Kern: This week’s topic we want to discuss is franchises, but not just how we think of it in today’s terms of shared universes and whatnot, but more broadly. We’re bringing you in, Chris, because I know you take a particular interest in film franchises and series and I have to ask upfront: what about this interests you? I mean that genuinely, because you and I have had heated discussions in the past about the value of a film sequel/remake and in general I don’t see you as the typical “film franchise fan.” What compelled you to take an interest in film franchises and what are some broad or specific points of interest you’ve found?
Chris: You are completely correct — I’m not a fan of the idea of sequels, remakes and franchises existing in the first place. If it was a choice between a completely original IP or a continuation, iteration or rehash of an existing one, I’d take the first option 8 days a week. Unfortunately, the choice is not up to me, and hence our cinematic landscape is littered with sequels, prequels and reboots as far as the eye can see. A few years ago I became obsessed with trying to quantify the disparity in quality between original features and the associated sequels, prequels, remakes and franchises that followed them. I tracked each franchise picture in a spreadsheet, recording my ratings, and built up a data set that, with a significant amount of input, could point to particular trends that may prove out the assumptions I had been making. It’s been an interesting exercise! As you’d probably expect, follow-on films tend to provide diminishing qualitative returns. Sequels generally get worse with each entry, remakes generally fail to reach the heights of the OG, and prequels just straight up suck. What I became fascinated by, however, was the anomalies — the examples that bucked the trend. These were films that defied all expectations to be a sequel, prequel or remake that either completely broke the mould, or reached a level of quality beyond any and all expectations. The same examples usually get brought up any time this topic is discussed — The Godfather 2, Aliens, T2: Judgement Day, The Thing etc. I’m far more interested to hear about some of the films that don’t get as much attention. Before I dive into some of mine, I’m wondering whether Henry or yourself have stumbled upon anomalies of your own that you’ve been quite fond of?
Henry: I think it’s pretty well known at this point that Kern and I are both big fans of the entire Ocean’s franchise so that’s probably our biggest outlier, especially as it’s both a franchise and a remake. Most other trilogies that I would call my favorites are thematic trilogies except for Ocean’s which I think mostly succeeds where others fail because of the people who worked on it generally being pretty franchise averse but even there I see some diminishing returns with each installment. Another that comes to mind is the Man with No Name trilogy which is still hardly a trilogy like most franchise fare we see and even ends with a prequel but the fact that all three of us not only love the trilogy but have a different favorite film in it makes it worthy of inclusion here in my mind. The Bond franchise also comes to mind but it gets a sort of reboot every so often and the best film each actor makes is usually their first so I’m not sure I’d necessarily say it breaks the law of diminishing returns here. So I’d pretty much agree with you that other than the widely talked about better than the original remakes like Scarface or better than the first entry sequels like The Dark Knight, Fast Five, and Avengers Endgame, among others, a sequel or remake is generally just an excuse to print some money, not a real effort to earn it.
Chris: I’m glad you mentioned Leone’s Man with No Name films, as I’d have to rate that as the best trilogy ever made. As you mentioned, not a conventional narrative series, but I loved how each subsequent entry raised the bar on its predecessor, and the strength of the additional characters alone was justification enough for Leone to have revisited that concept a couple more times. Kern, you got any sequels or remakes that surprised you with how unexpectedly necessary you found them to be?
Kern: I distinctly remember a (friendly) argument we had about remakes where you were making the argument that all remakes were a waste of time (you were playing up the emphasis/indignation for entertainment, as was I), and I’m pretty sure I landed on a checkmate with Soderbergh’s Solaris which all three of us really love (unless I’m mistaken). And yes, Henry’s right about the Ocean’s trilogy which I think is strong through and through, but the second entry in particular is sublime. So I’ll avoid once again singing the praises of Soderbergh, who seems to have a real knack for making a sequel/remake interesting in its own way and less of a rehash. Another huge example for me is Toy Story 3, which was my favorite film of the 2010s. I can’t make the same argument there, because I think it definitely derives a lot of its thematic weight, and to a lesser extent the narrative elements, from previous entries, but it functions to me like a distillation of the franchise, and improves in every way on the previous entries. Aside from looser/thematic trilogies like Henry mentioned (I prefer the 2nd in the Man with No Name trilogy, and Antonioni’s “Discontents” trilogy), I’d also point to Die Hard with a Vengeance as a personal pick which I think outshines the original in every respect. Making the argument that a sequel/remake is “necessary” is tough, because you could argue that no film is “necessary” per se, but those are some examples that would certainly skew high if I were compiling the data. You have any examples that got close to disproving your hypothesis?
