When did the cinema become television?

Has the influence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe turned mainstream cinema into a succession of never-ending big screen television shows? We look at the rise of movie franchises and the death of the standalone movie

Feature by John Bleasdale | 08 May 2017

I'm on my way to see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. I liked the pilot episode so I’m going to stick with the show; see if it can keep it going. It’s got Chris Pratt in it from Parks and Recreation. He’s in that new Jurassic show as well. Not the old one. The Next Generation one. So I drive to the cinema, buy my ticket, sit in my seat and watch commercials that I saw on the television this morning. Grumpily, I recall when cinema commercials were different from the ones on TV. Ki-Ora and Westler Hot Dogs (available in the foyer), along with the brilliant local adverts for Chinese restaurants with stock footage of people eating behind an aquarium and the promise that the restaurant was situated only “500 yards from this cinema.” Even the Pearl and Dean intro got the old popcorn-and-a-big-bag-of-Maltesers cinema vibe going.

Of course, these were the good old days when cinemas had swishy curtains in front of the screen and they sold choc ices in the aisle after the short.

Nowadays we get the same soft drinks, car, bank, beer and insurance adverts as we do at home. There are even adverts for TV shows. It’s deeply wrong. Like a church flogging Richard Dawkins’ books before the service. And the food has got stupid. People are eating platters of microwaved nonsense. With the digital look and kitchen smells, the cinema resembles a less comfortable version of my living room, but one which I have to drive to and share with strangers.

Big budget mainstream cinema has become TV

Thor: Ragnarok, part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

But the main problem is what is on the screen. Big budget mainstream cinema has become TV. Films are no longer movies that stand on their own, but episodes in larger franchises. As they open they need to pick up the threads from the previous installments and leave the story open at the end, and this is seriously screwing up narrative. The story of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was so perfunctory and slight, it could have been a Friends episode: “The one where Star-Lord has an embarrassing visit from his long-lost father.” Yes, it’s fun and entertaining, but it was an installment of a show. And there are a whole raft of them coming up. There’s the new Alien show this week; Thor, Wonder Woman, Transformers, Spider-Man, Planet of the Apes, The Mummy and Pirates of the Caribbean all have new episodes dropping this Summer. Christmas is great because there’s always a Star Wars Christmas Special. Star Wars has essentially become the new Downton Abbey.

Partly this is the influence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is currently metastasizing on streaming television with Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and Luke Cage all coagulating into The Defenders. It’s only a matter of time before the Marvel TV Universe fights the Marvel Cinematic Universe, before realizing their mothers share the same name. (Readers wanting to tell me that’s a reference to the DC Extended Universe, please do so in the comments box below). One might be forgiven for wanting to see a film about this universe. You know, the one in which we actually live. Looking at the coming year’s big budget releases, Christopher Nolan – formerly of the Batman show – stands out like a unicorn’s thumb in presenting a movie, Dunkirk, that’s not part of some larger arc or based on a Stephen King novel.

TV is looking more like cinema

Fargo on the small screen

Some might argue that cinema is looking like television because television is increasingly looking like cinema? The firewall separating small screen actors from the big screen was beginning to come down with George Clooney making the leap from ER, but then actors and directors began to go back. With the Second Golden Age of Television, an exodus of serious directors turned to episodic television – Mike Figgis directed episodes of The Sopranos, Martin Scorsese made Boardwalk Empire, and Steven Soderbergh The Knick. Woody Allen did something no one saw for Amazon. Apparently you only have to touch the hem of Steven Spielberg’s baseball cap and he gets an Executive Producer credit on your TV show.

More recently, whole movies have been put in the TV/streaming service sausage machine. Fargo, 12 Monkeys, Hannibal, Westworld, Minority Report and Bates Motel have all successfully made the move with another 44 conversions reportedly in the pipeline. This cross-fertilisation has always taken place: Planet of the Apes was a book, then a movie, then sequels, then a TV show and now is another movie franchise. Even Casablanca got a TV show in the 80s starring David Soul. But today the sheer quantity is boggling and there’s a genuine risk that our culture will become a Byzantine hall of mirrors of perpetual self-reference, retro-repetition and meta-indulgence. In the meantime, story will come third to world building and fan service.

As Guardians of the Galaxy finishes everyone in the cinema stays until the end, programmed to expect the post-credits “Easter Eggs”. Just like the “...next week on The Fall Guy…” type preview. The characters dance during the crawl, one of whom – Jeff Goldblum – wasn’t even in the movie, but it doesn’t matter: he’s in a show on the same channel.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is in cinemas now. The Defenders comes to Netflix 18 Aug. If you can tell the difference, let us know

Follow John Bleasdale on Twitter at @drjonty