You don’t have to be super-observant to notice that Hollywood makes a lot of sequels. It’s no secret that when a studio has success with one of its products, the studio’s executives look for any way to cash in. In the wake of Disney’s success with its Marvel Cinematic Universe™, the way to cash in is often announcing release dates for the next five sequels in the “saga”. And following the big payday of the decision to split the final installment in the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises into two movies, other studios have been clamoring to get in on that action.
This is why, for the second year in a row, my family took the afternoon after Thanksgiving to go see a movie called The Hunger Games: Mockingjay; this year’s version was Part 2. I enjoyed both movies, but I also had the same problem with both movies: they aren’t complete. When The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was finished, you obviously had a sense that the story wasn’t over, but director Francis Lawrence brought that chapter to such a satisfying conclusion (the brilliant close-up of Katniss’s reaction to her district’s destruction remains the best moment in the entire series) that the movie felt whole. Not so with these last two films.
Part 2, at least, reaches the series’ conclusion and provides closure. It probably helped that I’d read the books beforehand; I was prepared for author Suzanne Collins’s depressing finale. I’m not sure how it plays for anyone who hasn’t read the books, but, to me, Lawrence staged the movie’s finale so that it makes more sense than the book’s, so I was satisfied. But the rest of the movie felt drawn out, with action sequences just filling time before the conclusion rather than actively moving the plot along. Part 1 and 2 could have easily been condensed into the same movie, and the franchise would have been better for it. As it is, I’m mildly satisfied, but I’ll never be excited to revisit these last two installments the same way I will be with the first two.
It’s futile, though, to complain about Hollywood milking franchises for all they’re worth. It’s a business, and while both Mockingjay films have successively opened to lesser box office totals than their predecessors, Lionsgate undoubtedly made more money by splitting them into two than a single third film would have made. And it’s not like extending franchises over decades hasn’t been profitable in the past. Exhibit A: James Bond.
Confession: I’ve only seen one pre-Daniel Craig James Bond movie, and it’s the one a lot of people consider the best (Note: I said “a lot”, not “all”!), Goldfinger. I liked it, but it seemed dated and unabashedly sexist to me. I much prefer Craig’s movies, which probably means I’m not a true James Bond fan, a title I’m proud very sad to bear. As a result of this preference, I consider Skyfall the best Bond movie. Director Sam Mendes took the franchise in a much more artful direction, imbuing it with significance both visually beautiful and story-driven.
So I was really excited for Spectre, and, much like Mockingjay: Part 2, while I would say that I enjoyed the movie, it’s also fair to say that I was disappointed. Mendes again brought his visual sensibility to the proceedings, filling the movie’s borders with stunning imagery, most memorably in the opening Day of the Dead sequence set in Mexico City. And Léa Seydoux continued the franchise’s streak through Craig’s movies of Bond girls with real agency in the plot, rather than just damsels in distress or objects for Bond to bang. But the villain has a lame motive, and the movie’s long runtime (2.5 hours) is never justified by a payoff in the plot. A lot of the action scenes in this movie will stand up well in retrospect against the other setpieces in Craig’s movies. But good action scenes don’t make a great movie, so Spectre falls well short of Skyfall.
There were a lot of minor disappointments among franchises this year. Along with Bond and Katniss, other characters that failed to live up to their previous movies include Ethan Hunt, the Avengers, Ant-Man, and those pesky minions, not to mention the disaster that is Marvel’s First Family. It’s not like hope is lost for these franchises; they’ve all had recent successes and will surely have future ones. But it would be nice if the lesson that the studios take away from this is that scheduling release dates for your tentpoles isn’t enough; these blockbusters have to have some artistic merit early in the planning process, or else the returns will continue to diminish.
Then again, considering the highest-grossing movie of the year is a sequel to a franchise that began over 20 years ago and the movie most likely to unseat that one is a sequel to a franchise that began 40 years ago, it appears that Hollywood is firmly on the franchise/sequel/tentpole track. Here’s to hoping they’re letting the creative types steer.