How modern movie franchises are beginning to spoil the fun of blockbusters
I’ve been watching The Lord of the Rings trilogy with my daughter, she’s seven. Extended Editions, of course. We’re averaging about half a disc a night, meaning it’ll take us roughly twelve days to complete. She seems to be enjoying it, and I know I’m most certainly enjoying spending the time with her as much as I am watching the films again, but as I watch Peter Jackson’s epic, sprawling adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s masterwork, something keeps occurring to me.
I was thirteen when The Fellowship of the Ring first hit theatres in 2001. It was a huge deal for me. My dad had read my brother and I The Hobbit when we were young, and I’d been fascinated by all things Middle Earth since. I’d read The Lord of the Rings, believe it or not, and while I found it to be a struggle to get through, I was absolutely captivated by the imagination and wonder on display. We had a hardback copy of the book illustrated by Alan Taylor that I used to flick through, fascinated by the designs and the ideas. I’d read segments of the book as I came to certain pages, and, like a true dork, I used to create maps and try to write my own fantasy works – one in particular, The Golden Sword, still lingers in my mind.
So, when the film adaptation was announced I was already pretty excited without also being a movie fan. The more we learned about this trilogy the more excited I became. The fact that they were shooting all three back-to-back, the fact that it was probably the most ambitious piece of cinema ever attempted at that point, the fact that it was helmed by the guy who did Braindead (yes, I was a Braindead fan at the age of thirteen).
For me The Lord of the Rings was wholly unique. Nothing like this had ever been done before, and I remember when the trailer dropped practically squealing with excitement over it.
I went to watch Fellowship first showing, first day. My ticket came in a little cardboard cover and when I arrived at the cinema there were people dressed as Gandalf. I don’t think I’ve ever been so electrified, sitting in that sold out screen, eagerly awaiting the dimming of the lights.
The film was a blast, and even now, nineteen years later, it holds up as one of my all-time favourites. I class the trilogy as a single piece, this mesmerising, beautiful, fantastically performed, wonderfully realised thing that, quite frankly, is yet to be beaten. But perhaps what makes it so special is the buzz that filled the air whenever the films were discussed during the three-year period they were released.
There was a shift, at least as far as I saw, in people’s attitudes toward the work. For my friends at school The Lord of the Rings went from being outwardly hostile toward the idea of fantasy epics and pretty much anything “nerdy” to being huge fans of this epic saga. It might seem silly to say this, but culture shifted with The Lord of the Rings. With the success of Fellowship of the Ring suddenly fantasy was cool.
A month before we’d had the first Harry Potter movie, but I don’t remember that getting nearly as much interest as Fellowship. I think the same can be said for the following year, where The Two Towers dominated the conversation. I explicitly remember speaking to a friend about Chamber of Secrets and having them say “but I’m looking forward to the next Lord of the Rings”. By the time we got to 2003, and the epic finale of the trilogy, The Return of the King, it felt like the entire world was awash with a feverish delight to see what Jackson and co. had to offer, and I was no exception.
Just as I had with the previous two, I once again made sure I would be at the cinema; first showing, first day. I sat in the packed-out screen, surrounded by fans, and there was almost a nervousness linger around the room. Enthusiastically we all collectively sat there hoping this would be good and that the filmmakers would pull off the ending of a perfect movie experience. I felt like holding my breath through the entire three-and-a-half-hour runtime.
Don’t worry, the story has a happy ending, Return of the King was brilliant. It was well received by critics, won eleven Oscars (including Best Director and Best Picture), and – at the time of writing – is the twenty-first highest grossing movie of all time (how much stock you want to put into box-office is up to you, but I’d like to point out that Furious 7, both Jurassic World movies and… Avatar, all sit higher-up on the list…).
Now, I know we’ve had The Hobbit since, and the less we say about that the better, but at the time The Lord of the Rings was a singular experience. Its success lay not just in the fact that it’s absolutely, totally brilliant but also in that there was nothing like it and that there is still nothing like it. By the time Return of the King rolled out into theatres there was so much buzz around the movies that seeing the final chapter of this incredible cinematic achievement wasn’t even really a choice, it was a moment. There would never be another one, even if they did go back and make The Hobbit or the Silmarillion or any other entry into Middle Earth, this was it. This was the end of the story. This was the finale. It was the full-stop.
The success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy in terms of box-office goes up with each movie; Fellowship sits as the lowest earner while Return of the King is at the top and Two Towers firmly in between. Intrigue and interest in the movies grew with each passing year, until finally almost everyone felt they just had to go and see the last one on the big screen.
