We here at Screen Rant love film franchises as much as the next person. With new installments in The Avengers, Man of Steel, James Bond, and Star Wars series (just to name a few) on the way, there’s plenty for movie fans to be excited about. However, there’s one aspect about franchise filmmaking we wish the studios would change. The recent announcement that Lucas Black was cast for not one, but three Fast & Furious movies raises a critical issue that filmmakers need to address.
Part of what makes watching a movie for the first time so exciting is that in the back of your mind, you know that anything can happen. While the very expression “franchise filmmaking” suggests that sequels are in order, it’s still nice to have the illusion of the great unknown when you finally sit down to see the movie. Over the past few years, two very different methods of handling film franchises have emerged: “Tell the audience everything at once” and “Take it one movie at a time.”
Dramatic tension is a basic element in film, but it’s an extremely vital one. The higher the stakes, the more likely it is that the audience will become emotionally invested in what happens onscreen – which is the ultimate goal of any movie. Franchise films, which tend to be in the sci-fi, superhero, or action genres, rely on high stakes more than others by placing characters in life-threatening situations. Part of what makes a tentpole action sequence so exciting is that we’re not sure who will live and who will die. Unfortunately, movie studios have done their part to evaporate any dramatic tension before the film even hits theaters.
Several high-profile Hollywood franchises – including the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Amazing Spider-Man, and now Fast & Furious – have made public their intentions to continue releasing installments in the next few years. While this is great for fans of those properties, it’s a little concerning for those of us who would rather not know everything all at once. How exciting can the action sequences in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 be if we know Peter Parker (and perhaps the members of the Sinister Six) will live to see two more movies? Can Dom Toretto’s death-defying stunts really be that thrilling if we know he’ll be in Fast & Furious 8?
Knowing the characters’ futures prior to watching the film (something that has plagued franchises dating back to The Phantom Menace) can make these experiences boring. It’s difficult to care when we already know what happens, and that can have a negative impact on how we perceive the movie as a whole. The next movies are essentially prequels to films that don’t exist yet, more concerned with setting up the upcoming installments as opposed to being a great movie experience that stands on its own merits.
Pop culture fanatics are (rightfully so) sensitive about spoilers. Whether it’s the true identity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Star Trek Into Darkness villain or Walter White’s fate in the final season of Breaking Bad, we’d rather be left in the dark and be surprised as we see the story for the first time. It seems odd then that studios would essentially spoil their own projects by happily assuring the audience that the characters we’re supposed to care about won’t be in danger no matter how extreme things get. It eliminates the raw emotion of watching a film and instead makes it all about the money. So what can be done about it?
One way to counter this – as discussed on a recent episode of the Screen Rant Underground podcast – is for filmmakers to use the audience’s knowledge to their advantage by throwing in twists and turns to keep the character stuff interesting. This very well could happen in some or all of the upcoming sequels, but we prefer a different method of handling franchises.
Directors such as Christopher Nolan and J.J. Abrams have earned reputations as being extremely secretive filmmakers. This extends to their decision to only discuss their current film publicly to the media. When asked about the possibility of Star Trek 3 before this summer’s sequel hit theaters, Abrams said:
“I wouldn’t say there has been a [Star Trek] trilogy planned. … We really are taking this journey one step at a time, and while there are a lot of ideas we have now for what might be a third movie, it’s really up to the audience to determine if that is something that comes to pass.”
This is actually the ideal way to go about running a film franchise. In any film – no matter the genre – we are supposed to live vicariously through the main characters, learning things as they learn them. When the movie begins, they (the characters) have no idea if they’ll live to see another day, so why should the audience? By taking things one movie at a time, it forces the audience to become more invested in that particular film. Even if common sense dictates the “franchise” will go on, in the back of our minds there’s one small thought: “They haven’t officially announced the sequel… what if there isn’t one? What if this is it?” There’s no law that says every film franchise must be at least three movies.
That thought is what fuels the dramatic tension of a big action movie. Series that run this way (The Dark Knight, Star Trek, and now Man of Steel) are much more engrossing because they involve the audience by making them feel different emotions throughout the course of the film. Honestly, what was more interesting: Tony Stark throwing a nuke in a wormhole or seeing Bruce Wayne fly a bomb over the bay? If you’re going to tease moviegoers with death, it helps if they don’t already know a sequel is in production.
When Ben Affleck was cast as Batman for Man of Steel 2, the official press release only mentioned that one film. This differs from the Marvel Studios method of announcing long-term multi-picture contracts for their actors. Sure, WB could be planning things behind the scenes, but we wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t publicly green light a new DC film until after the Batman/Superman team-up hits theaters. If the audience goes into this sequel with the knowledge that no other film is (publicly) in development, then there’s a greater chance they are more invested in the characters and their actions. The filmmakers will have fun with the character dynamics to make things fascinating, but that very basic question of “does he live or does he die?” going unanswered allows everything to be that more suspenseful. Since action set-pieces are a large part of any tentpole film, it would be nice if there was some actual excitement behind them.
Dramatic tension is a tricky aspect to completely nail down. After we watch a movie for the first time, we know what happens and the tension is lifted. Films based on books or true stories are a Google search away from revealing everything. Still, in the case of fictional franchises where anything can happen, we would like to see more filmmakers and studios use the Nolan and Abrams method of taking things one film at a time so when we sit down for that all-important first viewing, we know that anything could happen.
What do you think Screen Ranters? Would you rather know a block of sequels is on the way or have your favorite franchises take things one film at a time?
Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisAgar90.