franchise fatigue

The Summer of Hollywood’s Step-Sequel Problem

Dark Phoenix and Men in Black: International. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox and Columbia Pictures

With the summer movie season now beginning sometime in late April, the long days of mid-June have become the traditional ground for second-guessing the season’s first flops. And 2019 has already given us a bevy of them. Last weekend, Men in Black: International and Shaft both opened well shy of expectations. Things look even worse for Dark Phoenix, which seems likely to lose $100 million. May’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters also underperformed compared to its precursors. The fallow returns for all these films have some box-office observers wondering if some sort of illness is affecting this summer’s crop of franchise films. Could we be in for a long season of the dreaded sequel fatigue?

As observers like Richard Rushfield of The Ankler have noted, it’s only a very specific kind of sequel that has been failing at the box office this summer. Avengers: Endgame and John Wick 3 have performed very well, with Toy Story 4 liable to join them. Whatever this year’s flops have in common, it’s not that they’re sequels. It can’t just be that they’re bad either, because, well. Putting aside the question of quality, what unites movies like Dark Phoenix and Men in Black: International is that they ask audiences to care about the elements of franchises they’re least invested in. They’re not so much sequels as they are step-sequels — part of the family but also kind of not.

Spreadsheet-generated sequels are not a new occurrence. Three years ago on this very site, Mark Harris wrote about how the sequels of summer 2016 were more brand extensions than stories. But it’s a signal of how far we’ve gone down the franchise rabbit hole that now, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s heartening that Now You See Me 2 and Finding Dory at least made gestures toward continuing the narrative through-lines of their forebears. In 2019, the blockbuster business has become so algorithmic that some of this summer’s would-be tentpoles can’t even manage that. The narrative arcs of many franchises have long since run their course; in response, the studios have pivoted to pitches that bear at most an orthogonal relationship with the originals with mostly dire results.

The lineage of the modern step-sequel can be traced to another film from the fateful year of 2016: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Cobbled out of a textbook mentioned offhandedly in the Harry Potter novels and aspects of the series’ lore, that film was technically a step-prequel, but the definition otherwise fit: Fantastic Beasts ported little from the original series besides the brand name. But in this case, at least, the brand was strong enough for the film to gross more than half a billion dollars worldwide. It seemed a sign that a franchise could be rebooted with minimal connection to what came before. As Hollywood is learning this summer, however, what works for a franchise like Harry Potter does not necessarily apply to every other.

Let’s start with Dark Phoenix. By the time it came to make the 12th film in the series, the X-Men franchise was in a bind. The character audiences most connected with, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, had been put out to pasture with 2017’s Logan, and 2014’s Days of Future Past had already wrung most of the nostalgia from the original early-aughts trilogy. That film’s predecessor, First Class, had introduced a new generation of X-Men, but the McAvoy-Fassbender-Lawrence core never hooked viewers like their predecessors did, and by 2016’s Apocalypse, affection for the new edition was running dry. (Judging by their visibly bored expressions, some in the cast seemed to return the sentiment.) That film had tried to get around this sense of exhaustion by introducing a third generation of mutants, headlined by Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey, that would carry the franchise into the future. But if there was any movie that could launch a new line of heroes, it was not Apocalypse, which among its many issues gave the youngsters so little screen time that Jubilee, played by future rom-com star Lana Condor, spoke a whopping four lines. Three years later, Dark Phoenix arrived with a dual mandate — saying good-bye to a group of characters audiences scarcely cared about, while also investing them in the downfall of Turner’s Grey, a character they had not yet been given a chance to care about. It would be like if Marvel had made Captain America: Civil War before The Avengers.

Even by this late date, the X-Men retain some juice as a concept; fans can’t stop themselves from speculating how they’ll eventually be folded into the MCU. It’s possible that, had Dark Phoenix had a clearer vision, and not been plagued by as many production issues, things might have worked out differently. I’m not sure you can say the same thing about Men in Black: International. Born from an abandoned plan to simultaneously reboot the MiB and 21 Jump Street franchises — an even more dispiriting idea than the one that ultimately made it to screens — International likewise attempted to revamp a long-running franchise on the fly. The series had relied on the chemistry between Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, but after 2012’s Men in Black 3, that vein seemed tapped. (Plus, according to The Hollywood Reporter, the old duo would have commanded higher fees than Sony was willing to pay.) And so the new film retained the same alien concept and the same mid-century aesthetics, with a new location and new comic energy supplied by the pairing of Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, which had proved to be so winning in Thor: Ragnarok. But as anyone who’d seen Blues Brothers 2000 could have told you, simply putting new actors in black suits and shades does not reinvigorate old IP. Like Jean Grey, the MiB universe by itself was not enough of a draw. In the immortal words of one Sony exec: “The movie needed a greater reason to be.”

Even more traditional sequels have been dealing with similar issues. Shaft brought back both Richard Roundtree, the original Shaft, and Samuel L. Jackson, the second Shaft, for a story where the two elders teach the newest Shaft (Jesse T. Usher), a nebbish millennial, how to be a real man. The problem here seems to be less that Shaft didn’t retain the elements of the franchise fans were attached to, and more that there were few such elements in the first place. When it comes to the Shaft series, well, people know the name, and they like the theme song, but it’s not as if the 2000 version retains any special affection from fans, unless they’re hard-core Jeffrey Wright completists. Godzilla: King of the Monsters, too, attempted to nominally give audiences the exact thing they crave from a Godzilla movie — giant monsters fighting each other in major world cities — though by all accounts, they forgot one key part of the originals: clear, coherent visuals that let viewers actually see what was happening in the fights. Still, it’s telling that of all the sequels I’ve mentioned, King of the Monsters has been by far the most successful. It’s also the only one that doesn’t seem likely to kill off its series: Next spring will bring Godzilla vs. Kong, which should finally unite both ends of this skyscraper-size cinematic family.

Still, it’s not all doom and gloom for the summer’s step-sequels. August will bring Hobbs & Shaw, a Fast & Furious spinoff that jettisons many aspects once thought fundamental to the series (Vin Diesel, the general concept of auto racing), but in this case, what’s retained (muscular bald men in ludicrous CGI action scenes) might actually be a closer guess at what’s appealing about the franchise in its post-Walker era. If, as seems likely, the film is a late-summer smash, watch out: For those of us hoping this summer’s string of flops could lead studios to reevaluate their franchise strategy, Hobbs & Shaw could provide the same measure of optimism that Fantastic Beasts once did. The trick, it seems to be, is figuring out which franchises have enough in them to support a whole other family and which should really take some time to figure themselves out first.

The Summer of Hollywood’s Step-Sequel Problem