The idea “less is more” is hardly anything new. It’s been around for more than a century, in fact—it can be traced back to Robert Browning’s 1855 poem Andrea del Sarto, although it’s more widely believed to have been popularized by the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in the mid-20th century. But if there is any justice in pop culture, 2018 will be the year that superhero movies finally realize the value of the sentiment.
Admittedly, it doesn’t look good. The first trailer for Marvel’s big 2018 release, Avengers: Infinity War, is less a trailer and more a two-and-a-half-minute list of the many characters who are scheduled to appear in the movie, suggesting that the story—something to do with Purple Josh Brolin and more generic aliens who need to get punched … or something, who can tell?—is less important than the sheer volume of characters in it.
Of course, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. This year’s Justice League was sold entirely on the basis of, “Oh, it’s Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman and Jason Momoa in the same movie! And the Flash, but not the one on TV, and also Robot Dude.” (This is understandable, given that the movie was reportedly in the midst of significant reworking throughout post-production, making a plot-based trailer unlikely; you can notice the many scenes that appeared in trailers and not in the finished movie.)
It might not involve the imminent destruction of everything in existence, but Homecoming manages to be more suspenseful, involving and exciting by the time it speeds toward its conclusion than any of the movies with a far bigger scope.
Even Thor: Ragnarok and Spider-Man: Homecoming—ostensibly solo movies—were promoted as much on the basis of “And guess who else is in the movie? This guy!” as they were on what the movie was actually about. Everything, it feels, is based on the promise that bigger means better, and yet … that’s just not true, even in genre entertainment.
It’s easy to see the thinking behind the approach that dominated 2017’s superhero movies. First of all, the promise of More can seem attractive at a time when so many genre movies look and feel so similar, and therefore need differentiators to grab attention—what better appeal than saying “It’s got even more of what you love,” after all? Plus, it’s relatively easy to fill the screen with more and more visual spectacle these days, in the minds of many filmmakers, so why not just keep piling more and more into the movies?
That last question isn’t actually rhetorical, however; it turns out that the answer, all too often, is that adding more and more characters, action and “events” to a movie tends to leave less and less space for characterization and a sense of humanity—a.k.a., the things that audiences tend to actually engage with and enjoy in a movie.
Despite its breathless “All this and Iron Man, too!” promotion, this year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming could be used as a model for how blockbuster movies evolve in the future. Yes, there’s a big-name guest star, but he’s used remarkably sparingly, and the focus on the movie is kept tightly on Peter Parker, to the point where the supervillain never feels more of a threat than when it’s revealed that he knows Peter personally. It might not involve the imminent destruction of everything in existence, but Homecoming manages to be more suspenseful, involving and exciting by the time it speeds toward its conclusion than any of the movies with a far bigger scope.
The alternative is to stay on a path that seemed exciting in 2012, when Avengers showed Captain America and Iron Man and Thor team up like an updated Godzilla vs. Mothra, and exhausting in 2016, when Captain America: Civil War had audiences around the world wondering, “Why is Iron Man recruiting high school kids to punch other superheroes, and why are they all fighting anyway? Why are we in Germany of all places? What is actually happening?” I mean, I grew up with Sesame Street like everyone else. I get the value of cooperation and the thrill of teamwork as much as the next fan, but there’s a limit—and that limit was, probably, the party scene in Avengers: Age of Ultron, way back when.
Assuming we make it through Infinity War in one piece, here’s to movies that remember that there are meant to be people at the center of them—and some stories that feel like they matter once again.