A little more than a year and a half after having its title revealed to a rapt crowd at Comic-Con, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” finally opens this weekend, which means by Monday, it will be time to start looking forward to release of “Ant-Man.” (July 17 — book your tickets now.) With the Marvel Cinematic Universe claiming release-date real estate into 2019, other studios followed suit: Warner Bros. and DC laid out their plans for a series of interlocking comic-book movies — although their master plan isn’t proceeding nearly as smoothly — and Disney produced its own timeline, folding the Marvel movies into a slate of films that includes a new “Star Wars” trilogy and associated spinoffs, a sequel to its most recent version “Alice in Wonderland,” and live-action remakes of “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Jungle Book” and “Pete’s Dragon.”
What it amounts to, Calum Marsh writes in Canada’s National Post, is a culture where the buildup to a film becomes more important — or at least uses up more cultural oxygen — than the film itself. The movies, he says, become cogs in an “anticipation machine.”
Marvel movies aren’t the problem. What ought to alarm us about the studio’s five-year plan isn’t that in 2018 we’ll have to endure another “Avengers” film. The “Avengers” films are fine. What’s alarming is the climate of which the plan is symptomatic. We’ve come to prefer anticipation to reflection — to thinking idly about a film that’s coming soon than to thinking seriously about one that’s already out. Publications tease and rumour-monger rather than digest and analyze; release dates and casting decisions are more widely shared and read than actual criticism. If Chris Evans is interviewed tomorrow, he isn’t going to be asked much about the movie that’s in theaters today. Nobody cares about that. What we crave, insatiably, are intimations of the next thing: What can you tell us, Chris, about “Captain America 3”?
Marsh’s observation dovetails with what Matt Singer called “teaser culture,” where the end-credits “stingers” that the Marvel movies have made almost de rigueur are sometimes more exciting than the movies that precede them. (“Guardians of the Galaxy,” an MCU movie that seems to exist largely in a universe of its own, satirized the plot by dedicating its stinger to a cameo by Howard the Duck, a fond reference to the bad old days of ill-conceived Marvel adaptations.) If stoking that anticipation means making what’s apparently a major plot twist in “Terminator: Genisys” a centerpiece of the marketing campaign, so be it. As Forbes’ Scott Mendelson points out, the upcoming “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” will introduce not just Ben Affleck’s Batman and Gal Godot’s Wonder Woman, but “The Flash, Aquaman, possibly Cyborg, probably not Green Lantern, and the likes of Lex Luthor, Alfred Pennyworth, a couple other characters who I am not spoiling, and now probably Jared Leto’s Joker who was initially being saved for ‘Suicide Squad.'” He dubs it the “spill the whole toy box onto the floor” approach.
Foreknowledge doesn’t preclude anticipation: The CW series “The Flash” has taken a pointedly pro-spoiler approach to marketing, making post-credits scenes a regular occurrence and using commercials to tease the entire rest of the season rather than just the next episode. Less overtly, the show used character names and subtle references — a smashed name plate reading “Grodd” early in the run would mean nothing to non-aficionados — constantly pointing to what’s coming next. In a sense, that just puts the focus back where it should be, not on plot twists but on their execution; the question wasn’t whether Harrison Wells was the Reverse-Flash, but when and how Barry Allen and the rest of his crew would find out — a plot arc that, with a few bumpy stretches, the show has carved out beautifully. There’s plenty of joy in anticipation, but it’s important to make sure there’s something left when you get to the starting line.