Finally watched Always. Easily one of Spielberg’s worst, but he sure knows how to end it.
FRANCHISE FILM-MAKING IN THE MODERN AGE
I don’t know if you need to watch Police Academy 4 to understand the machinations of Police Academy 5. And with all the montages contained within it, I don’t know if you need to watch Rocky 3 to get Rocky 4. That said, there is a sense in the latter that the character, and the events unfold in a series, and that there is forward momentum in each film. That each film has goals and then sets about it in accomplishing them.
The biggest problem, it seems to me, in gearing franchise start-up films to being sequel-friendly is that it gives a lot of stories a lack of closure, but more than that, it gives them the sense of weightlessness. One of the most revolutionary aspects of what Quentin Tarantino did with Pulp Fiction is he showed us things we had never seen, but did so in a way unexpected. Many films feature hit men, but by focusing on their drive in to work or their conversations and dilemmas it felt fresh and exciting. But that was in his way, and geared the audience to the fact that it was a non-traditional narrative. Just as Sergio Leone could draw out the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West to gear up audiences expectations by showing us his villains waiting to fight Charles Bronson. But these are filmmakers who know what they are doing, and using the language of cinema to challenge their audiences expectations. They are not telling you information you didn’t need to know.
It’s much harder to justify a number of franchise films that essentially tell the audiences nothing. And we’re seeing more movies that feign away from advancing the ball, that do little to change their characters or say anything much more than explode on cue.
For sequels, it’s interesting to compare Iron Man 2 to Terminator 4: Rise of the Machines. In this case, Iron Man 2 is the better version of this as there are better antagonists, and stronger protagonists. And you can suggest that things happen to the characters and there is a real resolution. But, in both cases, nothing really advances or challenges previously established characters. The biggest developments in Iron Man 2 are that Tony Stark changes his battery, and Rhodes takes on the War Machine suit. Since Tony’s problem in this film is self-contained and Rhodes intimated “next time” at the end of the first film, if you were to skip this movie and move straight into the next film, there would be very little that would be missed. And if you look at the franchise as similar to the Bond films, this can be seen as a contained narrative, though Bond films at least feature somewhat more elaborate plots and/or mysteries for their hero to deal with, and he is actively on the pursuit of his goal throughout, which gives the narrative a greater drive. Stark spends much of Iron Man 2 unaware of what he’s about to come up against. In Terminator 4, a new character is introduced and is disposed of, with him the main thrust of the film. Otherwise, no character learns anything that couldn’t be assumed from our previous notions of John Connor, except now you get to see that back-story on a larger scale. I haven’t done that much research on the franchise films of late, I have not compiled a list, but other than – say franchise films based on a contained narrative like Harry Potter – this seems just as applicable to something like Transformers, Wolverine, and many more where the film delivers what audiences expect, but doesn’t add much or – hopefully screw too much with the existing properties.
For franchise reboots, it’s interesting to compare Star Trek to Robin Hood. In both there is a central fallacy at the heart of the narrative. In Trek, it’s that no one cared how the team was assembled, and in Hood it’s that no one cared what turned Robin Hood into “Robin Hood.” With the start of Star Trek the TV show, everyone was on board, and did their jobs (save Chekhov, geeks), and in the best Robin Hood movie – Michael Curtiz’s masterful The Adventures of Robin Hood - he just shows up in the face of bad taxation. With the former, it served as a way to interest people in a franchise that had fallen into nerd fandom, with Ridley Scott’s movie, there seems to be a perennial nature to the narrative of a dude who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. With the latter we don’t really even get to see him to do that, and in both cases the end of either movie could be the opening credit sequence for their sequel. One is done well, the other not so much, and it’s the energy of Star Trek gets it over.
The danger for these movies is that Franchise films are beginning to resemble TV shows where nothing happens at the end of the show that has any impact on what happens in the next one. Sitcoms are particularly good at this, though with shows like The Office, and Tivo in general, television has changed and mostly understands that people like to have their characters change and grow. In some ways Franchise film-making and television are swapping sensibilities.This is not always the case, but it’s becoming prevalent. Then again, you can compare them to a franchise like Indiana Jones where the adventure is a contained piece, and has only passing influences on the next films. But then those films – like Bond – offer satisfying cimaxes to each narrative, where all the characters are there for a reason, and the film concludes appropriately.
Robin Hood, alas, seems to sum up the biggest problem with this approach to back story and franchising. It tells a story you didn’t need to know and spends two hours plus getting you ready for the next adventure without really satisfying you on its own story, and so you have to settle for the not-without-their-merits cast and crew. Ridley Scott knows how to frame, Russell Crowe is charming, Cate Blanchett is talented, but they are at the service of nothing.
With Spider-Man set to reboot, it feels like studios are heading for a sort of film-making and decision-making more in line with McDonald’s than with art. You are getting what you paid for, no more or less, and you will know – for the most part – exactly what that is. The two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun approach is nothing new, and I don’t want to play it like it isn’t, but the reason why Star Trek is the most successful film of the bunch (artistically, at least) is the thing it gave audiences that was fresh and new was a more rock and roll approach to the material. There was a vision and approach that gave a new cadence to the old. Whereas Robin Hood seems like it comes near making those sorts of decision and pusses out. If audiences are okay with that, then we can expect these sorts of films to come every three years and offer the same sort of things we’ve seen before. It’s a model for business, and currently a fairly successful one. Perhaps, one could argue, it’s a return to the serials days.
CAN I PREDICT IT? (YES YOU CAN!)
Iron Man 2 made a lot of money last weekend, and Robin Hood is weak, even though Star Trek showed that a second weekend in May isn’t a bad release date. There’s two new romantic comedies, which might split the difference.
1. Iron Man 2 – $52.7 Million
2. Robin Hood – $30 Million
3. Letters to Juliet – $16.5 Million
4. Just Write – $9.8 Million
5. How to Train Your Dragon – $5 Million
And then Sunday, well, figure it out.