NOTE: I wrote this article a year ago, but for various reasons it was not published at the intended site. So I’m running it here before it falls even more out of date!
I read Marvel Comics as a kid. Specifically, from 1985 to 1989—for me, age 11 to 15. It was the twilight of comic books being sold at drugstores and supermarkets (how I discovered them) and the dawn of their transformation into collectibles that imploded the industry: high prices and fancy printing made the publishers easy money, but ghettoized the readership into a dwindling audience of nostalgic, albeit well-funded collectors.
The comics industry had traditionally replenished its core audience (young boys) through cheap cover prices, wide distribution and, above all, good stories. Marvel’s Jim Shooter (editor-in-chief from 1978–87) insisted upon quality control: one of his edicts was that any kid should be able to pick up any issue of any comic and be able to figure out who was who and what was going on without undue effort.
In the old days, the comics creators were also aware that, in general, four years was the amount of time that any kid would read their books. After that, the boys (it was almost always boys) would age-out and lose interest—so it didn’t really matter that the stories would inevitably repeat. (It happened to me in 1989: so many characters changed allegiances, appearances and/or came back from the dead that I’d had enough.)
Today’s film business, especially at the blockbuster level, focuses exclusively on existing “I.P.”—intellectual property—because of the built-in advantages for marketing. But it means we, as the audience, are enduring what kids discovered after reading four years of comic books.
Namely, this stuff is repeating.
Some franchises are thriving, staying ahead of diminishing returns by using comic writers’ favorite tricks: escalating threats, soap-opera relationships (“will they or won’t they?”), huge plot stunts (they get married! they die! they lose their secret identity!) and character crossovers (three Spider-Mans in one movie).
When one storyline runs its course, another ramps up to maintain audience interest. Do it well, and, like Marvel Comics, as some audience members lose interest, new ones come to age to take their place.
But other franchises are stuck in reboot hell, changing horses (filmmakers), approaches and tones in midstream in desperate efforts to connect with global audiences.
Why is this?
The skill of the creators has a lot to do with it. The executives in charge of these franchises have to manage far more than the desires of kids browsing at drugstores: they have quarterly earnings reports, corporate hierarchies, agents demanding paydays, fickle movie stars, and global “four quadrant” audiences (old, young, men, women). If they want Chinese box-office money—and they do—they have censorship concerns.
They have to somehow plan for the long-term growth of their properties (theme parks, spin-offs, streaming services) while satisfying the immediate need of getting the best possible movie into production to meet its release date.
Ultimately, the biggest choice the executives make is which storyteller (writer and/or director) has the right vision for the property going forward. That usually comes down to picking somebody who already has a track record of doing it, who is willing and available and not too expensive.
Still, the franchises themselves are somewhat self-determining as far as which ones grow and succeed, while others come up short of the mark.
And it’s really quite simple:
The franchises that thrive (Marvel, Star Wars) are constructed horizontally: they are about worlds, populated with vivid characters.
The franchises that struggle are centered vertically: on a single, iconic character—like RoboCop, Ripley (Alien) or the Terminator. These stories are engaging as long as the protagonist’s character has a story or “arc” to complete (hence the title of this essay).
But after RoboCop reclaims his humanity and says his name is Murphy—or Ripley kills the Queen and becomes a mother to her surrogate daughter—where else do you go?
Several franchises in the “middle”—notably DC and Star Trek—have to deal with the baggage of being the “Pepsis” to other franchises’ “Cokes,” largely due to creative choices made long ago.
Master screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The Social Network) explains the most essential thing for a good screenplay as “intention and obstacles. Somebody wants something; somebody is standing in their way of getting it.”
Screenwriting guru Robert McKee, author of the influential book Story, explains that there are only so many “plots” to use in a movie. For example: the “Maturation plot” (coming-of-age), the “Redemption plot” (bad guy turns good) and “Punitive plot” (good guy turns bad)—McKee has a whole chapter of them.
Every movie has to have some kind of plot or else it’s not a movie—somebody has to “arc” for it to resonate with an audience.
TV series are about the gradual, incremental changes of the characters, while movies are about a massive, irreversible change of a single protagonist (usually).
