Building a Franchise
In this weekend’s episode of the All New Showcase podcast, Kenny Fanguy and I talked about the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as other studios that are trying to duplicate their success. Sony is trying to expand their one Marvel franchise — Spider-Man — into a full-blown universe, while 20th Century Fox is planning to merge their two Marvel properties (The X-Men and the Fantastic Four) into one world. Warner Bros is finally launching a DC Cinematic Universe, and Disney seems to have similar plans for the Star Wars franchise now that they own Lucasfilm. It’s the usual pattern in Hollywood, folks — whenever somebody finds success, everybody else wants to duplicate it. In this case, though, I applaud it. A lifelong comic book nerd, the shared universe style is something I dearly love. And in fact, it’s something that kind of surprises me has never been done in the movies before.
Oh, there have been small crossovers. Alien Vs. Predator comes immediately to mind, and Freddy Vs. Jason. Godzilla faced off against King Kong and a plethora of other kaiju back in the day, and if we go back to the 40s, Universal Studios had their “Monster Rally” sequence of films, in which the likes of Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Wolf-Man, and Abbott and Costello would encounter each other over and over again. But nobody ever did it on the scale that Marvel has, or that these other studios want. In fact, I’ve heard some rumors buzzing that the big movie studios are looking at a lot of their different properties to see just how this may be done. So that gets me thinking: what other film properties might evolve into this sort of larger cinematic universe?
The first thing that comes to mind for me is Harry Potter. Granted, the books have all been adapted, but Warner Bros has recently announced a new sequence of films based on the spin-off book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. This should surprise no one. For over a decade now, the top-grossing Warner Bros movie has either been a Harry Potter film or a DC Comics film. Since they’ve got neither scheduled for 2014, they’re no doubt looking to fill the gap in their schedule. If they can get creator J.K. Rowling on board for this, I’m fine with an expansion of the Potter universe. Now let me make something clear — I don’t want any more movies about Harry Potter. His story is over and done with, and I really don’t need to see his adventures as an Auror after the death of Voldemort, because frankly, anything else is going to be anticlimactic. But one of the best things about the Harry Potter world is that Rowling did, in fact, create an entire world — a rich, detailed world, one with many curious ideas and facets that she only brushed up against in her original seven novels. Fantastic Beasts will be the story of Newt Scamander, a wizard who lived centuries ago and cataloged the most amazing magical creatures in the world. There’s plenty of story potential there. Stories of young Dumbledore or McGonagall? I’d watch that. The story of the founding of Hogwarts? I’m there. There are ways to expand the Potterverse that don’t require Harry, Ron, or Hermione, and if anything, that’s the direction Warner Bros should go in.
Universal Studios is planning a remake of Van Helsing, which itself was an attempt to do a sort of modern “monster rally” film. I say they should go all-out. The Universal versions of Frankenstein and Dracula are still the most recognizable in the world, so why not use the new Van Helsing to relaunch a Universal Monster Universe? Throw in Frankie and Drac, put in a Wolf-Man, give us the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Tie in the Brendan Fraser Mummy films while you’re at it — the original Van Helsing had a very tenuous tie in the first place, and it’s easily the most successful Universal monster franchise in decades. Even kids who have never seen a Boris Karloff picture love the monsters, and this is a perfect time to bring them back.
20th Century Fox, as we’ve said before, has both Aliens and Predator in its pocket, and regardless of the quality of the crossover films in those franchises, it’s a pretty natural pairing. The two concepts fit well together, and I think there’s still more that could be done with them. But you know what else Fox owns that could do with a bit of a boost? The X-Files. Think about it for a minute… a new X-Files movie, one that opens with Mulder and Scully sent to investigate a mysterious crash site uncovered beneath the arctic ice, and they wind up finding a Predator, or one of the Engineers from Prometheus. Ridley Scott may not be wild about it (especially if, as the rumors persist, he plans on linking the Aliens franchise back to this own Blade Runner film), but I think there’s room for connectivity here.
I’m just spitballing, friends, I’m throwing stuff around to see what sticks, but I think there could be fun had in any of these directions. If Sony insists on bringing back Ghostbusters, why not build that into a universe with not just ghosts, but all manner of supernatural entities and different squads of heroes combating them? Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are probably done with Men in Black, but there’s plenty of juice left in that universe. Sam Raimi is already planning to tie the reboot of The Evil Dead back into the original Evil Dead/Army of Darkness franchise — why not take a page from the comics and have Ash encounter the likes of Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees, or Herbert West?
