Ever since Jaws exploded into the popular consciousness in the summer of 1975 the world has been at the mercy of blockbuster film franchises. Usually (but not always) building upon highly successful source material, film franchises construct ongoing, complex cinematic (and extra-cinematic) universes in which multiple story arcs and characters emerge from that original property. Of course, while it is unfair to begrudge successful films purely for the fact that they are so, franchise fatigue is inevitable. At the time of writing, the highest earning films of the year are as follows: Jurassic World, Furious 7, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Minions, Inside Out, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Fifty Shades of Grey, Cinderella, Ant-Man, and San Andreas. The Martian and Spectre are certain to enter that list before long, and if you weigh in the guaranteed success of upcoming films such as The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part II, The Good Dinosaur, and a small film about a galaxy far, far away, you can quite accurately predict what the final scoreboard will look like come Dec. 31st.
What is perhaps most striking is the realisation that very few original properties sit among them. Jurassic World, F7, Age of Ultron, Minions, M:I5, Fifty Shades, Ant-Man, Spectre, Hunger Games, and Star Wars are all entries in ongoing (or emerging in the case of Fifty Shades) film franchises. Inside Out, Cinderella, and The Good Dinosaur are all properties belonging to Disney and, as such, co-exist as individual production units signifying a collective brand. With this in mind, Disney’s numerous productions merge to form a colossal, transtextual franchise united beneath a universally recognisable sign. While this should do nothing to discredit the creative ingenuity of a film such as Inside Out, it is impossible to separate the film from the brand (if not Disney’s, certainly Pixar’s) of its parent company. This leaves San Andreas and The Martian. Of those, The Martian is an adaptation of a successful novel, and although that does not make it a franchise as such, it does point to the text’s pre-existing place in pop culture (that is, at least, until the announcement of sequel). That leaves San Andreas. Yes, alongside The Martian, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s forgettable, CGI-laden retread of 2012 is the only film that truly stands apart from the franchises that seems to be dominating the global box office.
So what does this mean? Surely, you might wonder, these figures are a fair indication that the studios are responding to audience demands and giving them what they want? Well, on the one hand, absolutely; if Spectre continues to perform well and Hunger Games and Star Wars perform as expected, 2015’s box office takings will be the largest ever, a pretty clear signal that the audiences are indeed getting what they want. On the other hand, the build-up of critical indifference is more widely felt than ever before. Large franchise films such as Fantastic Four and Terminator:Genisys have flopped, critically speaking, and even big-hitters such as Jurassic World, Age of Ultron, and Spectre have not enjoyed the praise afforded to previous entries in their respective franchises. Despite Spectre’s strong commercial performance the critical praise has been rather muted, and it certainly feels closer, in terms of quality, to Quantum of Solace than to Casino Royale or Skyfall. For now, critical indifference is not enough to defeat franchises of this or MCU’s size; Bond and the Avengers have fairly won a lion’s share of the market that might well continue in spite of a seeming dip in quality – after all, Transformers is a fine example for the fact that there is not always a correlation between quality and success.
Perhaps Spectre and Age of Ultron will prove to be no more than minor hiccups. It is unlikely, however. More likely is that both Bond and the Avengers will continue to be increasingly burdened by the weight of their own, haemorrhaging success. Neither are particularly bad films, but neither are particularly great either, nor memorable. Spectre’s odd decision to retroactively shoehorn in a vague semblance of textual continuity felt half-hearted and, given the franchise’s usual template, a tad unnecessary. Throw in some a nonsensical plot, some embarrassingly outdated gender roles (it is as though Bond was taught everything he knows about consent by an alpha lion during mating season), and a laughably underused villain with vague motivations and a by-the-numbers henchman, what you are left with is overwrought mess of a film that is lacking in finesse, a film that is all surface with little substance. Daniel Craig looks weary in the role and seems as though he is begging to be retired from a franchise he obviously does not enjoy making; perhaps, in lieu of fifty years’ worth of apologies, Bond could be a woman for the inevitable reboot.
Age of Ultron, on the other hand, bears all the hallmarks of a bubble poised to pop. Sadly it is fated to be remembered as the film that broke Joss Whedon, and while you cannot help but his attempt to pull off an unenviable task, you can also see the scars of film about to collapse in on itself. Age of Ultron sits at the epicentre of 23 films (including both those released and the upcoming MCU films) and 8 television series, not to mention the myriad comic books from which they originated. Even for a fan of the material, the experience of the film was somewhat tiresome with every line of dialogue foreshadowing something yet to come, or providing some witty easter egg, in what must be one of the most complex and exhausting franchises constructed. Expect it begin all over again as DC make their move with Dawn of Justice next year. While essentially a Star Wars movie, Guardian of the Galaxy was enjoyable for the fact that it was the first Marvel film in years that you could enjoy on its own terms, something that is surely to change with the sequel. It is not helped by the availability of endless source material for the likes of Marvel and DC, but filmmakers across the industry seem able to turn films into franchises and and milk them for every dollar they are worth. Peter Jackson turned The Hobbit, a relatively concise 300-odd page novel, into a 474 minute trilogy. JK Rowling’s reworking of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them as a Harry Potter spin-off is further evidence that some franchises just cannot be left alone (and, of course, you should expect sequels to that also). The trailer for Finding Dory looks dangerously and tragically safe. Other sacred properties such as The Terminator, Alien, and Indiana Jones have birthed dubious ongoing franchises, and, while Star Wars: The Force Awakens looks great, we should all remember that we have been burned before.
So where do we go from here? For now the MCU is at the height of its popularity and will no doubt continue to be successful for the time being. Bond, also. An interesting and decisive will emerge for the MCU as the contracts expire on their primary cast. Spielberg was recently criticised for predicting the decline of the superhero movie; he was not wrong, it will happen at some point, probably in the next five years or so. It is a shame, however, to see them stumble under the weight of their own ambition – if Age of Ultron was a mess, then there is no predicting what Civil War and Infinity War could end up looking like. At least Disney is currently successful enough to absorb a major blow if it comes; but no studio wants to have a billion dollars invested in a genre as it begins to decline. We are, of course, happy to have our suspicions abated. Perhaps this is purely the franchise fatigue talking for there is always room for a good franchise film; George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road is a testament to that, a film that nods to its origins while positioning itself as something altogether new. Let’s hope that Abrams has been paying closer attention to that than he has been to Trevorrow’s Jurassic World. Here is hoping. As ever, the ball is in your court, J.J.