Isn’t every movie a standalone movie?

[Note from the editor: This article is by prospective staff writer Nathan Kerner.]

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Star Wars is coming back. Sarcasm aside, Star Wars is not only coming back, but we’re getting a large amount of it in the coming years. Not only a new trilogy, mind you. Disney, the company that’s bringing us the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is doing the same thing with Star Wars, creating a vast, expansive universe with multiple movies all serving to increase Disney’s revenue—I mean, entertain viewers.

This includes a series of spin-offs being called the Star Wars Anthology, and while the expanded universe concept can be debated until the cows come home, what bothers me recently is the phrase “standalone film”, which has been used to describe the new films in the anthology. “Standalone film” is a relatively new term. It’s meant to describe films that don’t play a part of any larger narrative, universe, or series.

This hubbub about standalone movies made me think. And I have to ask the question: Am I the only one who remembers a time when every movie was a standalone movie?

I’m not saying that movies have never had sequels, or that film cycles are new. However, I’m a little dismayed over the sheer amount of movies that are designed to simply be a small part of a larger series. Of course, sequels are a big way for Hollywood to keep revenue up, but some movies are being designed with sequels in mind before they’ve even proven there’s interest in a series.

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Arrogant presumptions

Franchises are all the rage, but there was a time when ideas had to prove themselves to the market before anyone made plans for a franchise. Despite George Lucas’s claims and behind the scenes lore, there were only plans for one Star Wars movie in the beginning. The franchise didn’t expand until after Star Wars broke every box office record imaginable. The point being, a movie has to be a pop culture phenomenon first, or at least successful with audiences, and then sequels can be planned. Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

Alas, several film series seem to presume that sequels are things that films just get. Max Landis, the crazed egomaniac who wrote American Ultra, actually tweeted photos of script pages he wrote for a sequel. I haven’t seen American Ultra, and judging by its box office take, neither have any of you. But Landis apparently was already thinking of the next chapter when the first one was failing to catch on. And that’s the problem. How arrogant do you have to be to just assume people are going to line up to see your movie?

Even Marvel is getting in on the action, introducing “premonition” sequences in Avengers: Age of Ultron to foreshadow upcoming Marvel films. Which means that Marvel is literally using its movies as trailers for their other movies, which not only spits on the creative team by reducing the storytelling process to little more than an advertising strategy, but shows complete contempt for the audience. The rubes are going to show up anyway, so why not remind them that the next movie is coming out soon?

This arrogant presumption leads to laziness that’s making it more difficult for Hollywood to produce good films, because they just presume (rightly or wrongly) a sequel is automatic. If you’re guaranteed a few installments, why bother getting it right the first time? Speaking of which…

Forgetting to make whole movies in favor of the big picture

I recently watched Terminator: Genisys (hoo, boy) and there was one thing missing: An explanation. So for those who haven’t seen it, the timeline gets upset because Arnold the Terminator goes back in time to save Sarah Connor from a Terminator when she was a little girl. Why was he sent back? The movie kind of forgets to tell us.

No, I’m not kidding. They literally have Arnold say “That’s classified” when asked this question. As a result, the very event that kicks the movie into motion is never explained so the audience can understand it. They literally forgot to tell the audience what was going on.

Isn't every movie a standalone movie?

I’m willing to bet this is because the studio and director just assumed they would get a sequel or a whole new series of films to explain things. So the first movie has a massive plot hole in it. Because they forgot one of the most important basics of storytelling which is to tell the audience what is going on!!

You know what movies were great? Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman, Batman, Batman Begins. These movies weren’t great movies because they left material for the sequels; they inspired sequels because they were great movies. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

It’s true that these movies did leave something in the tank, but they were more background elements than anything else. Richard Donner introduced Zod in Superman so he wouldn’t have to do that in the sequel, but Zod plays no important part in the story. The Joker was mentioned in Batman Begins, but he didn’t become a story element until The Dark Knight. Donner and Christopher Nolan held a little back, but they gave it their all in the story they were telling at the time.

George Miller, director of the summer’s best movie, Mad Max: Fury Road, was asked what his idea was for the sequel, and he compared the question to asking a mother who just gave birth when she was having another kid. Miller clearly understood that since he was reviving a long dormant property, it was in his best interest to make a great movie now and worry about the sequel later, and it paid off financially and critically.

Hollywood is forgetting how to do this, and therein lies the rub.

Standing alone

Here are my five favorite movie series: Star Wars, Star Trek (the original cast series), Indiana Jones, James Bond, and Godzilla. The best films in these series have one thing in common. They stand as good movies on their own and as parts of a greater whole.

