Marvel changed the rules in 2008, when they launched their Cinematic Universe with Iron Man. Suddenly franchises became the only game in town, and every company was desperately looking for one. But how has this changed the movie industry?
These aren't your grandmother’s franchises
Before the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), a franchise was a limited thing. You got a few different types of franchises:
- The trilogies – ranging from the Star Wars Original Trilogy to The Matrix, a trilogy was all the rage. Three seemed to be a nice, complete little number, and few franchises extended beyond three segments. For particularly popular films, such as The Matrix, it was common for there to be claims that they’d been written in trilogies in the first place. Nobody particularly believed such claims.
- The sequels – some movies spawned a seemingly unending series of sequels. Always, though, these attempted to recreate the same iconic feel of the first popular installment, with mixed success. Some actually improved – I preferred Terminator 2: Judgement Day to The Terminator, for example – but most kind of dwindled. Is there anybody out there who’ll seriously claim that Alien: Resurrection was better than Aliens, for example?
- The novel series – most prominent being the likes of Harry Potter, a franchise that could run on for as long as the series of books that inspired it (and, with some pretty smart marketing decisions, could last a bit longer by splitting the final book into two films).
- Only a very few franchises could rumble on regardless, and those needed to have the capacity for dramatic reinvention. You’re talking the James Bond and Star Trek franchises here.
Superhero movies followed these trends. Warner Brothers’ Superman and Batman franchises had managed to stumble into the latter camp, exceeding the ‘trilogy’ in sheer number, but the quality of their offerings had dwindled so much that they soon ended. It’s worth remembering that, when the Superman franchise began to return to the big screens a few years ago, it did so by pretending everything after Superman II had never been made.
But the Marvel Cinematic Universe changed all that. The MCU consists of a lot of separate franchises, all sharing the same world – Iron Man (their most profitable solo franchise), coexisting with Thor, coexisting with Captain America, and culminating in The Avengers. These franchises are wide-open in a way that’s never been seen before; films can have different styles, from political thriller to space opera, and yet still exist in the same shared universe. What’s more, by their very nature these franchises have no end in sight. Chris Evans wants to leave? Well, maybe his character will die in Captain America: Civil War. No biggie, the juggernaut will continue to roll on.
You can see why the studios love this idea. At first glance it seems risky; one weak film could destroy the lot. But The Incredible Hulk was a weak film, and it didn’t do any lasting harm to the MCU. No, the real risks are twofold: first in the setup, where the launch-pad for the franchise needs to be tremendously effective, and secondly for the continuity, which needs to be strong. After all, the continuity between these movies is what will allow them to be threaded together into the seamless franchises that the audiences expect. Arguably, that's a lesson that not all studios have embraced (here's looking at your X-Men franchise, Fox).
How franchises are transforming the movie industry
Here’s the catch. Before, a movie was pretty much a director’s baby, and that was even the case in the franchises. Just compare David Yates’ Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to Chris Columbus’ Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Both were inspired by the same series of novels, and yet each has a very different style and tone.
Now, though, that’s no longer the case. Because the studios are playing the long game, they are quite prepared to muscle in on the directors’ turf and tell them what needs to be in. Joss Whedon is openly complaining about Avengers: Age of Ultron, with a vision-sequence for Thor being a particular bone of contention.
“The dreams were not an executive favorite. The dreams, the farmhouse, these were things I fought for. With the cave, they pointed a gun at the farm’s head and said, ‘Give us the cave’. I got the farm.”
From the studio’s point of view, it makes perfect sense. The cave scene was required to set up Thor: Ragnarok and the over-arching plots that will be brought to completion in Avengers: Infinity War. Quite simply, because Whedon was working in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he was required to make sure he fitted it in with the overarching narrative. In other words, the director has less freedom.
He's not the only director to struggle with the experience. Alan Taylor, who directed Thor: The Dark World, called his experience "wrenching" and said:
"I was sort of given absolute freedom while we were shooting, and then in post it turned into a different movie. So, that is something I hope never to repeat and don’t wish upon anybody else."
We’ve just seen the ultimate nightmarish extension of it all in Josh Trank’s dire Fantastic Four. With Fox aiming to set up a franchise, Trank – whose conduct on-set was hardly exemplary, by all accounts – wound up beaten down by the studio. Given this was only his second movie, he was clearly unprepared for the intense pressure of launching a franchise, let alone the pressure of handling the studio. When you watch Fantastic Four, it’s pretty easy to tell where the studio forced the rewrites, and the result is a film of two halves, each contrasting so badly with the other that neither truly works at all.
These new franchises are a place where the power of the director is curtailed, and where the studio – which has an overarching master plan – has the real power. For directors like Edgar Wright, who pulled out of Ant-Man, and even Joss Whedon, this is clearly not a change they like. Ava DuVernay even turned down the offer of directing Black Panther, explaining:
"This is my art. This is what will live on after I’m gone. So it’s important to me that that be true to who I was in this moment. And if there’s too much compromise, it really wasn’t going to be an Ava DuVernay film."
Studios seem to believe that the future lies in the franchise. Why else do you think we're getting Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a Harry Potter spin-off that broadens the scope of the movies? Why else do you think Sony has signed up for the beginning of a franchise with Valiant Comics, a company whose sales consist of less than 1% of the comic book market?
But if franchises are the future, then both studios and directors need to work out the rules of the game. Otherwise, Fantastic Four could just be the first flop.