“God willing we’ll all meet again in Spaceballs 2: The Search for More Money.”
Hollywood is going into franchise overload. I’m not surprised. “Avengers: Endgame” has apparently made all the money and as of this writing hasn’t technically been released to general audiences yet. But this trend is so aggressive that I am beginning to understand the frustration people who don’t like superhero movies experience when all the upcoming movies appear to be nothing but superhero movies. And yet while studios try to ride the lightning that is the success of the MCU, they are still completely missing the foundation of that success; to wit, make movies people want to see and then plan out some sequels.
The Horses in the Race –
As of the time of this writing, Universal Pictures has a grand plan of turning its classic monster movies (Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, etc.) into some kind of shared universe franchise dubbed the “Dark Universe.” Actually, Universal tried to get this idea off the ground a few years ago with the much and deservedly maligned Dracula Untold (which should have remained untold). That movie crashed and burned because it just wasn’t very good. Undeterred, Universal executives continued to plan out movies and line up directors and stars and tried a re-reboot with a remake of The Mummy. This was done in 1999, and was a quite enjoyable action/pulp/comedy romp in the vein of Indiana Jones, but more on that later. This time I guess the movie executives decided the cornerstone movie of the Dark Universe just needed a bigger star to kickstart the franchise and thus hired Tom “I do my own stunts whether the studio likes it or not” Cruise. This movie was set in the modern day and has its own totally-not-SHIELD secret organization that exists solely to arrange a totally-not-Avengers rip-off movie in a few years despite the fact it sucked.
Undeterred by a lack of superhero properties, Paramount Studios also has a franchise plan for a “MonsterVerse” which will feature the classic rubber suit monsters (Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, etc.) into some kind of shared universe. Kong: Skull Island is the first and hey guess what there’s also a totally-not-SHIELD secret organization that exists solely to arrange a totally-not-Avengers rip-off movie in a few years.
Undeterred by superhero fatigue and considerable unevenness in quality, Fox (until the studio’s purchase by our soon to be overlord Disney) was still pumping out X-men movies. Despite “Age of Apocalypse” not being very good, X-men: Dark Phoenix is coming to a theater near even though there has not been nearly enough time spent with Jean Grey for this movie to begin to work on an emotional level. I suspect it will be a repeat of the much and deservedly maligned X-men 3: Last Stand. Maybe at least this will pause while Disney tries to figure out what to do with the merry mutants.
Undeterred by superhero fatigue and a complete bungling of its properties, Sony Pictures has decided to spawn a franchise from Venom and has attached an A-list actor to the role. Of course, since Spider-man is now under shared custody with Marvel, this Venom series won’t actually be connected to Spider-man even though that makes zero sense. Look, Spider-man 3 was only a mediocre movie, but without using it or any reference to Spider-man, there is no reason for the character of Venom (especially if it’s going to be Eddie Brock) to exist.
Speaking of Spider-man’s shared custody arrangement with Marvel Studios, Sony has agreed to let Marvel helm the next SIX movies and then consider new arrangements.
But first, a quick detour into the past.
Accidental Franchises –
Once upon a time, Hollywood studios made movies and if those movies were well-received/successful, the studio pumped out a sequel, maybe even two. Sequels weren’t planned ahead of time and some of the most successful/iconic franchises were accidental.
Star Wars – Arguably the first franchise in the monetary and pop cultural juggernaut sense of the world. George Lucas had no plans for a sequel, which is really obvious with A New Hope. He was so sure the studio wasn’t going to be interested in another entry of his space opera that he went off with Steven Spielberg and one of the main Star Wars actors to work on his action/pulp/comedy romp. Most of the writing duties were left to someone else, but the studio did actually greenlight two sequels.
Indiana Jones – That other movie Lucas was working on. The first movie doesn’t have Indy’s name in the title. It wasn’t meant to have a sequel. The sequel (which was actually a prequel) wasn’t very good either. I’m honestly not sure what prompted production of the third movie, but it was pretty good and also clearly meant to be the final entry of the franchise. It ends with the main characters riding off into the sunset! But no, the studio couldn’t leave well enough alone and a fourth and the worse movie was made because of franchise! Reboot! Easy money!
