Milking the Franchise: STAR WARS, MARVEL & beyond

As Star Wars and Marvel announce their future plans, A. J. Black discusses the phenomenon of milking the biggest franchises in the world for all they’re worth…

Franchise cinema, let’s be honest, can be thrilling. It can transform movie experiences from solitary pursuits to collective endeavours.

In an age of deeply fractured politics and cultural conflicts happening across nation states, there is comfort in how Captain America taking on Thanos only for the entire MCU to ride in and support him galvanised everyone operating in that shared cinematic space to cheer in collective joy, no matter what your political or cultural persuasion. Many felt the same when Rey and Kylo Ren turned the Emperor’s fire back on him (though I’d argue this was a far diminished return than the Marvel example…). Denigrators of franchise filmmaking, of fandoms indulging in shared universes, miss this aspect – the collectivisation of a text which binds fans together.

It is often toxic, but it is equally as often magnetic and joyful.

There is, however, a limit to the reach and scope of such franchise endeavours for those, like me, who skirt the edges of fandom.

Marvel and Star Warsboth of whom Disney just announced a huge slate of projects for over the next few years—are not the worlds I personally am most invested in. My fandom interests lie elsewhere but even then, I am not a consumer who digests only Star Trek or only James Bond. Fandoms are frequently incredible communities filled with people who live and breathe the properties they love, and this is to be—sans the aforementioned toxicity—encouraged. Friendships are born. Partnerships are made. Respect can be mutual. I have seen these things happen. I have, in my own way, experienced them myself.

Yet it feels like we are sailing close to a perihelion of franchise dilution. A point where financial concern and milking a product for all its worth become not just the primary driver, but the only driving principle.

Star Wars feels the most egregious current example of this.

George Lucas’ original 1977 movie was an outlier; a broad, pulpy space fantasy with a Golden Age sweeping score, designed to emulate pre-WW2 adventure serials on the one hand and play to the mythical, classical archetypes of character and story on the other.

Star Wars worked beautifully in that context, as did the two sequels which expanded the narrative as audiences began to embrace sequels and blockbusters as the norm, devoted fandoms really began to proliferate, and audiences expected to see characters they had come to love return. Even the prequel trilogy, produced as the digital age came upon cinema and with franchise filmmaking fully established, made sense from both a narrative and financial perspective, as Lucas unintentionally perhaps left plenty of unanswered questions and gaps of backstory open to be explored.

Even if we didn’t need the prequels, and they arguably damaged Star Wars’ brand to some extent, they made sense. By 2005, an enormous cottage industry had developed around LucasFilm that had made Lucas a billionaire and his property Hollywood’s biggest pop culture totem. On this basis, it made sense for Disney, as they began to expand out into one of the modern studio streaming and production giants, to revive Star Wars and, again, the sequels to the original story had logic behind them.

Lucas had always intimated the Skywalker saga had nine parts, and while those films were ultimately removed from what he would have produced—particularly The Last Jedi—they tapped both into audience’s modern predilection for indulging nostalgia in storytelling, particularly built around the return of actors to roles that turned them into legends (take Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker for example) and the logical financial extension of a cash cow. Again, we didn’t need them. Star Wars did not need to live beyond Lucas’ trilogy, but these products made logical sense.

The announcements by Disney this week now begin the process of pushing Star Wars beyond that logical extension into a purely, predominantly fiscal exercise.

The Mandalorian’s success has given Disney the boost they need to pull the trigger on a range of projects, including a series based around Diego Luna’s mercenary Cassian Andor (who died in Rogue One, another example of a Star Wars movie with no reason to exist, despite being good fun), a long-mooted Obi-Wan Kenobi series bringing back Ewan McGregor (and apparently Hayden Christiansen as Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker), a Patty Jenkins-directed film based on the Rogue Squadron video game, and a possibly Gina Carano-led spin off from The Mandalorian called Rangers of the New Republic, among plenty of others. There are more in production, including Rian Johnson’s supposed original trilogy for one thing. This will keep Disney+ subscribers on the hook much as the consistent slate of Marvel Cinematic Universe series will in 2021 – all designed to roll into each other.

For me, there is a key difference between these franchises. Marvel is admittedly taking opportunities from their broader franchise and building series out from them – such as WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and particularly Loki – but Marvel has a broad precedent of comic book history and lore, with decades of world building and universe construction, to draw on. Marvel’s expansion is fiscal, it is designed to maintain a creative dominance over mainstream American storytelling, but the MCU feels far from having run its course, even after the apocalyptic conclusion of Avengers: Endgame. Star Wars, in parallel, does not. There are years of books, comics, video games etc… since Lucas’ trilogy to mine for inspiration, but these do not add up to a cohesive universe of storytelling. What do we really get as an audience from a series about Cassian Andor? What else is there to know about Obi-Wan after six films?

