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The greatest-ever movie franchises

It's Star Wars versus Marvel versus Bond, but who wins?

The greatest-ever movie franchises
Jon Mundy
16 August 2023

The term ‘movie franchise’ can be enough to make many a film snob turn up their nose, or issue some other dismissive sign of contempt. More fool them, we say.

It’s true there’s often a sense of cynicism about the Hollywood machine, churning out ill-advised sequels at the first sign of box office success. The case for diminishing returns is pretty watertight, too, with most franchises experiencing a marked drop-off in quality from around the third iteration onwards.

Even so, there’s something to be said for a sprawling, tightly interconnected movie franchise, or a ‘cinematic universe’ as the kids might say. If the characters are memorable, audiences are going to want to spend more than a couple of hours in their company, so why not give them what they want?

The following franchises aren’t all packed full of wall-to-wall excellence. Precious few of them have been able to sustain a consistent level of quality right across their extended runs.

But each of these movie franchises has become more than the sum of its parts, creating a strong sense of audience connection across the years. It’s a feeling that no stand-alone film can engender, regardless of quality.

So which movie franchise is your favourite? Make sure to vote below.

The best-ever movie franchises

The best-ever movie franchises

1. James Bond

Watch now at Amazon

No other franchise on this list as been going as long as the James Bond series, and only the Marvel Cinematic Universe boasts as many films. There have been six actors to play the role of Ian Fleming’s suave-but-ruthless British spy, code-named 007, in the main-line Bond movies, and there’s a seemingly interminable debate over which one was the best. Most recently, Daniel Craig saw off his stint with breathtaking finality. Given how much this franchise is beloved by the cinema-going masses, however, you can bet that this won’t be the last we hear of Bond.

Image Credit: MGM

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The best-ever movie franchises

2. Marvel Cinematic Universe

Watch now on Disney Plus

If you’ve been on this Earth for a couple of decades or less and you love your movies, there’s every chance that the Marvel Cinematic Universe means everything to you. Since 2007 there have been 32 movies, not to mention a whole heap of streaming series, all feeding into this comic book meta-narrative. While it’s easy to scorn Marvel’s stranglehold on our multiplexes, and even to celebrate signs of its crown slipping, no other franchise on this list has sustained such a prodigious output level, nor managed such an impressive hit rate.

Image Credit: Disney / Marvel

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If you’re aged over 25, Star Wars might just be the first thing that springs to mind when someone says ‘movie franchise’. Its reach stretches across the best part of five decades, and has influenced at least three distinct generations across a trio of cinematic phases. The fact that only the original trilogy is widely held to be of any great worth is besides the point. George Lucas’s tale of a galaxy far, far away has entered the cultural lexicon like few other franchises.

Image Credit: Disney / Lucasfilm

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The best-ever movie franchises

4. The Lord of the Rings

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We’ve labelled this The Lord of the Rings franchise, but perhaps ‘the Middle-earth franchise’ would be more accurate. After all, Peter Jackson made six films set within J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy literary universe, featuring shared actors and characters. His more recent trilogy covering the events of The Hobbit essentially act as prequels and footnotes to The Lord of the Rings, however, and none were anywhere near as accomplished or popular. Those first three movies were seminal moments in mainstream cinema, setting new standards for effects-driven Hollywood sagas that resonate to this day. And there's also talk of this franchise being rebooted once more for the big screen - let's hope it is better than Amazon's recent muddled trip to Middle-Earth.

Image Credit: New Line Cinema

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Decades before the Marvel Cinematic Universe swallowed Hollywood whole, DC’s Batman blazed a trail for mainstream comic book movies. The Batman franchise has had an eventful history, starting with a brilliant duo of gothic fairytales from Tim Burton at the turn of the ’90s, before hitting rock bottom with the deeply naff Joe Schumacher years. The franchise attained critical acclaim with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, sputtered through Zach Snyder’s Justice League years, then experienced another dark resurgence with Matt Reeves’s The Batman. A true hero’s journey.

Image Credit: Warner Bros

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The best-ever movie franchises

6. Harry Potter

Watch now on NOW

J. K. Rowling’s famous young wizard filled the imaginations of a whole generation of book worms across a decade and seven novels released between 1997 and 2007. It was a tall ask to expect the cinematic adaptations to follow suit, but they managed to do just that – and then some – across a similar time span. Encompassing eight movies, plus three prequels in the form of the Fantastic Beasts series, few movie franchises can cast such a consistently strong spell on millennials as Harry Potter.

Image Credit: Warner Bros

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The best-ever movie franchises

7. The Godfather

Watch now at Amazon

Francis Ford Coppola’s epic mafia trilogy couldn’t quite stick the landing. given its third entry is deeply flawed. But when your first two films are as good as The Godfather parts one and two, you can be forgiven a merely decent part three. The tale of Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino) and his ascent – or rather descent – from fresh faced war hero to regretful old mob boss is a story for the ages. What’s more, it’s a generation-spanning yarn that simply couldn’t have been told effectively in a single movie, fully justifying its franchise status.

Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

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8. Mission: Impossible

Watch now on Paramount+

Tom Cruise and his super-agent character, Ethan Hunt, have covered a lot of ground (and air, and water) over the past three decades. After the stylish Euro-espionage thriller of Brian De Palma’s original 1996 movie and John Woo’s slo-mo action sequel, the series then entered into a protracted run of glossy thrillers that see Cruise constantly one-upping himself with a succession of practical daredevil stunts. As a series of movies, these Mission: Impossible entries (particularly the recent ones) do rather tend to run into one another. As a franchise, however, it has remarkable staying power.

Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

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The Rocky franchise may very well have peaked with the original film, which came from nowhere to win the Best Picture Oscar in 1976. However, this nine-strong series of films centred (yes, we're counting the Creed trilogy) around Sylvester Stallone’s plucky Philadelphia boxer has been remarkably consistent over the years, providing only one out-and-out dud in 1990’s Rocky V. The Rocky series has even managed to successfully reinvent itself for a modern audience with the Creed series, starring Michael B. Jordan as Rocky’s talented young protégé.

Image Credit: MGM

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10. Planet of the Apes

Watch now on Disney Plus

The original 1968 Planet of the Apes movie gave us one of the great twist endings in cinematic history, and sparked off a franchise that’s similarly full of surprises. After four direct sequels of varying quality, followed by a TV show in the mid-’70s, the franchise lay dormant until an ill-conceived Tim Burton remake in 2001. Another decade on, and a full-on reboot trilogy firmly re-established the Planet of the Apes franchise as a reliable source of thoughtful, imaginative sci-fi with a strong ecological message.

Image Credit: 20th Century Studios

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