Pirates of the Caribbean – The Curse of the Black Pearl was silly, over-the-top summer swashbuckling fun. Sure, the end credit teaser left a door open for a sequel, but the story didn’t, and it was painfully obvious the studio was scrambling to capitalize on the first movie’s success. It didn’t work, and five movies in I think maybe Disney is realizing this ship has sailed.
Transformers – Honestly I have no idea if a sequel was already planned but it didn’t seem like that to me. But hey, it made enough money so the studio slapped up another explosive CG-slugfest on the screen and it made even more money than the first one. Five movies in, American audiences are tired of the same damn thing but Transformers 7 is already in pre-production and there was a Bumblebee spin-off/prequel thing.
The Mummy (1999 Remake) – This was a fun, campy, pulpy action-comedy and I think the badly-aged CGI just gives it an extra layer of camp. It’s obvious the success of this movie was a surprise to the studio given how quickly and sloppily a sequel was churned out. The Mummy Returns wasn’t the worst sequel, or the worst in the franchise, but I had no idea there were four Scorpion King movies spun off from this thing.
Back to Basics:
So what did all these franchises and the MCU have in common? The first movie, at the very worst, was a thoroughly enjoyable popcorn flick (even Transformers, which I didn’t enjoy, but I can see the appeal). The entire MCU hinged on audiences liking Iron Man enough to want to see more. For these other franchises, the audiences enjoyed them enough that the studios scrambled to capitalize on their unplanned success. But somewhere in the evolution and dominance of the franchise model, most movie studios have completely forgotten why movies are successful. Instead the studios are planning out years worth of movies even before the first one is released with the expectation that audiences will pay out for years. The flaw in this model is, of course, unless that first movie is successful, all that other work and planning is for naught. Even television networks, which have serialized programming, don’t order five seasons of a brand new show complete with actors, directors, writers, before the first show has even aired. TV networks order a pilot, and maybe half a season, to find out if there is an audience for that show.
I’m really not sure how so many studios are missing this fundamental principle. Marvel Studios knew if audiences didn’t like Iron Man, the plans for the MCU would have to be at the least rewritten and at worst completely scrapped. Universal should know better. Dracula Untold was a financial and critical failure that is being handwaved out of the Dark Universe Continuity. And what about that Mummy remake with the A-list action star? It sucked too. It turns out, unsurprisingly to anyone who has been paying attention, that bad movies don’t make money, and The Mummy remake is a grimdark, bland, almost by the books action flick with some supernatural elements thrown in.
The Human Element:
The proposed MonsterVerse has another problem which has been highlighted by the diminishing success of the Transformers franchise – audiences don’t care about the humans. When I pay money to see a movie about giant transforming robots, I want to see giant transforming robots. I don’t give a damn about a whiny teenager’s efforts to land the outrageously hot chick while dealing with his stereotypically clueless parents and some bureaucratic jackass. By the same token, if I pay money to see a kaiju stomp through a city, I really don’t care too much about the inner turmoil of the soldiers trying to stop it. See Pacific Rim: giant mecha vs giant monsters – pointless human characters = awesomeness.
Humans like novelty, and after awhile burn-out is going to be a problem. Some reach that point sooner than others. I only had to watch one “Transformers” movie to be tired of that, but I watched four “Pirates” movies before I gave up. I watched The Force Awakens and enjoyed it but I’m not interested in the rest of the series (mostly because the Jedi seem to be utterly incompetent [even if you discount the prequels]) and I’m certainly not interested in more Star Wars stories to fill the gaps between entries in the main franchise. I never had an interest in Cars, and I think Toy Story closed out just fine. Retreading old ground is only going to work for so long, but I suppose as long as there is money to be made it’s a lot easier to keep making kind of the same thing than try out something new.