Franchises are living, breathing creatures and they change on a direction on a dime. The successful ones twist and expand in all directions like knotted branches while others die on the vine, with maybe a half-hearted sequel to show for the potential. New branches seem to grow by the year – sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots, spinoffs, two-parters, time travel etc. Now Marvel Studios broke ground on the shared universe conceit, driving studios’ into cinematic universe-developing cold wars (DCEU, Transformers, Godzilla/Kong, Universal monsters etc.) The methods of keeping franchises (aka brand names) alive in the idea space are numerous.
In some cases, franchises have come to define entire genres, such as the space opera (Star Wars) or the post-apocalyptic Western (Mad Max). Both offered quintessential requel offerings last year after 10 and 30 years from the cinema respectively.
Mad Max: Fury Road is about as exemplary a requel as could be made, the pinnacle to strive toward. It came thirty years after 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and while it didn’t step on the toes of the previous three films, it didn’t go out of its way to explain the continuity either. Director George Miller and his production team expertly use filmmaking to recreate the campfire tale, one with embellishment and flourish that dress a simple, satisfying chase film. Like oral stories passed down historically, the Mad Max films have a timeless quality to them, even if they occupy a rough chronology (check out Evan Saathoff’s excellent “Myth vs. Continuity In The Mad Max Series” over at Birth.Movies.Death for more on this).
A few weeks ago, I wrote an editorial on how, in the wake of Batman v Superman‘s divisiveness, Justice League could emulate Batman Begins and Casino Royale, both reboots that followed lackluster predecessors by taking apart their heroes – and then putting them back together. Basically, reconstructing them to ensure audiences, even subconsciously were reminded of the “why” of a character or scene, underneath the costumes, gadgets and superficiality. Why does this exist? Why is this happening? Why do we care?
It’s this principle Miller embodies. It’s why his filmic universe has both a flaming guitarist with a detailed (and completely unmentioned) backstory and a plot that can be summed up as: they run away and then they run back.
On the other hand, when Hollywood finally took the Star Wars universe beyond Return of the Jedi, screenwriters J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan lifted the skeleton of A New Hope, the familiar beats and symbols we all loved, draped it in new garments and called it The Force Awakens. Presto! One of the most successful films of all time. While I wasn’t over-the-moon for it, like Jason Bourne, I liked it fine and recognize the film as a well-made and successful nostalgia trip.
As you can tell, these requel successes appropriate heavily from previous installments in the aim of giving audiences the ultimate experience: familiarity with thrills, simplicity with nuance, complexity with clarity. And in pursuit of these lofty goals, a lot of films, ironically, forget the foundation: the “why.”
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