Faux Continuity: How movies use the concept of an on-going story or future events to sell you the ne

Continuity is a funny thing. On the one hand it can enhance an audience’s experience, assuming of course that they’re familiar with the continuity already, and allow for a more expansive and complete story. Something that might otherwise feel unnecessary or even cynical in the world of Hollywood cash grabs can be made into a must-watch piece of a larger puzzle with continuity’s help.

Something like the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, for example, becomes a full story in its own right – at least to a point – thanks to recurring characters and plot threads, whereas Friday the 13th, although adhering to certain pieces of ongoing storytelling, remains much closer to a series of standalone entries.

Of course, in terms of continuing franchises, continuity can become something of a curse, as well. The Alien franchise has never really managed to succeed without the presence of Ripley, despite various attempts to tie things into the ongoing larger narrative with the likes of Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, while more recently the Star Wars franchise, at least in the form of the main series, practically destroyed itself and its own ongoing arc in a desperate ploy to connect itself so intricately with what had come before.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe, meanwhile, seem to have found a way to utilize the promise of continuity between entries to ensure a continued audience. The connectivity of the films in the MCU are its real draw, with fans not daring to miss the next piece of the puzzle in case it should happen to turn out to be an important piece later down the line…

Of course, later down the line will almost never come – at least not really. In 2008 we were told that The Avengers would assemble. Then, in 2010, with the release of Iron Man 2, we were told that, once again, The Avengers would assemble. In 2011 both Thor and Captain America arrived to inform us all that… yes, The Avengers would assemble, but it wasn’t until 2012, a full five years after the initial promise, that we were finally presented with the assembled Avengers, at which point we were promptly teased with the prospect that, well, Thanos is coming and so… um… The Avenge will assemble. Again.

As we all know now, Thanos wouldn’t arrive until 2018, and during seven-year period every film the studio dropped featured some sort of suggestion of something that might prove important later down the line. And, of course, Endgame, the culmination of all these different puzzle pieces, was no different, it came and went, and with it remained carefully placed hints to future projects; Loki, Gamora, a new Captain America… and so on.

Now, look, I’m not complaining. The MCU, at least that initial run, is some of the most impressive, experimental big-budget cinema we’ve ever had, and for the most part it works. I’m just say that eventually the allure of something happening “later” gets kind of dull. Eventually, it’s gotta happen.

Just ask the creators of Lost, who answered every question with four more questions, or Steven Moffat during his time as showrunner of Doctor Who, who thought the best way to tell a compelling story was to have only the hints of story littered throughout a series… what’s the crack in the wall? Turns out it was the TARDIS exploding. Why’d the TARDIS explode? Turns out it was The Silence. What’s The Silence? And so on, and so on, and so on, until you kind of loose the will to live…

Or, like, just stop watching.

Of course, these hints and nods and teases are deliberately vague so as to get audiences intrigued, but also so as to not intrude too much should the future project not happen and also not impact whoever takes on the project too much. You look at the likes of The Conjuring 2, for example, and we can see these little extra characters who, while creepy and interesting, really don’t need to be there. The Enfield Haunting story is creepy enough, and that movie is at its best when it isn’t trying to sell me a whole other idea.

I think my frustration with this is born out of the fact that impacts the movie I’m watching, as well. The Conjuring is a fine example, because in the first film we had Annabelle. But while Annabelle served a clear plot purpose as our way into the world of the Warrens in that movie before we then headed off to the house and the main story, in The Conjuring 2 The Crooked Man and The Nun sort of get in the way of the actual movie I wanted to watch.

See, the problem here is that these things aren’t really continuity in the sense that the plot continues and evolves. In the MCU, the real continuity comes from the characters and their arcs, and there isn’t much in the way of “plot” continuity. And while even the character stuff is a little shaky here and there (Steve and Tony don’t ever really seem to like each other, yet in Civil War we’re supposed to treat it like it’s best friends falling out) it does exist and is, for the most part, consistent. It’s just… that’s not what becomes the focus.

In terms of the ongoing narrative of the MCU, from his initial appearance in 2012’s The Avengers up to his first proper appearance in Infinity War, you could pretty much cut out every moment of Thanos and still have everything make sense. Guardians of the Galaxy perhaps poses the biggest problem there, and even then, it isn’t much. His presence has little to no effect on the ongoing story as seen through the characters we’re following and is there solely for the audience’s sake.

It’s like a sort of protracted, teasing version of Benedict Cumberbatch announcing his name is Kahn in Star Trek Into Darkness. It means nothing to Kirk and Spock, so the musical sting and forced tension of the scene exists only so the people watch who do know who Kahn is can go “Ohhhhhhh”.

And they’re probably not even doing that because everyone guessed that “twist” anyway.

The point is, this kind of everlasting, continuous teasing, non-continuity is really starting to grate on me. It doesn’t have the same effect as, say, the killer at the end of the slasher movie suddenly being alive again, because there’s a sort of knowing absurdity in that and the next movie will probably either ignore those final moments entirely (Dream Warriors), offer and absurd explanation of it (Dream Master) or straight up just tell its own story (Freddy’s Revenge) anyway.

It’s almost as if the marketing campaign has now infected the movie narrative. Star Wars is a big offender here - Lando and Jannah are off to explore in The Rise of Skywalker, Darth Maul is alive at the end of Solo – but it’s not the only one. James Bond has pointless hints to further connectivity wormed into his newer movies, while every single superhero movie has started to do it more and more.

Hidden under the guise of fan-service, these commercials for potential future projects take me out of the movie. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’s literal teaser trailer scene is perhaps the most obvious, but every single time there is some suggestion toward another adventure, or some unconnected piece of backstory, I find myself immediately snapped out of the story.

I don’t have a problem with a little sting at the end of the movie, or Marvel’s iconic End Credit scenes, but when it starts punching its way into the movie proper, I find myself becoming frustrated. I’m not watching a movie because I want to be intrigued for future movies, I will be intrigued if I enjoy the one I’m watching. Focus on making a good film, not hinting and some potential good film at some point later.

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© Alex Secker 2018