Where to Begin? The Proper Viewing Order for Massive Franchises
Chronological, or Release Order? There’s only one answer.
As long as there have been movies, there have been questions on how to view them. In the theater or on home video? Letterbox or full screen? VHS or Betamax? Blu-ray or HDDVD?
But there’s one question that doesn’t always have a clear answer, especially when it comes to larger franchises that have prequels, sequels, and reboots. Do you watch them in the order they were released, or the order in which the story takes place?
For example, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom takes place before Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it is considered the second movie in the trilogy (after all, that was the order it was released). But with that one, there’s not really any harm in watching them out of order; you get enough intro to Indy in each movie, and none of them really build off of the plot of the others (and it’s best to skip Kingdom of the Crystal Skull entirely).
For a better example: Star Wars. In release order, you have the original trilogy, the prequel trilogy, and then the sequel trilogy, with a few prequels mixed in that take place between the prequels and originals. Yeah, if you’re a first time Star Wars viewer or, more likely, about to introduce your kids or a friend who lives under a rock to the franchise, you might be confused where to begin.
There’s a good argument for going in chronological story order- after all, that’s the order of the entire story, start to finish. But consider those prequels (if we must). If you start a first time viewer, starting with the aptly named Episode I ends up ruining what I believe is one of the greatest twists in cinematic history: that Darth Vader (spoilers) is Luke’s father.
But there’s a more logical argument for watching a series in the order in which it was made- it was the order in which the creators intended it to be viewed. Whether intentionally done or not, prequels and reboots often have call-backs to the original work. References that you’d only understand if you’d seen what came before. For Star Wars, I think there’s an extra level of enjoyment when watching the prequels and knowing where Anakin’s story is going to take him, and watching how it unfolds. If you didn’t go into those movies knowing Anakin would become Darth Vader, frankly when it comes time to name him “Darth Vader,” it hits with the same lack of resonance as when John Harrison reveals he’s “Kahn” in Star Trek: Into Darkness.
But this argument doesn’t simply apply to Star Wars. I think, with very few exceptions, it should apply to most franchise prequels and reboots. The 2009 Star Trek movies lose something if you didn’t know Spock Prime from the original series and movies that came before. With Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, you run the risk of learning too much about Dumbledore and Grindelwald, which was a vital part of his and Harry’s character development in Deathly Hallows. In The Hobbit, you learn about the ring and its temptations, which ultimately robs Frodo and Sam’s journey in Lord of the Rings.
Of course, the best and most current example is the MCU, and considering a movie like Captain Marvel which just came out this year as the 21st movie in the series, yet takes place much earlier than the bulk of the franchise. Watching it in chronological order would put that movie second in the marathon, but the inclusion of Nick Fury and the Tesseract don’t have the impact they do if you watch it 21st. Plus, watching it second means you have to wait 20 movies to see Carol Danvers again, and that’s just not right (after all, her movie was designed to lead into Endgame). Similarly, Captain America: The First Avenger (fifth released, but first chronologically) is richer for including Tony Stark’s father as a main character, but first-time viewers may not even remember him or connect him to Tony if they watch that first. Not to mention watching these out of release order really screws up the end credit teasers.
So the obvious choice- the only one, to me- is to watch the movies in the order they were made. Even if that means watching prequels second because prequels are almost always built on the knowledge that the viewer has probably already seen the originals. After all, that’s the only reason to make a prequel like Star Wars, or Fantastic Beasts, or The Hobbit, because there’s already a fanbase from the originals who would gladly go see them.
There are so many sequels, prequels, and reboots coming out these days, and sometimes it is hard to keep track of them. I mean, take this month’s Dark Phoenix; it’s a sequel in a prequel series to the X-Men trilogy. These movies are coming out all the time. And whether you are trying to catch up, or introducing someone new to the series, it’s a valid question of where to begin. And it’s a choice you have to make. But for my two cents, I argue that there is only one good choice if you want to experience the movies as they were intended by those who made them, and that’s to watch them in the order in which they were made.
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