Have franchise films killed the satisfying ending? And are fans like me to blame?
I worry my love for Star Wars could be ruined by neverending sequels, but I can't resist going to see them
“It doesn’t matter if it’s good, as long as it makes money,” claimed Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, when talking to The Cambridge Union back in 2016.
Sometimes, when I’m rubbing my Star Wars action figures together, I get a little bit depressed. Not because the act of creating friction between a plastic Stormtrooper and Wookiee brings me no joy – it really does – but because I realise the more I play with them the more worn out they’re going to become. I’ve got to the stage now where I can no longer tell the difference between my Princess Leia and Tauntaun, because they’ve been whittled down to indistinguishable chunks of white plastic. One may even be a piece of dry glue. This sentiment extends to Disney and Lucasfilm, who I fear will also wear out their toys by producing endless amounts of sequels and spin-offs.
As far as I’m concerned, the saga conclusively ended with Anakin Skywalker – he struggled with puberty, misjudged his slaughtering of several hundred children, and was then forgiven for repenting his sins. That poetic character arc was the entire point of Star Wars, so I find the continuation of the story profoundly offensive, even if I have watched The Force Awakens 37 times. But as long as there is demand for more – and I keep buying merchandise like these Chewbacca trousers I’m currently wearing – the films will never end.
My concern is that it will head in the same direction as other major franchises and exist beyond its means. Marvel films never really finish, with each one being left open to an infinite amount of sequels and crossovers, forming what’s grandiosely referred to as a ‘cinematic universe’. DC are following suit, limping behind them like a younger sibling who hasn’t quite grown into their hand-me-down shoes. And there are hosts of non-superhero blockbuster series which can’t even be contained to a trilogy – Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean, Fast and the Furious – which I presume will keep going after the sun explodes and the subsequent solar guff engulfs the Earth.
And look what happens when a conveyor belt franchise model prevents a series from ever reaching a satisfying conclusion. People’s tastes and expectations become more conservative (that explains why some think Captain America: Civil War is a sacred work of art) and then the studios make films to accommodate that. It’s a self-perpetuation creature that, if it lives long enough, will only dilute the cinematic experience, like a glass of Coke slowly being watered down by too many ice cubes.
You can’t blame the studios for wanting to make money, but there’s no denying that the creativity and quality of storytelling eventually suffers as a result. Just look at the way the Pirates of the Caribbean series continually rehashes the self-contained (and good) first film like a stand-up continually extending their best routine to increasingly fewer laughs. And there’s the Transformers series, an incomprehensibly edited collection of bright lights that appeals exclusively to moths. Pushing a satisfying narrative to the back of the queue, these lazy, unnecessary additions exist purely to set up sequels and sell more branded hats. I fear for future generations who will spend their entire lifetime waiting to see how Optimus Prime’s profound narrative arc shapes out, only to be told on their deathbed that 10 more films have just been announced. And they’ve released some new pencil cases.
Maybe sticking to standalone anthology films is the only solution to franchise fatigue. Granted, Rogue One robbed us of a story gap that was previously filled by our imaginations, but at least it had a resolution, and I can now safely pack away my K-2SO to protect it from any further damage. The same can be said of Logan, which had a self-contained narrative and pretended the other X-Men and Wolverine films didn’t exist, like an embarrassing uncle. By having a beginning, middle and end, it’s almost as if it was a proper film with a sense of purpose and everything.
For the studios, however, longevity is the most important thing. They have to ensure the continuing success of their franchises, which often comes at the cost of doing anything original, meaningful and finite. That’s apparent from the controversy surrounding Rogue One, as it underwent drastic reshoots and even brought in director Tony Gilroy to remove whatever personality Gareth Edwards might have given it.
And now directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have been booted off the upcoming Han Solo film for apparently being too improvisational. ‘Creative differences’ were once again cited as the reason for the split, which probably makes a lot of sense considering their previous work includes animations about Lego and meatballs falling from the sky. But it mostly demonstrates how Lucasfilm isn’t prepared to take too many risks.
Pacific Rim screenwriter Travis Beacham summed it up when he told The Guardian: “You have a lot of non-creative, business types leading the charge because they’re the ones who control the intellectual property. They have ownership of the thing everyone wants, and everyone’s coming to them to try to get that job. It ends up taking a lot of the creative leverage out of the hands of creative people.”
As much as I want Star Wars to stay true to itself, I don’t want each new addition, whether it be one of the main episodes or an anthology film, to become habitual and bland. That seems like the only natural outcome if they keep producing until the point of desensitisation. Even though the prequels were a relatively traumatic experience, at least they tied up the entire saga in a neat little bag that could be revisited whenever we needed a fix of nostalgia. Now that franchise models don’t allow anything to end, it will sprawl out in all sorts of directions until we eventually get a film about Admiral Ackbar and how he evolved from a catfish.
Actually, I’d pay to see that.