If anything was a bell weather for why Star Wars might not be the best franchise to expand outward, it was 2018’s prequel movie Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Fan fiction with a big budget to a hilt, all that film—one troubled in production—did was to sketch in points from Han Solo’s past that we didn’t need to know.

The Kessel Run! Corellia! How he met Chewbacca! Lando! How he got the Millennium Falcon! What do any of these answers add to our cultural shared narrative or even really to the franchise as a whole? Marvel at least sketch in gaps, explore backstory and expand as part of an ongoing narrative – take Howard Stark’s demise in Captain America: Civil War for instance. Star Wars is just in danger of providing empty fictions which further propel the series away from the magical alchemy that audiences loved about it in the first place. Drape as much John Williams’ esque music over Star Wars: Andor as you like, it won’t really justify any semblance of existence. All of these productions are Star Wars. They will be canon and they will be liked by many people. But that doesn’t mean they should be indulged.

Awful as this is for me to say, but I am beginning to feel the same way about the space saga franchise I have always loved – Star Trek.

CBS All Access (soon to be rebadged) are following a similar pattern too, by promising all Trek all the time, with series and seasons rolling into each other via different shows and characters in different centuries across the Trek universe. There was barely a week in the ‘90s in which Star Trek was off-screen so it is not that constant Trek is a bad thing, it is how and in what context that Trek is being made. In what world do we really need a whole show, in Strange New Worlds, about Captain Pike & Spock, characters—particularly the latter—who have been explored in great detail? We don’t.

We’re getting that show because Spock and the original series U.S.S. Enterprise are iconic symbols of the franchise that will attract viewers, on the same basis that Disney made Solo – brand recognition plus recognisable characters means bigger returns (that it backfired on Solo still creates debate). Add in another layer with the recent Picard to that equation too in the familiar actor, with Sir Patrick Stewart’s return. Future animated series Prodigy is hoping to pull the same trick with Kate Mulgrew’s return with Voyager’s Kathryn Janeway.

This is a franchise trading on past glories in order to engage present audiences.

My hope was that the most recent season of the franchise’s flagship show, Discovery, would buck this trend, and while it has certainly moved the franchise into unexplored narrative territory it is both falling back into hoary old tropes, narrative shortcuts and another symptom of how franchises are evolving – an almost meta awareness of the product they’re in.

I’ll go into it more when I review the season but Discovery is particularly problematic in presenting a legion of characters who both seem to know they’re in Star Trek & know how progressive it is, to the point it becomes cloying and at times trite. It’s a show trying too hard and this is often the case when franchises extend beyond the scope of what they were designed to do. It’s not that Star Trek can’t survive multiple sequels and variations—it has over decades and, indeed, Lower Decks recently was a fine way to keep a product going without losing your way—it’s when these properties try and convince you they can, or should, be something else is where problems set in.

Star Wars is entering this process now as Star Trek has done – moving so far away from their origin, it is hard to parse the point of them beyond exploiting rabid fan interest for financial pursuit.

This is not even about the well worn, and sometimes unfair, argument that these franchise products have run out of steam. That’s certainly not the case with the MCU, which is skilled at reinventing itself and is almost limitless in the cross-genre scope it can reach. Star Wars and Star Trek are both expansive worlds with their own styles and idiosyncrasies in which a thousand more stories could be told. Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, the list goes on – there will always be stories. There will always be people around to tell them, creators and writers invested in the product who know these worlds well. The question is, outside of financial gain, why should they exist? What is their cultural or social or artistic value?

Marvel comics tapped into the post-war boom years and engaged imaginations for larger than life heroes in a colourful, optimistic context who could reflect our own wish fulfilment, and the MCU reinvented that universe for the post-9/11 landscape of terrorist threats, domestic uncertainty and developing rendition of cultural capital. Star Trek, in the ’60s, presented a unified future to strive for during the Cold War, a series of nation states working together in common accord. The ’90s reinvented that purpose for the end of the Cold War, and a stable, increasingly nostalgic frontier.

Star Wars presented us with romantic fantasy and mythical tropes at the end of the post-boom, recession decade and a faltering economic and societal landscape, single handedly using its galaxy far far away to depict a blockbuster world where good triumphs over evil. I understand why those franchises existed when they did. I find it hard to reconcile why some of them should continue to exist now, and what value they bring beyond pure, sometimes forgettable entertainment. A shot of liquor as opposed to a hearty meal.

This is no trend that will reverse, nor necessarily will these incoming products be badly made. They are just a symptom of a deeper sickness when it comes to the deepening malaise of franchise storytelling, the expectation that audiences will accept anything put before them, and the developing realisation that, in our conglomerate dominated future, anything and everything in the scope of a successful franchise is ripe for the taking.

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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