But certain plots lend themselves to feature film adaptations of “franchise” characters.
Really, there are only two: how that character came to be, and how he or she came to an end.
If you’ve been paying attention to franchise movies at all the past 20 years, you’ve noticed that there are an awful lot of origin stories: not only for superheroes, but James Bond (Casino Royale) and Star Trek (the 2009 film).
Origin stories are great because they demand the kind of significant character arc that works best in movies: an ordinary person becomes the extraordinary character we all know and love.
But origin stories can be problematic because audiences want to see their favorite hero wearing the costume from the get-go—not going through two hours of brooding and maturation before putting it on.
But in general, origin stories work.
The other thing that almost always works is the “end of the line” story—especially when the star gets old and/or tired of playing the character, and we know this is the last film in his contract.
This is the case with the most recent James Bond movie: Bond is the single-character franchise who has endured for sixty years—but until recently, 007 was a collection of shticks and tropes. He might as well have been a TV show, with an episode every 2–3 years. His character was deepened starting in Casino Royale, but has now nearly run out of story (a subject for another time, perhaps).
“End of the line” stories are great because they deliver a definitive resolution for a beloved persona: catharsis. “I love you,” says the hero to his surrogate child—as he sacrifices herself to save the universe. Cut to: Child putting on the cape to be the hero’s successor, slam into end credits, everybody goes away happy. It’s an ending, and a beginning at the same time.
“End of the line” stories are not so great when the ending is botched.
And they always hard to pull off because we, the cynical audience, can sense that it’s bullshit—oh, really, you’re going to kill your billion-dollar character? I don’t think so….
The death of Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (spoiler, haha) worked because we really believed it: Leonard Nimoy was tired of playing Spock, so this was his goodbye. His resurrection in the next movie paid off dramatically, but it cheapened his mortal sacrifice.
Franchise stories that are not about an origin or a death—in other words, the vast majority of them in “the middle”—almost always present a storytelling dilemma. They become more like TV shows, about the hero’s incremental change due to interaction with a guest star (mentor, lover, child, enemy).
Which means it’s really the guest star’s story. And who is the guest star, most of the time? The villain.
This is why the villains in Batman movies tend to be more captivating than Batman himself (as most of the actors who played Batman discovered to their dismay).
The villains are the weirdos with colorful idiosyncrasies, who cause trouble to satisfy their psychological problems. Batman, meanwhile, is the square who blocks them and subdues his behavior because he’s the good guy—he can’t tear up a room in charismatic rage. (Batman is haunted by the darkness of his past, but he can never truly overcome it—or else there would be no more Batman.) No wonder Joker became such a smash hit.
In comic-book storytelling, Sorkin’s paradigm of “intention and obstacles” becomes inverted: it’s the bad guywho wants something, and the good guy who stands in his way—which makes the villain the active protagonist and the hero the antagonist.
This is, in fact, the best way to understand the James Bond films: they are the villains’ stories. James Bond is the unchanging obstacle—except in the Daniel Craig films, because the producers had to up the ante on the action and emotion in the wake of Jason Bourne, so the storylines became soapy (albeit wildly popular).
Stop me if you’ve seen this movie:
The hero is introduced fighting crime/flying his spaceship/whatever. It’s fun to see him back in action! He gets back home to his cave/ship/lair, peels off his uniform to examine his latest injuries on his aging body, and speaks sadly to his one mentor/assistant/friend, “I don’t know, pal…it’s just getting harder and harder to keep people safe.” His friend tries to console him, “Your dead mentor from three movies ago would be proud of you.” But our hero’s problem—is that he’s bummed out? He wants to quit?!?
“Oh man,” we think in our movie theater seat. “I was so excited to see our hero, but now I have to sit through the first act of him finding his mojo again?” We just know that his newest wife/child/best friend will be killed to motivate him back into action. The hero is not facing an existential crisis—as in the origin or death story—but some sort of squishy midlife crisis. He starts out mopey, the movie happens, and after he gets himself together in act one, he defeats the bad guy to be rejuvenated and continue the franchise.
One movie does this perfectly: the aforementioned Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: Spock accepts death, but Kirk accepts life—hence he goes from saying “I feel old” to “I feel young.”
