This is Part 1 of a series on the evolution of screen storytelling in the age of "content." To read Part 2, click here.
"Avengers: Endgame" is not just the culmination of the 22-movie Marvel Cinematic Universe. It also represents the decisive defeat of "cinema" by "content."
The word refers to a piece of entertainment that can be delivered any number of ways, and that's defined less by its story, characters, source material, or presentational medium (cinema or TV) than by its brand identity (Marvel), its corporate parentage (Disney), and its ability to get hundreds of millions of people talking about it all at once, inducing such a state of excitement that they'll implicitly threaten harm against anyone who "spoils" the movie by discussing anything besides how much they loved it. (In one case, the threat was more than implicit: a Hong Kong moviegoer was beaten up outside a theater showing "Endgame" for loudly discussing plot details.) What we're seeing onscreen as we watch Captain America and Iron Man and the Hulk and Captain Marvel undo galactic genocide and destroy Thanos isn't merely a superhero battle for the ages, but a seismic cultural event. It marks the end of one era and the birth of another.
The film's official release date, April 26, 2019, is a timeline marker. It's as big a deal as 2013 when Netflix released its first original series by a big-name filmmaker, "House of Cards," and showed that it could compete with traditional TV providers like HBO, Showtime, AMC, and the broadcast networks; 2009, when "Avatar," a digital-only 3-D epic, was released, spurring cinemas all over the world to junk their 35mm projectors and install digital projectors so they could show it; 1997, when "Titanic" set new standards for computer-rendered effects; and 1975, when the original "Jaws" was released simultaneously on 500 screens, a then-unprecedented number, and went on to become both the top-grossing film of all time (up to that point) and the first clear example of what we now think of as as a "summer blockbuster."
We all knew that things were changing, with Internet-driven culture absorbing traditional and clearly delineated media like movies, broadcast and cable networks, recorded music, books, magazines, and newspapers, and treating them as various flavors of "content," offered via "delivery systems" and "platforms."
But it wasn't always easy to see exactly how things were changing, or what the distant future might look like.
This weekend saw the release of "Endgame" and the premiere of "The Long Night," the longest and biggest episode of "Game of Thrones," the most lavishly produced fantasy series in TV history, and one of the last series that people watch as a group, episode by episode, week by week, experiencing big moments as a single unified audience. One is a movie experience that takes many of its stylistic cues from television. The other is a television experience that strives to be thought of as cinematic. Both are mega-entertainments that are meant to be experienced on the largest screen possible (theatrical or home) in the presence of others. Both will ultimately be viewed on the handheld device that (according to our own statistics) 65% of you are using to read this essay. They're just two more pieces in the content stream, bigger and shinier than all others, but ultimately things to discuss on social media, bond over, and quickly move beyond. The state of the art.
This is it.
This is where it was all leading, whether we realized it or not.
Before we get any deeper into the weeds, I need to distinguish between the actual product, i.e. the movie, called “Endgame” and the immense digital-industrial-marketing apparatus that surrounds it and pushes it forward through the culture.
They're two different but (obviously) related things, but having issues with the context of "Endgame" is different from having issues with "Endgame." I liked the movie, or the installment, or the climax, or whatever we're deciding to call this thing, a lot. "Endgame" itself is a heartfelt and satisfying experience, mixing affecting character moments and laugh-out-loud comedy with giant-scaled action sequences that spotlight dozens of established characters (the final battle is a splash panel come to life). I confess to going into it with folded arms. I disliked "Infinity War" (too crowded, too rushed and yet too long, too Thanos-centric for my taste). And I'd been somewhat entertained but generally unimpressed by most of the other MCU movies, except for "Black Panther" and "Ant Man," the first "Iron Man" and "Guardians," and the first two-thirds of "Winter Soldier" and "Thor Ragnarok." (The casts generally deserved better than the writers and directors they were saddled with.) But I was won over by the surprisingly relaxed, character-driven, self-aware yet sincere comedy that dominates two-thirds of this one. Much of the script suggests a laid-back Richard Linklater movie with superheroes, all hanging out and dealing with their PTSD, or maybe a very long episode of "Community," the NBC show that spawned the Russo Brothers, the MVPs of the MCU.
I was also struck by how "Endgame" feels like a formal ending for the MCU itself—at least as we've known it since 2008, when "Iron Man" reinvented both Robert Downey, Jr.'s career and the comic book film at the same time. It's hard to imagine subsequent MCU features, even gigantic ones, exceeding "Endgame" in impact, because no matter how huge and shiny and hyped they are, they won't be first, and they won't feel new.
