Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Serialized storytelling is an old tradition and superhero movies are using the principle of it to bring together some previously impossible story arcs.

A friend recently said that superhero movies are just commercials for more superhero movies. I thought it was kind of brilliant to think that a three-hour movie is just a setup for bunches of three-hour movies that supposedly will pay of in one big three-hour movie. But then I started to think about how chapters in a book are organized, and how it's impossible in anything with an "epic" kind of scope to tell a complete story arc in just one chapter. Not everything can be boiled down to Hemmingway's famous line, "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

I think critics of superhero movies do them a disservice by just dismissing them as advertising for another movie. Batman V Superman isn't an advertisement, it's a chapter in a much longer story that has yet to be told. Maybe it's this idea of "serialized entertainment" that has thrown people for a loop. It used to be that novels would be serialized and released a bit at a time. My most recent memory of this (and it's not too recent) was Stephen King's serialized novel, The Green Mile. Since that came out more than a decade ago, it's easy to think that a whole generation (that doesn't read stuff on Wattpad or the Nifty Archive) is unfamiliar with stories being told in bite-sized chunks, released one chapter at a time.

And serialized storytelling has a lot of advantages. For one, it's kind of like a 401k investment plan. In other words, thinking of retirement as one huge chunk of money that you'll need in order to leave the workforce forever can be very daunting. However, taking it in small pieces over a great deal of time makes it a lot more palatable. The same can be true for storytelling. In our fast-paced low attention span culture, a serialized story does not ask for a lot of investment from a person. Everyone can spare ten minutes out of their day to read the latest installment.

Another benefit of serialized storytelling is that installments need to have a hook that brings the audience back. This is why in superhero movies, we usually have a complete story arc that has a definitive conclusion, yet leaves the door open for more growth.

Anyway, I guess all I was trying to say is that serialized storytelling is not advertising, and superhero movies are using the principle of it to bring together some previously impossible story arcs. Who wins in that situation? We all win because we get to sit back and watch the story unfold one piece at a time.


  1. I think one of the issues critics have with Batman vs Superman that I also had was that several plot lines were not properly explained or tied together. In that case serialization is irrelevant. Superhero movies like Deadpool also set up for sequels but do so by having such a well done story and plot that though it can be a complete one off, fans wanting more propels the definite upcoming sequel. Deadpool could be a one off superhero movie and still be amazing and that is a lesson all shows and movies should learn. Whether serial or not you need to have a well woven story so that there are not just a bunch of dangling threads left behind.

  2. While I understand your point, and it's important for movie-makers to hook audiences into coming back time and again, I do get peeved when a movie is merely a set-up for future movies. I think a movie should be able to stand on its own, but I haven't seen Batman V Superman yet.

  3. I agree with your premise in general but I really think Batman vs Superman failed as a serial as it did the cumulation film before telling the backstory. To equate it to Marvel it would be if they made the Avengers movie before doing Thor/Captain America/Iron Man.

    In my opinion, the creators were more worried about profits instead of telling a true serialized story. I understand why this did it as they needed a blockbuster to pay for the much riskier Wonder Woman/Aquaman but it will be interesting to see if viewers punish them for taking shortcuts when the later serials come out.

  4. It depends on the story. The problem with Batman v Superman and Age of Ultron was they crammed a lot of stuff in there that didn't really do much for the current movie, like the "Knightmare" sequence and those snippets of the Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman. The simple fact is there won't be a later movie if the first one bombs because it's too busy trying to establish sequels. There have been plenty of would-be series that ended with only one movie.

  5. It's good to have a hook of some kind in any movie if a sequel is planned, but perhaps some superhero movies have overdone it, making it seem forced and obvious. People don't need to be hit over the head.

  6. I kind of like this whole thing they have going with the movies that continue on. It harkens back to the old movies where you had a character that kept repeating throughout several movies. Before TV and series shows. Although, many of those movies didn't necessarily go together. (Like, the girl had a guy by the end, but that guy was gone in the next movie.)

  7. If serials were good enough for Charles Dickens to write, they're a good enough format for any writer. Still, I'm far from being an expert on superhero movies; I can only say that I'd rather watch a miniseries (which is serialization) on TV because I find some of the shows that are out to be remarkably good.

    One I caught last night: The Night Manager. I believe it will have six installments and I'm already hooked. Then there was The Dig--another solid, complicated story.