I know I’m throwing a lot of things around here, but that’s how these things start. Here’s hoping that somebody decides to run with this ball soon, and decides to do it the right way.
I am, as you may know, an English teacher. As such, I’ve got a particular sensitivity towards using words correctly. The wonderful thing about words, you see, is that by using them properly you can be much more specific in your meaning… more descriptive, more precise and, therefore, more effective in making the intent of your words clear. If I wanted to say, in one word, that something has been broken into ten pieces, I should be able to use the word “decimate,” because that was its original meaning. But too many people used it as a synonym for “destroy,” and now that secondary – and far less specific – meaning is also considered correct. And it irritates me. And it’s the same vein of irritation that strikes me when I hear people throw around the word “trilogy” willy-nilly.
Strictly speaking, a “trilogy” can refer to any series of three, but I think using it that way cheapens its usage. The word “trilogy” should be reserved to refer to something a little different than just “three.” These days, it seems to be popular to group movies into trilogies, perhaps because it’s so attractive package them together in a DVD box set. You can go out and buy the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Dark Knight trilogy, the Back to the Future trilogy, each with three films in a series, each of which fits the definition to varying degrees. But are they true trilogies? How about the X-Men trilogy? There have been two movies released since they started calling it that, although one could argue that they aren’t part of the original series, but rather spin-offs… but next year’s X-Men: First Class seems poised to tie everything together. Can you still make that arguement? There are three films with Evil Dead in the title, but when people talk about an Evil Dead trilogy they mean Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness. And then there’s my personal favorite, the Star Trek Trilogy. In a series with either six, ten, or eleven movies (depending on how you count), the boxed set with “trilogy” on the cover collects numbers two through four, because technically, those are the only ones that take place (chronologically) one after another.
Let me break this down, guys.
The True Trilogy.
In my personal, extremely picky (I know) vernacular, a true trilogy is one story told in three parts. The Lord of the Rings, for example, is a true trilogy. (Yes, I know Professor Tolkien never actually wanted to split the book into three volumes, that it was done on the insistence of a publisher who didn’t think people would want to purchase a novel the length of a phone book. For the purposes of this semantic discussion, that’s not actually important.) For me to consider it a true trilogy, it needs to be planned as such… maybe not necessarily conceived in three parts, but once finished, part three should end with the ending the author was working towards all along. True trilogies, by my definition, are really quite rare.
It’s not uncommon for someone to claim a story was intended as a trilogy even when it wasn’t. These usually don’t hold up to close scrutiny – the original Star Wars trilogy, for example… as much as I love the first three movies, if you watch them together it seems terribly unlikely that George Lucas had decided that Leia and Luke were brother and sister when he wrote the first screenplay, and even the question of Luke’s parentage isn’t a slam-dunk in that first film. Try to handwave it as being a “certain point of view” all you want, Obi-Wan – either you lied to Luke in Episode IV or Lucas hadn’t decided yet that Vader was Anakin Skywalker. The third Scream film also tries to claim trilogy status as well – Jamie Kennedy’s character appears in a post-mortem video that lays out the “trilogy rules” – but it’s written by a different writer than the first two films and the story it tells makes the second film (which was considerably better than the third) largely irrelevant, from a narrative standpoint. True trilogies are hard to find, but easy to confirm.
Far more common is…
The Retroactive Trilogy.
A Retroactive Trilogy is what you get when a storyteller doesn’t have any solid or specific plans for a sequel, but once the first movie turns out to be a success, comes up with two more films that more or less go together. The original Star Wars, most likely, fits into this category much better than the “true trilogy” category. There are differing reports as to how much of Return of the Jedi was mapped out when Empire Strikes Back was written, it seems that at least some sort of framework was planned… as Luke is leaving Dagobah and Obi-Wan calls him “our last hope,” Yoda replies, “No… there is another.” Did they know the “other” was Leia when they wrote that line? I dunno. But they were at least thinking.
