Frederik vs the Franchises: Introduction

The box office may not show symptoms of fatigue for any given film franchise, but I sure am tired of all those vampires sucking the life out of popular culture (e.g. genre websites devoting so much coverage to Star Wars and the MCU/DCEU you’d swear nothing else exists). Franchises are a common topic in the entertainment press, of course, with sequels the frequent object of pity for failing to recapture the lightning that sparked in their progenitors. Yet franchise sequels we get, as long as the studios make a reasonable return on their investments.

Not all franchises are equal in ambition, however. Some are content to be film series, while others aspire to transmedia sprawl and iconic cultural status. Both levels of ambition are prone to diminishing returns with each sequel or spin-off in my view; the greater the quantity, the greater the chances of mediocrity. Personally, I think we’d be better off if crowdfunding was the dominant business model for filmmaking: rather that studios spending marketing dollars trying to manipulate us into seeing their latest mediocrity, only filmmakers with the visions and skills to persuade audience to give money to their efforts get to see their films realized. But that’s not reality. Given the often-exorbitant upfront costs of movie production for studios and the nature of our economy, it’s impossible to fully sever the profit motive from the artistic drive, so I understand why studios – businesses, fundamentally – reflexively turn to proven commodities such as successful films, best-selling books, classic films from the past, dormant franchises, popular characters from past works, and appeals to nostalgia as fuel to keep the box office fires burning.

To be fair, the current business model does produce some excellent films with artistic merit. Nevertheless, I don’t think that’s typical of films produced through a franchise model, and I’d level two general critiques to the franchising impulse.

Franchises inhibit rather than enhance individual artistic visions and authorship.

The reason is rather simple: it isn’t filmmakers who (own the intellectual property rights of their creations, but studios. I’m not only referring to the famous impact of market-driven studio interference on a director’s vision, resulting in critical panning and/or audience rejection (e.g. David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, the DCEU’s Justice League). I’m also referring to how one set of filmmakers on a franchise (including the original creators) are often replaced by others whose visions conflict, or at least don’t align, with their predecessors. Star Wars, Star Trek, the MCU, the DCEU, and Terminator are obvious examples. With so many different visions in play, franchises become saturated by retcons, reboots, and endless variations that serve to undermine the efforts of individual artists. What’s the value in crafting a poignant character arc or proposing an imaginative story concept when their outcomes can be revised, reversed or utterly ignored with subsequent franchise entries?

Franchises can lose their integrity even when they aren’t cobbled together by a multitude of creatives; the original creators themselves can undermine their creations when studios, market conditions, fandom, and/or personal motivations pressure them to revisit their work, especially after a lot of time has passed.

Franchises reduce fans to consumers.

The impact of a franchise isn’t only on the creative professionals who contribute their considerable talents to money-making projects for studios, but on the fans themselves. This may seem paradoxical, in that “successful” franchises clearly have excited fanbases (to varying degrees) who willingly spend money on the latest offerings, cosplay at conferences, and rev the social media buzz engine. That hardly seems like a bad thing, right? But as a certain Admiral might say, it’s a trap.

Broadly, the problem is one of volume: so much material is produced that it’s daunting for fans to keep up and for non-fans to find a way in, resulting in a struggle to savor past offerings while keeping up with the latest product. At some point, whether we admit it to ourselves or not, we end up having to accept mediocrity; “good enough” but disposable entertainment typically consumed once than left behind for the next new product. We also end up boxed in – the more we commit to a franchise as it sprawls out, the harder it becomes to enjoy other franchises or - <gasp> - creative stories that aren’t franchises. There’s only so much time, after all. Good luck to you if you’re a completionist!

The impact on fandom can be more insidious than issues of money and time commitments, however. In an effort to create new material, franchises often resort to two maneuvers: 1) Fill in story gaps, and 2) Overemphasize novelty. The former risks demystifying stories by limiting opportunities for us to use our own imaginations, while the latter risks replacing what we enjoyed in the first place with something less compelling, if not ruinous. When novelty becomes more important than integrity and quantity overshadows quality, franchises end up resorting to the instant gratification of gimmickry in trying to sustain their profits, which can only annoy purists and further reduce fandom to mere consumerism. Worse than that, it may convince fans that their love of a franchise entitles them to be pandered to as co-owners, a perspective that drives fans to get angry when they don’t get what they want, regardless of whether it aligns with the vision of those people actually creating the franchise. In this way, fandom itself becomes antagonistic to authorial vision by demanding a tailored product; fandom becomes less appreciative and more transactional.

A fixation on canonicity doesn’t help. At its simplest, there’s no problem per se with the idea of a canon – all it is a narrative continuity across multiple films or books. The concept can be used to distinguish between a creator’s original work and works by others. For example, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are the canon, while the countless derivative works that have followed are not regardless of their individual merits. But canonicity in recent years, particularly with the massive success of the MCU, is often just a way for studios/publishers to reassign creative privilege, justify mediocre work, and persuade consumers to spend more money on whatever new product they’re offering In other words, canonicity is code for intellectual property and, therefore, creative control, which ties in to my first general critique. “Canonicity” can also drive efforts to force disparate creative projects into some kind of whole, which comes weird narrative continuity projects as the DCEU demonstrates.

From Star Trek and Star Wars to Mission: Impossible, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and others, I’ll take a look at some of our popular franchises with these two general critiques in mind. So which franchise will stand up to scrutiny and which will fall? Stay tuned!