9 Superhero and Sci-Fi Film Lessons Learned So Far This Summer
Every year the in-seat movie business complains about the decline of the audience. 2018, however, is on record pace. Why, because studios, particularly Disney’s Marvel franchises, along with its other superhero genre films, notably Incredibles, delivered good movies.
Despite the plethora of alternative ways to view content, the theater experience continues to differentiate itself. Seeing movies, especially emotional movies (be that heartwarming melancholy or raucous support for good over evil), with an audience delivers emotional reinforcement not available to an individual or even small group.
1. Don’t break things that aren’t broken. The dense stories and overstuffed universe that is Marvel continues to dazzle. The expanse of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) creates plenty of space for snarky (Deadpool 2) and heartfelt (Avengers: Infinity War) stories. Keep the writing sharp and the plots tight. As X-Men Apocalypse proved last summer, take the tight focus off the characters and lose the audience and the critics (and yes I know that was a Sony play, not a Disney/Marvel production).
2. Don’t overstretch your universe. Solo suffered from not being the Solo people wanted. I don’t think the Star Wars franchise suffers from Star Wars fatigue as much as it suffers from strategic mismanagement. While the Star Wars universe (SWU) could be vast, it really isn’t. Star Wars, at its core, remains the story of Anakin Skywalker and family. Trying to make the SWU into the MCU is a strategic misstep. Solo was a test of the elasticity of the SWU and it proved that unlike the MCU, Star Wars stays tethered to its core. In thought leadership, marketers discuss what an organization has “permission” to say in the market, which is a mix of expertise, position, and credibility. Permission is not bought but earned. Solo reflect the SWU’s permission deficit.
3. Confusion Breeds Contempt. Fans don’t mind the auxiliary characters and the political intrigue that spawns the baddy of the film, but Solo added to the missteps of Last Jedi by going off on tangents that really don’t matter to its core story, let alone to the core Star Wars story. The film introduces characters and connections audiences found difficult to reconcile with what they know of the Star Wars Universe, and reintroduce characters thought many thought long dead. Rouge One delivered a film good enough to stand alone without Star Wars, but Rouge One also connected directly to the core Skywalker family as it handed off its narrative to Leia shortly before Darth Vader follows, then boards the Rebel blockade runner. The only clarity Solo brings to the Star Wars universe come in making sense of why short-cutting the Kessel Run can be measured in distance and not time.
4. Set reasonable expectations. Of course, Disney wants every Star Wars movie to be a blockbuster, and they are. Solo, as the loan “failed” Star Wars flick stilled cleared over $200M domestic (see Box Office Mojo for the latest figures), a feat any of this year’s tepid comedies would celebrate in the streets. It also beat not just the downtrodden X-Men Apocalypse, but also the well-received X-Men Days of Future Past.
Studios need to take a more risk-friendly approach and experiment with less hype and smaller films. While it may be hard for a big studio to fail fast, they actually experience failure faster than tech companies. Initial product development may take months, but studios know within the early hours of a weekend how their investment will likely pay off (though TheGreatest Showman’s long tail and good upside on Incredibles 2still manage to challenge the all-knowing predictive nature of early data sampling). Disney will not lose money on Solo, though the failure to launch may hurt some franchise licensees stuck with unsold toys, but Porg sales will probably make up for that shortfall over time.
5. Bring on the Dinosaurs, not the screaming rebel robots. If you want to collect box office gold and you don’t have a great script, put in CG dinosaurs. On the other hand, L3-37 created the most polarizing Star Wars character since Jar Jar Binks. Even if the human in Jurassic Park/World haven’t been well-drawn since the first installment, the dinosaurs remain captivating even if they exist only in a computer simulation of the world they portray on the screen.
6. Don’t Pander, Create. If you going to pander to the audience, then do it with canon integrity. Early is Solo audiences receive the backstory of the pilot’s golden dice, which aren’t the same as the dice in earlier films, and when we see the famous scene of Solo winning the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian, the dice don’t play a role. On the bigger level, Solo takes fans where they have gone before, at least in their heads, and what they imagined, and what others wrote in books and fan fiction, exceeded what Disney delivered on-screen. Star Trek fell into the same trap of looking backward rather than forward in the last two films and in Discovery. Studios need to stop revisiting old stories and take familiar characters to unfamiliar places.
Some might argue that Solo did just that, but Solo seemed built on the wrong constraints and that limited its ability to explore the life of Solo or his first love at anything but the most cursory level. A film focused on those two characters that brought audiences to the moments where both were broken and how their approaches to repair shaped their future selves would have provided insight and depth. The need to fit into Star Wars and reference things we see in earlier films (in future timelines) made for a film that beamed in personality traits rather than exploring their origins.
7. Humor Sells. Deadpool 2 may be R-rated, but it is funny. Violent, yes. Potty-mouthed, absolutely. But also absolutely hilarious from the opening credits to the post-credit self-evisceration. Incredibles 2, two words (one word repeated): Jack Jack.
8. Sequels can be better than the originals. Deadpool 2and Incredibles 2.Mike drop.
9. Sometimes Constraints Offer More Creativity. Ron Howard needs a better editor and Kathleen Kennedy needs to have lunch more often with Kevin Feige. As much as the MCU seems like a sprawling, chaotic cacophony of confused color and tone, it all works because constraints keep it focused on characters and stories that go beyond the action, along with an intense purposefulness to most things making sense by bringing together collaborative talent that informs crossovers. Kevin Feige created constraints and then hired unconventional filmmakers to play within his boxes—Kennedy doesn’t seem to have a firm control of the overarching SWU narrative. She then hires safe creators who meander through the SWU looking for a story rather than crafting a unique approach to a compelling story architected to build out the SWU.
The summer of 2018 will continue to suggest new lessons learned as the onslaught of releases live or fade based on their characters and their stories, their ability to engage in thought or escape, and most importantly, their ability to intrigue audiences they want to experience those moments more than once in a theater with other people.
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Image credits. Solo poster: Disney/Lucas Films. Incredible 2 scene, Disney/Pixar. Jurassic World, Fallen Kingdom poster, NBC/Universal.