Chris: George A. Romero’s Dead series was on an upward trajectory, but unfortunately he kept on making them after the perfect closer to his trilogy in Day of the Dead. Other than that, there aren’t too many that break with the traditional fall-off in quality. So I instead enjoy looking for other ways that a sequel or remake attempts to break the mould, whether it be complete tonal or stylistic whiplash, a ridiculous exaggeration of what came before, or the following of a barely tangential narrative thread to explore new territory. French Connection 2 is a great example of this – Frankenheimer takes Popeye Doyle in a completely unexpected direction that resulted in the best performance of Gene Hackman’s career. Films like Friday the 13th Pt VI: Jason Lives, Freeway 2: Confessions of a Trickbaby, or the two sequels to Basket Case escalate the insanity of previous entries, and are so much fun to watch. And I love Van Sant’s remake of Psycho, specifically because it abandons the pretence of ‘originality’ that remakes usually aim for to try and maintain a dishonest sense of worth or value in what they are putting forth. Are there any examples of non-franchised films out there that you fellows are hankering to see a sequel or remake too, even if it’s not ever likely to happen? Any stories you are desperate to see continued or attempted again?
Henry: I wouldn’t say there’s any story I’m particularly desperate to see continued but there are certainly a few I wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel to. I generally think if the story stood well enough on its own there’s no reason to make a sequel but there are some cases like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, The Nice Guys, and John Carter where I wasn’t thrilled with the final product but there was enough potential that maybe if they got to make the sequels they seemed certain they would be making then it could be better. On the other hand, most of the better than the original sequels came from really solid foundations. For the record, I don’t think The Godfather Part II, Aliens, or some others mentioned here are in fact better but I’ll go on and use them to my point here, maybe I should really be saying I want a sequel to The Tree of Life or something I loved that didn’t need a sequel in any way instead because if a film captures even a fraction of the greatness of a film I love then its worth more than something that vastly improves on the original but is only marginally better than crap in my mind. For remakes though I am staunchly of the mind that the only films that should be remade are ones that did not live up to their concept in the first place because that can allow for real creative freedom to do something new with the old premise. Sure Solaris shoots a hole in that point but not everyone is Soderbergh so I don’t trust many others to remake something that was already marvelous.
Now that I said it I did realize there is one sequel I’d like to see. And it’s a sequel to a film I’m shocked none of us mentioned earlier as a better than the original, truly worthy sequel. That film being Magic Mike XXL, very possibly the best film of the 2010s. Sure we’ve got the live shows that Soderbergh called the real sequels to the film and when I went to the show in London on his prompting I had a fun time on par with the experience of watching the film, but it’s a different medium and I’d love to get another film and watch those guys just being dudes again, assuming we can get another competent team behind the camera.
Kern: I truly think of Magic Mike XXL as film that transcends the medium and becomes a form of pure entertainment I have rarely seen captured on film, but I promised I’d stop going on about Soderbergh’s oeuvre. I agree with Henry’s point about remakes being most intriguing with films which I don’t think fully capitalized on their premise. Road Games would be a prime example (though I’d have to put my money where my mouth is and watch the 2015 version that was recently pointed out to me which does not look very good; monkey’s paw, I guess). A lot of the time it’s high concept films I’d like to see expanded upon, even if it doesn’t end up anywhere near the quality of the original. For instance, the Cube sequels are definitely not great, but I still like that the filmmakers found more interesting concepts in that world (at least in Cube Zero, I really can’t go to bat for Cube 2: Hypercube). The other instances where I’m interested in remakes is when it takes on a self-aware and experimental quality like Van Sant’s Psycho or Haneke’s Funny Games. Both are essentially shot-by-shot remakes of the original film, but offer enough differences to invite analysis, which I think can be even more valuable, in the same way an ambitious failure can be more interesting than a mediocre dud.
Henry: I think the Psycho remake is fascinating. I’m not a fan of the original Psycho by any means and I would go as far as to say it’s Hitchcock’s worst but when it gets changed to Van Sant’s version, the highlights like Perkins really stand out. But more than that I just think it was interesting that Van Sant tried to remake a classic with such faithfulness. Taking something popular and not changing anything that could be kept the same or injecting new artistic sensibilities into it in any way is just a cool experiment and seeing how his own style did manage to creep in was the best part. It goes against everything I believe remakes should be but it does so with such determination that I have to respect it. The Funny Games remake does absolutely nothing for me though. That’s one where for all that it does the same as Psycho and whatever additions to the message come from it being in English, I can’t see anything but Haneke wasting his talents on a meaningless remake of maybe his weakest film when he could have given us something far better. Every second of it I just feel like he was trying to get his name in the textbooks by attempting something so ludicrously pointless that no one else would bother to try and he was assured to be notable for it.
Chris: I’m with you on Funny Games US, Henry. Something really irks me with that one… I think Hollywood remakes of foreign films are egregious enough as it is, but to find any value whatsoever in Haneke’s redo, you have to be looking outside the boundaries of the film itself for its meta context, or alternatively you can pretend that the original never existed. Otherwise you have to admit that Haneke is just pandering to an audience that don’t read words good. Bong Joon-ho would never!
