Franchises, Sequels, and Episodes: When Is a Movie Not a Movie?

Harry Potter Collage

Back in 2010, Kenneth Turan began his review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows–Part 1 like this: “What’s the latest Harry Potter film like? If you’ve seen the previous six, you already know. If you haven’t there’s no point in trying to catch up now.” He was articulating a challenge many movie critics of this and the other Harry Potter movies faced when writing their reviews: am I reviewing just this particular movie, or the entire series? It’s a question that automatically leads to others: is it okay for a movie to assume you’ve already seen the other movies in the series? Is a movie that can “stand on its own” better than a movie that requires prior knowledge of other movies? Most fundamentally, is a movie like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—Part 1 a movie like other movies, or does that “Part 1” mean we are dealing with a different kind of movie, and what does that say about how we understand the history of the movies?

Which one of us is the main character?
Which one of us is the main character?

As movie franchises—the Marvel comics universe; the rebooted Star Wars; movies ever Faster and more Furious–have become increasingly central to the mainstream American movie industry, these questions will only become more persistent for students and scholars of the movies. In fact, these questions are really as old as American cinema, and they speak to the relationship between the movies and literature on the one hand and the movies and television on the other. The question of “what exactly is a movie?”—a self-contained visual narrative viewed in a single sitting? a gradually unfolding plot that stretches across several individual viewing experiences to make a whole?—has its antecedent in the question, “what is a novel?”

The Harry Potter series is an obvious example. Turan’s warning about Deathly Hallows—Part 1 applies to each of the novels in J.K. Rowling’s seven-part saga save for the first, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone. When that first novel was published in 1997 (it’s hard to believe now there was a time before Harry Potter!), there were no guarantees that the book would be successful enough to allow Rowling to continue the story arc she had already been planning. We all know what happened, of course, and anticipation of the next installment in the Potter series inspired a worldwide cultural ritual of midnight parties at bookstores attended by costumed readers eager to get the next volume and find out what happens next to Harry and his friends.

In this, Potterites were continuing a tradition of fandom that stretches back into the 19th century, when popular novels by writers like Charles Dickens and Harriett Beecher Stowe were first released on an episode –by-episode basis in magazines, with the final complete “novel” only published as a whole at the conclusion. The use of chapters as a structuring device in novels likewise suggests that a single book can also be viewed as a collection of smaller narratives, a possibility deliberately exploited by writers like Sherwood Anderson in his novel/short story collection Winesburg, Ohio (1919) and James Joyce in his high concept experimental novel Ulysses (1922).

Charles Dickens published his own magazines featuring serialized novels
Charles Dickens published his own magazines featuring serialized novels

Both Winesburg, Ohio and Ulysses were written and published when the movies were becoming the dominant narrative form around the world, and in the nickelodeons and movie palaces, arguments were developing around the same question of movies as stand-alone stories or movies as episodes in a larger narrative. The first decades of American cinema saw many “movies” identified more by recurring characters and types of story than as unique stories. The great silent era comedians like Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton first appeared in short (ten to twenty minute) movies featuring their trademark characters of Chaplin’s Little Tramp or Keaton’s deadpan knockabout in a pork pie hat. The same is true of the “Keystone Kops,” Laurel and Hardy and, in the sound era, the Three Stooges. When Chaplin and Keaton branched out into feature films with distinct narratives and themes, such as The Gold Rush (1925) or The General (1926), they had to accommodate these iconic characters into more individuated plot roles.

At the same time in cinema history, the movies were trying to compete with literature and the stage for cultural respectability, and increasingly this meant imitating the growing emphasis on the distinct work of art as a signifier of high cultural achievement. Just as literature was becoming divided into “popular” stories appearing in mass-market magazines versus “prestige” literary publication, the movies had developed its own version of episodic storytelling with serials like The Perils of Pauline or The Girl Detective. These movies were designed to keep viewers coming back week after week, each episode ending in a cliffhanger aimed at stoking suspense. This serial format became the basis for radio and later television programming, but already in the teens a cultural logic was developing that positioned these serials as “less serious”—and more to the point, less an example of a true “movie”—than two hour plus features like D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) or Lois Weber’s Hypocrites (1915).