For some personal examples, I only like parts 2, 3, 4, and 6 in the Star Trek series, and they’re great to watch in order. But part of the joy is how they work as individual films. You can watch each film individually and not feel the need to watch the rest right away. Same for the first Indiana Jones movies, the original Star Wars trilogy, and numerous James Bond and Godzilla films that I won’t name because there are way too many.

Isn't every movie a standalone movie?

You can watch them as a series, and lose nothing, or you can watch them individually and lose nothing. That’s because these series were written and produced one movie at a time, so each movie was crafted as a singular work. Sometimes they set up a sequel, sometimes not. But they were made to work as individual films first, with the later films building on what came before while being great in their own right.

Fast forward to today, and is there any reason to rewatch half of the Marvel movies, except to recap what came before? If you didn’t think much of Iron Man 2, or the Thor movies, too bad. You need to watch them to understand the Avengers even a little bit. The irony is that arguably the best film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Guardians of the Galaxy, has little to do with the greater Marvel universe. It works as an individual story that happens to be attached to a greater whole, and not a cog in the machine.

Changing the way we watch movies

Hey, remember how awesome it was to see a post-credits sequence in Iron Man where Tony Stark meets Nick Fury and they talk about the Avengers Initiative? Remember how cool it was? How’s it feel that whenever you see a movie now, you instinctively stay till the end of the credits to see if there’s a post-credits sequence that sets up the sequel?

While I think the idea of a cinematic universe is cool, it seems to be a bit of a “forest for the trees” situation. Having connections between films is a bonus, not the point. If the movie can’t work on its own merits, the fact that it’s part of a series shouldn’t excuse its failures.

The worst part is it actually seems to help fans justify the existence of lackluster sequels. Now we’ve got fan theories explaining why Jar Jar was actually a secret force master who was covertly manipulating events behind the scenes to justify his presence in the series. Because, you know, you can’t just ignore the prequels. Gotta find a way to squeeze them in there somewhere. Can’t ignore any bad installments.

Look, there’s this thing called personal canon. It means the only ones that matter are the ones you like. This insistence on everything belonging to one giant thing has turned movies from events into episodes of a TV series, where people are all too willing to forgive a weak chapter as long as the whole is satisfactory.

Some might think this started with the Lord of the Rings, but I’d argue the series that made this mainstream was Harry Potter. The makers of that series knew they had a rabid fan base who would loyally show up to every installment as long as they didn’t completely screw it up. So they decided to split the last book into two movies. Of course, artistic preservation of the story took a backseat to the temptation to milk an extra half a billion dollars out of the fans.

The worst part was that they were right. The Hunger Games and Twilight followed suit, and now even Marvel is making unnecessary part twos by splitting the Civil War and Infinity War stories into two films. Now, before you launch into the comments section to remind me that Hollywood is a business and making money is the primary goal: I know. But the money they make comes from the audience. And too many fans are just accepting this as the status quo and talking with their wallets.

Believe it or not, there was a time when every film was a standalone film. We can have that again, but we need to go back to watching and analyzing films on their own terms and their own merits. Then maybe, just maybe, Hollywood will listen and give us the next big thing or great idea instead of Avengers XI: Kree-Skrull War Part IV.

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  • CaptainCalvinCat

    Well, Nathan, as far as I’m concernd – I have nothing against splitting one film into two parts – mainly because there is a chance, that we get more story covered – and let me put it this way: I can nearly hear people moan, that – if they had just made one movie out of such a gigantic story-arc as the Civil- and the Infinity-War, the character development would have been rushed, that not every character got the chance to shine and whatnot. So better make two parts, that we have time to breathe every now and then.

    • Greg

      No

      • CaptainCalvinCat

        Yes

    • Nathan kerner

      In all honesty, I don’t have a problem with an overarching story, the Star Trek movies I mentioned in the article are prime examples of having overarching themes and story elements throughout. But my point being, they were crafted as individual films. As Long as Marvel crafts each infinity war story individually, I will be sound as a pound. But I don’t believe for a second that Harry Potter and the Hunger games split the last book into two movies to let the story “breathe”. They did it because people would show up regardless, so why not get a half a million dollars out of the deal. When you cut the story into chapters to let it “breathe” you get the hobbit trilogy, and last I checked, that was nobody’s favorite because of its bloat

      • Christy

        I have to disagree with you about Harry Potter. Most people complain about the movies because they weren’t long enough to include more of the books. Goblet of Fire, the fourth movie, especially suffered because it wasn’t split into two. Too much story was left out completely or rushed over to fit the movie’s running time. I understand that the studio probably split Deathly Hallows in half for monetary reasons, but I feel it was necessary to properly tell the story.

  • Cameron Vale

    Any time you hear or see a phrase like “big picture” or “expanded universe,” just substitute its less grandiloquent synonym “later movies” and the ridiculousness of it becomes crystal clear.

