We’ve lost the art of concluding. We’re surrounded by sequels, spinoffs, decades-long franchises and newly-minted cinematic universes in movies, television, books, comics, and video games. We clamor for revivals, reboots, and reimaginings that not only follow what came before but also tie themselves to the past, effectively becoming another installment with a clever, modern rebranding. Of course, as film fans these ever lengthening franchises excite us, and like anyone who’s ever read a book they didn’t want to end, we become swept up in the possibility of more. More Star Wars, more Marvel, more DC, more Harry Potter, more Rocky, more Middle-Earth, more Legos, more Jurassic Parks, more Fast and Furious. More of everything that can and will make a profit. We bring attention to this not to admonish the studio system or lament the loss of “originality,” as more than enough has been written about that, but rather to examine from a creative standpoint if franchises should continue indefinitely, or if we need a definitive ending, and is there a perfect franchise length?
A couple weeks ago, Wired learned from Disney and Lucasfilm execs that Star Wars is being viewed as a “forever franchise” and that “you will probably not live to see the last one.” My immediate reaction was, “Great. Fantastic. More Star Wars!” But then I started thinking about it, and the more I thought about it, the more I became bothered by it. What is the point of something that never ends? Where’s the magic in something that becomes a yearly commodity instead of an event? In many ways, it mirrors the problem of immortality. To live forever sounds great, but then what meaning does life have if that’s the case? For the immediate future, a Star Wars movie, a roman numeraled sequel and a spin-off to alternate every year sounds wonderful.
And clearly the Star Wars universe is a vast and rich universe with plenty of stories to tell, but there was something special about the idea that out of all the potential stories and characters, George Lucas chose to center this universe on one family: the Skywalkers. Everything we learned about this universe stemmed from that admittedly narrow point of view, and there was an almost sacred relationship between audiences and characters in the knowledge of that fact, a fixed notion that these were the most important stories to witness.
So as the franchise grows larger and those original films grow older and older, and as actors and filmmakers are replaced from contracts and old age, and we’re introduced to new characters and creators, the franchise will clearly evolve into something no longer just Skywalker-centric, no longer steeped in B-movie serials, and the politics of the 20th and early 21st century. In theory, the early films will be artifacts, looked upon the same way comic books readers now look upon 18th century woodblock prints, or how none but the most invested of modern Doctor Who fans would dare go back and watch the original seasons. There’s something sad about the inevitable fact that the more Star Wars we have, the fewer the original films will matter to later generations whose greatest association with Han Solo isn’t Harrison Ford but some other actor. If we’re given too much of a good thing, then it seems likely that thing will lose its meaning, or at least the meaning it has for us in the here and now.
But Star Wars is only a small part of this problematic question of conclusions, if it is truly problematic at all. There’s clearly an issue of ownership that’s at the center of our question on franchise lengths. It’s natural to feel a sense of possession over certain franchises, be it a result of concerns of the era, or nostalgia, or knowledge. One could argue that franchises should exist for generation, made for a target audience of a certain time period. For instance, James Bond was meant to exist for a generation invested in the Cold War, but the character has survived long after its end, adapting poorly and more recently quite well to our modern era. If characters can adapt and be reinvented for each generation, then why shouldn’t they continue? After all, it’s this factor that has allowed comic book superheroes and their adaptations to remain so viable decade after decade.
But not even serialized comic books, which inspired our cinematic universe templates, are able to escape the weight of continuity and staleness. I’ve been reading comic books for 20 years, from a variety of various eras and takes on characters, and in that brief time alone, I’ve seen almost every story that can be told using superheroes recycled in some way. Even major events and characters deaths that attempt to shift stories in a new direction eventually return to the status quo. The personalities of these characters, icons, have also undergone dramatic changes over the years to befit the interests and events of the time, until even what is most iconic or most true about a character falls under contention. There’s a reason why comic book movies are the most heatedly debated films online, because no long-term consensus for these characters can really exist in the face of ceaseless published takes on the character, and any attempt to try to maintain a consensus results in boredom. To follow the format of comic books in movies and television and expect to remain on steady ground without the need to for major shakeups and retcons, is a dangerous road to take.
