After seeing Avengers: Endgame with a couple of friends, I remembered talking to them after and saying, “I don’t know if the MCU will ever reach this height again.” It’s not that I was throwing stones at the mantle of Marvel – it’s just that I realized it’s entirely hard to have people reinvest in the manner they did for 20+ films and projects. It felt like the world stopped for that opening weekend, where we all saw how the Infinity Saga would end. I mean, it worked – at the time, it would become the highest-grossing film. (James Cameron’s Titanic would have something to say about that later).
But the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s success created this hunger in Hollywood studios to find their own self-contained stories with their licensed IP. (The Conjuring and Spiderman extended universes are a couple of examples). It’s not that the MCU has been perfect, as we’ve seen with the number of projects in phase four (and their varying amounts of quality). However, what these studios are missing is that you have to do the work to get your audience to want to see what’s next.
It’s not just rehashing old stories or simply repacking themes because they are a known commodity. We already have this example with the recent Disney venture with Star Wars. 2015’s The Force Awakens was a great example of bringing in new characters with an old sense of nostalgia that made people fall in love with the franchise in the first place. Then, 2017’s The Last Jedi brought the Star Wars lore into different thematic territory. But then you have 2019’s Rise of Skywalker, which gave us zombie Sidious (well, a whole stadium full of them). For every Rogue One, you have a Solo – because if you look at these stories just as money on a string, the quality (and diminishing praise) will reflect that.
This is on the heels of the upcoming Tolkien battle royale between Warner Bros. Discovery and Amazon. How many fruitful stories can we get from the Lord of the Rings franchise where it doesn’t look like studios draining the river for every drop of IP water? What’s next here? Is there going to be a spin-off about the ring itself? Did it have a ring family? Marvel is having issues with this right now, where they’ve instituted a slowdown of releases – so it seems like they get it. Quality will always shine through rather than making things claw dollars away from people’s pockets. You can’t just “remember when” them without doing the work.
Finality and patience seem to be lost art in terms of franchises. It’s why I admire HBO’s Watchmen and The Leftovers. Those series didn’t overstay their welcome, told their stories, and were satisfied with hitting the winning shot in Game 6 in Utah. I can even admire the new regime in DC, which predicates the quality of stories over putting things out. I’m not saying we can’t have different, innovating minds take the stories we know and love to new heights – there is value in that.
Due to the number of pandemic losses at the box office and streaming, studios are looking for more “sure things” that they can bet on for people to turn up for. The secret ingredient is understanding why the audience loved those franchises in the first place. Star Wars is essentially a space western, but it gave us iconic characters and worlds that fans still hold dear today (sometimes, this could be to a fault). The genius is storytelling lies in between starting something and knowing where to end it. I hope studios realize this before we get to the Alf extended universe.