I recently came down with an acute case of movie-world-itis — call it “franchise fatigue” fatigue. The symptoms are as follows. It’s blockbuster movie season (otherwise known as: any given week of the year), and a handful of sequels, reboots, and tentpole-smash wannabes have all come out and performed badly. The media predictions of weekend grosses were not met. The studio dreams of box-office triumph were not fulfilled. The eternal hope that a veteran franchise, one that has been in hibernation for a while, could wake up, take off, and fly again — those dreams crashed and burned.
The highly visible failure of films like “Dark Phoenix,” “Men in Black: International,” and “Shaft” went down as black eyes for the studios that produced and distributed them. More than that, they were signs that the audience — ah, the audience! that loyal puppy of megaplex-product enthusiasm! until, all of a sudden, it isn’t — was now weary as hell, and it wasn’t going to take this anymore. The audience voted, as it always has, with its ticket dollars, and what the vote said was, “Enough! We’ve got franchise fatigue.”
That’s an accurate description as far as it goes (viewers failed to turn up because they’d grown bored with these series), though it’s a little akin to fast-food fatigue. If you eat too much at McDonald’s or Domino’s or KFC or Taco Bell, your body is probably at some point going to tell you to lay off, and you will — for, you know, a few days. Until the craving kicks in again.
More than that, there’s an ideology to franchise fatigue as it’s routinely parsed by the media. Those of us who cover pop culture for a living are not, in fact, cynics. We like this stuff; we want it to be good. And franchise fatigue, which seems all too real, but is also (ultimately) a grand illusion, is something that we tend to seize onto because it fuels the hope in us.
For a righteous feverish moment or two, we look at bad sequels and the bad box-office performance that accompanies them, and the universe suddenly makes sense. We think: If you build it (it being movies that enthrall and entertain, like “Avengers: Endgame” or “Toy Story 4”), they will come. If you build it badly, they will not come. At a moment of franchise fatigue, the capitalist/hedonist karmic equation of movie culture is in balance. Quality rules, and the lack of quality dies. Kind of like what happens when the American public, during a presidential election, doesn’t vote for the candidate who’s a scatterbrained fraudulent sociopath.
By “media,” I don’t just mean reporters, critics, and box-office analysts. Media now includes social media and reader-comment threads, and the sentiments you encounter there on this subject tend to add up to a decisive endorsement of the following formula: bad moves = bad box office = franchise fatigue = Hollywood should really make better movies, dammit! Over and over, in the rec-room rebel froth of reader comments, you encounter what might be described as the moral-wrath version of franchise fatigue. It tends to sound something like this: “When are those idiots going to learn that they can’t just rehash the same old crap, over and over, and expect people to show up for it?”
Actually, I have an answer for that: They’re never going to learn it. And they’re never going to learn it because the lesson, at heart, isn’t true.
Franchise fatigue, on any given week, may be all too real, but one of its underlying aspects is collective amnesia. What it allows us to forget, each and every time, is that rehashing the same old crap, over and over, and expecting people to show up for it is what Hollywood has done for 40 years. And — news flash! — it works. More often than it doesn’t. And more consistently than originality. That doesn’t mean the film industry as a whole isn’t now at a crisis point (it is, and for a great many reasons), and it doesn’t mean that I offer this reality up as some sort of clandestine defense of junk-food moviemaking. I want to see mainstream studios give us films like “A Star Is Born” and “Gravity” and “American Hustle” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “La La Land,” not more “X-Men” movies and endless “Star Wars” sequels feeding off fumes of nostalgia and reboots of reboots of reboots of slasher-movie franchises that are older than Pete Buttigieg.
But what’s left out of this equation, too often, is the dynamic that fuels my franchise-fatigue fatigue. Namely: If you’re going to interpret box-office numbers, especially when a movie tanks, as a sign of what the audience rejects, then you can’t do it with a double standard. Live by the audience, die by the audience. Yes, they didn’t want a new “Shaft,” and they didn’t want “Men in Black” with new stars (though if the old stars had been brought back, I’m not sure the results would have been all that different).
But here, measured by the numbers, is what they have wanted: the George Lucas “Star Wars” prequels, Disney strip-mining its holy animated catalogue for live-action remakes that are like uncanny-valley theme-park rides, the incredibly shoddy dinosaur sequel “Jurassic World” (domestic gross: $652 million; no franchise fatigue there!), and — despite the image the media created of these films as audience-alienating disappointments — “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (domestic gross: $330 million) and “Suicide Squad” (domestic gross: $325 million).
I could go on and on, but the point should be obvious. As a phenomenon, franchise fatigue gets used, selectively, to represent the idea that the audience has somehow grown tired of junk-food movies. But the system that produces franchise fatigue is one the culture has never stopped embracing. Movies that are casualties of franchise fatigue may be scarlet letters for the studios that made them, but ultimately they’re bumps in the road.
And frankly, a big part of my franchise-fatigue fatigue is that I don’t necessarily trust franchise fatigue. I realize I’m the only critic in the universe who enjoyed “Dark Phoenix”
(I stand by my enthusiasm), and interpreting its box-office failure as franchise fatigue seems fair enough (though it’s my feeling that if they’d simply entitled it “X-Men: Dark Phoenix,” they might have upped the grosses by 30 percent). But just contrast the film’s decidedly lackluster performance with the way that Brett Ratner’s “X-Men: The Last Stand” performed 12 years ago. At the time, that film played like the concluding chapter of the franchise, and coming after the one film in the franchise that was actually good (“X2: X-Men United”), it felt like a major creative stumble. As the first pass the series took at the Phoenix saga, I would argue that it’s not nearly as good a movie as “Dark Phoenix.”
But “The Last Stand” schlocked itself all the way to the bank (domestic gross: $234 million, the highest of any “X-Men” film not counting “Deadpool”). If ever a movie should have been a candidate for franchise fatigue, it was that one, but what it proved, instead, is that just as you can’t always count on the audience to show up, you can’t count on the audience not to show up either. The way the words “franchise fatigue” are now used, they’ve become a synonym for “good taste,” and that’s a fatal mistake. In Hollywood, it’s still a rare day when anyone went broke underestimating the fatigue of the audience.