It often seems as if every other movie released by a major studio is created in hopes of spinning it into a franchise — those comforting, formulaic series that rake in jillions of dollars over the course of many years, until the star tires of being typecast and/or the public gets bored. When Vin Diesel opted out of the sequel to 2002′s “xXx” (reportedly because he didn’t get the raise he wanted), the producers had two options: Kill the potential franchise-in-the-making, or replace the star. Diesel being no Sean Connery, the debate probably didn’t last too long, and thus we have Ice Cube in the upcoming “xXx: State of the Union.”
In a perfect world, of course, Hollywood would examine whether a movie contains the elements necessary to make it as a franchise, rather than as a tired sequence of retreads. Genre films like sci-fi flicks or comic book adaptations, for instance, tend to work better as franchises, as they’re often built around characters whose superpowers or unique environments translate well to a variety of storylines. Most comedies and realistic dramas, meanwhile, are built primarily around plot, not characters: while the audience can accept almost any ludicrous premise once, buying two, three or four ludicrous premises in succession, each one involving the same character, is often just too much of a stretch.
Sadly, even when franchises are led by strong characters, Hollywood is reluctant to take them to new places, preferring to play it safe when it comes to tinkering with the formula established in the first film. Case in point: the “Die Hard” movies. When, in “Die Hard 2,” John McClane (Bruce Willis) wonders aloud, “How can the same $#@* happen to the same guy twice?” the question merely points up how desperate the filmmakers were to try and recapture the genuine thrills of the first movie — and how miserably they failed.
In a way, the “Batman” movies set the precedent for modern film franchises. When both director Tim Burton and star Michael Keaton walked away after the second film, Warner Bros. had so much invested in continuing the lucrative series that stopping it was never an option, even though so much publicity had centered on the “vision” of the original creative team.
But the subsequent hype that surrounded the hiring of new Batcave denizens ensured that “Batman Forever” would make money regardless of who was at the helm. “Batman” had become a popular brand name, and the quality of the “product” was irrelevant. Even after Joel “More is Less” Schumacher seemingly sank the Batship with 1997′s disastrous “Batman and Robin,” the studio knew it only had to wait a while for the taste to wash out of the public’s mouth. Lo and behold, this June we’ve got “Batman Begins.”
Granted, with a series like Batman (in which, as many actors have pointed out, the costume does most of the acting), it’s easier to accept a new face behind the mask than with a character like James Bond, or even Mr. Spock. At the beginning of 1969′s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” new 007 George Lazenby says, “This never happened to the other fellow,” a direct fourth-wall-breaking reference to the departure of the original Bond, Sean Connery. (The initial, abandoned screenplay referenced plastic surgery as the explanation of Bond’s new face).
And when Leonard Nimoy announced he was leaving the “Star Trek” series after the second film in 1982, Paramount scrambled to figure out how to continue a franchise without, arguably, its most popular character. Answer: they couldn’t. Despite Mr. Spock’s death at the end of “The Wrath of Khan,” Nimoy was lured back with the promise of more creative involvement.
Oh, yes: and more money.
Horror, meanwhile, while financially viable, is usually a creative bust as a franchise. Yes, your “Halloweens,” “Nightmares on Elm Street” and “Fridays the 13th” are (at least initially) built around “characters”: but pretty much all those characters do, really, is hack people up. Period. As for the sacrificial lambs, can you name any memorable victims, from any of those films, other than Jamie Lee Curtis? Can you even name her character? (It’s Laurie Strode.) And only the most hardcore slasher film fanatic can hold forth on the variations in plot from one movie to another in any of those series.
Now, contrast those films with the “Alien” franchise. What’s the more important element: the various incarnations of the alien, or Ripley herself? While the monster, the tone and even the structure of each movie in the franchise changed, the one element that remained was Sigourney Weaver’s ever-darker portrayal of the creatures’ arch enemy: from frightened heroine in Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic, to protective surrogate mother in James Cameron’s “Aliens,” to beaten victim in David Fincher’s bleak “Alien3,” and finally the cold, resurrected clone in the utterly lamentable “Alien: Resurrection.” Despite the wildly different visions of the various directors, Ripley’s character remained (and remains) the linchpin.
It’s hard to think of anything with only two installments in terms of a franchise, of course, and whether we’ll see “xXx 3″ starring 50 Cent is anyone’s guess. But Hollywood’s mentality (especially if there are ancillary merchandising markets to be plumbed) dictates that if it’s worth doing twice, it’s worth driving into the ground. (“Planet of the Apes,” anyone?) .
After all, the suits believe that if they hype it, we will come. And what’s even sadder is that — more often than not, at least for a while — they’re right.
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