Two lines of questioning have bubbled up around the promotional campaign for The Irishman. The first is: “Is Netflix destroying cinema?” and the second, thanks to an offhand mid-interview remark by the film’s director Martin Scorsese that refuses to go away, is: “Is Marvel destroying cinema?” The answer to both, of course, is yes. But Netflix and Marvel are not destroying cinema due to a reduction in theatrical screenings or a lack of artistry or anything like that. They are destroying cinema because they both really, really want to be television.
The Irishman, for example, is three-and-a-half hours long. That’s far longer than any sensible person is willing to endure in a cinema, with the cramped legroom and the peripheral texters and the inevitable mid-point toilet shuffle. But watch it in the comfort of your own home and it immediately becomes much more desirable. Not least because, for those of us who only have a limited time each day when their living rooms aren’t being dominated by Paw Patrol, its epic decades-spanning story of a truck driver-turned-hitman-turned-shady union rep is episodic enough to be watched in chunks. The Irishman is a miniseries disguised as a film.
And if The Irishman is a miniseries, then the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a soap opera. With its dozens of characters, method of storytelling that explicitly relies on the viewer having seen all the previous instalments and franchise plan that intends to keep rolling out in perpetuity until everyone gets bored, the MCU is Hollyoaks with more money and marginally less silly hair.
But here’s the thing. They aren’t alone. Everything wants to be television at the moment. The biggest video game in the world right now is Fortnite, which is structured identically to a television series. Where previous video games – Grand Theft Auto, Halo, Assassin’s Creed – would come out in distinct instalments that had to be individually purchased, Fortnite self-consciously divides itself into seasons, each of which culminates in a climactic cliffhanger ending designed to whip users into a frenzy of excitement. And it works. When Fortnite’s entire landscape got sucked into a black hole without warning a few weeks ago, for example, it was hard not to see it as the game’s “Who shot JR?” moment; a 21st-century execution of a very 20th-century TV trick.
Most other mediums are at it, too. Podcasting – especially Serial-style true-crime podcasts – increasingly crosses the lines into television. Not that many years ago, a podcast was the sound of two people with identical voices talking about the same thing with barely any structure. But now they tell self-contained stories that pitch and lurch like episodic thrillers. This year’s The Missing Cryptoqueen is a perfect example; a true-crime documentary series that unfolds like a prestige thriller. Move in the right circles and it is this, rather than something like Line of Duty, that people will discuss at watercoolers.
YouTube is becoming TV, too, as personalities get bigger and formats lock into place in the hope of breaking into traditional media. Hot Ones, a channel where celebrities subject themselves to impossibly spicy food on purpose, is becoming a gameshow. Even newspapers are becoming television, thanks to Amazon’s adaptation of the New York Times column Modern Love. I can’t say this for sure, but I’d imagine that there isn’t a publication in the world that isn’t trying to pitch a long-running column to a TV network right now. Might there be a How I Spend It series soon? A 3am Girls series? A Rod Liddle Moans at Things He Cannot Understand series? You’d be silly to bet against it.
So everything is television. And that isn’t ideal, because the gradual amassment of all culture into a vaguely TV-shaped blob robs us of distinctive modes of storytelling. And especially in the case of cinema, this trend is creating a sense of brand loyalty that can actively diminish our enjoyment of original ideas. The eight top-grossing movies of the year are either sequels, remakes or origin stories. Disney is responsible for the top six, and three of those are Marvel properties. Smaller films – films that are films rather than another superhero stepping-stone on a path to nowhere – are being pushed aside.
But you know where they’re being pushed to? Television. Either literally (Netflix has released around 60 original films this year alone, including a clutch of absolute belters) or in terms of talent migration. The best writers are working in television now, as are the biggest actors, and they are making work more challenging than many of the big movie studios.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. All the other mediums want to be television, but that’s only because television is the best. Television, more than any of its competitors, is a companion. If you watch something week after week, you build a relationship with the characters. It’s deeper and more personal than just going to the cinema. Everything wants to be television, and television should take it as a compliment.