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Movies need to stop answering questions no one's asking

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Jun 11, 2018, 3:01 PM EDT

Solo has arrived in theaters, providing the origin story for a character defined by his aura of cool mystery, thus destroying his aura of cool mystery. With 97% of all entertainment now based on pre-existing intellectual property, movies and television are in an arms race to see who can fill in the most back stories.

Nothing can go unexplained, not even the origin of Han Solo’s wayward mentor, Beckett—he’s getting a comic book to explain his history—which begs the question: how far back do we have to go? Han Solo gets an origin story, his mentor gets an origin story. Does his mentor’s mentor get an origin story? Will we, eventually, see the Star Wars big bang? In the current model of franchise filmmaking, there can be no mysteries, only answers to questions no one is asking. In honor of the death of narrative ambiguity, let’s take a look at some of the questions we really, really don’t need answered.

How anyone got their name

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales provided us the backstory on Jack Sparrow’s name. Solo explains how Han came to be known as “Han Solo.” In neither case did we need to know how these characters got their names. They can just be dudes named “Jack Sparrow” and “Han Solo.” I’m not sure where this impulse comes from except for a pedant’s uncontrollable nightmare. Characters can just have cool names; it’s OK, especially in Star Wars. We never need to know how anyone got their name. It is literally the least interesting aspect of a character to explain. Please stop explaining names before we have to sit through a scene explaining why House Stark is called “House Stark.”

han solo

Han "I don't have any friends so my name is Solo" Solo

Where was X

Avengers: Infinity War taught us an important lesson, and that is that it’s impossible to fit EVERYONE into your superhero crossover film. Not even the self-proclaimed “most ambitious crossover event in history” could find room for all of its heroes—Hawkeye, Ant-Man, the Wasp, and Captain Marvel didn’t make the final cut. The internet had some fun with Hawkeye’s whereabouts, but generally, these characters were not missed. Superhero team-ups have enough going on, especially when the teams grow ever larger and have to account for a dozen or more characters, and it’s OK if a few names on the roster get left on the bench. If the movie is doing its job, you won’t even notice the omissions. But it does open a door to a horrifying new trend in online explainers, and that is the “Where was X?” answer. Where was Sharon Carter in Infinity War? Who cares? Did you even notice her absence? At least this answer wasn’t dropped in random exposition within Infinity War itself—you can watch the writers explain it, though, if you simply can’t stand not knowing why a character who could contribute nothing was excluded. Small mercy.

What happened in Budapest

In The Avengers, Hawkeye and Black Widow exchange banter during an alien invasion, referencing a previous excursion in Budapest. In two lines of dialogue, we get a sense of their shared history and a frame of reference for their relationship as partners. It’s not a throwaway line but it is a throwaway reference—“Budapest” isn’t important as anything other than an abstract of their partnership. Fans went wild, having a new sandbox for their creativity delivered on a silver platter, and that’s fine. Something like Budapest belongs in the realm of fan works, but it's not necessary to explain Budapest to us in canon—especially as both Hawkeye and Black Widow have evolved beyond that reference. But franchise filmmaking being what it is these days, I live in dread of the Black Widow movie being a prequel that includes Budapest. If there is any goodness in this world, Marvel will never, ever explain Budapest. 


What was X like before the hero showed up

This is probably the worst offender in franchised storytelling. Gotham is a show about Gotham City before Batman shows up, Krypton is a show about Superman’s home planet before he’s born, and there are shows in development about Metropolis-before-Superman and Alfred-before-Batman. This is zero-percent necessary. Gotham muddles on, but it has basically become the part of Bruce Wayne’s childhood that Batman Begins skips, and is there anything less intriguing than Alfred-before-Batman? It definitely involves butler school. The protagonists are what make these locations and supporting characters interesting. Metropolis without Superman is just a city, and Alfred without Batman is just a butler. These are starting points, not THE point. But the content machine must be fed and so now we are exploring what various places and people were like before superheroes showed up to transform them. I can’t wait for the Nick Fury spin-off, Nick Fury: Civil Servant’s Exam.

There is no such thing as restraint anymore and imagination is dead, so we’re going to keep being subjected to answers to questions no one is asking. You can’t have a cool name without an explanation, there is a cottage industry on television dedicated to what various places are like before superheroes show up, and by 2025, every character in Star Wars will have an origin story. At this rate, it is a minor miracle that Marvel has never subjected us to an entire movie about what happened in Budapest. Please don’t ever explain Budapest. Some things can just be.

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