Like the rest of the MCU series, "Endgame" was produced by Marvel Studios and overseen by producer Kevin Feige, who deserves to be included in the pantheon of truly creative movie producers—a short list that includes Irving Thalberg, David O. Selznick, Roger Corman, William Castle, and Steven Spielberg. In the end, the MCU is as much a triumph of marketing, money, and logistics as it is storytelling. But the storytelling side shines here, in what amounts to a vastly superior Part 2 to the Part 1 of of "The Avengers: Infinity War." Then again, maybe it's more correct to refer to "Endgame," as Part 4 of the Avengers cycle, but the fact that "Captain America: Civil War" feels more like a missing Avengers film than a Captain American movie muddies the waters. So does the way the MCU films alternate Everest-sized events ("Civil War" and the "Avengers" films) with slightly more modest peaks ("Thor: Ragnarok," "Captain America: Winter Soldier").
And that's not even getting into the issue of whether any of the MCU films are cinema in any traditional sense, or something more like a hybrid of film and TV. More the latter, probably. The MCU films wed the scale of theatrical blockbusters like "Titanic," "Gone with the Wind," and "The Ten Commandments" to the seriality of your favorite Netflix drama designed for maximum binge-ability, resulting in a TV series that releases a new "episode" every financial quarter that you have to leave home to see. (More than a few TV writers have already noted that the number of MCU installments, 22, is the standard season order for a TV show on a broadcast network.)
Meanwhile, over on HBO, the cliffhanger-dependent "Game of Thrones' has been attempting more or less the same thing, but from the opposite direction, releasing batches of TV episodes that cost about the same per-hour as one of the big-budget theatrical fantasies that clearly inspired its visuals (structurally, it feels like the "Lord of the Rings" and "Hobbit" trilogies and the Harry Potter franchise, but with "Excalibur" sex and violence). Showrunners love to tell reporters that they're "really" making X-hour-long movies, probably because, 20 years after the storytelling innovations of TV dramas like "The Sopranos," television is still carrying around an artistic inferiority complex left over from the 1970s, when American New Wave cinema was producing complex, challenging art, often on a huge scale, while broadcast networks were still forcing prime-time showrunners to use stock footage in action scenes, wrap up stories at the end of each hour, and regularly reassure the audience that the heroes were all decent at heart.
But one need only look at the likes of the MCU and "Game of Thrones" to see how blurry the distinctions between media have become. The walls that used to separate television and theatrical "film" (10 years after the industry-altering "Avatar," almost no one shoots movies on film anymore) have toppled like the Northern Wall that kept the ghouls out of Westeros.
The "content" label has swarmed in, and continues to assimilate every art form. Increasingly, media outlets that used to distinguish the between the two have shown signs of surrendering to the inevitable. The founder of this site started running articles about TV in the final years of his life, and RogerEbert.com now has a thriving television section, and reviews two-hour movies made for streaming services like Netflix and other streaming platforms (of varying budget levels) alongside $250 million Disney tentpole pictures. My other regular outlet, New York Magazine (and its arts website Vulture), brokered a peace agreement between the film and TV sections, which were having miniature turf wars over who should review movies that went directly to TV and streaming platforms—as well as epic nonfiction projects like "O.J.: Made in America" that were financed as TV programs, but tried to game the system to get film awards by screening in their entirety in a handful of cinemas. Now the rule is that, with some exceptions, anything that's a stand-alone feature gets reviewed by the movie critics.
This will increasingly become the practice as theaters become largely event-driven spaces, pushing anything below a certain budget threshold to Amazon, Netflix, iTunes, Vimeo, etc. In the future, media organizations might have to do away with the "film" and "TV" tags entirely, if indeed there are media organizations as we currently think of them.
This is what Steven Spielberg has really been beefing with Netflix about: the preservation of the theatrical experience, and of the idea of "cinema," and distinctions between art forms, in an age of "content" that streams along in the same digital river. Whether Spielberg's desire is even realistic is an open question. Based on my own experience chronicling both art forms, I'm increasingly convinced that film and TV started merging a long time ago, before most of us were aware of what was going on.
Some of us have accepted the change. Others are in denial about it. But as my grandfather used to say, there's no point trying to close the barn doors after the horses have already escaped.
