How Kevin Smith Changed Modern Movies

Maybe you know him best for the podcast or the Twitter presence or the giant jorts. Maybe his modern legacy is that of the fanboy done good, a professional lover of all things pop culture who now gets to fulfill all kinds of nerdy dreams like interview Batman actors and host San Diego Comic-Con events. And sure, maybe the last 15-odd years have seen him direct more misses than hits. Still, we gotta give credit where it’s due: Modern cinema would look very different were it not for the trail blazed by the legendary Kevin Smith.

The origin story is practically superhero lore itself these days. After a pivotal viewing of Richard Linklater’s Slacker at the age of 21, New Jersey’s Kevin Smith found himself motivated to become a filmmaker. Following a short stint at film school he moved back to Jersey, got a job at a convenience store, and soon sold his entire comic collection, maxed out several credit cards, and pocketed insurance money for a car damaged in a flood. That money, which came out to roughly $27,500, provided the budget for Clerks, his feature debut. It changed the game.

To be fair, Smith didn’t do it all by himself. He found himself in a moment where indie film was being thrust into the spotlight in a way it hadn’t been before. It’s easy to group him in with fanboy auteurs like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez but this was also the era of greats like Steven Soderbergh and the aforementioned Richard Linklater.

Smith’s Clerks, however, was right at the vanguard. Shot on cheap black and white film and set in the very convenience store in which Smith was working day shifts, he and his friends shot at night and got the footage they needed over the course of just three weeks. Clerks tapped into Gen X malaise and slackerdom. It felt like an authentic portrayal of a bunch of Jersey burnouts, with characters waxing poetic on sexual politics and Star Wars™ alike.

Clerks launched a prolific decade for Smith that included cult sleepers like Mallrats and legitimate hits like Chasing Amy and Dogma. Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Jason Lee, and Joey Lauren Adams (among others) appear throughout the run, putting in work that helped launch them into the public spotlight. It was a hell of a tear for a guy who, just a few years earlier, had been working at a convenience store.

We can’t chalk the entirety of the state of indie film as it exists today up to Smith’s influence. As noted, he was a figure (albeit a prominent one) in the middle of a major movement in film. However, the way he did it — and the film he was able to make because of it — sent shockwaves throughout the world of filmmaking. We’re still experiencing the fruits of his labor today, even if his name isn’t in the credits.

However, it’s not just indie film that Smith changed forever. There’s a very real argument to be made that he set the template for the MCU, the DCEU, hell, even The Conjuring‘s cinematic universe. After all, not only is Kevin Smith one of the more significant indie auteurs of all time, he’s also responsible for popularizing the idea of the cinematic universe to begin with. In a sense, blockbuster filmmaking is just as indebted to him as indie.

While film franchises as a whole obviously existed before he started making movies (and cinematic universes weren’t entirely unheard of — shoutout to the Universal Monsters), Kevin Smith made the very deliberate calculation to set all of his films in a shared universe called the View Askewniverse.

Named after Smith’s production company, View Askew, the world is largely anchored by the iconic Jay and Silent Bob, two characters who first appear in Clerks. The duo is, in Shakespearean terms, something of a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for the View Askewniverse (or perhaps saying they serve the same function as Nick Fury in the early MCU films will suffice). When they appear in Mallrats, the follow-up to Clerks, it cements the films as taking place in a shared continuity. As the universe grew across a number of Smith’s films (as well as the crazy underrated Clerks: The Animated Series), it grew to contain an expansive cast of recurring actors and characters as well as in-continuity landmarks like Mooby’s burger joint. It’s also made its way into short films, video games, and comic books.

While it’s hard to point to a larger overarching story being told, that’s not necessarily the point. Smith drew inspiration from comic book universes in constructing his little world and the point of the View Askewniverse isn’t so much that everything is building to a big moment so much as the idea that lead characters in one movie might have supporting roles or cameos in others. It feels intimate and homey, like catching up with friends. Isn’t that just as vital as the all-important modern concept of the _____ Saga?

Sure, not all of his movies have aged well (he’d be the first to admit this). And maybe his best work is behind him. Still, it’s hard not to appreciate the effect Kevin Smith had on film at large. He opened doors for so many talented filmmakers simply by blazing the trail that he did. And by making his films the way he did, he set a template for the shared cinematic universes that we all know and love so much today. Most importantly, he seems to have had fun every step of the way. Kevin Smith changed filmmaking forever. We’re lucky to have him.

Tres Dean is a culture and comics writer. He has been published by GQ, Paste, Syfy, Geek.com, UPROXX, IGN, Looper, and more. For Your Consideration: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is is his first book, available now through Quirk Books.