The Death and ‘Rebirth’ of the Epic
A/N The Epic as an “Actual History” is mostly still dead (so far). Modern Epics as I’ll describe them are still understood as fictional. But there is clearly a return to longterm storytelling with a more spectacular and Oral episteme.
As the form had proven for millennia, there’s no story with greater appeal (or comprehensibility) across cultures, income, education and tastes than the classic epic. Fantastic scenes with captivating special effects work on audiences everywhere.Ball & Glick, the Marveliad
Matthew Ball is the former Head of Strategy at Amazon Studios, and is now a venture capitalist who specializes in interactive media. Jonathan Glick is an author on Medium and ReCode. They’ve been writing lately about Marvel’s Cinematic Universe as a cultural phenomenon.
The story Ball & Glick paint jives pretty well Nayar’s Before Literature: Modernity temporarily halted the continuity of the old oral epics. Early capitalism and the bourgeois virtues enabled a middle class “obsessed with education, attainment, and achievement”, which shifted narratives from the legendary quests towards mores realistic and personal stories.
Nayar promises in her forthcoming sequel to Before Literature (ostensibly called After Literature) to track a transformation that can be seen in early literature from the mythic to the personal. For their part, Ball & Glick point to Shakespeare’s Henriad as effectively epic, but Hamlet as the beginning of more interior writing.
Soon after, Cervantes’ Don Quixote turned the epic on its head as a parody of chivalric culture. His ‘hero’ is a delusional man who only thinks he is a hero. And John Milton’s Paradise Lost is an epic of Biblical Eden, yet it features the personal journey of an upwardly-mobile and surprisingly sympathetic Satan.Ball & Glick
Print media accelerates the trend. Writers develop more sophisticated language to describe the minds and thoughts of their characters. Performative theater also accepts and expands this frontier. The psychology of the self begins to take primacy, and the novel supersedes the epic. Ball & Glick reference Mikhael Bahktin’s Epic and Novel: Towards a Methodology for the Study of the Novel, where he outlines the novel as the exclusive tool to explore modern reality, vs the epic and its valorized and unreal past. This idea of seriousness being equated with character study has pulled seriously on the development of film.
This may be a case of pseudomorphosis, “Film After Novel”, serious film striving to take on the shape of the novel instead of seeking its own shape. Don’t get me started on “videogames and art”.
In film language, an “epic” tends to be about scope of cinematography, and is usually a bildungsroman or character study. It shares only some of the characteristics of the oral epics I’ve been describing lately.
Despite the increasing primacy of the novel form, the epic form existed in such a strong counterculture that calling it counter- doesn’t strike me as quite accurate. JRR Tolkien creates a world that fuels the biggest non-religious book of all time. CS Lewis also does spectacularly well with his magical epics. As they arrive as a phenomenon, comic books also begin to weave together as the post-war industry consolidates, with a hit-or-miss relationship with film audiences as the IP tries to break into cinema.
There are barriers to adoption of epic fantasy titles by the major film studios. Understandably, executives are wary about the huge production costs against the small core fanbases of these properties. Further, as I’ve mentioned above there is also cultural pressure to produce prestige artifacts- making something worthwhile meant exploring social reality and interiority.
George Lucas’ insane relationship with risk begins to change the equation, as he proves the appetite for big screen epics. Lucas further proves the viability of an interweaving ‘extended universe’ of novellas and comics that is sometimes attributed with saving Marvel during a vicious economic downturn. He explores special effects techniques to bring more affordable spectacle to audiences. Lucas is even prescient enough to start a videogame company before Nintendo.
Fantastic Epics and Seriousness (in novelistic and cinematic terms) meet each other partway over time, as more sophisticated storytelling meets increasing popular and critical success- Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Terry Pratchett, etc. Millions of people are also exposed to the fantastic tropes and DM-mediated storytelling stylings of Dungeons and Dragons.
Ball & Glick make the claim that the Cinematic Universe is not analogical to e.g. the Western, which was a trend that came and went. The CU phenomenon dominates far more than the Western or the Tentpole Musical ever did, and over a decade later the dominance is still continuing and growing.
Still, institutions take time to adapt to the facts, and many of today’s winners acquired the risktakers who learned how to steward these Cinematic Universes. (As Disney did when it wisely acquired Marvel and LucasFilm).
This also proves another contrast with the old Oral Epic ‘system’ that dominated human storytelling for millenia- this is still primarily a top-down system with a auteur or maestro at the top, a George Lucas or a Kevin Feige who can craft an arc across films and other media. Here is where I should bookmark for a future post about fandom, fan-generated media, and fan-feedback. It’s still a collaborative exercise requiring thousands of people, but it is also an Intellectual Property that belongs to someone/something, that is managed by someone, that is gatekept through legal means, and then afterwards kind of by social means as well.