But take a look at Star Trek Beyond. Try to even remember what happened—can you?
To keep franchises healthy, they have to diversify with new characters, new journeys and fresh angles in their beloved universes.
The old comic book trick was just to radically destroy something to upset the paradigm; the next few years would then see it restored to the way it was, until it was destroyed again (which is how the “four-year rule” of readership came to be).
Doing this in movies takes courage on the part of the executives and skill on the part of the filmmakers—and a lot of careful planning for both.
The gold standard is Marvel.
Marvel is the industry leader due to a single stroke of genius in 1961 on the part of Stan Lee: don’t have the heroes be like Greek gods, have them be real people with real problems—family squabbles, adolescent insecurities, persecution by a cruel world that doesn’t understand their good intentions.
In contrast to DC’s old-fashioned, “flat” characters, the Marvel characters’ “feet of clay” make them relatable and rounded (by comic book standards). The people act like people, or at least like childlike projections of people—how pre-teen boys would imagine adults to behave.
The brilliance of Marvel Studios, led by Kevin Feige, has been to lean in to the human story of each character. Thirteen years after the first Iron Man movie, Marvel shows no signs of slowing down—impressive, because after Avengers: Endgame, I thought there had to be a let-down. (How many more glowing extraterrestrial objects can imperil the universe?)
(UPDATE 12/22: Well, a few signs of slowing down.)
Marvel’s consistent box-office performance comes from the hard work of nailing emotional journeys for memorable characters—and establishing a “horizontal” universe where each character has a unique world.
From martial arts to conspiracy thrillers to mysticism to high school coming-of-age to outer space, Marvel morphs its style, chameleon-like, to give each character its own “world” and journey.
Thus each movie feels fresh and different, even as they deliver on their brand of eye-popping action, character-based humor, post-credit teases and novel character crossovers.
Marvel has truly discovered the only way to defeat the curse of the sequel: just make it good. Make it good, and they’ll like it. Start by making the trappings different, so that when you do the same emotional beats and relationships, it’s sufficiently recontextualized to feel fresh.
In contrast, DC has been a victim of its own success: The Dark Knight was a monster hit—a perfect Batman movie with a brilliant posthumous performance by Heath Ledger, and the best “9/11”-inspired blockbuster. But its dark, brooding tone was wrongly carried over into the rest of the DC universe. (“Dark” can be great, but wears out its welcome.)
In large part, this was a personal choice of Zack Snyder on Man of Steel—it’s just his taste—but it came to define the entire brand. Now, no matter what DC does, they can either lean into Snyder’s “dark,” angsty brand, beautifully executed but narrowly tailored to a certain kind of gloomy nerd—or try and modify it, and look like an also-ran to Marvel.
It’s ironic that DC would struggle so visibly, because their comics universe predated Marvel’s by several decades—and Superman and Batman are the alpha and beta of superhero icons. But execution matters. Cinematically, DC is the Pepsi to Marvel’s Coke.
(UPDATE 12/22: Obviously, big news about DC in recent days.)
Speaking of Coke: the Coke in the space genre is Star Wars, a license to print money if there ever was one.
Fans have been complaining about Star Wars since Return of the Jedi—or, believe it or not, The Empire Strikes Back, which was criticized for not having an ending. This isn’t the place to rehash the various complaints. (Also, I might like to work there one day.)
The best recent writing about Star Wars was by Spencer Kornhaber in The Atlantic’s July–August 2021 issue. To him, Star Wars has always been successful not because of its “hero’s journey” (famously drawn from Joseph Campbell’s study of mythology), but its sprawling, beguiling “world.”
As Kornhaber puts it, Star Wars is a franchise of “visuals, concepts and feelings—not of plot.”
He’s right. I am child of the 1970s and vividly remember the mystique and vibrancy of the Original Trilogy. It feels baked into my DNA.
For us, Star Wars was not just the first and coolest movie we ever saw, but our introduction to the very concept of storytelling (to paraphrase the film writer known as “Film Crit Hulk”). We learned to read via its novelizations; learned to draw by sketching its spaceships; learned to play music by plinking out the John Williams melodies on piano.
