Movie fans getting tired of “sequelitis”

Cairns on Cinema

John Cairns

Our lecture for today, movie fans, is about sequels and how tired everyone is with them.

At least, that is the party line that the various Hollywood news publications would have you believe about the box office results in the summer of 2017.

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If you haven’t noticed, it has not been a glorious summer of major hits at the box office. Until this weekend, when Spider-Man: Homecoming rolled out in theatres across the domestic market, there were really two unqualified hits this summer: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (domestic haul of $383 million and climbing) and Wonder Woman ($350 million and climbing). 

But those have been the only unqualified success stories so far. Notably, I’m looking at the overall list of top 10 grossing domestic movies for the year so far. Of the 10, there are only three summer releases on the list so far – these two, plus Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales with $166 million.

All the pundits are scratching their heads and wondering why this is, and the answer they have come up with is: people are sick and tired of the sequels.

No doubt about it: this has been a summer of sequels and retreads, and most have missed expectations in terms of the box office haul that was expected:

Cars 3 – its opening of $53 million was the worst in the history of this Disney-Pixar franchise.

Transformers: The Last Knight – its five-day opening haul of $68 million was the worst in that franchise’s history as well.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales – its opening haul of $62 million is the second-worst in the franchise’s history, and what’s more, if this flick doesn’t make another $75 million or so this stands to be the worst domestic gross all-time for this franchise.

Despicable Me 3 – Its opening weekend was $72 million. You’d think the studio ought to be pleased, but this was lower than the openings for both Despicable Me 2 and Minions.  

The Mummy – this revival of the Mummy series opened at $31 million, and so far has made a total of $75 million. All the previous “Mummy” movies opened higher than this.

Alien: Covenant – opened at $36 million, made $73 million.

So it hasn’t been that great a summer for sequels. It was also been a bad summer for remakes of TV series, as Baywatch, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, has made a lousy $57 million.   

Every year, it seems, we get sequels at the movie theatres. And every year, we get the same old columns about how tired everyone is of them. In fact, I’ve written before about sequels and it seems like I keep on saying the same thing, year after year, about why we keep on getting them every blockbuster season.

It’s because “original” movies rarely do well at the box office during the summer! Just look at the domestic grosses. The top-grossing summer movie that can truly say it is “original” is Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, and it only made $70 million!

That is hardly a fortune. No wonder the major studios serve up the same old sequels, year after year, because even if these cartoon characters and superheroes underperform, you can still count on them to surely do better than $70 million dollars!

Sometimes, they will do far better than that. If you haven’t noticed, the two biggest hits of the summer are Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Wonder Woman, and those aren’t exactly brand-new works of art either. Guardians Vol. 2 is a sequel, just like the rest of them, and yet you don’t see any articles claiming that fans are tired of them. As for Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot previously appeared in that very same role in Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, last year.

So why are these two movies bucking the trend? My guess is both flicks are still considered fresh and new by the public, and these franchises are familiar enough already to the public that they are motivated to go see it. This is still only the second Guardians movie, and the first full-length movie for Wonder Woman as the lead character.

But how many Transformers movies have there been, five? How many times must we see Johnny Depp in a pirate suit? Same for these Despicable Me characters. When is it enough, already?

I find that after the first two movies a familiar franchise is going to hit its peak in popularity and creativity. After that, though not always, it will inevitably start to go downhill. I remember this was the case after the first couple of Rocky movies with Sylvester Stallone, and the first two Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve. For other franchises, like Jaws, it’s a race to the ocean depths after the first movie.

It’s the rare franchise that can go on basically forever, like Star Wars. But the main downfall a movie franchise faces is that people will grow tired of it, because characters and storylines aren’t fresh or exciting anymore.

Yes, you’re excited for Wonder Woman now, because she’s fresh and new. And you’ll probably be excited to see her again in the Justice League movie later this year.

But that will be three movies with Wonder Woman in under two years. Are you still going to be up for Wonder Woman III or IV or V, or Justice League III?

I’m guessing not so much, and even less if one of these movies ends up being a piece of junk.

Trust me, I know about this, I’ve suffered “sequelitis” at the movie theatres before. A good example is my reaction to Austin Powers in Goldmember.

I had loved the first two Austin Powers movies, which had the whole swinging-Sixties and time travel thing going. Dr. Evil was hilarious. And who can forget the Fembots? 

But Goldmember fell flat. The writers clearly had run out of ideas, and Mike Myers wasn’t the least bit funny anymore. When the credits rolled, I knew it was over for Austin Powers. Leaving the cinema, I remember shaking my head and thinking “this is the end.”  

Sometimes, a series doesn’t have the good sense to quit. Just look at the reaction to the latest Transformers movie by columnist Brian Zinchuk.

“The Last Knight was unbelievably, despicably, give-me-a-thesaurus awful. Michael Bay has got to go,” Zinchuk writes.

The problem for these studios is that they usually can’t afford to pack it in on a successful franchise. They have to find a way to keep them going, just to keep the gravy train of money flowing in.

Yet this is the risk they run if they go to the well too many times: this sort of negative reaction. What is a studio to do?

It’s simple, really: do a “reboot,” where a familiar franchise comes back with new actors, new costumes, a new director, the whole gamut.

That’s what happened with this Spider-Man: Homecoming release. It is actually the second “reboot” done with that character since the original movie in 2002, this time with Tom Holland installed in the lead role.

We shall see in due time whether this latest Spider-Man movie will buck the trend of “sequelitis” that we are seeing this summer, with depressed ticket sales and general audience boredom. What ought to help is the casting of Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, a popular character that has single-handedly brought strong box-office numbers to that Marvel franchise over the past few years.

My guess is most of the fans will still say, emphatically, “Iron Man is back again!” But you have to wonder if Hollywood is pushing its luck with these characters, just as the studios have pushed their luck with the other sequels that have been served up so far in 2017.

“Robert Downey Jr.? Iron Man? Oh no, not again!”

 

 

     

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