The problem with these Retroactive Trilogies is that sometimes the writers simply try too hard. They build everything up in part two to some gargantuan cliffhanger, but along the way they’re throwing so many things at the audience that the story starts to get lost and garbled. Then, when part three comes along, they’ve gotten so jumbled up that they just can’t untie the knot before the end. I don’t have the hatred for the Matrix sequels that some people do, but I can’t deny they fell victim to this problem. Even worse, I’d argue, were the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean films. Not coincidentally, I liked the fourth Pirates film much better than two or three, mostly because the plot had almost nothing to do with the previous three films, simply throwing Jack Sparrow and Captain Barbossa into another standalone adventure.
One of the best Retroactive Trilogies I’ve ever seen is the Back to the Future series, with second and third installments that are entertaining in their own right, extend the world built in the first, tie back to the beginning in a logical way, and each have their own clear identity. But they’re still, to be clear, a retroactive trilogy. Yes, I know, we’ve all seen that “To Be Continued” logo at the end of Part I a million times… which is why most people forget that it wasn’t actually in the theatrical cut, but added to the VHS release after the first movie was a hit and the studio decided to go on and make some sequels.
The Trilogy in Name Only.
This is the one that really irritates me. When the trailers for Oz the Great and Powerful came out, they identified Sam Raimi as the “director of the Spider-Man trilogy.” Which made me bristle. The three Raimi-helmed Spider-Man movies are in no way a trilogy… not planned as such, not conceived as such, not executed as such. Aside from the lead characters, the only arc that even remotely welds them together is that of Harry Osborne, whose significance in Spider-Man 2 was negligible. Furthermore, Raimi never intended to stop at three. There were plans, at one point, to go to six films, but after Spider-Man 3 left audiences disappointed and Tobey Maguire hurt his back, everyone decided to walk away from the franchise and let someone else take a crack at it. (Incidentally, there are reports that the current Amazing Spider-Man film is intended to launch a trilogy. Whether there’s actually a three-part story planned or whether it’s just marketing using that word because they think it sounds sophisticated remains to be seen.)
A Trilogy in Name Only is what you get when a series happens to end after the third installment. Blade, for example. Ocean’s Eleven. The original Robocop franchise. None of these were planned as three-volume stories. These just happened to stop after three movies for various reasons – failure of the third installment, age or lack of interest in the principal actors, whatever. Despite that, these films frequently get packaged and marketed as “trilogies.” Even the Godfather franchise falls under this category.
Sometimes, though, fourth films get made after a series seems over, taking away even its faux “trilogy” status. Toy Story is currently in this category, but every time you turn around it seems someone is starting a rumor about Pixar working on a Toy Story 4. (Seeing as how the third Toy Story had perhaps the greatest ending of any animated film in history, I really think that would be a huge mistake, but that’s an argument for another time.) You can find DVD sets of the TransFormers films marketed as a “trilogy” even as the fourth film is under production, and I distinctly remember the Saw movies marketed as a “trilogy” even back when they were actively cranking out a new movie every darn year.
What’s more, we’ve entered the age of the drastically-delayed sequel, which is taking older films that used to fall into this category and turn them into longer franchises: Die Hard, Indiana Jones… these used to be called trilogies, then fourth films came out. The same thing will happen to Jurassic Park next year.
Remakes or spin-offs incidentally, do not take a film out of this category. They’re working on a Robocop remake, but they’ll still market the original as a trilogy. They marked The Mummy franchise as a trilogy because they can easily (and rightfully) ignore the Scorpion King films.
Evil Dead is an interesting case, as the new film is being presented as a remake, while at the same time the creators are publicly talking about continuing the original series (with an Army of Darkness 2) and eventually making a film that would bring the two incarnations of the franchise into a collision course. After AoD2 and a new Evil Dead 2, they’re considering a film that would feature Bruce Campbell’s Ash meeting Jane Levy’s Mia in a film that – I feel comfortable saying – would finally force the American Film Institute to stop placing Citizen Kane at the top of its “100 Greatest Films of All Time” list. At any rate, doing this would make for seven films total… two Ash Evil Dead movies, two Army of Darkness movies (also starring Ash), two Mia Evil Dead movies, then whatever they would call the final film.
None of this is to make any particular claims about the qualities of any film in any given category. There have been bad “true” trilogies and terrible “retroactive” trilogies. Sometimes a trilogy in name only can have three fantastic movies (and by “sometimes” I mean “mostly in the case of the Toy Story films”). This isn’t about judging any film as superior to any other. This is all about a plea from me to use words the way they are intended. If it ain’t a trilogy, don’t call it one.
