Maybe this Franchise Thing is Out of Control

It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when super-hero movies were few and far between. Now, they’re so ubiquitous that even super-hero fans worry there are too many. Marvel’s had success tying movies together, so that different characters get box office based both on themselves and on the overall universe, and now everyone’s imitating that too.

While none of this is new, the sheer speed at which this trend grew in 2013 is nothing less than remarkable.

Marvel itself, in addition to two box-office hits, branched out into TV this year and announced plans for an interlocking set of five separate TV mini-series, to be produced with Netflix. (We’ve discussed the implications of this.) But this has actually been a slow year for the Marvel cinematic universe, as it deliberately holds back information on its post-2015 film slate.

X-Men: Days of Future Past cover storyWe also explored how Fox’s X-Men franchise is expanding its offerings and building its own interconnected universe. It’s a smart move, given this franchise’s longevity, the plethora of X-Men characters and situations, and its ownership of the rights to make Fantastic Four movies too. In addition to 2014′s X-Men: Days of Future Past and 2015′s Fantastic Four, director Bryan Singer announced on Twitter that a sequel to Days of Future Past is already in the works, titled X-Men: Apocalypse and set for 2016. An X-Force film is in development, as well as a Wolverine sequel. And word recently broke that Fox is planning Fantastic Four Versus the X-Men. Presumably, this will soon mean two films a year (the current rate Marvel’s own movies are being offered), perhaps as early as 2016.

But as we’ve already said, Fox’s X-Men films probably ought to get a pardon here. Yes, announcing a sequel to Days of Future Past before it’s released might seem galling, but Fox has been making these movies for a while, and if anyone’s got a right to ramp up in order to compete with Marvel, it’s probably Fox.

Man of Steel posterLikewise, it’s hard to complain about DC creating its own cinematic universe. DC’s chosen to ignore its past films (despite my advice, for what it’s worth) and start from scratch, using 2013′s Man of Steel as the first entry in a new shared universe. The 2015 sequel, announced in July 2013 under the tentative title Batman Vs. Superman, got a lot of press for casting Ben Affleck as Batman (which I’m completely fine with, by the way). Since then, it’s been reported that the film will also apparently feature Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot was cast in early December 2013), Green Lantern, and other characters. They’ll have to share screen time with villains Lex Luthor and Doomsday. It’s sounding like quite a crowded film, designed to spin off into any number of other films. In fact, it’s been reported that a Flash film is slated for 2016 and a Justice League film for 2017.

Whether this is a smart plan remains to be seen. The Marvel movies grew their universe more organically, debuting most characters in their own films before uniting them in 2012′s The Avengers. DC’s plan seems like the opposite of that, introducing everyone at once in the 2015 Superman sequel and hoping for the best. The Justice League movie risks feeling redundant, if most of the characters meet in the 2015 Superman sequel. DC’s plan is tantamount to using a Superman sequel as a back-door pilot for an entire slate of spin-offs. It’s ambitious, but it’s also presumptuous, because if fans reject the 2015 sequel, or feel put-upon that it’s being used as a multiple-franchise-launching vehicle, the entire plan essentially collapses. If the 2015 film works, DC’s ready to capitalize heavily on it, but that’s a lot of strain to put on a single film. It takes the term “tentpole” and turns it into something a little more like “lynchpin.”

But again, it’s hard to fault DC here. If anyone’s got a right to follow in Marvel’s wake, it’s the other giant super-hero company. DC used to rule the super-hero box office, in the 1980s and 1990s, and fans have by now long lamented that it’s fallen so far behind Marvel. Indeed, it’s a testament to this current situation that Fox’s X-Men franchise — essentially a second Marvel cinematic universe — is so far ahead of DC’s own.

Amazing Spider-Man posterIt’s a bit harder to justify Sony’s plan to create a third Marvel cinematic universe. After 2002′s Spider-Man, 2004′s Spider-Man 2, and 2007′s Spider-Man 3, Sony rebooted the Spider-Man franchise with 2012′s The Amazing Spider-Man. With a sequel to that film scheduled for 2014, Sony announced in July 2013 that it was moving forward on two more sequels: a third installment in 2016 and a fourth in 2018. Sony even went so far as to set release dates. With Spider-Man actor Andrew Garfield saying publicly that he isn’t signed for The Amazing Spider-Man 4, that film is rumored to be a spin-off of some sort, perhaps with someone else becoming Spider-Man.

If true, that’s remarkable, because franchises often falter when their characters are recast or replaced. That’s why the normally cost-conscious Marvel has gone to such great lengths to keep Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, giving him fantastically lucrative back-end deals. Moving forward on three sequels after only a single film is one thing. If these plans also involve the death or replacement of the series hero, these plans are even more ambitious and unorthodox.

But that’s only part of Sony’s plans. In mid-December 2013, Sony announced that it was moving forward on two additional films, one starring Venom and the other starring the team of Spider-Man villains known as the Sinister Six. In fairness, a Venom film has been discussed since 2007, during the original Spider-Man film trilogy, and Venom’s a pretty obvious subject for a spin-off. Obviously, Sony’s intent on developing the Spider-Man franchise into something like Fox’s X-Men franchise.