We loved the characters, sure—but it was the open-ended, exploratory nature of the world that made it infinitely fascinating.
Even after Return of the Jedi brought the “Skywalker saga” to a close, we couldn’t help but long for the mystery, excitement and adventure of the “world around the corners,” the Ugnaughts and X-wings and back-alleys of Mos Eisley. What were their stories?
Not surprisingly, Kornhaber argues that Star Wars plays better on television, in The Mandalorian, than in its most recent sequel Trilogy. The discursive and occasionally languid TV episodes indulge fans’ fascination for the nooks and crannies of George Lucas’ universe.
In contrast, the most recent Trilogy was plot-driven: The Force Awakens introduced an intriguing trio of new characters, Rey, Finn and Kylo Ren, but the incompatible visions of J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson confused their arcs and made the whole thing rather incoherent. (The sudden death of Carrie Fisher, necessitating a rewrite of Episode IX, further complicated the narrative.)
Combined with production problems on Rogue One and Solo—both of which required changes of directors, although Gareth Edwards retained his credit on Rogue One—Disney decided to leverage Star Wars into driving traffic to their streaming service, and push pause on the movies. Fine with me.
The “space Pepsi” to Star Wars’ Coke is Star Trek.
If there was anybody who could make the cerebral and talky Star Trek a mass-audience blockbuster, it was J.J. Abrams—and he did, but only for one movie.
The 2009 reboot was a perfect example of an origin story working on the big screen, but the subsequent “midlife” adventures being underwhelming: Star Trek Into Darkness improved upon the 2009 film’s box office, but it was an overstuffed Christmas turkey that exhausted fans’ patience for being lied to (about the villain’s identity).
Star Trek Beyond was the bad guy’s story—but a bad guy who was totally forgettable. Destroying the Enterprise seemed like a cheap stunt in Beyond, rather than the organic culmination of character as in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.
After a fourth “new Trek” film failed to get a greenlight (the cast became too expensive), corporate directives returned Star Trek to television, like Star Wars, also to launch a streaming service—where it is apparently flourishing.
In 2015, I wrote an essay at Trekmovie.com speculating that Star Trek would not lend itself well to a “universe” the way Marvel’s stories did.
My argument was that Star Trek character arcs are narrow and unique: Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic vision of the future requires the human characters to be perfect, and thus poor sources of dramatic conflict—there are no addicts, obsessives or haunted lunatics. No, those are the aliens, robots and weirdos, who are actually versions of human children trying to find their place in an adult world. (Spock is a repressed child, Data an autistic child, Wolf an angry child.)
The franchise tends to be talky, with the bad guys defeated via understanding, not violence. Science fiction is typically dystopic: heroic individuals rebel against a totalitarian state (the Empire, Cylons, Skynet, etc.). But Star Trek is a utopia—we are the state, and, miracle of miracles, we’re the good guys.
This is because Star Trek is, fundamentally, a child’s fantasy of what it’s like to grow up: Who will take care of me? What will I do? Will the world still be there for me? Star Trek says: yes, and it’ll be great! This is the magic behind Gene Roddenberry’s vision: it is a sui generis bedtime story to sweet, young minds that everything will be okay.
Rather like a soap opera, Star Trek stories consist of going out into the universe, finding strange new life and converting them into decent American citizens. (Soap operas are about the bad guys who come to town and are gradually absorbed into the community.)
I didn’t think Star Trek’s idiosyncratically gentle and “soft” conflict would be easily replicated in more than one new TV series at a time—and certainly not placed into different genres as is the case of Marvel’s universe.
I was wrong…but also right.
Wrong because new shows (Discovery, Picard, Strange New Worlds, a couple of animated series) are being rapidly and successfully produced to grow Paramount+, and they seem to be embraced by a new, younger and more diverse audience. (I’m happy for the franchise, and the new fans.)
But I was right in that the new creators accomplished this by basically tossing aside Roddenberry’s Star Trek and bludgeoning it into a kind of Star Wars-lite.
There’s lip service to optimism and exploration—but really, the new shows are about space action. (And it’s weird to hear Picard swear!)
I understand why they had to do this. Roddenberry’s “rules” drove writers crazy—how do they write drama when the characters are all perfect? The drama ends up being subtle: the characters sit around a table and argue different moral choices about the Prime Directive.
