One of the things you do as a grad student is research for professors. Right now I’m lucky enough to be working on a project that really interests me, and on my end it involves reading all the available scholarship on the omnibus film. There isn’t much of it. A lot of what’s out there is devoted to correcting misconceptions, accounting for its lack of presence in the discourse, and attempting to make a case for the category’s inclusion in the canon. And the rest of the literature is devoted to (inadvertently) reinforcing those misconceptions and further confusing the terminology with which we discuss this narrative format. (Omnibus? Anthology? Episode? Portmanteau? They’re all distinct.)
What I want to talk about in this article is the omnibus film, which I’ll briefly define for clarity’s sake. The omnibus film is a feature film that is comprised of multiple short films (usually at least three) all made by different filmmaking teams. There may or may not be some framing device that ties them all together. There may or may not be title cards differentiating the episodes from each other. There’s usually some overarching theme that ties the pieces together, but the connections are usually deliberately loose. The goal is often to offer multiple perspectives on a single theme, location, or pressing social issue. Or just to scare the pants off of you. (The horror genre is particularly fond of the omnibus format. For some recent examples, think V/H/S, The ABCs of Death, or 3… Extremes.)
But what if the superhero genre embraced the omnibus format? I, for one, have actually been pulling for this for quite a while, but while doing this research project I’ve had occasion to revisit the idea at some length. (If you follow me on Twitter, you may have already read my thoughts on this issue. But even if you have, stick with me! I’m going to elaborate quite a bit.) Films like Paris, je t’aime and Toronto Stories are connected through a shared setting; so why can’t Fox pony up and make an omnibus film set in the Fox Marvel Cinematic Universe? Or better yet, why doesn’t Warner Bros. give it a shot? They have the film rights to every single DC comics character. It kinda seems like a no-brainer.
First of all, there’s the practical matter that these studios don’t have the rights to these characters in perpetuity (except WB and Marvel, of course). Sony, Columbia, Fox… these guys have to keep making movies with these characters, or they lose the opportunity to do so in the future. We just saw Fox lose its Daredevil rights to Marvel because they couldn’t pull the trigger on Joe Carnahan’s vision of the character. But maybe they’d have been able to commit to a short film budget, rather than gamble $100+ million on an R-rated superhero/crime pic? They could pad the omnibus feature out with a couple more tonally consistent shorts featuring other Marvel characters under the Fox umbrella. We all know that Fox will never actually make the Deadpool movie that we want to see (…and do we really want to see it?), but a Grindhouse–style “double feature” of a 50 minute Daredevil and a 50 minute Deadpool wouldn’t have to be all that expensive, and it could scratch both itches at the same time.
Fox knows by now that all you have to do to get asses in movie theatres is put some claws on Hugh Jackman. So hang an omnibus film on the promise of a Wolverine-centric short — here’s a good place to take a chance on something like Old Man Logan — and then use the other segments to give some fan favourites like Colossus, Kitty Pryde, and Gambit a chance to shine. The ones that go over the best — and we all know that Gambit done right would go over very well with the children of the ’90s — can be incorporated into the X-films proper.
Fox owns the rights to so many Marvel characters that you know they’re never going to do anything with. Kevin Feige probably secretly knows how to make Dazzler into the next Iron Man, but he’s not telling. (And I, of course, know how to make a brilliant Alpha Flight picture, but Fox doesn’t return my calls!) This is a terrible waste. Studios are stuck in the mindset that a movie has to cost $300 million to be a superhero movie, and a $300 million movie essentially can’t take risks: it has to be a family-friendly, four-quadrant affair that contains enough action to sell overseas (and not so much nuance that non-English speaking audiences get lost). Many have opined the fact that this business model has taken hold (indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg was complaining about it on Twitter earlier today), and I think that the omnibus film is a cool way of taking some creative risks without putting an excessive amount of money on the table. Fox wants to make a more extensive Marvel universe, grounded in their mutant characters? Here’s a great way to get it going quickly.
And if it’s good for Fox, imagine how Marvel could exploit the format. They could easily pump out one omnibus film per “phase” that introduces different second- and third-tier characters that aren’t high on the priority list for their own features, which would then be available to incorporate into the other films as needed. Who wouldn’t love to see a Marvel Knights film that introduces Moon Knight, Iron Fist, Black Panther, and a new Marvel U-friendly Punisher? I really don’t think you need to do much more than show a shot or two of an established character in the trailer (a little RDJ goes a long way at the box office) to ensure the film turns a profit. Marvel is already in the shorts game with the “One-Shots” they’re including on each home video release; an omnibus film wouldn’t be all that different.
A side bonus of the omnibus format? All the “origin story” haters can get the stand-alone adventures they’re always clamouring for. If an Iron Fist segment is so well-received that it demands a dedicated spin-off, then you can get the origin (with the added benefit that audiences are already invested in and have some understanding of the character).
There’s even more potential in this format than that, though. What if instead of using a shared universe as the connective tissue, a film offered us multiple perspectives on a single character? This is something that I thought would be a great way to reboot a tricky character like Superman. Studios are notoriously uneasy when it comes to pulling the trigger on a particular filmmaker’s vision of a big-ticket character like the Man of Tomorrow. A Superman reboot had been developing ever since the (perceived) failure of Superman Returns, and before WB greenlit that film, they were playing around with various options, all of which were bolder than what they ended up going with (including, famously, J.J. Abrams’ and Tim Burton’s respective takes).
An omnibus film would have room to take chances with bold reinterpretations, such as those offered by Abrams and Burton, and it would also have room to explore the characters in ways that blockbusters typically don’t have time for. One story might show a fairly young Superman in a spectacular battle with Metallo, while another shows how the Blue Boy Scout gives Lois a birthday to remember. A third story could show him in a battle of wits with Mr. Mxyzptlk. A fourth could adapt a classic issue like “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” or “For the Man Who Has Everything.” All written and directed by different people, and all starring a different actor as the Man of Steel. (Kyle Chandler, of course, has to play him at some point. This is not negotiable.) I’m just spit-balling here, but how many different Superman stories are there that we’d love to see that will never be deemed “big enough” for a feature? We’ll probably never get to see an old Superman growing food and flying it over to developing nations, because it’s not “action.” People complained when Superman lifted a crashing plane instead of punching everybody in the face — imagine how they’ll revolt when he lifts a bale of hay! An omnibus Superman film gives everybody a little bit of what they want. And if one segment stands out with audiences as being particularly compelling, there you go, WB! You’ve got your new Superman for features going forward.
The benefits really are endless. Up-and-coming filmmakers can get the opportunity to showcase their talents and affinity for a character without devoting a decade of their lives and careers to an entire trilogy of films (like Marc Webb on The Amazing Spider-Man, not that he minds, necessarily). Actors can branch out and play a character they’ve always loved that they aren’t prepared to play for the rest of their lives. And audiences could see innovative, bold takes on popular characters, or merely a single interpretation of a niche character they never thought they’d see in live-action.
Ultimately, the omnibus film is a good reflection of the way comic books worked from the dawn of the medium: as a collection of various short works. It’s about time that the format is embraced by big studios as a potential means of expanding the superhero genre beyond the blockbuster paradigm.