Let’s take the Marvel Universe for example, the franchise that most other franchises are attempting to follow. The cinematic universe approach allows for franchise variety, an exploration of characters and worlds that can maintain a consensus of character and tone while still managing to feel somewhat fresh. We’re 12 films and four TV shows into the MCU, with another collective 15 planned, and probably more on the docket for Phase 3. It’s highly unlikely that the franchise will end after the two-part Infinity War, and as a fan I don’t want it to. Still, I can’t fight this creeping feeling lately that some of the films are becoming a little too familiar, particularly when they have very little to say or add to our relationship with superheroes. These installments are fun, yes, but ultimately unsurprising. Consider it this way: there’s a reason why writers and artists are rotated from comic project to project. We need different voices in order for art to remain progressive and creative, if only for short, celebrated bursts. When you’re relying on the same think tank time and time again without an end in sight, the franchise is forced to cannibalize itself. But at the same time, no one wants to bring in new blood that completely tramples on what the franchise is and means, making it better to end while you’re ahead and this take on the property to remain forever untainted.
Meaning then becomes the ultimate factor in determining franchise length. How long can something continue while still having something new to say about “us” because really that’s what franchised stories should be: conversations about “us.” Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy worked so well because it was a singular vision on comic book history that had an actual ending that resonated emotionally and thematically with our 21st century lives. But in order for it to succeed, Nolan had to break away from following comic format of leaving Batman’s story open for endless sequels. He had to surprise us and challenge us by breaking what many considered to be key character traits. One of the biggest complaints about the trilogy’s concluding chapter, The Dark Knight Rises, is that it was completely out of character for Bruce Wayne to quit being Batman and go off and live a normal life. But of course this notion of Batman forever only exists because comic book publication makes it a necessity, not because it works best for the character. Bruce Wayne as the eternal Batman isn’t a character trait that comes from story but rather the need to continue publishing the most iconic version of the character possible.
Ultimately, franchise length should be dictated by a desire to tell a complete story that has some resonance and truth to it, even if that means breaking away from our preconceived notions of how our known characters should behave. If a franchise is only retreading the familiar, giving us the same version over and over again, and playing to our cultural concerns as they were, and not as they are, then that franchise is contributing nothing. Escaping this wormhole is achieved through creators who have a complete vision who are concerned with more than fan service and familiar comfort. This is why The Dark Knight trilogy works, and James Cameron’s Terminator films work, why Neil Gaiman’s Sandman works, and why Stephen King’s Dark Tower works. These are works with clear conclusions that say something, but if they hadn’t concluded it’s still possible these works could still say something. As long as a franchise can still say something new and relevant there’s no issue with the indefinite franchise. And this doesn’t have to be some grand existential consideration. The purpose of a franchise could be as simple as reminding parents to celebrate their children’s imagination a la The Lego Movie or comment on the media’s representation of image in relation to politics, like The Hunger Games. Franchises can still provide intelligent meaning without being overly heady.
Like many, I was recently blown away by Creed. Rocky Balboa seemed like the perfect conclusion to the Rocky franchise, but Ryan Coogler gave us reason to not only continue to follow Rocky but a new character as well. There are numerous reviews that refer to it, in the simplest terms, as a remake of Rocky, a film that follows many of the same beats as that original film, making it an entertaining but unnecessary installment. But Creed is a necessary sequel, spin-off, or whatever you want to call it, because it not only challenges how we’d like to see our familiar character but it also manages to say something about aging, and black identity in America that matters to us now and it does this through something as primal, and unglamorous as boxing. Creed does what the best franchise continuations do which is continue to open up the conversation about “us.”
Of course, for reasons of fandom, I want to see a sequel to Creed. I want a franchise that follows Adonis’ entire life, but artistically I can only affirm its necessity if it continues to say something. As audiences we’re continually caught between a battle of desire and necessity, and at times our desire to see a franchise continues overrides the necessity of it continuing. Sure, I’ll probably see Pirates of the Caribbean 5, and whatever Transformers spin-offs come about, but I highly doubt I’ll find them necessary to the conversation of “us,” which will ultimately affect my reaction to them. There is of course nothing wrong with watching empty films for the eye candy or distraction, but when it comes to the topic of franchise fatigue, we should at least be able to separate what we need from what we don’t. So as we look forward towards Star Wars: Rogue One, Fantastic Beats and Where to Find Them, Batman v Superman, Captain America: Civil War, and all the countless franchise installments in the coming years, we should not only look to be entertained but spoken to on some level that challenges our perceptions. These are installments worth talking about, worth remembering, and worth putting money towards. So is there a perfect franchise length? Yes, it’s whatever we can carry in our hearts and head to shape us in this moment, and the rest is just something comfortable to walk on in order to get to the next great and meaningful thing.
Featured Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures