In many ways, the summer of 2013 looked much like this year in terms of what worked at the box office: A Marvel movie led the field, an animated family film followed closely behind, and DC and Star Trek titles came next. But that season was also characterized by a phenomenon that's becoming more and more unusual: surprise hits. World War Z overcame a production plagued by difficulties to become the highest-grossing film of Brad Pitt's career. We're the Millers came out of nowhere to make $150 million. The Great Gatsby was a peculiar success, and The Conjuring managed $137 million on a mere $20 million budget.
Yet none of these were more surprising than the worldwide embrace of Now You See Me, Louis Leterrier's weirdly star-studded caper that came out of nowhere to gross $117 million domestically and $234 million overseas. That movie was unique, for a few reasons. First, it focused on a group of magicians, not exactly the world's most beloved breed of entertainer; second, it had a bizarrely stacked cast, including Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Mélanie Laurent, Isla Fisher, and Dave Franco; and third, it was an $80 million film based on original IP, one that wasn't pegged as a possible hit until it tested surprisingly well prior to release.
For the sequel, Leterrier was replaced by Jon M. Chu, veteran of the Justin Bieber concert film Never Say Never and Step Up 2: The Streets as well as G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Jem and the Holograms, and his task was far different. Instead of delivering a lighthearted blockbuster to a pleasantly surprised world, he needed to deliver a follow-up that would both re-create the strange alchemy that made the first one a success while also meeting the expectations that were set by that $300+ million worldwide gross.
Franchises may be the rule in modern Hollywood, but that doesn't mean every one of them is a given, and plenty of studios are seeing their sequels fall flat this summer. As Chu explained to Vulture, he and the creative team behind Now You See Me 2 doubled down on five aspects from the original to try and turn an underdog story into one of the weirdest franchises in film.
That massive, bankable cast
Now You See Me 2 returns most of the principal actors from the first film — minus Laurent and Fisher, who's been replaced by Lizzy Caplan — and adds a face from a very different world of magic, Daniel Radcliffe. While these actors are no strangers to franchise work — Eisenberg plays Lex Luthor, Ruffalo the Hulk; Freeman and Caine have been in everything; Radcliffe is freaking Harry Potter — here, they get to develop their characters from scratch. That's a very different task than inheriting a role that's been well established on page or onscreen, and Chu tried to take advantage of the opportunity.
"What’s great about having a cast of this caliber is that they want to dig deeper, and even though it’s a fun, silly movie, they want to ground these characters in reality," he explained. "Each of them is used to carrying movies on their own, but they all understand that this is a team effort, and my job was to orchestrate that — I got a master class in communication."
It was the quality of the cast that allowed Leterrier to make the first movie at the budget he received, doubling the initial $30–40 million allotment — meaning that, without this group assembled in the first place, there would've been no breakout hit. "The chemistry of the cast is what drew me in to the franchise," Chu said. "They grounded it in such an interesting way."
The freedom that comes with being original IP
It's hard to overstate how rare it is to see a franchise based on an original idea nowadays, and it comes with specific challenges. There's a good chance that moviegoers are scoping out Now You See Me 2 having either:
1) Not thought about the characters and mythology for three years
2) No background at all
That's a huge difference from the way we typically enter theaters in 2016. "With Marvel characters, or any comic-book characters, or any IP that has a prior fan base, you're given a foundation. We don’t have that," Chu said. "I’m not even sure the mythology of it is written down anywhere. So a lot of the discussion was over how much we needed to remind the audience of what’s going on — it’s like, wait, does the audience even know the characters' names?"
That meant making sure to write into the script the kind of obvious character and narrative points that comic-book movies can get away with soft-playing — like that Dave Franco's character, Jack Wilder, faked his own death in the first movie, or even the fact that Dave Franco is playing a character named Jack. Chu says earlier cuts were even heavier on this kind of signposting, and they tried to trim as much of it as they could for the theatrical release while still ensuring that clarity was achieved.
But being able to build out your own mythology also provides the rare gift of flexibility — for example, deciding that in Now You See Me 2, Woody Harrelson's character has an evil twin, also played by Woody Harrelson, except with curly hair. Because, if you have Woody Harrelson and there's no source material to betray, why the hell not?
Expanding the reality of the magician universe they created
In the world of Now You See Me, magicians aren't goofy dudes in bad suits who do magic as a sort of low-rent entertainment. Instead, they're more like rock-star magicians of the David Blaine sort, constructing elaborate tricks using technology and technique to hold the spectator's attention above all else. Like Blaine, it isn't hard to picture these people hanging out with Leonardo DiCaprio — they're certainly not hiding in castles, away from the world. "One thing that we wanted to make clear is that there is no hocus-pocus magic," Chu says. "The first one kind of hints at it, but in this movie we wanted to establish that these people are technicians, they’re craftsman, they’re master storytellers."
That allows the sequel to solidly locate these characters in real-life settings, dealing with tech companies and income inequality and other phenomena of 2016. Since the movie has a heist format, the magic in the franchise can be applied to the typical specialization of characters in that genre. "All the concepts are real — these guys are superheroes of the mind, and each one has a different skill set, a real skill set," Chu says. Instead of the characters being weird magicians, they come to occupy familiar, appealing archetypes, with their abilities setting them apart.
Catering to international audiences, without making it look obvious
Now You See Me did well Stateside, but it really landed internationally, where audiences responded to the fast pace, light tone, and globe-spanning locales. Now You See Me 2's inclusion of Taiwanese movie star Jay Chou and the Chinese region of Macau — not to mention the addition of Radcliffe, a worldwide star thanks to Harry Potter — seemed to indicate that the franchise was doubling down on those markets. Chu claims otherwise.
"We did want to go global, and maybe there was some marketing idea in that as well, but at least on my part, it wasn’t a conscious effort," Chu says. "It wasn’t like we said, oh, we have to have Jay Chou because then that gets this or that." Instead, Macau's appeal lies in its reputation as the Las Vegas of Asia as well as its relative isolation, which served the intended plot. "We knew the movie did well in China last time, but I wouldn’t say we were like, where in China could we shoot this? Although I’m sure Lionsgate was happy!"
Lionsgate certainly knew what it was doing. Last year, the studio made a financing and production deal worth $1.5 billion with Chinese media company Hunan TV. Now You See Me 2 was one of the movies included in the deal, and while not all of the films co-financed by Hunan TV are explicitly Chinese-focused — for example Sicario, The Last Witch Hunter, or The Age of Adaline — Lionsgate is aware of what appealing to China means: At the event where the deal was announced, Lionsgate Motion Picture Group co-chair Patrick Wachsberger specifically mentioned the involvement of Chou and Radcliffe.
Embracing comparisons to another popular franchise
While Now You See Me is rare in many ways, it does have an obvious predecessor: Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven series, which also featured movie stars playing morally ambiguous thieves who pull off a good-natured heist. Chu agrees: "It’s like the nerdy version of the Ocean’s franchise. I love that idea of having reluctant heroes, of con men trying to do the right thing even though their hearts say to be selfish."
Most significant, aside from the heist format and con-men heroes, are the tonal similarities: Both franchises are comedic, with a light touch and little violence, and there's an inherent element of winking at the audience. With Chu already signed on for a tentative Now You See Me 3, they could have another thing in common: a third film. (Whether Now You See Me could ever support a kind of spinoff like Ocean's Ocho would be a true test of its impact.)
Of course, Now You See Me 2 needs to deliver first, and it no longer has the benefit of being a surprise. This would be a good place for an extended magic metaphor, something about how it's what we expect that we most anticipate, but it really isn't that complicated. The question is: Do people care enough about this universe and these characters to make it a bona fide franchise? Magicians might deceive, but numbers don't.