Coming Soon: The Exploitation of Anticipation

A number of studies have suggested that human beings often find more pleasure in anticipating something than they do in actually experiencing something. The days leading up to a vacation are exciting, as we contemplate the things we'll do, the places we'll see, the free time we'll have and the work tasks we won't have to worry about. Once we're actually on the vacation, our problem-free fantasies are replaced by reality – sometimes delightful, sometimes otherwise. Though most of us would probably protest the notion, we're happier knowing that we're going to the beach than we are when we're sitting on the beach.

Movies have long taken advantage of this psychological tic. Trailers and other forms of publicity build up excitement, and that excitement leads to ticket sales. The trailer is the anticipation, and the movie is the vacation. Remember how excited everyone was after they saw that first Independence Day trailer? Remember how moderately satisfied people were after they saw Independence Day

In recent years, mainstream movies have exploited our psychological fondness for anticipation to an almost absurd degree. The Marvel movies are a prime example, turning nearly every new superhero movie into a feature-length commercial for a forthcoming superhero movie. Even Joss Whedon's The Avengers – the film that finally brought all of the superheroes together after years of build-up – ended with the promise that the real threat was still to come in the form of Thanos, the purple-faced villain that your comic book-loving friend was eager to tell you about. Three years and several Marvel movies later, we're still waiting on Thanos. Sure, he turned up in Guardians of the Galaxy, but mostly just to remind us that he was still out there and was still planning on wreaking havoc at some point in the future. How about The Avengers: Age of Ultron? Nah, Thanos is sitting that one out (or at least avoiding center stage). He'll be showing up in Avengers: Infinity War Part 1, which is currently scheduled for a 2018 release (naturally, that story won't be finished until Part 2 is released the following year). It's worth noting that Thanos hasn't done a single thing worth remembering at this point, but the actual character seems less important than the idea of the character. Thanos may not live up to the marketing fanfare, but by the time we find out we'll be preoccupied with the future arrival of some other character.

It's one thing for a movie to set the table for a sequel, but now movies are setting the table for films we won't see for several years... and there are a variety of unexpected creative and financial developments that could easily prevent us from seeing them at all. Sony had been planning a Marvel-style universe for their rebooted Spider-Man franchise. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 spent much of its running time laying the groundwork for a spin-off called The Sinister Six, a movie that is no longer being made. Marvel has their superhero movies mapped out through 2019. Warner Bros. has their DC superhero movies mapped out through 2020. Disney (Marvel's owner) has their Star Wars movies mapped out through 2019. Fans are already arguing about who should direct Star Wars: Episode IX, but we're still quite a few months away from the release of Episode VII. That's an awful lot of unhatched chickens.

There are a number of potential consequences that come with this sort of long-range planning. The first (and most obvious) is that if one of these mega-movies flops at the box office, the whole game plan will have to change. That won't be as easy as it was before, as big studios are pouring a lot of money into developing and promoting movies that are years away from filming. Another consequence is that by the time a long-awaited movie actually arrives, it feels like old news. After the press conferences and convention panels and trailers and clips and talk show interviews, the actual movie tends to feel like old news. Sure, everyone goes to see the movie, but that experience serves as the end of a long conversation rather than the beginning of a new one. We're replacing informed analysis with corporate-guided speculation. The issue that bothers me most is that movies are damaged on a narrative level by a need to continually build for the future. Iron Man 2 is one of the most egregious examples, diminishing a potentially compelling self-contained story about Tony Stark's fear of mortality with incessant scenes designed to pave the way for The Avengers. To watch the series is akin to witnessing a symphony comprised entirely of bombastic overtures. The commercial effectiveness of the approach is undeniable, but the artistic consequences are severe.

For my money, the best superhero movies of the past decade are Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight and Zack Snyder's Watchmen. Sure, those movies are darker and grittier than most, but that's not the key to their success. Both films tell a complete story with a beginning, middle and end. They're stories in which death is real, actions have consequences and ideas have substance. Yes, The Dark Knight is the second film of a trilogy, but it's so complete on its own terms that it works perfectly well as a self-contained experience.

Still, no argument speaks louder than box office revenue, so Marvel, Warner Bros. and other high-profile imitators will undoubtedly continue this anticipation-fueled approach until the viewing public gives them incentive to do otherwise. I'd offer to lead the charge, but, uh, Age of Ultron looks pretty good and I'd hate to miss it. Maybe we can skip Star Wars? Oh, who am I kidding... I'll probably go to the midnight premiere. Let's table this and figure it out later.