Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 13 November 2019

From 'Men In Black' to 'X-Men': Why does Hollywood not know what to do with its franchises anymore?

And 2019 seems to be the year where audiences are finally rejecting the various lazy approaches to franchise filmmaking

‘Men in Black: International’ is another film that has failed to match the popularity and box office success of other movies in their franchises. AP
‘Men in Black: International’ is another film that has failed to match the popularity and box office success of other movies in their franchises. AP

The release of Avengers: Endgame and its subsequent $2.74 billion (Dh10bn) box office haul suggested that studios still knew how to entice audiences into cinemas. But this month has made a folly of such claims, with Men in Black: International the latest big-money casualty of what has been a cruel summer for films.

The movie, which will be in UAE cinemas from Thursday, is unlikely to be successful. Put simply, it is not a good movie. When you compare it to 1997’s original Men in Black, it is so unimaginative, hackneyed and lame as to become genuinely frustrating to watch.

First of all, let’s look at the actors leading the two films. In 1997, the boundless charisma and energy of Will Smith combined with Tommy Lee Jones’s stern and deadpan performance was a match made in cinematic heaven, with the duo generating plenty of laughs, while selling the plot so well that you were willing to believe the Men in Black existed in the real world.

Why franchises fail

But casting Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth in Men in Black: International so soon after they’d starred together in 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok didn’t only lack imagination, it made it seem as though Men in Black: International was trying to piggyback on Marvel’s massive success. Hemsworth and Thompson never stood a chance of rivalling Smith and Jones, as there is a complete lack of originality in Men in Black: International.

Screenwriter for the original Men in Black movie, Ed Solomon, who also wrote the Bill & Ted movies, was able to craft a comedy that genuinely unsettled viewers. This was then heightened by the film’s creepy yet beguiling alien designs, effects and make-up, which were much more in line with Lowell Cunningham’s bleak comic book series.

In an attempt to reboot the Men in Black series for an audience addicted to modern blockbuster franchises, writers Art Marcum and Matt Holloway were recruited, with the pair having previously written Iron Man and Transformers: The Last Knight. That meant there was no room for creatures that might unnerve audiences. Instead the aliens were replaced by family-friendly monsters seemingly designed to sell toys. At the same time, the eclectic humour, energy and tone of Men in Black was replaced by sarcastic and dry quips that have the cadence of a joke but aren’t actually funny.

Rather than trying to surprise or connect with you, Men in Black: International is simply intent on making sure you’re not bored. That’s why its story ties itself in knots in an attempt to be interesting, while its action set pieces fly by so quickly you’re unable to make sense of them. Thankfully, this year, audiences are rejecting the various lazy approaches to franchise filmmaking.

Are we facing franchise fatigue?

The warning signs could actually be seen in January. Despite being billed as the end of the Unbreakable trilogy, which had been 19 years in the making, Glass grossed about $30 million less than 2016’s Split. That was quickly blamed on its poor reviews, albeit its $247m haul from a $20m budget also meant this disappointment could be easily ignored.

Such a luxury couldn’t be extended to the poor performances of The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part and Happy Death Day 2U over back-to-back weekends in February. The initial movies in those franchises had good reviews and returned strong box office numbers, while Warner Bros Animation and Blumhouse Productions planned the follow-ups to be the first of many.

However, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part amassed only $191.1m compared to 2014’s The Lego Movie’s $469.1m, with Happy Death Day 2U grossing $61.3m less than Happy Death Day’s $125.5m, even though it was released only 16 months ­earlier. Both movies were praised by critics and expanded their worlds in new and interesting ways, but they failed to connect with audiences who had been enraptured by the earlier films.

Since then, the attempt to reboot Hellboy with a 15 rating and shove it down the path paved by Deadpool exploded in flames immediately after its release, as it lacked the star power, irreverence, reviews and positive hearsay to entice casual moviegoers in the same way. Even the cute and cuddly critters in The Secret Life of Pets 2 have flopped into insignificance, after making only $48m in its opening weekend. The same could be said for Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which is likely to gross significantly less than Godzilla’s $529.1m.

But the most glaring example of franchise fatigue came earlier this month with the release of Dark Phoenix. The 19-year X-Men saga grossed about $5.75bn over the course of the franchise, but concluded with a film that could lose 20th Century Fox about $100m.

Rather than pay attention to the failure of 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse, Fox doubled down on a stale and increasingly convoluted franchise that was plagued by its association with Bryan Singer, failed to compete with Marvel, and should have ended when Hugh Jackman bowed out with 2017’s Logan.

Yet there's still hope

The problem is, Marvel made building a cinematic universe look easy. But while its rivals have tried to rigidly replicate its formula for success, Marvel hasn’t simply made the superhero genre its own. Alongside Disney’s live-action reboots, Marvel has a taken a stranglehold of the box office and other studios can’t compete.

The studio has expanded the Marvel Cinematic Universe with more diverse and intriguing characters such as Captain Marvel, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, Ant-Man and Spider-Man, and merged them perfectly with their established superheroes, before putting them in increasingly fraught, dramatic and epic stories. Avengers: Endgame was its apex, and any cinematic rival will feel inferior in comparison.

But there is perhaps one positive to take from all of these underperforming movies. Jordan Peele’s Us, an original story that made $254.1m from a budget of $20m became a cultural phenomenon. Meanwhile, the critically acclaimed third John Wick film, directed by Chad Stahelski, became the highest-­grossing entry to the franchise yet. The success of movies such as these could convince other studios that embracing talented, ambitious filmmakers with new and distinctively cinematic stories to tell is the way to generate profits.

But with The Boy 2, Hobbs & Shaw, Terminator: Dark Fate, Zombieland: Double Tap, Rambo: Last Blood, The Angry Birds Movie 2, Jumanji 3, and Angel Has Fallen all due out before the end of the year, audiences will have to stay away from many more franchise films before studios ­really get the point.

Updated: June 18, 2019 06:38 PM

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