The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!
Lunatics and Laughter Day 11: Army of Darkness (1992)
Writers: Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Embeth Davidtz, Marcus Gilbert, Ian Abercrombie, Richard Grove, Bridget Fonda, Patricia Tallman, Ted Raimi
Plot: S-Mart employee Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) has had a hard time of it – finding the Necronomicon (Book of the Dead), awakening something terrible, getting attacked by zombie-like “Deadites,” being forced to kill his possessed girlfriend and chop off his own hand, and then getting hurled back in time to the middle ages. As the film opens, Ash recalls how he fell through a time portal (along with his car, shotgun, and chainsaw) and was taken into captivity by the soldiers of a warlord named Arthur (Marcus Gilbert). Although Arthur’s Wise Man (Ian Abercrombie) believes Ash to be a prophesied savior, Arthur has him chained with the men of his captured enemy, Henry the Red (Richard Grove). As the captives are marched to a pit for execution, Arthur is attacked by a woman named Sheila (Embeth Davidtz) whose brother was slain by Henry’s men. Arthur blames Henry for loosing an evil upon the land, but Henry claims his men have fallen prey to the same beast. Arthur opens the pit and a captive is tossed in, blood erupting from the bottom. Ash tries to convince Arthur he’s not one of Henry’s men, but Sheila hurls a rock at him and he falls into the pit, where a Deadite awaits. The Wise Man throws Ash’s chainsaw into the pit and, his weapon returned, he escapes. He sets Henry free and uses his shotgun to intimidate Arthur’s men, into obeying him.
The Wise Man tells Ash his only hope of returning home lies in finding the Necronomicon. He prepares for battle, making a mechanical hand for himself. Sheila gives him a blanket, hoping to apologize for her actions, but he rebuffs her at first. When it’s clear she’s upset, he instructs her to “Give me some sugar, baby,” and she sends him off with a kiss. The Wise Man gives Ash the words he needs to allow him to take the book safely: “Klatu Verada Nikto,” but the overconfident Ash refuses to repeat them more than once. He’s pursued by the dark forces from inside the book, who burst from a broken mirror as several miniature versions of himself, tormenting him in painful and amusing ways. One manages to to jump down his throat and sprouts from him as a full-grown “Evil Ash,” whom Ash manages to subdue, chop up, and bury. Ash makes his way to the stone altar where the Necronomicon awaits, but finds he has forgotten the Wise Man’s magic words. He tries to fake his way through it, but when he takes the book an army of skeletal Deadites rises from the earth. Evil Ash, now rotting and mutating, rises to lead them.
Returning to the Castle, Ash insists the Wise Man send him home as soon as possible. Before it can happen, a flying Deadite swoops in and takes Sheila captive. It brings her to Evil Ash, who is opening every grave to set free even more Deadites. When word of the army reaches Arthur he debates fleeing, but Ash is determined to stand and fight. He convinces Arthur’s remaining me to stay, and sends an envoy to Henry the Red, hoping to recruit his army to their cause as well. The Deadite Army approaches, a now-possessed Sheila at Evil Ash’s side, and battle ensues.
Ash’s homemade gunpowder gives Arthur’s forces an early advantage, but the Deadites break down a gate and get inside the fortress walls. Just as it seems the living will be overwhelmed by the dead, Henry the Red’s forces arrive and turn the tide. Evil Ash and Sheila overwhelm the guards protecting the Necronomicon, but Ash manages to toss her over the side of the wall and face his counterpart. The two battle, and Ash defeats the monster and saves the book. The rest of the Deadites retreat, and Sheila is restored. Arthur and Henry make peace and the Wise Man gives Ash a potion that will send him to his own time, provided he can remember the magic words. He bids Sheila farewell and returns to his time and his home, working in S-Mart, where we see him telling the story to an unconvinced, unimpressed coworker. Suddenly, a customer transforms into a Deadite, attacking, and Ash grabs a rifle from the store’s case, blowing her away. It’s not too bad to be home.
