Recently, Marvel’s Infinity Wars achieved a monster box office global opening of $640.9MM breaking records and breaking writing conventions at the same time. It’s Rotten Tomatoes score was equally impressive with a fan rating of 91% and a critics rating of 83%.
Achieving a rare “first” in the world of entertainment:
Aside from the fact that clearly a whole lot of people of all ages, across the world, really liked this movie, it has also achieved another kind of first. It is the world’s first, blockbuster, global, Meta-Franchise. The Logic issues, a story that’s not a complete story, an insanely huge cast of character that make it impossible to service real emotional arcs in 2hrs & 40 min, and many more rules of good storytelling broken, didn’t stop this Meta-Franchise movie from landing in gargantuan success. (We’ll unbox why this movie got permission to break these very good rules in a moment).
So what is a Meta-Franchise?
It’s a distinct commercial story/premise whose narrative is fed by other distinct and standalone franchises. In short, Thor, Spiderman, Black Panther, The Avengers, Guardians Of The Galaxy, and many other unique Marvel franchises, all bring characters, Plot elements, meaning and backstory to the larger moves of the Cinematic Universe Franchise. Infinity Wars is the first, bonafide, Meta-Franchise output of the Cinematic Universe.
I think it’s very important to recognize the difference between a Meta-Franchise and the large Global Franchises. Star Wars is a large global franchise but not a Meta-Franchise. All the movies and content done to date in the Star Wars Universe are contributors to a single, vast, story arc. Solo is a prequel, not a separate franchise.
Vision and Courage builds a Meta-Franchise:
Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, (and a few other golden age comic creators) consistency of universe has been the gift that keeps on giving. Marvel/Disney deserve their own heaping of kudos for recognizing and grooming that creative vision into a universe that they have invested in, tested and boldly built into this breakthrough success. This kind of growth takes a long view for investment and commitment (something rare indeed in the world of entertainment where none of the other big companies have yet shown the will to build and execute on and even within Disney itself, the same strategic vision hasn’t been applied to Star Wars. (More on the opportunities for the Star Wars Franchise in a coming blog post).
Prior to Infinity Wars, Marvel’s Cinematic Universe had given us some very interesting crossover stories exploring and demonstrating that the universe could be made seamless. Well thought through risks were taken and even though not all worked well, the connections got built and we, the audience, watched and connected to these distinct characters and their unique stories and arcs. In essence, Marvel/Disney taught us the rich mythology of the Cinematic Universe not by making us drink from a firehose in a single movie (something that never works) but by building that bigger understanding across many movies, many characters, many different reasons to find the sub-franchises relevant, each in their own right! It is likely that most people who went to the movie had seen at least some of the many Marvel movies that revealed the characters, their struggles and their personal and world backstories. It was certainly clear that the writers assumed this and made little effort to explain much about the pantheons of heroes in the movie. I have certainly heard a fair amount of criticisms from audience members who didn’t understand some aspect of the movie because they hadn’t seen that particular franchise’s movies. It makes me wonder just how sustainable this new model of motion picture storytelling is when it requires pre-consumption of so many other franchises.
Permission to break the rules:
In the world of motion picture writing, there’s a number of well known creative choices that one wants to avoid simply because many movies and many decades have shown they don’t work. Below are three such choices that generally don’t work (and I know that I’ll get comments about some example where it did but it doesn’t change the word “generally”) yet Marvel’s Cinematic Universe/Meta-Franchise was able to break.
Avoid too much backstory or mythology.
Generally, this tends to make stories too “thick” and impenetrable to all but the most avid fans (Warcraft) and can even displace critical character development with plot points in service of explaining something that doesn’t move the story forward.
Infinity wars left the job of backstory and mythology mostly to the sub-franchises/previous movies and did little more than a bit of expository reference to those previous stories.
Avoid having too many character stories to service.
Too many characters means not enough time to tell sufficient set up or arc for each character and tends to put the character in service of plot points versus plot in service of character moves that help us to relate to them and inhabit the changes they are going through.
Oh boy did Infinity Wars squeeze in an unprecedented number of characters. Though they were able to get some story told around a few more central characters (the deepest being Thanos our bad guy) it was very thready and relied heavily on the audience knowing these characters. Clearly, the many previous movies were sufficiently attended that this gamble worked and we now have a new success condition for a specific kind of story structuring. Can they manage a sequel that is equally jammed or is this unique? I don’t know the answers but it sure will be interesting to watch. I hope that other single franchise stories, that aren’t drawing off the Meta-Franchise base Marvel has, don’t try this (though I’m certain some will).
An interesting note: Game of Thrones has been able to service this many significant characters by doing it over a much, much larger multi-episodic arc. Let’s raise a glass for yet another new story format proven but that’s for another post.
Avoid indeterminate endings or cliffhangers
Aaaaargh! (comic book expression of painful discomfort). This not only runs counter to the definition of a complete story, it’s one of my personal bugaboos. It’s done all the time and yet audiences generally don’t like this at all.
It’s not even a debate whether or not Infinity Wars brazenly stopped the story at a place engineered for maximum shock. It wasn’t story closure, since the audience knows with complete certainty that there’s much more to this story. With such high marks from fans and critics alike I have to wonder if the sub-franchises and depth of understanding of the characters and how the universe works built over two decades meant that a profoundly truncated and incomplete story was experienced as far less incomplete. We’re into undiscovered country here.
Who else could be doing this?
In order to build and activate on a true Meta-Franchise you need 3 things.
1.) A deep world/universe that is alive and expanding at the edges full of many, many, places and ideas to explore but stitched together with logic and rules that work. This happens intentionally not accidentally and takes people who know how to do quality world building guided by narrative.
2.) Distinct characters who each represent a distinct idea and useful meaning, each in their own right, capable of becoming their own sustainable and relevant franchise.
3.) A central creative vision supported by a company/management group willing to take the long view.
The roster is small but every day could be the beginning of someone developing the ideas that can make a Meta-Franchise. This list includes:
- DC/Warner and (some) their comic book hero franchises. Lots of very big work needed to make it align, as these were acquisitions versus conceived from a more aligned vision. It’s possible but lots of tough decisions and disruptive creative work needed.
- Star Wars – Yes, right now this is a single Mega-Franchise but other IP creations could be developed to play in the vast universe without being part of the existing story. (See my previous post on dubious handling of Canon and lack of real newness)
- Harry Potter – A rapidly expanding world/universe with so much yet to be revealed. Development of distinct stories that are separate franchises will be needed and Fantastic Beasts is a good start.
It’s very likely that as the Meta-Franchise establishes itself that it will, on some level, stitch together audience affinity across the feeder franchises and broaden play, social expression and lifestyle commitment on an individual audience/fan level. Whether that equals higher consumer lifetime value or more fans I can’t say at this point but cross collateralizing fandom would most certainly have an effect on retention.
Hard to say…but guaranteed, we’re going to see lots more playing across the franchises in the marvel universe and lots of attempts to reproduce this kind of success from other big players (a small wince at Universal’s attempt at a dark universe).
Marvel will clearly learn as they continue inventing how to do this and so will the industry. My advice for anyone considering making a Meta-franchise is to understand why this worked and take the time to build out the feeder franchises, carefully aligned in a well built universe, before jumping into these biggest of big stories. What is guaranteed is that this sure is fun seeing new forms and structures emerge in this time of hyper-mythologizing!