"Game of Thrones" is defiantly and proudly a TV show. But it wears its cinematic bigness—and its willingness to make even its "good" characters nasty—like a Dothraki rocking a suit of armor festooned with the bones and teeth of enemies he's slain. The MCU in contrast, is making movies starring characters who make mistakes and grapple with personal demons and PTSD, but are ultimately no more disturbing or challenging than the ones that used to populate high-end network dramas like "ER," "Lou Grant" and "M*A*S*H." (Like the characters in the "Star Wars" films, they're meant to resonate with adults but be comprehensible to children.) I don't think it's a coincidence that "Game of Thrones" has experimented with showing episodes in theaters, or that the MCU has (until recently) tried to build out a collection of TV shows running adjacent to the movie franchise and affirming that they're part of the same universe. (Both "Agents of "S.H.I.E.L.D" and the now-defunct Netflix/Marvel dramas regularly referred to the Battle of New York depicted in the first "Avengers.")
Further down the road, the MCU films will become the jewel in the crown of Disney+, a juggernaut subscription streaming service created by Marvel Studio's parent company: Ghidorah challenging Netflix's Godzilla for the title of King of the Monsters. When it launches, Disney+ will become the exclusive place to watch Marvel films as part of a "free" (with monthly subscription) library, though you'll still be able to rent or buy the individual titles elsewhere.
Once existing contracts with other "content providers" run out, this same service will become the "library" home of Pixar and Disney animated films, all of the "Star Wars" movies and TV series, and everything produced by 20th Century Fox for theaters, broadcast TV, and cable. The latter will include all of Fox's Marvel films, such as "Deadpool" and "Logan"; the "Predator," "Alien" and "Die Hard" franchises; all of "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy"; "The X-Files" series and movies; and every acclaimed mid-budget film released by the now-shuttered mid-budget division Fox 2000.
In effect, Disney+ will become the content library version of the final battle in "Endgame," or the first big chase sequence in the pop culture-saturated "Ready Player One" (which conspicuously was not allowed to include Disney-owned characters), where there are so many recognizable characters, or creatures, or robots, or "properties" onscreen at the same time, filling every pixel of the image from foreground to deep background, that it's impossible to process it all in real time. You have to freeze-frame it and shuttle through it rectangle by rectangle, like a Netflix menu. And even then, you might succumb to choice paralysis. So many icons, so little time.
Most of the predictions that RogerEbert.com contributor Godfrey Cheshire wrote two decades ago in his landmark essays "The Death of Film" and "The Decay of Cinema" have come to pass, though not in exactly the manner he predicted. But a big one is the idea that "movies after the 20th century will have neither the esthetic singularity nor the cultural centrality that they presently enjoy."
Godfrey was always insistent that, notwithstanding the bigness of its images, sound effects and music, the phenomenon that was the original "Star Wars" trilogy owed more to television than to any of the high points of 1970s theatrical cinema that preceded it. With four decades of hindsight, and a solid decade-plus of the MCU-ing of cinema, it's impossible to deny how right he was. The "Death" essays elaborated on that idea, in ways that resonate even more strongly today.
Notwithstanding the occasional outlier, such as the theatrical version of Stephen King's "It" and Jordan Peele's first two movies, television series, and streaming, serialized entertainment generally, have been at the center of cultural conversation for at least ten years, perhaps longer. The only movies that have rivaled the biggest TV series as mass-culture events are ones that have certain obvious, TV-like properties, and exploit them brilliantly. The big ones are the MCU and DCEU films, the Disney-era "Star Wars" films, and to a lesser extent, the 21st century kaiju extravaganzas kicked off by the 2013 "Godzilla." ("King Kong Skull Island" and "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" followed, and the entire franchise is building towards "King Kong vs. Godzilla," the kaiju answer to Thanos vs. The Avengers.)
Whether what's truly being aped here is television, the theatrical cliffhangers of the 1940s and '50s, the serialized fiction of Charles Dickens and other 19th century magazine writers, or comic books and comic strips is ultimately a distinction without a difference. They're all manifestations of the same commercial/artistic impulse, to keep audiences on the hook, constantly craving dopamine rush that comes with narrative closure, even when it proves to be temporary, just a setup for the next cliffhanger. The takeaway here should be that television and cinema have merged into the endless, insatiable content stream, and the biggest, baddest examples of image-driven entertainment—the works that have the power to unite large sections of an otherwise fragmented society—are the ones that are more reminiscent of television as we've always known it.
These make a much stronger impression on the public than cinema comprised of feature films that are approximately 90 minutes to three hours long, that have their own freestanding narrative and stylistic integrity, and that are meant to be contemplated as freestanding objects, even when (as in the case of, say, the "Godfather" or "Alien" movies) they are part of an ongoing series. Those kinds of entertainments now seem like a blip in the continuum.
