“Franchise” movies – movies that exist as part of some bigger universe – are not going away any time soon. Sequels were already a popular and reliable enough way to stretch an asset. Marvel/Disney have proven that you can draw an audience for preposterously silly action movies and wildly inconsistent TV shows that take their sweet time figuring out how to be good. Shorter DVD windows, the advent of streaming, etc have all made serialized storytelling the go-to business model for motion-picture entertainment.
However, not everyone does it well. In fact, most studios don’t do it well. It’s not really their fault, most of them have never had to managed things like this before whereas books and television have been doing it for decades. Hell, Stephen King actually maintains a functional interwoven mythos within his fiction despite having written/published over 150 books – several of which he has admitted to being so strung-out during the writing of as to not recall actually writing them.
Now, I’m no Stephen King, but I am… well, what I am is a guy who has to think of something new to write about every week in this column. So here’s some anecdotal observations about franchise filmmaking organized into a Dos & Don’ts list. Yeah. Welcome to the other side of the curtain, kiddies:
DO: Lay the groundwork for sequels.
DON’T: Screw up the current movie to do so.
Yes, people who keep pointing this out to me: I am absolutely certain that the 9/11-reference-gasm third act to Man of Steel and Superman’s curiously un-Supermanlike reaction to it are setting up stuff for Batman Vs. Superman. It’s an easy guess that Metropolis will be rebuilt into its familiar “City of Tomorrow” stature, that doing said rebuilding will be the public “cover” for Evil Businessman Lex Luthor and that Superman’s imperfect behavior will part of what initially turns Luthor and Bruce Wayne against him. All well and good… except it still leaves the first film as a tonal mess and a poor adaptation which would be even more so if for whatever reason you never got to actually make the sequel.
DO: Think outside the linear progression of time.
DON’T: Mistake things we don’t know for things we’ll enjoy knowing.
Prequels are not evil. They are, however, hugely abused – often running in circles telling weak stories based on answering questions better left unasked. Case in point? X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which helpfully showed moviegoers what the unfortunate readers of Origins already knew: That the idea of Wolverine fighting in various wars throughout history was more interesting than the reality of watching him actually do it.
DO: Save some stuff for later.
DON’T Save everything for later.
There are basically only two really important Green Lantern enemies: Sinestro, a former Lantern gone rogue and Star Sapphire, GL’s girlfriend turned evil. Both characters are introduced in the first (now only) Green Lantern movie with nods to their possible futures, but neither get there during the film itself; leaving the hero to fight a boring mad scientist and an even more boring giant space cloud.
DO: Use a shared universe to your storytelling advantage.
DON’T: Make your audience keep a flowchart.
Captain America: The First Avenger doesn’t have to stop and explain the specific mechanics of how the Red Skull being right about the Norse Gods existing and leaving magical artifacts behind on Earth works, because that was already explained in Thor and the sort of person who needs those kind of things explicitly spelled out is probably the sort of person who already saw Thor. By contrast, the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie was so confusingly plotted (and with only one series to cull from!) that an explanation of what the HELL actually happened is a detailed special-feature on its DVD.
DON’T: Tie the success of the whole to the success of one piece.
DO: Be able to absorb a misfire.
Everyone remembers Nick Fury showing up at the end of Iron Man‘s credits to effectively announce that the Marvel Universe was a thing, but people tend to forget that the first real heavy-lifting in terms of worldbuilding happened later that same year in The Incredible Hulk: That’s where we first saw Captain America’s Super-Soldier Serum, for example. Part of the reason was that Hulk’s movie just wasn’t anywhere near the megahit Iron Man was, and notoriously tough to work with star Edward Norton opted out of The Avengers. Marvel Studios’ solution? Just keep going forward. After all, Thor and Captain America were already in early-stage production, so it was entirely possible to simply shift focus and proceed as-planned – though perhaps with fewer callbacks to this particular movie than they might have initially planned.
DO: Go cross-media – it’s the 21st Century!
DON’T: Go cross-media without a plan.
By the time Avengers: Age of Ultron comes to theaters, at least one of its main characters – Quicksilver, fast-running brother of The Scarlet Witch – will have appeared in the personage of an entirely different actor in the unrelated film X-Men: Days of Future Past. This is somewhat unavoidable, the result of contract issues and studios not wanting to play nice with semi-shared properties, but it’s most likely surmountable. He won’t be the most important character in either movie, and it by legal necessity will likely have a different backstory in both films.
On the other side of the coin, rumors continue to swirl that Batman Vs. Superman will feature not only a role for Nightwing (aka “grownup Robin”) but also cameos for the civilian identities of Wonder Woman and The Flash. Problem? Both of those characters also have CW TV series in the works – The Flash as a spin-off of Arrow and Wonder Woman as a re-imagining tentatively titled Amazon . Nightwing, meanwhile, has been rumored as an Arrow guest-star since before the (terrible) show launched. At this point, plans do not (apparently) include those incarnations turning up in the movies. Whereas Quicksilver is a preexisting issue, this strikes me more like a self-inflicted wound on DC/Warner Bros’ part – fair or not, people will decide (assuming they go through with this at all) that one version is “better,” and the perceived loser will suffer in comparison.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet. Aside from his work at The Escapist, he wrote a book and does a videogame criticism show.