Longterm epic storytelling is also being rewarded on the smallscreen as well. LOST, the Walking Dead, and Game of Thrones took turns being the biggest show on cable. All of the streaming wars competitors are looking for IPs to build epics that keep loyal fandoms watching for years on end.
Management of an Epic
We now live in a world where special effects can bring the spectacular visions of comic books to the screen, and where the viability of massive-scope storytelling has been proven to the industry.
It seems that birthing a Cinematic Universe is still pretty difficult, though. Ball & Glick speculate a few pitfalls and unique edges Marvel may have:
- Marvel in particular has decades of user testing on their most effective characters and storylines, allowing the MCU to present a best-of experience that can captivate even casual audiences.
- It may be the case that moviegoers only have enough attention budget to be deeply involved with very few Cinematic Universes at a time. Market leaders might just win here by default.
- On the other hand, epics are easily expanded. MCU has succeeded in generating love and excitement for effectively no-name properties (e.g. Guardians of the Galaxy); conversely, MCU characters have had difficulty spawning their own universes outside of the auspices of the MCU (e.g. Spiderman, clearly one of the biggest IPs around, is folding back into Marvel after Sony couldn’t appear to make him work). The MCU system can play with genres and take some storytelling risks and audiences will entertain them.
For the above reasons, Disney has been shutting down disconnected Marvel projects and Kevin Feige will likely reintegrate the pruned IPs into the MCU over time.
Star Wars is also re-adjusting its strategy, bringing a sinified Extended Universe to Chinese audiences who are not familiar with the original Star Wars Trilogy(/ies) to foster a fandom that can consume Star Wars films and other content.
For a decade now, epics have dominated theaters and, unlike prior genre trends, are only increasing their supremacy. Epics have numerous advantages. They appeal to people around the world. They prosper in a world of social media. They effectively cross-promote new properties. They exploit breakthroughs in visual technologies. They minimize the cost and control of talent. They are now rapidly gaining share in TV. And this is terrifying critics and auteurs alike.
Other writers and directors have embraced a ‘camouflage’ survival strategy. Todd Phillips has admitted he employed DC’s Batman IP to disguise a disturbing film about mental illness and sociopathy. Ryan Coogler used Black Panther to introduce audiences to issues of black separatism and integrationism. They succeeded. Joker was greenlit, and has already grossed $500MM worldwide. Tens of millions of people have now witnessed T’Challah and Killmonger’s debate. In so doing, Coogler and Phillips are part of the ancient scheme of reclaiming epics for deliberate purposes, just as Virgil did with the Aeneid and Dante did with the Divine Comedy.
This is a debate about compatibility. Auteur films are inherently unique products, not only to the writer, but also to the performers and viewers. Universes rely on consistency and continuity that go beyond each individual entry or voice. They are structured to never end or have troubling ambiguity. Stan Lee reportedly “always said” that the “secret to Marvel storytelling” was in fact the “illusion of change.” Even the aesthetics of superheroes reiterate this. To borrow from Bakhtin, visually, these characters are symbols. They actually wear unique logos on their bodies; even when the actor wearing it changes, the costume symbol continues.
I was tempted to quote the rest of Glick & Ball’s final entry in their blog series, but that is a bit lazy and you can read it here.
Anticipating Challenges to the MCU
- Actors and showrunners may get tired of it. Even though the Star system of Hollywood has weakened, it does carry some weight.
- Audience affection might peak, shifting the struggle to “maintaining affinity vs harming it”
- Epic complexity becomes too great for casual fans
- Even core fans might get tired of the “illusion of change” and mantel-passing as characters learn and move on or pass away.
- Counter-cultural forms delegitimize epic storytelling
- International audiences may look to build their own epic canons instead of importing them
- New technologies or mediums enable newcomers to eat into the attention paid to epics. (Ball is also very interested in videogames)
- The most likely challenge: a fresher, more compelling, and even more all-encompassing epic breaks through. It’s sort of hard to imagine sometimes, isn’t it?
There are technological answers that Ball & Glick suggest:
- Immortality through technology: Un-retireable actors
- Creative Destruction: Adaptation, aggressive pruning and rebooting can maintain freshness and reduce complexity.
- Bring in the best from the outside: “Organizations can remain nimble by questioning their own culture and promoting outsiders. It has never been easier to involve the audience in the creation (or expansion) of a story.”
While the MCU, like most things, may not survive forever, Ball & Glick suggest that the Epic form is here to stay. If we accept that it is the same idea that has survived this long, it certainly has Lindy going for it.
Thanks to Adam Gurri for catching some attribution issues.