Both Barnes and Noble always rope me into their annual 50% off sale for Criterion Collection titles. It always falls when I probably shouldn’t be spending money on expensive Blu-Rays. But what are you gonna do? I always look down sheepishly when the employee gives me an obligatory pitch about some special membership. “Oh, I don’t come here that often,” I want to say. “I either secretly, shamefully buy Kindle books or pretend like I’m a good guy by buying the occasional paperback from a local place.”
I couldn’t resist when I saw a special edition of The Princess Bride in that weird, closed-off “Media” section at B&N. The elegant packaging resembles the storybook Grandpa Falk reads to young Freddy Savage. And more importantly, I’ve loved this movie since I was 12. It’s unofficially canon for Mormons. It goes The Book of Mormon, The Princess Bride, and so on and so forth. Young, homeschooled theatre nerds love it too. So it was a mutual love between my peer groups.
Just rewatched Bride for the first time in a while, and it still holds the same power over me as it did when I was an oddball preteen. It’s funny, exciting, romantic, and it exuberantly celebrates the power of storytelling. I felt that child-like joy while watching swashbucklers fence, villains deceive, and fairy-tale love grow.
It was the only thing the late screenwriter William Goldman wrote that he actually liked. It was Rob Reiner’s fourth film, following Stand By Me and Spinal Tap. He would go on to direct When Harry Met Salley, Misery, and A Few Good Men. I’m not sure he gets enough props for directing some of the most iconic films of the ’80s and ’90s. It was also Robin Wright’s first big film part. All of these people have described that working on the set of The Princess Bride was one of their favorite experiences.
I only share these facts to emphasize why the movie came together so perfectly. The alchemic combination of excellent writing, precise directing, and a good-natured working environment resulted in one of the best movies of its decade. And it set the blueprint for many of our contemporary blockbusters.
This may sound odd, as Bride is a concise, self-contained fairy tale and not a heavily branded extended universe owned by Disney. It was a modest hit, while live-action remakes and superhero films dominate today’s box office.
But it’s hard to deny that part of Bride’s appeal is its characters. And the main part of the MCU that appeals to me is the characters. After all, why would I follow the same characters for a decade if I didn’t care about them? If you’re a millennial, I bet you could probably name almost every character from Bride. Inigo, Wesley, Buttercup, Humperdink, etc.
The character traits Captain America and Wesley share are simple: They are earnest do-gooders yet they are humorously self-aware. We as an audience love to indulge ourselves with low-stake fairy-tale stories where the good guys always win and the bad guys always lose. But we also know that’s ridiculous and want to laugh at the tropes of these types of stories. It’s a difficult line to walk. But Bride pulls it off. And so do many of the better Marvel movies.
However, there are still a few things the MCU could learn from Bride. First of all, I think the dialogue is so insanely quotable partly because there isn’t a Princess Bride 2: Always a Bride’s Maid. Marvel movies often feature some fun, witty dialogue. But how many quotes from those movies remain in our collective pop-culture consciousness? Certainly not as many as Bride. In fact, I’m rewatching I Love You, Man and Paul Rudd did his best Fezik: “Anybody want a peanut?”
It is singularly iconic, whereas Marvel is, at this point, mostly an iconic brand name. (Granted, Bride has a few years over Marvel movies.) Still, perhaps we don’t need every MCU film to be part of the U? I secretly think audiences responded so warmly to Spiderverse because it was a nice change of pace from Infinity Franchise: Make Sure to Wait Until After the Credits.
I’m not really saying anything new here. Many cinephiles advocate for more self-contained Marvel movies, to avoid franchise exhaustion. They don’t seem to be listening. And why would they? No one else is complaining. Their movies make billions of dollars and dominate the cultural zeitgeist. Quotability and charm are probably pretty low on the list of priorities. This makes me kind of sad. But, alas, I still love Spider-man, so I’m definitely a hypocrite.
Let’s just hope they never decide to make a Princess Bride extended universe.