Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them along with Rogue One are ushering in a new era of film franchise storytelling. Anthology films are being touted as a new way to expand cinematic universes — standalone stories that take place within an established world. They offer a look into corners of a fictional world that we haven’t seen before. This sounds exciting but is it what audiences want out of their moviegoing experience?
The Marvel Problem
The idea of larger universes being represented on film has really kicked off after the Marvel Cinematic Universe became a staple of our blockbuster culture. Marvel took its time establishing its characters and building a world step by step. The problem is that Marvel films mostly work as part of a serialized story. Even if one entry doesn't immediately follow the last in terms of timeline, the story that is being told still progresses in a linear fashion.
This is in stark contrast to the idea of anthology films. The idea of anthology films is that they can take place at any point in their respective universe's timeline. The problem arises when you ask this question: has Marvel conditioned audiences to expect a serialized story? Many anecdotal claims have been made about general audiences being confused about Rogue One because they don't understand how it ties into The Force Awakens. This is an attitude that could change over time but it is troubling. It's possible that audiences want all their films to make sense in a very clear way. Naturally, the biggest fans will pick up on the connections but John & Jane Moviegoer might not be as sharp.
There's another even larger issue that current anthology films are trying to avoid...
The "P" Word
The concept of prequels has become taboo ever since The Phantom Menace and its subsequent sequels. There are a lot of inherent problems with prequel storytelling in general, and this new wave of prequels doesn't want to be associated with all the baggage that that term brings. Instead, they want to label themselves as something different. But a rose by any other name would still smell like Bantha fodder.
Audiences don't seem quite as interested in prequels. They like to see the story move forward. Does something like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them feel like a continuation of a story? Or does it feel like backtracking? Does Rogue One feel like a necessary story? Again, fans will eat all of this up but will regular moviegoers? There might be a way to get them excited about these kinds of films. It involves taking a chance. But it's a chance that could pay off.
Anthology of Interest
Anthology films have a great potential. The current problem is that the studios are afraid to take advantage of that potential. Rogue One ties into a part of the Star Wars mythos we are all very familiar with: the Death Star. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is setting itself up to be a backdoor origin for Dumbledore. Studios believe that audiences need some familiarity with these anthology movies. That's why the next Star Wars anthology film is going to be a Han Solo origin story.
Why not create stories that are completely disconnected from what we know? Give us a Star Wars movie that is set 20,000 years before the events in the regular films. Or one that tells a story with no allusions to people and events that we know. Show us what the wizarding world looks like from a perspective that doesn't have to do with Voldemort or the Harry Potter story in general. Get risky. The closest and most recent example of this would be Guardians of the Galaxy. Yes, that film features the Infinity Stones. However, they aren't utilized in a way that makes them important to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You can watch Guardians of the Galaxy completely separate from all the other MCU movies and still enjoy it without feeling like you are missing information.
Personally, I think anthology films are a wonderful idea. I want to be told as many stories as possible. But, is that what most people want? And if they do, is it a good idea to tell stories that are linked to tales we already know? We'll find out how audiences feel once they vote with their dollars.