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Today, everyone’s favorite wall-crawler swings back into theaters courtesy of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, a film that, when it’s not overstuffing itself with laughably corny villains—is Jamie Foxx’s pre-Electro bumbling-nerd routine a deliberate or unintentional joke?—spends endless time on elaborate conspiracies aimed at setting up future sequels. Those won’t just be about Spider-Man himself, but about a cabal of baddies known as The Sinister Six, who are teased in a cell-phone-only end-credits stinger. They're part of Sony’s larger plan to create a vast Spider-Man-centric universe on par with Marvel’s Avengers and Fox’s X-Men franchises.
It’s a strategy that all three studios have employed to sizeable box-office receipts. And yet, as suggested by AS2 (and, to a lesser extent, last month’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier), it’s also a tack that increasingly does the opposite of what it intends. Rather than making each film feel like part of an expansive epic world, this inter-connectivity instead turns each saga small and inconsequential, more weighed down by its obligations than enlivened by them.
By stringing together its various properties, Marvel, Sony and Fox aim to mimic their comic-book (and TV) brethren, fashioning serialized tales in which each film is merely a single episode in a grander overarching narrative. And it’s an approach that Warner Bros. and DC are embracing with their upcoming Superman Vs. Batman sequel, which will lead into 2018’s superhero-team Justice League film. On the one hand, it’s a shrewd strategy, given long-form television dramas’ current popularity and clout in the pop culture landscape. On the other, though, it seems to ignore the fact that this very line of attack has over the years marginalized superhero comics, since their long-winded mythologies and endless crossovers have made them impenetrable to all but loyal die-hards.
Such is the escalating case with studios’ superhero blockbusters. Marvel’s success has hinged on its ability to hint at (through post-credits stingers), and then thrillingly pull off, an Avengers film that unites its Iron Man, Thor, Hulk and Captain America series. Marvel is full swing into their so-called “Phase Two”—corporate-speak for this round of second and third sequels, a TV show (ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), and a new franchise (Guardians of the Galaxy) that will build to next summer’s Avengers sequel. Yet the entire endeavor feels overly knotty and unwieldy. In order for the casual moviegoer to be capable of fully enjoying, or even understanding, Avengers: Age of Ultron, one needs knowledge of not just the first Avengers film but various other movies too.
Admittedly, Marvel’s films do their best to operate on their own merits while simultaneously connecting themselves to a bigger storyline. However, since Marvel’s characters are developed across multiple vehicles, it’s hard to see how anyone can coherently process (much less appreciate), say, Captain America’s personal and professional difficulties adjusting to his new present-day circumstances without having first seen Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers, as well as having at least passing knowledge of what’s going on with Thor and Iron Man.
A similar issue plagues the rebooted The Amazing Spider-Man series, whose second installment spends an inordinate amount of time laying the groundwork for conflicts that will be dealt with later via sequels and spin-offs. The cost of that franchise-building is to make Spidey’s sophomore adventure feel hopelessly scattered between various points of interest, all of which predictably get short shrift. From its Sinister Six allusions and battles involving three different adversaries, to Peter Parker’s sleuthing and romance with Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy, it’s a film undone by being a servant to too many masters.
One hopes the same fate won’t befall this month’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, though given the precedent set by Marvel and Sony, there’s reason to be concerned that Fox’s own attempt at melding different series (in this case, the old-guard X-Men and the rebooted young-pup prequel X-Men: First Class) will similarly be too busy referencing prior works and foreshadowing sequels to actually create a worthwhile stand-alone saga. What is known is that continuity problems between the studios’ superhero universes are forthcoming. The character Quicksilver, for example, is set to appear in both Fox’s Days of Future Past and Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, played by different actors (Evan Peters and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, respectively), and with different backstories to help avoid thorny rights issues.
That mess is part and parcel of this new movie universe, in which ever-expanding franchises begin stumbling into each other, confusing viewers who need tutorials to help understand why Quicksilver is a silver-haired mutant in one series (X-Men) and an institutionalized super-wacko in another (Avengers: Age of Ultron). Or, for that matter, why Mark Ruffalo is now the Hulk (Wasn’t that Eric Bana? Or, wait, I mean Edward Norton?), and Andrew Garfield is suddenly Spidey (wither Tobey Maguire?). By reconfiguring and/or tying themselves together in all of these different ways, modern superhero films render themselves at once overly important—if you miss one, you won’t be properly “caught up”—and somewhat trivial, because they’re just minor parts in a far more major whole.
Whether that will eventually lead to audience exhaustion and apathy remains to be seen. Studios can, at least for now, point to healthy profits as proof that their plan is still working. Nonetheless, as yet another summer season of movie universe-centric action kicks into gear, it’s difficult to survey this landscape of convoluted comic serials and their tangled, “easter egg”-peppered tales and not pine for an earlier era—any era!—in which escapist superhero adventures didn’t require Wikipedia consultations beforehand.
Nick Schager is a film critic who's contributed to The Dissolve, Esquire, and The Atlantic, among numerous other publications. He tweets here.