Are franchises robbing films of their surprise?

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With endless sequels and spin-offs, lead franchise characters are now invincible as long as they bring in the money.

Franchises are big business, and one glance at this year’s blockbuster line-up confirms this: we have attempts to reinvigorate old stalwarts such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Godzilla, franchise sequels including Transformers: Age of Extinction, Rio 2, The Expendables 3 and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, and, of course, the Marvel goliath has four films being released (albeit by different studios) this year: Captain America 2, Guardians of the Galaxy, X-Men: Days of Future Past and The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

It’s always cool watching Spidey battling supervillains, but the web-head will succeed – he needs to be alive for the sequels after all

Sure, non-franchise blockbusters are still released – the criminally under-watched Noah springs to mind – but each one constitutes a huge risk. Flops, such as John Carter, are costly. And whilst economically safe, this continual excretion of popular franchise flicks often undermines the film’s story. Why should we care about characters, especially when they’re all-powerful super beings, when we know they’re going to triumph over evil and live until the end? It’s always going to be cool watching Spidey swing round New York battling supervillains, but the web-head will succeed – he needs to be alive for the sequels after all.

The best films connect with the audience on an emotional level – we need characters to route for during situations which seem insurmountable. We need surprises to keep us guessing. If there’s no peril, then there’s no reason for us to care. Filmmakers deal with this in a variety of ways. Return to the Spider-Man films, both the Sam Raimi trilogy and Marc Webb’s iteration, and you’ll find each film includes an important death. This death either completes a secondary character’s arc (Doctor Octopus’s demise in Spider-Man 2 does this best) or takes an emotional toll on Peter Parker, such as the deaths of Harry or Gwen’s father.

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Their deaths add some much needed consequence into proceedings. Spidey’s death might be off the table, but at least his life can be impacted by the deaths of those he loves, allowing the audience to connect with him that way. And thanks to their being ensemble pieces, the X-Men films can actually afford to off some of their characters. The X-Men films have always been the best at utilising surprise, especially with their loose adaptations of the comics meaning not even hardcore comic fans will see what’s coming. Wolverine will survive, but the rest appear up for grabs. The prequel nature of First Class and Days of Future Past undermines this, however – we already know who survives.

Marvel Studios have an opportunity. With their back catalogue, they can create a living world where Iron Man can die

The Marvel Cinematic Universe appears to be a victim of its own success. Bringing together this universe has meant almost all of the main cast have their own films to carry or have possibilities for spin-offs; killing one would essentially kill a franchise. Agent Coulson was one of the few deemed expendable, yet even he was resurrected to star in Agents of SHIELD. Marvel Studios do, however, have an opportunity. With their impressive back catalogue, they can create a living world where Iron Man and Captain America can die, changing the Avengers roster whilst allowing others to utilise the free solo film space: Black Panther, Nova, Dr. Strange, Ms. Marvel, The Runaways, The Inhumans, Black Widow, Nick Fury, She-Hulk are all viable options. If Rocket Raccoon can get a film, any of those can.

Surprise doesn’t have to come from death. Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is an example of stellar filmmaking, writing and comic stories being combined to create a dark, twisted tale. Sure, maybe Batman was always going to prevail, but Nolan managed to tell stories that upped the ante each time, placing our hero in predicaments where we weren’t certain of his success, or twisting the film around in ways we didn’t expect (the final moments of The Dark Knight being the best example). The tangibility of death is often the most obvious way to surprise the audience, but there’s more than one way to drop the audience into unexplored territory.

More on cinema’s interest cycle: Who do genres die?

dark knight rises bale sad

Franchises are here to stay – Johnny Depp brings in too much money swaggering about as Captain Jack Sparrow and Marvel is too much of a goldmine. This doesn’t mean studios can’t be creative – after all, the best way to sustain a franchise is to create good movies. But wouldn’t it be great to see Peter Parker killed off and replaced with Miles Morales? Or to watch any franchise film without knowing the certainty of a character’s survival?

It’s hard in this Twitter age to keep spoilers at bay – although that’s another problem entirely – but films need suspense. They need surprises, otherwise the film ends up another run-of-a-mill money churner rather than that something extra. Franchises aren’t killing surprises, but with more super-franchises such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe being created and sequels and spinoffs being announced before a film is even released, they are making it harder to achieve.

 

More on Miles Morales: The problem with diversity in superhero movies

 

Featured image: Marvel Studios

Inset images: Columbia; Warner Bros

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