The serialized entertainment machines are the old thing that's become new again, thanks to advances in technology and promotion. Their buzzworthiness is driven by casting announcements (Joaquin Phoenix as the next Joker!) and marketing-determined teases and carefully timed "reveals" or "previews" (of slightly altered versions of things we've already seen, like Batman's cowl or a "Star Wars" hero's lightsaber or Ghidorah's lightning breath or the face of 007 or Dr. Who) and narrative "secrets" that are so primordially basic that they have a life apart from any function that they serve in the actual story of the property being sold.
In that last category, the biggest attention-getter is the question of who will live and who will die in a given installment of a mega-entertainment property. This is what preoccupied fans of both "Endgame" and "Game of Thrones" this past weekend, and it drives both "Walking Dead" shows on AMC as well. (A few seasons back, the original-recipe "Walking Dead" built a national advertising campaign around the question of which of the major characters would get their brains beat in with a spiked bat by the show's new human bad guy.)
The shock of an unexpected death, or a story-altering twist, is a magnified version of the dopamine hit that we get every time we refresh Twitter or Facebook or Instagram to see if there are new likes or faves there, or (god forbid) a spoiler. Compared to that, the excitement of seeing a different kind of blockbuster—one that is meant to stand along as a statement of one kind or another, whether it's "Lawrence of Arabia," "Fatal Attraction," "Titanic" or "Dunkirk"—can't help but seem small in comparison, because once you've experienced the thing, there's no more thing to experience. There are no teasers, no stingers, no reveals of the next installment. The thing is what it is. Or was what it was. All you have to look forward to after you've seen it are your own thoughts, and perhaps discussions with people who also watched it. I mean really watched it. Not half-watched it while checking Instagram.
Is there still a place in mass culture for that kind of entertainment?
For now, yeah, kind of.
But probably not in the long run, except as a knowingly retro experience—the audiovisual equivalent of writing a sonnet, or painting with a brush and watercolor. And examples of it won't have the cachet of the latest MCU or "Star Wars" or "Toy Story" movie. Art house cinemas (which have a business built around stand-alone, non-tentpole features) are struggling to stay open, and their proprietors face increasingly old crowds that aren't being replaced by younger viewers.Theaters generally are on what an exhibitor friend of mine bitterly referred to as "Disney life support." Forty percent of domestic box office receipts come from that one studio, most of its business is based around serialized, mega-expensive, dopamine-hit franchises. Now that Fox and all of its subsidiaries have been absorbed by Disney, and now the studio has a streaming service to feed (an insatiable beast, like a baby dragon), we can expect that percentage to increase. We can also expect Disney to favor Fox properties that are internationally salable, endlessly franchise-able, social media-responsive. Expect more films like "Predator" and "Alien" than Fox hits like "Broadcast News," "Hidden Figures" and "Gone Girl." Dopamine rules.
It gives me no pleasure to write any of this, having come up in what retrospectively seems like the death throes of an older culture, only to enter a spectacular and in some ways unnerving new one. Sometimes it feels as if I'm chronicling the things I love as they take their sweet time fading to black.
But I can also honestly say that, at this point, I'm more curious than apprehensive about what the future will bring. This is the kind of cultural moment that people tell their grandkids and great-nephews and nieces about. Whether the tone of the remembrance is sad or wondrous depends on who's telling it, but tell it they will, because it's happening, right now, to all of us. It's not often that you get to watch the complete transformation and eventual fusion of two art forms, the transformation of art and entertainment itself, and the technology that supplies and defines it.
This is really, really big.
I love the ritual of visiting a movie theater and seeing many different kinds of features, not just the latest installments of tentpole blockbusters. It makes me sad whenever I drive past the husk of what used to be a second-run or drive-in movie theater, or any kind of movie theater. It bothers me that a film like "Endgame," wonderful as it is, takes up 12% of all screens in the United States, while the latest movies by Terry Gilliam and Claire Denis are struggling to find any screens at all. And I love the ritual of watching episodic series at the rate of one installment a week, and enjoying that electrifying feeling of knowing that millions of people experienced at the same time I did (the home version of the theatrical experience). Streaming an entire season of a show at my own pace can be satisfying in its own way, but it will necessarily feel more solitary and less thrilling than watching an episode at a time in the company of millions of strangers on the Internet, or a few people gathered around a TV in your living room. I'll miss the collective buzz that comes from experiencing television and cinema the old-fashioned way, as television and cinema, not as content.
But everything dies, and something else always takes its place. Something new. Contrary to the fantasies of both "Endgame" and "Game of Thrones," you can't bring back the dead. You can only move forward in time, keep your mind open while the next thing reveals itself, and note milestones as they happen.