Simon Brew

Jul 6, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming and Guardians Of The Galaxy 2 are Marvel's two films of 2017 so far. One is more welcoming to newcomers.

Light spoilers for Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2 lie ahead

Two films thus far in 2017 have been released under the banner of Marvel Studios (accepting that one of them is a co-production with Sony), and both in their own way highlight some of the demands that come with a long-running cinematic universe.

First up was Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2, the rightly-acclaimed sequel from James Gunn that packed in lots of jokes, characters it was fun to spend time with, and a plot about, well, an evil planet and some other stuff. Secondly, we’ve had Spider-Man: Homecoming, the rightly-acclaimed new Spidey adventure from Jon Watts, that’s packed in lots of jokes, characters it’s fun to spend time with, and a plot that you don’t require a mini-degree in Marvel lore to wrap your head around.

Much has been made of the coming together of two opposing forces with Spider-Man: Homecoming, that this is the project where Sony Pictures asked Marvel Studios for help, and got it. That it’s brought the character of Spider-Man into the Marvel cinematic universe, and in turn, given Sony better grounding and understanding for the ensuing film that it’s just put out into cinemas. But Sony is also working in a slightly different way to Marvel. Sony is looking to branch out its long-mooted Spider-Man movie universe – with Venom the first movie, due next year – and as a consequence, it needed Spider-Man: Homecoming to do some scene setting.

This has afforded Marvel a bonus too, in that for the first time in recent memory, we have something of a jumping on point for casual fans, or outright newcomers. It helps that Spider-Man: Homecoming is seen through the eyes of a character who in his world has grown up watching the rise of the Avengers, and thus he and the audience have something of a shared perspective. But also, appreciating that the film kicks off in the rubble of the Avengers tower in New York, I’d argue that Spider-Man: Homecoming needs no knowledge whatsoever of the Marvel cinematic universe to date to fully wrap your head around it.

Cinematic universes, and the need for jumping on points

There’s a little bit of recapping in the film to fill in one or two blanks, and you get MCU references and touches. But anything story-specific is explained, and everything else is a bonus.

Contrast that with Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2, and I say this as a fan of the film.

If you’re new to Marvel, Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2 is one of the denser films to jump aboard with. To be clear: I’m not suggesting that casual fans, who know nothing walking in, will get nothing out of it. Quite the contrary. But conversely, I’ve been intrigued by Simon Mayo’s reaction to the film, when chatting about it on the Kermode & Mayo Film Programme on Radio Five Live. That watching the sequel, while he enjoyed it, he got the sense that everyone was talking about a party that he hadn’t been invited to. I’m paraphrasing, but his experience is reflected by other people I’ve spoken to, who went in to see two before one.

I used to have a habit of accidentally watching films in the wrong order. I saw Die Hard 2 before Die Hard, Aliens before Alien, Fast & Furious 5 before Fast & Furious 4. In each of those instances, sufficient crumbs were offered to allow me to just about keep up. But when you’re now talking about a hugely successful cinematic universe that’s up to 16 films and counting, ones where websites are set up to track the cross-references and Easter eggs within, then the challenge escalates.

The inherent danger – especially in an era where studios are targeting $1bn box office takes – is that you get so wrapped up in the parameters of a cinematic universe that you forget to invite outsiders in. The fact that Marvel makes films in phases helps offset that – every six films or so, it looks like they’re being a breath of sorts – but also, take the Thor trilogy. There’s a Thor film in each phase of the MCU, and inevitably, lines have to be drawn between each film.

Cinematic universes, and the need for jumping on points

Granted, we’re in an era of filmmaking now where it seems as though Marvel is still the only one that can put together a relatively coherent universe of films, even when they’ve hit double figures. Most others are struggling to get off the starting blocks, as Ryan discussed here. The challenges Marvel are facing are the ones that every other movie studio is dreaming of (Patty Jenkins’ triumphant Wonder Woman movie, for instance, is so early in the DC extended universe that its ties to the likes of Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice are incredibly thin).

But they are still challenges. Few want to sit through extended Basil Exposition-esque recaps of the story so far at the start of a film, and few want to have to do 10 minutes on Wikipedia to catch up with where they need to be in a series’ story ahead of a trip to the pictures. That means, particularly when in the nine and ten figure box office business, films have to stand alone as well as join up into a nice boxset.

I wonder if some of the answers to how to do that lie outside of comic book movies, too. Just look at how effectively Creed tied into the six previous Rocky films, for example. That film expanded the ‘universe’ if you will, with no foreknowledge required. It got the balance right. The Daniel Craig Bond films, too, tie to the heritage of 007, but if you’re not turning up having watched the others first, you’re still instantly made to feel welcome.

Cinematic universes, and the need for jumping on points

These are the kind of matters too that novelists have been wrestling with for decades too of course, with varying levels of success. None of this is unique to film, it’s just cinema has finally made a success of a long running, interconnected series of films.

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming are both successful films, and hugely entertaining ones, and none of what I’ve discussed is designed as a slight on them. It just happens to be a consequence of an era where a three-film boxset is no longer enough for studios. As such, I think now to keep having more successful films like the former, it’s worth scheduling in a couple in the vein of the latter as well.

Given how everyone seems to be trying to copy Marvel, I hope they pay attention to the quietly clever work that Spider-Man: Homecoming has managed to do as well.