A stand-alone film is supposed to be a movie that doesn’t take place within a larger story. It’s a way to describe a film that may happen inside a well-known fictional universe, but exists to the side of that central narrative. Or maybe it focuses on the characters and decisions that take place at the same time as a story we already know.
But every stand-alone film should, ideally, be a movie that anyone can see without knowing the larger backstory and walk out feeling like they saw a complete narrative that doesn’t set up a sequel.
Honestly, I’m struggling to even define the term. That’s kind of the whole problem. But everyone seems to be in agreement that Rogue One is one of them. Wired calls it the first stand-alone Stars Wars film. So does The Wall Street Journal. I’m sure I have also described it as such, although I will beat the comments to the punch by saying I’m in no way putting myself next to those two fine institutions.
But the “fact” that Rogue One is a stand-alone film doesn’t seem to be controversial.
Even though it’s complete bullshit
We’re all basically just repeating Disney’s marketing at this point, because the term “prequel” is absolute death to any Star Wars fan after the disastrous reception of the Lucas-helmed prequel trilogy. Both critics and die-hard fans hated those films, and the current Star Wars canon will likely never lean on them in any real way.
Rogue One is a prequel, by definition, but “stand-alone” is easier to sell in this case. You can’t call a story that literally ends with the beginning of its own sequel a stand-alone.
The Han Solo film may be a stand-alone, but it will likely lean on enough basic knowledge of this world and those characters that it won’t be able to operate like one. Even The Force Awakens, which tells a satisfying story that doesn’t need a sequel nor does it require having seen the original films to understand, slips in enough in-jokes and nods to the audience that anyone who is watching as their first Star Wars film will likely feel left out from time to time.
Disney knows that these are our collective fairy tales, and the company trusts that we know the basics. They have no reason to create an actual stand-alone film, and a lot of reasons to lock you even more firmly into the greater storyline of the Rebellion and the Empire.
Disney will likely never make a true stand-alone film, because its various cinematic universes are worth too much. If you’re funding a movie for hundreds of millions of dollars, you’re going to give it every chance to make a billion dollars in the global marketplace.
Franchise building and maintenance is too important and too profitable to ever take a Marvel or Star Wars name out of the vault without tying it strongly into everything else. Even Guardians of the Galaxy, which many people think of as the first Marvel-controlled “stand-alone” superhero movie, made extensive use of Thanos and the Infinity Stones to fuel its plot.
I would argue that non-Marvel controlled cinematic universes found their first true hit with Deadpool, which was made for “only” $60 million or so and brought in $782 million in ticket sales worldwide. X-Men: Apocalypse, on the other hand, cost $178 million and made $543 million
worldwide. With those returns I would burn down any connection to my own cinematic universe and go stand-alone as quickly as possible were I holding onto any Marvel-licensed characters.
Hell, Sony Pictures finally gave up on Spider-Man and struck a deal to bring him home to Marvel after its last trilogy fizzled both commercially and artistically. Spider-Man is now firmly a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Homecoming’s first trailer made heavy use of Tony Stark, because these characters don’t do stand-alone.
There will never be a Star Wars stand-alone film, and it’s unlikely there will ever be a stand-alone Marvel film. But companies will continue to use those terms to signal these aren’t the “big” films, the ones they’re willing to give even larger budgets to and will expect more from in terms of box office.
Marvel is stomping over even very basic ideas of what a “stand-alone” film is with releases like Captain America: Civil War, which may have focused on Captain America but felt more like an Avengers film with its bloated cast.
This is a very bad thing (unless you’re Disney)
I recently watched the Christopher Nolan Batman films with my older kids, and was struck at how conservative they seemed in trying to tell a single, bordering-on-cohesive story with only one superhero.
Warner Bros. would never allow that to happen again, even though choking the idea of stand-alone films or even trilogies out of existence lead to the current depressing state of the DC Cinematic Universe.
The Terminator series, which was made up of two incredible “stand-alone” films that require no knowledge of each other to be enjoyable, was completely killed after the studio attempted — multiple times — to craft a franchise out of a story that was finished in the second movie. Mankind, for its sins, has a “stand-alone” Bumblebee movie to look forward to, because the Transformers series makes an incredible amount of money. We’ll see how that goes. I’ve already begun drinking in advance.
Aliens has also suffered much more than it has gained from its various spinoffs and sequels, and attempts to revitalize it as a franchise. But they’re still trying.
Hollywood has killed the stand-alone film, which is good news for Disney but seems to be bad news for just about everyone else. So let’s retire the word until these studios learn how to actually detach single films from their main stories and provide a discrete serving of entertainment that doesn’t require a thorough knowledge of the stories that came before, while also not trying to launch yet another groaning, overstuffed cinematic universe.
Heck, it’s not like they’re already planning five films in the first “extension” of the universe of Harry Potter.