Storytelling is much more easy and fun in the Star Wars model: the heroes are the spunky underdogs, there’s danger at every turn, and you can shoot your way to freedom.
What to do about the fact that the Federation are the good guys? Just make them bad—corrupted by evil, bogged down in war. Better yet, throw the characters into alternate timelines and dimensions run by totalitarian regimes—now it’s the Star Wars model, and there’s conflict everywhere.
Older fans hate this. But apparently the younger ones like it. Time marches on.
Incidentally, the single weirdest thing in Star Trek are the aliens: most of the time, they are stand-ins for other ethnicities on Earth (a la 19th century colonialism), which makes for some uncomfortable analysis of race.
The single weirdest thing in Star Wars, meanwhile, is the sheer amount of murder, which is treated like old-fashioned serial fun. Think about it some time—how many people were killed on the Death Star? Yikes!
Today’s wave of superhero and franchise storytelling was enabled by the innovation in C-G technology 20–30 years ago, that allowed virtually anything to be depicted photo-realistically (some uncanny valleys aside).
I’ve been waiting for audience interest in these films to wane, but much like human stupidity and corruption, it shows no sign of doing so.
I have nothing against franchise films, so long as they are done well. Like everybody else, I am excited when the first trailer drops showing the return of a beloved hero—be he Luke Skywalker, Neo or Indiana Jones.
But when the film more often than not disappoints…sigh.
I remember a very confused midnight premiere audience of The Phantom Menace, still holding their lightsabers, wondering what the hell they just watched at 2:30AM in Westwood.
Anybody who has studied box-office hits knows that the hottest movies and shows often come from nowhere, and then seem inevitable. Stranger Things was a remix of 1980s Amblin and Stephen King. Deadpool was a hilarious, violent send-up of superhero movies. Squid Game tapped into deep cultural angst about money and class.
Sleeper hits tend to capture something in the Zeitgeist—but because of development times, it’s almost impossible to look ahead two to three years and try to anticipate the public mood.
The dirty secret of Hollywood moviemaking is that success is far more random than anybody cares to admit. Studios have hits and bombs, and Netflix’s algorithms aside, it can be pretty unpredictable.
But clearly execution matters, and competence matters—look at Marvel’s success rate.
The best movie executives guess right when it comes to pairing a creator with a franchise—like Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni on Star Wars—and trust them to make bold choices.
I say, don’t remake the classics—remake the bombs that had cool concepts, but botched them!
I once sat next to an executive on an airplane who was high-up in the production of the newest Terminator film. There had been three stinkers in a row (Terminators 3, 4 and 5) but this new one was directed by Tim Miller (Deadpool) and personally supervised by James Cameron. I remember reassuring the executive, rather like a sports fan who had been victimized too often by Tom Brady or Michael Jordan, “Don’t bet against Jim Cameron.”
I saw the movie and, well…I don’t want to dump on it, but suffice it to say, it did not perform well. I was wrong! (And so was Cameron: he just admitted it.)
Is there a good Terminator sequel still to be made? Probably, somehow.
But The Terminator is an extreme case of a franchise that had achieved narrative closure. The good guys won, the characters completed their arcs—to do a sequel and reverse that triumph, to show that, no, it had all gone to hell, and we have to watch this new movie to find out if the good guys will win, again…it’s just depressing. This is the very definition of “franchise fatigue.”
Maybe the best Terminator sequel doesn’t look at all like the previous Terminator movies?
This isn’t the place to spitball ideas, but if I were asked to participate in a pitch “bake-off,” I’d look to a mine the concept in a different way, with a different protagonist. Come at the concept completely from left field—and keep the cost down so as to experiment. The guiding light: find the character journey with the most emotion.
It takes a lot of guts to take a giant franchise and say, “Let’s go different and small.” The franchises exist to be big and profitable. And the fans demand their expectations be fulfilled: make the new movie exactly the same as before, yet completely different. (Thanks, folks.)
Ultimately, it takes vision and creativity to manage these franchises…some companies have it, but many don’t.
So that was my franchise article. Just like the franchises themselves—there’s no ending!