The conclusion of such a massive piece of event cinema was a big deal, and it still is. And what an incredible thing it was to experience. But I wonder now, as I watch the trilogy with my daughter, will that kind of experience ever happen again?
It’s certainly possible. Avengers: Endgame seems to be getting people amped and hyped up ready for an epic finale, but then… its just not really the end is it. It’s more like the break between two parts of a trilogy. The MCU up to this point, for all its brilliance and success, is starting to feel weirdly like just Act One of a much bigger picture rather than the complete story it was originally sold as.
I mean, just four months after Endgame comes out we’ll be getting the Spider-man sequel, Far From Home, and we all know Black Panther 2, Ms. Marvel and the Black Widow movie will be coming along at some point.
And then you have Star Wars Episode IX, which has been sold as the conclusion of this trilogy of movies. But at the rate Disney like to go I wouldn’t be surprised if the next trilogy was announced before that movies release date, and there’s already talk of Rian Johnson’s side-trilogy. These things just aren’t really feeling like much of an ending anymore.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 was released in 2011, but even by that point it had started to feel a little bit like we might very well get some kind of sequel/reboot/spin-off, and sure enough, in 2016, we got both The Cursed Child and Fantastic Beasts.
Looking through my own DVD/Blu-Ray collection I suddenly felt a sense of excitement when I found a four-film franchise that might seemingly be safe; The Hunger Games. But I just googled Hunger Games 5 to see if there was any movement and apparently director Francis Lawrence has said he would be interested so… whatever.
Even The Lord of the Rings couldn’t maintain its singular completeness for too long. I’ve already mentioned my distaste for The Hobbit trilogy, but those films do kind of spoil the experience somewhat. At least Return of the King had the luxury of seeming like it was going to be the last one upon its release, but now we’ve got those three other dreadful movies as part of the canon I find myself, sadly, enjoying The Lord of the Rings just a little less.
As a completist, which I am, it becomes incredibly frustrating, because I feel like I have to go out of my way to get hold of these utterly abysmal pieces of trash. For years I thought I was fine just owning the Alien Quadrology boxset, and now I’ve got to have two AvP movies (one of which might be the worst film ever made) and a God knows how many utter crap Prometheus things. Sometimes I just feel a little bit like screaming; “Leave it alone, will you! I was enjoying that!”
Now look, I’m don’t mean to be all negative about this and what not, it’s just I can’t help feeling it might be nice to just lay off the franchises for a little while. Not every movie requires a spin-off or a sequel or whatever. Some movies can just be, and I’m absolutely fine with that.
A quick Google search of movies coming out in 2019 reveals a list, of which one is an original piece – Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Outside of that single film every movie that appears on the list is, in some way, shape or form, part of an established franchise. And look, while that’s not necessarily a problem, I mean there are still original movies getting made all the time, the problem is that these are the movies that garner the most widespread attention. That just feels depressing to me.
I wrote a feature last year called “Blockbuster Fatigue”, and in it I spoke about my weariness and tiredness with Hollywood’s onslaught of blockbuster movies. I look around the cinema and see every movie is a big movie with massive set-pieces and loads of money thrown at them. It got an alright response, I think, but mostly it was a way for me understand my own frustrations. Looking back on that feature now I think maybe I was wrong.
It’s not blockbusters that I’ve had enough of. I like blockbusters, in fact I love them. That’s why I started this whole thing by telling you just how incredible it was watching The Lord of the Rings trilogy when it first came out. What I’m fed up with is franchises. Massive, great big, extended universe franchises. Films that I can only really get full enjoyment from if I’ve watched twenty-one other movies beforehand (seriously, that’s not an exaggeration, the MCU is that long!). I haven’t got “Blockbuster Fatigue”, I’ve got freaking Franchise Fatigue. And I just want a break.
Look, I’m not complaining. I mean, I am, but I’m not. I’m a Marvel fanboy as much as the next guy, and I’ll be there to go and see Endgame and Captain Marvel and Far From Home, so I’m as much complicit in all of this as anyone else, and I’m sure there are plenty of you reading this now and thing “well, just watch original films then if that’s what you want”, to which I say, you’re absolutely right. But sometimes I do want to see a blockbuster, and I miss original blockbusters. I miss that sense of wonderment and adventure I felt going to see something for the first time and not knowing that they’ll probably just be more of it later. That feeling that this is it and isn’t it wonderful.
I suppose I could always The Mummy. Somehow, I doubt anything will ever spin-off from that. But then… I don’t really want to.
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