That makes a certain sense, if you look at the numbers. The last couple X-Men films (X-Men: First Class and The Wolverine) have each pulled in a modest (by super-hero-movie standards) $140 million domestically and $350-415 million worldwide. Domestically, the four Spider-Man films have dropped consistently, establishing a clear trend line, from 2002′s $400 million to 2012′s $262 million. Internationally, though, the most recent Spider-Man movie still topped $750 million, not much down from 2002′s $820 million. Of course, this doesn’t take into account inflation (or how ticket prices have risen faster than inflation). But a Spider-Man movie still does roughly twice what an X-Men movie does. If expanding makes financial sense for the X-Men, it probably makes twice as much sense for Spider-Man.

Maybe it doesn’t matter that the X-Men and Fantastic Four are a larger roster of characters, closer to Marvel’s own, whereas Spider-Man is considerably more limited. Maybe this doesn’t matter, given that we’re talking about two-hour stories, at the rate of one or two a year. Creatively, I’d argue that the last two X-Men films have been pretty good and even ambitious or novel movies, whereas the Spider-Man reboot didn’t have the magic of the original (even if I’m glad to see Gwen Stacy). But Rotten Tomatoes, which aggregates critical reviews, doesn’t seem to agree with me.

But because of Sony’s decision to reboot the franchise, the plans for a shared Spider-Man cinematic universe is still based out of a single film. So let’s be clear here: we’re talking about a universe that’s seen one movie to date. It’s got a sequel in development, slated to hit theaters in 2014. And it’s got not only two more sequels in the works but two side movies too. The ratio of material released to material in development is staggering. It’s more than Marvel’s own ratio or Fox’s, both of which have more material in release than in their ambitious development slate. Even the fledgling DC cinematic universe, which also has a single film in release, pales in comparison to Sony’s plans.

To catch up, DC would have to announce two more Superman sequels, complete with release dates. Which, for all I know, it may well do before Batman Vs. Superman, or whatever it ends up being called.

At some point, someone’s going to have to say it: maybe this whole franchise thing is getting out of control.

A lot of ink has been spilled discussing future box-office schedules and how they’re increasingly clogged with big-budget super-hero movies. Companies eagerly vie for dates in the calendar of movie releases, staking out claims to specific weeks (usually in the summer) where their movies won’t get lost due to competition from similar films. Of course, as the ratio of scheduled super-hero movies to past super-hero movies increases, seemingly geometrically, future schedules look increasingly clogged — and the franchises to which they’re attached increasingly precarious.

Look, I know these companies release these kinds of plans partially as a way to boost their stock prices. They’re publicly traded companies, and shareholders want to hear that these companies exploiting their licenses to the fullest, especially given the attention paid to Marvel’s cinematic success. Hell, some of these plans even come from press releases clearly designed for the investment class.

I also know that this kind of far-flung franchise planning isn’t limited to super-hero movies. Nor can it all be pinned on Marvel’s success. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, planned in advance as three films, showed that critics and cinema-goers could reward this kind of ambitious thinking. Its currently running three-movie prequel (based on a single and not-especially-long book) has performed well, showing that viewers don’t punish these kinds of expansive franchises, even when they’re perceived to be exploiting the franchise. Disney, which now owns Marvel, has announced plans for Star Wars that are on par with those for the super-hero franchises discussed above: three sequels, released two years apart from 2015 to 2019, with two side movies, presumably to be released in the off-years. James Cameron will reportedly be shooting three Avatar sequels for 2016, 2017, and 2018 released. So maybe it’s more accurate to talk about the boom in pop-culture movie franchises, rather than only in the super-hero genre.

Still, it used to be the case that announcing a sequel before a film was out was considered risky business, if not a jinx. Disney learned this twice in recent years. Part of the analysis of the perceived failure of 2010′s Tron: Legacy focused on how fans were turned off in part because of discussion of ambitious sequel plans, prior to the film’s release. With Tron having languished for years, these discussions may have turned fans off, making them feel like they didn’t get a vote, or that their wishes were irrelevant. Prior to the 2012 release of John Carter, the filmmakers discussed it as the first film of a trilogy, and it was perceived as a flop (despite making over $280 million domestically). Both films were reportedly part of Disney’s desire to develop a franchise for boys. Disney’s acquisition of Marvel and Lucasfilm reportedly had the same intent.

Disney’s probably on more stable ground, planning Marvel and Star Wars movies in advance. But others might be wise to heed the warning.

Maybe you can’t blame any one studio or franchise for trying to get their piece of the action. But someone’s got to ask whether this is good for super-hero movies, or even for the super-hero genre and the public perception of comics. Arguably, we’re in the middle of not only a glut but a bubble, and when bubbles burst, they can leave entire industries crippled for years or even decades.

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In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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