How the new optimism toward movie franchises is changing Hollywood's approach to sequels

By Darren Franich
April 24, 2015 at 09:43 PM EDT

It has been 22 years since the last good Jurassic Park movie, 24 years since the last good Terminator movie, 34 years since the last good Mad Max movie, and never ever ever ever since the last good Fantastic Four movie. It has been either 32 years or 35 years since the last good Star Wars movie, depending on how honest we’re being about the merits of ambient puppetry, rehashed superweapons, and the musical stylings of the Max Rebo Band.

Your opinions may vary. Some people groove on Terminator 3 because they remember the car chase, or because Kristanna Loken is just one iconic scene away from being a great villain. (In a better, weirder world, Terminatrix became a direct-to-dvd franchise, with Lorenzo Lamas as John Connor.) Personally, I have a soft spot for the nonsensical Jurassic Park III, which is clearly not a very good Jurassic Park movie but is arguably an above-average Tremors movie. The point is: If you are turning 21 this year, then you can celebrate your first night of legal drinking by going to the movie theater and watching a new sequel in a franchise that has not been good since before you were alive.

Now, one should never judge a book by its cover, or a movie by its trailer. Franchises have come back from worse oblivions. Star Trek: First Contact was a high point for the cinematic Trek series which led to declining returns; it was 13 years before J.J. Abrams rebooted the series successfully with Star Trek, before inadvertently unbooting the series with Star Trek Into Darkness. Thirteen years is also the length of time between Tim Burton’s gloriously unhinged Batman Returns and Christopher Nolan’s epic Batman Begins. (Someone somewhere is about to write their defense of the Joel Schumacher films; I am not that someone.) And speaking as maybe the world’s leading proponent of bad Planet of the Apes sequels, it was four decades after the halfway-decent Conquest that Andy Serkis successfully/maybe singlehandedly transformed Rise of the Planet of the Apes into one of the great summer surprises of the 2010s.

So maybe all of these new movies will be good. I hope so; we won’t know until they’re out. But what’s interesting is how we talk about them, as a moviegoing culture. Or a trailer-watching culture, or a fan culture, or a GIF culture, or whatever the culture is that has kept people talking about the hopeful possibility of Jurassic Park IV ever since people were disappointed by Jurassic Park III.

Because—to move into a space of helpless generalization—the way we talk about this year’s franchise iterations is very different from how we talked about Abrams’ Trek, or Nolan’s Batman. With both franchises, there was a clear understanding that something was broke and required fixing. Apes‘ case was even more extreme: It had been so long since anyone cared about the franchise that the filmmakers could reboot it into an entirely different genre space.

I’m not sure that’s true with the new films. Certainly, it’s not true of their trailers. Jurassic World and Terminator: Genisys were initially sold as cover-band versions of the original films. Literally, in Terminator‘s case: The first trailer only really makes sense if you’ve watched the first Terminator recently and constantly. I have, so I could really appreciate how the trailer perfectly recreated the look of an ’80s thrift store, a throwaway setting in the original movie:

World and Genisys are clearly trying to remind you of how much you loved the earlier, better films; so it’s weird that, even in trailer form, they both feature elements that can only remind you of the later, badder films. Genisys features copious scenes of the future apocalypse—the setting for 2009’s Terminator Salvation, which was like the Saving Private Ryan D-Day sequence remade as a Limp Bizkit video. And World‘s main selling point, beyond clear visual references to the original movie, is the notion of a Bigger, Badder Dinosaur—which was also the selling point of Jurassic Park III. (Indominus is the new Spinosaurus.)

Is it wrong to talk like this about trailers—to treat them even a little bit seriously? They’re advertisements—and, in the case of Genisys, not particularly good advertisements. (Hence the sudden decision to reorient the campaign around a pretty massive plot twist.) It’s important to keep an open mind, right?

But when does “keeping an open mind” cross over into outright delusion? How much should the incredible love and nostalgia for the original Jurassic Park define how we talk about a franchise which currently has more misses than hits? And not just near-misses: The Lost World is a near-complete trainwreck, maybe the only time in his directorial career that Steven Spielberg went on autopilot. Does it matter that there have been two bad Jurassic Park movies?

To judge from the general reaction to Jurassic World‘s trailers, the answer seems to be “not really.” The mid-’00s skepticism about sainted Hollywood franchises has shaded into a kind of retcon optimism, representing a demonic alliance between studio marketing and whatever ambient “fanbase” a franchise thinks it might have. This is important only insofar as it appears to be affecting Hollywood’s perspective on its franchises. People talked about The Amazing Spider-Man 2 for a long time before the movie came out; conversation about the film essentially evaporated after it opened, mainly because there wasn’t much to talk about.

I realize this all sounds vague, that we’re in the world of phrases like “movie culture” and “trailer culture,” a world where we pretend that How People Talk About Things On Social Media completely equals how people actually talk about things. But the concrete results of this new normal speak for themselves. The Amazing Spider-Man movies were bad; Sony’s solution is to forge ahead, with two different Spider-Man movies slated to arrive in the next three years. The implicit promise of those movies is the same promise behind every long-in-the-tooth franchise extension this year: “Did the franchise take a bad turn? Maybe. But wasn’t it great originally? Look, we hired the LEGO Movie guys!” And maybe some of that excitement is justified. But shouldn’t we pair that excitement with a healthy skepticism? Is there even a way to talk about trailer culture without sounding like a breathless fan (THAT LOOKS AWESOME) or a curmudgeonly scold (THEY HAVEN’T BEEN GOOD IN TWO DECADES)?

Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome is a trainwreck, too. Because it’s older, it’s aged into a kind of non-qualititative nostalgia—Master Blaster impressions, Tina Turner’s hair. And it almost certainly helps that Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t just drifting off anyone’s nostalgia for the franchise. Action-inclined cinephiles love The Road Warrior, and everything’s got a fanbase somewhere, but I’m inclined to think that Fury Road exists less because of residual love for an ’80s franchise and more because Warner Bros. recognized the value of a car-chase movie with “Fury” in the title.

On a grander cultural level, you could argue that Mad Max needed to separate itelf from its own history. People are excited to see Harrison Ford as Han Solo; nobody wants to see Mel Gibson as anything.

In that sense, the new Star Wars movies have the trickiest needle to thread: Reminding people how much they loved the originals while pretending the intervening prequel series never happened; layering the film with all the visual iconography of the original trilogy while (hopefully) creating brand new visuals to match the snazzy remixes; featuring old characters who have existed as cultural memory-icons for 30 years while also creating entirely new personalities who can motivate future installments. For fully years now, The Force Awakens has floated on hopeful goodwill and a series of easy PR victories: the return of John Williams, the vow to use practical effects, the general sense that everyone involved refuses to use the word “prequel.”

But Disney is working on a prequel. And later this year, Force Awakens will no longer be a series of trailers and promises: It will be a movie. Does it even matter if it’s good or bad? If it is bad, isn’t it weird that our culture will basically just absorb that into the firmament, looking forward to potential improvements in a sequel whose existence no one would dream of denying?

It didn’t matter before, the whole good-bad thing. The original Star Wars trilogy might have helped to invent the blockbuster era, but the prequel trilogy invented our modern moment. Nobody liked Phantom Menace; six years later, Revenge of the Sith grossed less, but still more money than God. We deserve this, whatever this is.


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