A widely talked about rumor surfaced on Friday, with a blurry image that suggested that Warner Bros.' Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice might grow from one movie to two. For now, it's just speculation, but to say that I'm conflicted about the idea is an understatement.
By now, audiences should be used to the prospect of studios taking one story and splitting it into multiple movies. We've been through the two-part Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the similarly split The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, and the spectacle of turning The Hobbit into three separate movies. We also already know that superhero franchises are heading down that road, with Warners' already-announced two-part Justice League and Disney/Marvel's scheduled Avengers: Infinity War — Part One and Avengers: Infinity War — Part Two. This is, let's face it, just the way things are nowadays.
There's little reason to be stunned. After all, we're all used to serial movies by this point, aren't we? If there's one lesson that we've learned from — everything from Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings through the Marvel Studios series — it's that people get excited about being able to return to their favorite characters over and over as often as possible. If audiences are willing to support three movies to get the full story — or seven, in the case of Harry Potter — then why not add another one? Everyone wins!
And, in many cases, both hardcore fans of a property and more fair-weather friends are happy to have the extended running time that creating an additional movie brings. It's certainly the traditional argument used by those responsible — that extra space was needed to fit in all the important plot points, or to avoid excising scenes from the source material that would upset longtime supporters — and also the easiest to defend: Wouldn't you rather see the best possible version of a story, especially if the alternative is something that might feel incomplete or incoherent? How could anyone argue against that?
That argument is more difficult to make when it comes to original work that lacks any source material to stay true to — could Avengers: Infinity War be one movie? Sure, the Marvel movies have avoided direct adaptations to this point, so there would be no need to suddenly declare that every scene in The Infinity Gauntlet is so sacrosanct as to demand faithful translation to the screen. Similarly, Justice League could easily be one movie; the original comic book origin of the team took just 24 pages, and that's including a framing sequence in which Aquaman says things like "When it comes to cleaning time, we all agree Wonder Woman is boss, so — back to work, everyone!" while the Amazon Warrior Princess sweeps the floor. Given a two-hour run time, both movies could feature complete and satisfying stories. And yet ...
At this point, a story that stretches into two movies simply feels like more of an event. It's a subconscious lesson we've learned from the finales of Harry Potter, Twilight Saga and Hunger Games. It's a big deal, something so big and important that one movie isn't enough. (Consider that both Justice League and Avengers: Infinity War could just as easily have separate subtitles instead of "Part One" and "Part Two"; identifying them as two halves of the same movie gives each a presence that it would otherwise lack.) By positioning these movies in this manner — and, should the Batman v Superman rumor turn out to be true, that project as well — it sends a message to potential viewers that makes them more attractive: This is the big one! Don't miss out!
The problem with this is simple: Some stories can't stand up to being split in two or extended to fit the run time of two complete movies. When it comes to adaptations, there's a lot to be said for the traditional practice of paring down the source material to the essentials and not staying slavishly faithful (I'm looking at you, Breaking Dawn). Sometimes, stories split across multiple movies feel unnecessarily padded and uneven (That's on you, The Hobbit) or ponderously slow when compared with what had come before (Hi, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows). For movies or stories split in two after-the-fact, it forces the creation of a midway cliffhanger that might not exist otherwise. The entire concept then could be considered aesthetically dubious for anything other than stories specifically created to be two movies.
That, ultimately, might be the conflict: Aesthetically, some stories or movies should be allowed to stay as single pieces. Happily, that also allows them to have a sense of closure, and therefore value, for the viewer by the time the end credits roll. When you're paying $10 to $20 for a ticket, there is something frustrating about feeling that you've only gotten part of the story, even if you knew that going in. But commercially, the prospect of extending the life of a golden goose is almost impossible to resist. This then might simply be the latest in a long line of conflicts between art and commerce in the movie industry. If that's the case, history has shown that the audience will ultimately get to decide: "If we don't show up to the split movies, they'll stop being produced."
If only it were a little easier for those of us uncertain about the practice to stay away from the movies.