Extrapolating from the scene on opening night here in Chicago—where hordes of drooling Joss Whedon acolytes (myself among them, I confess), some dressed up as their favorite Firefly characters—I expected for Serenity to be the biggest phenomenon since Tom Cruise taught us the “Hippy Hippy Shake.” Alas, it was not to be, which means that Whedon will have to wait until his next movie (or the film’s DVD release) for his inevitable ascension to Lucasian fanboy proportions. For now, I’m resigned to fall back on my usual attitude when movies I care about tank: Hey, at least it got made.

Though Serenity’s tepid returns are disheartening for reasons both general (Hollywood will be reluctant to roll the dice again on cult items with no stars) and specific (no trilogy, no triumphant return to network television), I want to devote this blog post to a heretical thought that’s been running through my mind recently:

Is TV better than film?

Okay, I can’t seriously answer that question with a “yes,” but I’m feeling a lot less emphatic about saying “no” lately. Some of it has to do with the sheer wealth of great television made in recent years: The Sopranos, The Wire, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Office, The Simpsons (well, not recently, but still), King Of The Hill, Arrested Development, Lost, The Shield, Freaks & Geeks, Undeclared, Buffy, Firefly, Gilmore Girls…the list goes on and on and on. But much of it also has to do with chief advantage that television has over film, which is time—time to get to know a group of characters, time to see them in all kinds of different situations, time to intricately develop and layer many compelling narrative threads. TV might not be as dynamic or expressively varied as film, but I confess to frequently caring more about the fates of TV characters than I do about movie characters, and I also confess to finding TV often more compelling on a pure storytelling level. Can anyone think of a movie in past few years that’s been as narratively rich as any given season of The Sopranos, for example? Me, neither.

To get back to Serenity, there’s an event that happens late in the film that caused me (and presumably other Firefly fans) to get a little choked up. (Sorry to be so vague, but don’t want to spoil the surprise.) I’d guess that no one entering this movie cold, without having spent a second with this lovable crew before, would find themselves remotely moved by this event, but if you’ve as fully invested in these characters as other followers of the TV show, it’s a whole different story. Part of this is Whedon’s failing: Given the opportunity to reach out to another audience, perhaps he didn’t go far enough in making this unfamiliar world accessible to newcomers. (My personal attitude is “Fuck ‘em, they should have watched the show,” but I realize that’s not a very charitable position.) But much of the problem is inherent in the movies: With such a big ensemble and so much narrative business that need wrapping up, it’s just impossible to spend the time necessary to bring this emotional moment home, no matter how economical Whedon is as a storyteller.

Overall, I think Serenity is an enormously satisfying entertainment: Just witnessing this great, orphaned TV show revived on the big screen was triumph enough, and Whedon brings the overarching story to the rousing resolution that Fox never afforded it. And compared to other popular space adventures, like the Star Wars prequels, Whedon’s zingy dialogue and general gleeful irreverence are much more conducive to fun. (One critic, I forget who, aptly compared the film to Star Wars populated only by multiple Hans Solos.) Even the shambling special effects have a retro charm to them, and I suspect the film will be treasured in much the same way as The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai.

But still, Serenity is simply not the same as Firefly, and that’s entirely due to limitations imposed by the new medium. The expanse of 14 episodes allowed the show to relax considerably and nurture a tone that’s as loose and shambling as that crapbucket of a spaceship they’re riding on. Gone in the movie are many of the Western elements that give the show its unique flavor (even that charming opening credits song, dammit), sacrificed to the necessary conventions of an action-packed sci-fi adventure. Presuming that Whedon would have come to the same resolution after a full 22-episode season, that means that he squeezed about eight or 10 episodes worth of incident into three. God bless him for trying, but this small-to-large-screen adaptation, for all its considerable merits, underlines the superior potential of first-rate serialized television.