Yet the movie serial persisted as a popular screen experience really until television began dominating the market for serial narratives in the 1950s. In fact, you can make a strong case that the Saturday afternoon matinees of the 1930s and 1940s were as typical a form of the movies if not more so than attendance at single screenings of feature films. Even as the serial remade itself in the form of episodic television, however, some of the old prejudices followed into the new medium. In terms of perceived prestige and cultural worth, early networks promoted their live anthology series like Playhouse 90 and The Philco Television Playhouse, which featured a stand-alone individual story each week, often taken from the stage, a site of cultural respectability echoed in the use of the term “Playhouse.”

As happened with the serial publication of literature earlier and the silent movie serials, television series featuring a serial format, from early crime shows like Dragnet to sitcoms like I Love Lucy and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriett, were derided as formulaic and predictable, each episode following a regular pattern and format. It’s important to keep in mind that seeing a formula as negative is a particular, historical cultural judgment, not a matter of fact. Again, the plots of writers like Dickens followed formulas dictated by their original serial publication. Yet the prejudice against the series form persisted, even as television began differentiating between what Jane Feuer has identified as “quality” episodic television (think All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and lesser fare (think Bewitched and Gilligan’s Island).

The last twenty years, however, have turned many of these distinctions topsy-turvy. What had started in the American cinema of the 1970s and 1980s as the trend toward sequels (adding a number after the title of a popular movie) has turned into the franchise movie. Neither The Avengers nor X-Men series use numbers, and they operate more as episodes than as sequels. Each movie in the franchise participates in a larger narrative universe, and each raises the question of whether, for example, you need to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) before you go to Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). Disney and Marvel are trying to further blur the episode/stand-alone movie question with the concurrent television series Marvel’s Agents of Shield, a weekly show on ABC that likewise connects to its cinematic cousins.

With the development of cable, premium cable, and now over-the-top streaming services that allow for “binge watching,” television is exploding what we mean by a “series” or episodic television. A series like Orange is the New Black is organized into “seasons,” yet each season provides its own overarching story arc, into which individual “episodes” act as chapters. It’s a development foreshadowed in earlier network programs like The X-Files which combined conventional, self-contained episodes with a multi-episode and multi-season conspiracy story.

Now, “episodic” series such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad stand as the epitome of artistic prestige for television. At the same time, the physical distinction between the big screen and the small screen continues to erode, as more and more “movie” watching occurs on the same screen as “television” viewing. As these media borders become ever murkier, maybe it’s time to consider whether we might start thinking of the movie franchise the same way we think of the television show. Critics refer to The Wire or The Walking Dead as if the series as a whole is the primary individual unit, each episode and even “season” comparable to chapters in a book. Again, this development has been operating in literature for awhile; Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings are obvious fantasy examples, but we can think back to how “Sherlock Holmes” has long referred to a larger coherent narrative universe that contains the individual units of the Conan Doyle stories and novels.

What would it mean, from this point of view, to consider The Avengers as the primary unit, with each movie a “chapter”? The media theorist Henry Jenkins developed the concept of “transmedia storytelling” to describe how to approach a narrative such as the Harry Potter universe, which includes not just novels and movies but video games, theme parks, and other forms of consumer experience. With this term, Jenkins means to go beyond the older idea of the “franchise” or episodic television to express the multimedia nature of contemporary digital culture. But it’s not as if we’ve solved the problem of how to talk about franchises, sequels, and episodes. Maybe transmedia storytelling can also serve as another tool to help us make sense of “when is a movie not a movie”? It may even lead us to question whether what we think of as a movie even exists!