman: Gotham Knight.

  5. Risk Trying to build a huge franchise in a single film is really risky, as we've seen. An anthology film with many characters, actors, or even directors would provide portfolio risk-hedging with regard to talent contracts. Crucially, an anthology film would also allow for audience feedback and the ability to develop a franchise based on those characters, actors, storylines and styles that are most well-received.
The ultimate longshot benefit of this approach would be the chance to retrain audiences to accept--even expect--changes in actors and movie style. Transitioning away from the torturous process of comic book reboot after comic book reboot into something more diverse and nimble would be a win for both audiences and studios.

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