  • Cristiona

    Guess I’m some kind of super genius because I had no trouble understanding either Avengers movie without seeing Winter Soldier or the second Thor movie. It’s almost like movies have exposition and context clues.

    They’re summer blockbusters, not obscure 18th century Russian literature.

  • MichaelANovelli

    What I always find about this whole issue is that no one ever asks the big question: what if franchising isn’t a fad? What if this is actually a massive paradigm shift? If it is, can the fact that things are changing really be “wrong”? And, is calling for a return to a system that has shown that it’s not the king of the market anymore “right”?

    I don’t have the answer, but history has shown that you can’t fight evolution, and the people have clearly spoken. Perhaps, it would be best if we just made peace with it…

    • Nathan kerner

      while i semi agree with you, i’d say, as a history major, it’s best to pay attention to what the past did right then ignore it. I think you have a point, that things are shifting in this direction, but we’ve seen the results with Fantastic Four and American Ultra, that just assuming your a franchise can kill your chances of ever becoming one, and that you are better off telling a complete story now while keeping in mind the potential for more. I don’t mind Marvel, they haven’t released a completely bad movie yet, and I can respect them for such consistency. I’m just nervous that the big picture will become the point, and eventually the movies will begin to suck because hollywood became complacent. It happened with Star Wars and Jaws.

      Basically, if this transition is happening, I’m hoping it at least takes a positive direction.

      Oh, and happy veteran’s day……

  • Gallen_Dugall

    Don’t forget the tie in television series. Star Wars has the animated Rebels and upcoming live action show that will tie into the cinematic universe.

    • Nathan kerner

      please don’t remind me…..

  • Mike Yamiolkoski

    I honestly don’t see the problem here. Why does every movie have to be a standalone work? What’s wrong with telling a larger story over several episodes?

    Let’s look at what most would agree to be a great work of art: the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Individually, each panel of that ceiling tells part of the story of Genesis. There’s one panel in particular which we often see by itself (the creation of Adam), but even though that one panel is the most iconic (and arguably the greatest painting Michelangelo ever created), it is ENHANCED by its inclusion among many others in the larger story, not diminished. Though it can be appreciated on its own, it is necessary to see it as part of the whole to really get the full story.

    That’s kind of like Episode IV of Star Wars. It’s currently the most complete individual story of the series, the one which can most easily be appreciated on its own, but it is enhanced by the rest of the story which surrounds it – yes, even by the prequels.

    I have no more problem with multiple movies telling a story than I do with multiple books or multiple TV episodes telling a story. Sometimes, the whole story just doesn’t fit into a two or three hour movie.

    Finally, I must point out one multi-part movie that absolutely nailed it, HAD to be told as several movies rather than just one, and where NONE of the parts stands on its own: The Lord of the Rings. No way that whole story could be boiled down to 120 minutes and still tell everything it needed to. (The Hobbit could and should have, but that’s another story.) And it would have seriously detracted from the films if each one had to catch up the audience on what had happened before; the end result was much better when it was simply assumed that you’d seen the preceding story and knew who everyone was and what they were up to.

    In a nutshell, I really don’t see the point of complaining just because a story has too many characters and too much going on to fit in the nice small box that is a standard-length movie feature. Let the story be told across multiple movies and even other media if there’s enough story there to warrant it.

    • Nathan kerner

      the lord of the rings was not three movies, but rather one movie told in three volumes, just like the lord of the rings was originally a novel in three volumes, which is completely different from what I am talking about.

      seriously, read Tolkien’s notes.

      and your stuff about Star wars being enhanced by the sequels, I actually talk about that in the article. you must have missed it though. Star Wars is a great example. the stories of each film (the first three anyway) are wrapped up in the span of the movie (the empire strikes back leaves some hanging threads, but it still wraps up the overall questions with answers).

      Seriously though, I’m not complaining about long form storytelling, reread the article, that is if you didn’t skip over the middle in your rush to the comments. It’s not multiple volumes that bother me. Its looking to the future and forgetting about the present. It’s about telling a good story with each volume, rather than relying on future volumes to make everything make sense.

  • JustMe

    The problem with “Cinematic Universes” is that they lead to a certain blandness. In order for these things to work, they have to be overseen by a person or group of people with a vision of what the entirety of the universe they are creating is. Which means that every movie then has to play into that continuity… Which means that really strikingly different ideas won’t make their way into those movies.

    Look at the Marvel universe in movies (or comics, for that matter). They are so focused on working together than we only get minor touches of originality in them. “Guardians of the Galaxy” felt like a breath of fresh air – but if you look at it, it isn’t that original. What could have been done with it if it didn’t have to flow into the rest of the movies? How about Ant-Man – a movie that felt stock-standard even with some very minor flourishes… How much more fun could have been had with that if it didn’t feel it needed to tie into the other movies?