Thoughts: The Evil Dead franchise (I covered the first film in the original Reel to Reel project) is a strange animal. The first film is a straight-up “Cabin in the Woods” sort of horror movie. The sequel, Evil Dead II, is a virtual remake of the first, copying the plot and largely ignoring the first film, but providing better special effects and a brand of dark comedy the first laughed. By this third installment, writer/director Sam Raimi decided to go for a full-blown comedy. Bruce Campbell’s Ash – a struggling everyman in the first film – had become a cool-as-ice balls-of-steel action hero capable of creating advanced robotic prosthetics with 14th-century technology. And yes, we love him for it.
Early in the movie Raimi ramps up the already-gory franchise to a truly comical degree, with a literal geyser of blood early. The violence, however, has a much more comical tone than in the first two films, and after that initial spout, there’s surprisingly little blood. A lot of that comes down to the monsters that make up most of the movie – rather than fleshy pseudo-zombies as in the first two movies, the majority of the Deadites this time around are reanimated skeletons – fun to break, but not much blood to spray at the camera. As Ash battles the stop-motion skeletal Deadites, there’s a nice feel of the Three Stooges meeting Jason and the Argonauts. Every bit of action is far sillier than would have been allowed in the earlier movies, in fact. The scene where Ash leaps into the air and snaps his chains aw on to his dismembered hand would be preposterous even in a more serious, Type-A horror/comedy. This movie rides the line between the two types – the basic plot is something out of a horror (or perhaps more accurately, medieval fantasy) film. The antics of Ash and the Deadites, however, are too broad to really place in the same category as Ghostbusters and the like.
For sheer silly, though, nothing tops the battle with the mini-Ashes. This segment is full of pure slapstick, comedic moments that aren’t too far off from the antics of Home Alone, about as far from a straight-up horror movie as you can get. The only thing that keeps things even a little creepy here is Bruce Campbell’s attitude as he does battle with the miniatures, his face growing truly maniacal as he guzzles boiling hot water in the hopes of destroying one that forced itself down his throat. The rest of the scene spins wildly though different gags: Ash finds an eyeball growing on his shoulder and it’s goofy (although there is, to be fair, a nice dose of body horror in that moment), the eye begins sprouting into a second Ash and it gets silly again. If it weren’t for the unique charm Campbell brings to the character, the whole thing would be entirely too inane to give even a moment’s consideration.
That said, Ash truly is an iconic character, thanks mostly to this movie. One of the greatest horror/comedy moments of all time has to be Bruce Campbell’s “boomstick” speech, where he extols the virtues of shopping at S-Mart to a crowd of medieval screwheads (I quote him directly, of course) who live in a world where the fictional retail giant won’t even exist for another 700 years. If you know a movie fan who loves Bruce Campbell and you can’t figure out why, I can only assume you’ve never watched this movie.
The Army of the Dead itself is a pretty macabre sight. Raimi gives us a complex mixture of stop-motion skeletons, mechanical puppets, and people in costumes. Although it’s fairly easy to tell the difference between them, at this point you’ve bought so completely into the world in front of you that you don’t even care if the effects aren’t seamless, the greenscreen is obvious and the action is more like a live action Looney Tunes short than anything else. In fact, some of the more technically absurd moments are the most entertaining. Whenever one of the skeletons explodes in a sudden burst of white dust, you get a visceral thrill, and if you can watch a group of skeletons storming a castle with a battering ram without your inner 11-year-old thinking about how awesome it is, something is terribly wrong with you. By the time Bruce Campbell fights two Deadites with two different swords at the same time, you’re either a fan for life or you’re never going to appreciate what you’re watching.
I know a lot of people prefer this movie’s rather famous original ending, in which Ash is returned home via a magic sleeping potion, but he takes too much, sleeps too long, and awakens in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Thematically, it actually fits the trilogy pretty well. The first movie was unflinchingly bleak, the sequel only marginally less so. Ending the series with a completely hopeless climax would have been perfectly in character. That said, I’m kind of glad Raimi relented and gave us the ending he did. Maybe it’s just because I’m basically a positive person. Maybe it’s because I think Ash deserves a happy ending after everything he’s been through. Or maybe it’s just because the S-Mart finale gives Ash one last moment to be kick a little ass, I don’t know. All I know is that if the theatrical ending had never been filmed, we never would have been treated to Ash’s immortal “Hail to the King, baby.” And that would be a damn shame.