Kern: I couldn’t disagree more on Funny Games US. The major difference is in the performances, which alters the intentionally cold and empty intruders from the original to make them more gleefully sinister and significantly alters the tone. To say they’re virtually identical is tantamount to dismissing the art of acting altogether. Per usual for Haneke, it’s a divisive film. Our conversation has mostly been about remakes/sequels from auteur filmmakers—no one was pestering Haneke for an english language version of his most controversial film—and I think we can all agree the most interesting cases of continued film series are when they’re borne out of a creative drive, rather than aimed to grease the wheels of a cash machine. I wanted to ask you, Chris, are there any instances where, perhaps despite yourself, you find yourself itching for a sequel or remake? Are you hyped for the Doctor Strange sequel, especially now that Raimi is at the helm?
Chris: Would a futile wish for a second season of Too Old To Die Young count? Look, I always want more from the artists I truly admire, and whilst sequels and remakes are not what I would choose, I would take them if that’s all that was offered. I just prefer the shock of the new to the contempt borne of familiarity. And I haven’t looked forward to a sequel since I was a youngster. These days the idea of stretching out a narrative beyond one self-contained experience seems cynical and disrespectful to me. As much as I enjoyed Doctor Strange, even Raimi’s presence at the helm of the sequel doesn’t excite me. This could be due to my natural aversion to the Marvel ‘Cinematic’ Universe, and the distaste I have for the way in which these mega-franchises act as talent-sucking black holes. I know that if any of my favourite film-makers got tapped to take-on an MCU entry, the gut-punch would be fierce. It has got me thinking… Do you think that it’s possible for a truly subversive mega-franchise film (MCU, DCEU, Bond) to be made? If so, who would be the person you’d pick to attempt it?
Henry: Given what apparently passes for subversive in those franchises and others, I would be inclined to say there is absolutely zero chance a truly subversive film could ever find its way into one even if they were to resurrect Stanley Kubrick or someone of his ilk to helm one. They’re theme parks, television, mass produced consumer product comfort food and every attempt at being subversive fails at that and highlights just how uniform they are and as a result often fails to be unique or part of the whole and just ends up being bad. And I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with any of that, it gives some people an entry into cinema and it gives everyone a communal bonding experience that is generally fun if not thought provoking. I just don’t much want to discuss James Beard’s cooking with someone who chooses to exclusively eat at Burger King and so the discourse surrounding them often ends up reductive and frustrating. So with franchises and every other film, I say don’t give me reheated leftovers or something from the frozen aisle and expect me to call it a masterpiece, take filmmaking talents to make something new every time and we’ll all have a better time for it.
There was a time when many blockbusters were actually smart or at least original and now they just end up being the same generic stuff always cashing in on any sort of brand recognition and the talents of their casts and it’s spilled over into a lot of mid budget films as well so if there’s one thing I hope can come from the world being forced to stop and think about art in a whole new way, it’s an opportunity for people to sit down and come up with some original ideas and then make them into stuff we can go see.
Kern: I definitely don’t think that we’ll see a really subversive superhero (or more broadly, franchise) film. I honestly wouldn’t even know what that would look like. The line between art and entertainment isn’t as concrete as I used to think when I was in film school, and I appreciate the filmmakers who attempt to bridge that gap, but I think there’s no way for a franchise film to be completely under a filmmaker’s control at this point. There’s just too much money at stake for a studio to relinquish full control over a film of that magnitude. I’d be delighted to be proven wrong one day though.
Chris: I think we already have some live examples of what the results could look like — Denis Villenueve’s Blade Runner 2049 for one, as well as his upcoming Dune. I think these two films have tested the limit of what big studios are willing to explore in regards to talent, as well as how much they’d be prepared to front up. If it was up to me? I’d prefer to keep the talent working on fresh ideas and creating new properties, as that’s what is truly subversive in Hollywood these days. But if I entrusted anyone to do something truly bold and breathtaking, I’d give the opportunity to Refn. Just thinking about what he could do with a James Bond film almost makes me wish for it to happen… almost.
Henry: Since we’ve spent this week talking about the films we often think suck, next week we’ll be back to talk about a corner of film that we often love (and sometimes think suck even more) as we try to compensate for what would’ve been a week of Cannes coverage with a chat about all things Cannes!
In Conversation avengers endgame basket case blade runner 2049 bong joon-ho cube cube 2 hypercube cube zero day of the dead dead series denis villeneuve discontents trilogy doctor strange dune fast five freeway 2 confessions of a trickbaby friday the 13th pt vi jason lives funny games gene hackman george a romero gus van sant james bond john carter john frankenheimer magic mike xxl michael haneke michelangelo antonioni nicolas winding refn oceans trilogy psycho road games sam raimi scarface scary stories to tell in the dark solaris stanley kubrick steven soderbergh terminator 2 judgement day the godfather part 2 the man with no name trilogy the nice guys the tree of life too old to die young toy story 3