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Substance and Explosions: The Contest of Franchise and Story Driven Movies

Updated on July 16, 2014
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Jamal is a graduate from Northeastern Seminary but writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.

Recently I was listening to a Youtube discussion that was covering nerd news and reviews of this summer’s movies and comics so far. Part of this review covered the recent success of Transformers Age of Extinction. Now, like most other movie critics, they bemoaned not only how bland and predictable they thought the movie was, but how so many people could still go want to see the franchise and what it might mean for lesser known titles or original stories in Hollywood.

This isn’t the first time such a conversation has arisen. It seems to come up more since the exploding popularity of ‘tentpole’ movies; movie franchises that spend hundreds of millions of dollars for a seemingly lackluster story. What occurs to me is that there has always been tension in the movie arena between the business and the art that you don’t need to be a movie expert to pick up on.

Do you think theres room for both franchises and story driven movies?

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Big Bang

In the June 2014 Forbes.com article, Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ at 25 and it’s Wonderful, Terrible Legecy, the author credits the 1989 film as being the first true Hollywood blockbuster. He attributes this to the amount of hype and media promotion that went into promoting the film even before it came out, with a barrage of merchandise, music videos, and the sheer machine behind it all.

Movie studios have made millions before on films in the past like Top Gun, the classic Starwars trilogy, and The Godfather trilogy, but these didn’t have the gelled organism behind them that Batman did. They had stories that at least in part were taken seriously. Batman though, while being familiar, was known in pop culture as the semi-ridiculous 1960’s kid show with its cheesy one-liners and look which did nothing to hide its comic origins. It was a risk because it jettisoned all of that for a newer, darker interpretation. It was also riskier because the actor they hired to play the title character was a well known comedian, Michael Keaton. We know the franchise today as colossal money making machine guaranteed to make millions, but back then that was nowhere near the case.

Copy Cats

Batman turned from being a Hollywood risk, to a money making certainty. It started a steady trend of injecting generic movies into the mainstream because they looked like, or was associated with a particular successful genre, instead of being a original idea. Case in point would be the current rise of teen novel films, birthed with 2008’s Twighlight.

More character/story based films were still made, but it was evident to studios that they didn’t turnout nearly as much money as the tent pole films. As the adage goes, you got to spend money to make money, and studios at the end of the day were businesses and wanted, and arguably needed, to see a payoff for the millions they were investing.

For while, there was concern that the balloon would eventually pop, and that franchise films in particular would go the way of the 1980’s and 90’s action genre and become too stale. Even I can remember that by the mid-2000’s we could practically guess what the film would be about and at best would be a onetime see only. This is the ever present fear of tent pole films; what is their life expectancy?

Hollywood Nobility

There was always an impression that many people in Hollywood regarded certain genres as beneath them somehow. Christopher Reeve is an undisputed American icon as Superman that no one disrespects, but still never got an Oscar for the role. The Starwars prequels are regarded by some as having killed the careers of some actors. Movies that were more dramatic and serious were where the honor and recognition was at. If you’re an actor looking to get awards, you’ll have a better chance with a Woody Allen film than Michael Bay.

The most famous criticism of this trend came from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg when speaking at the USC School of Cinematic Arts back in June of 2013. The two directors, famous for creating the movie sequel phenomenon predicted that larger franchise movies would eventually take over theaters and result in viewers having to spend more money to see them. They also felt that movies that were more character driven would be squeezed out, forced onto channels like HBO.

1997's Double Team did not perform well in the box office and was the peak of Van Damme's popularity
1997's Double Team did not perform well in the box office and was the peak of Van Damme's popularity

The Search for Substance

Arguably since then, the Hollywood machine has appeared more focused on the summer movies and their franchises than smaller brands and this hasn’t gone unnoticed. Movie genres tend to struggle more when it starts to appear to us viewers that the people behind the films are just going through the paces. The actors act like cardboard cutouts, and we are bombed with promotions why we should dump money into their work.

This is what happened with the 1980’s/90’s action genre. It’s what started happening in the mid 2000’s with the comic genre too, with movies like Daredevil, Electra, and Catwoman. Whether it was actually true or not, we the viewers started feeling like Hollywood wasn’t taking the movies as seriously as it should and perhaps, taking us for fools as well, thinking that they didn’t have to work as much and we would still see the movie.

In 2008 though, there was a rejuvenating shot in the arm. The Dark Knight came out in theaters and we were surprised, shocked, and mesmerized that it actually far exceeded expectations, having a deeply intricate story, strong acting performance, and social relevance, along with the expected action. It took franchise films to another level, opening new ways of how they could work. Emboldened by this, we saw more franchise movies.

Finding the Center

There does seem to be an emerging middle ground though. Many actors and directors are starting to catch on that you can have a good story with a good franchise, but it must be taken seriously by the participants. They don’t need to be comic book readers or fanboys and girls, but they have to respect that the people they want to see their projects do take it seriously.

It was apparent how into character Wesley Snipes was doing Blade. The same can be said for heather Ledger’s legendary portrayal of the Joker and Tom Hiddleston’s of Loki. There is a respect of the lore that doesn’t feel condescending, while at the same time trying to breathe extra depth and life into a character.

There is always going to be a push and pull with the current take on making films. There has to be a balance of investment that doesn’t endanger the company with respect to the material they are investing in and wanting us to see. And actors who want to do credible acting with respect while respecting the role being that they are choosing to take on. It’s a media pendulum that we are all riding on.

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