Surpassing not just DC, but Bond, Planet of the Apes, Star Trek — and yes, even Star Wars…
UPDATED 4/29/19: This first ran in 2018 after Infinity War hit theaters. It very much holds up today in the aftermath of Endgame, which if anything sealed the deal. Dig it. — Dan
Something hit me as we left the theater after Avengers: Infinity War last week: That after 19 movies in 10 years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has now cemented itself as the greatest movie franchise ever — a visionary accomplishment that surpasses the biggest, most influential series of all time.
Greater than James Bond. Greater than Planet of the Apes. Greater than Star Trek. Certainly greater than DC’s movie output. And, yes, finally, greater than Star Wars.
Why? It comes down to consistency of vision and execution. Marvel Studios — led by Kevin Feige and a cast of thousands — has produced a startling number of movies over the last decade with only two, or maybe three, missteps. From a relatively intimate movie like Ant-Man to a gigantic spectacle like Infinity War, Marvel’s movies are almost always entertaining, especially when taking into account such substantial tonal shifts from one film to the next. Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy — two other examples — could not be more different in theme and scope and yet both are terrific in their own right — and at the same time very much feel like they are part of the same worldview.
No other film franchise can claim this record — as outstanding and as influential as they may be.
Don’t buy it? Read on.
Here’s a franchise-by-franchise breakdown — with the case for and against each:
Marvel vs. DC
The Case For DC. I need to clarify something immediately. I love DC Comics. Love them. I’ve been reading them pretty much since I could read. If you’re a regular 13th Dimension reader, then you know I lean heavily toward DC. But this is about movies, not comics, so I’ll say this: 1978’s Superman is the best superhero movie of them all. The Dark Knight is a modern classic. The 1989 Batman is still entertaining and I’m a huge fan of the 1966 movie. (I’ve probably written more about the TV series than anything else.)
The Case Against DC. Alas, a few terrific movies scattered across 50-plus years, with no cohesion, does not a franchise make. As far as the modern era goes, once Christopher Nolan pulled up stakes from Gotham, everything imploded. Wonder Woman is the outlier. I liked Justice League in spite of myself but it pales against Infinity War. DC doesn’t just need a course correction — which JL attempted — it needs to start from scratch. One idea? Take a look at why the TV shows are so popular: It’s because they — like the Marvel movies — unapologetically embrace the source material.
Marvel vs. James Bond
The Case For Bond: I also need to point out that I have an enduring love for all these franchises. We’re comparing degrees of greatness here (for the most part). And specifically where Bond is concerned, the franchise not only launched a thousand imitators, it’s part of the lexicon: “That’s something right out of James Bond!” people exclaim whenever they come across a gadget that seems to good to be true.
Bond was so incredibly popular at its ’60s zenith that it influenced every corner of pop culture: TV, movies, music, you name it. To this day, every spy franchise is imbued with its DNA — such as the mega-successful Mission: Impossible series, which is based on a show that can thank Bond for its existence.
The Case Against Bond: It almost feels unfair to compare a 10-year franchise with the Bond series, which has been around since 1962: 007 has had a lot longer time to fail — which the franchise has done on a number of occasions. If you look at the 24 official films, about half are wildly entertaining and half are … not. And what other franchise spends so much capital trying to reinvent itself and stave off accusations that it’s out of step — and with such mixed results? I’m a Bond aficionado, but even I recognize that it’s not always consistent — and consistency is the hallmark of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Besides, kids aren’t really into Bond anymore — while Marvel is HUGE with the younger set. That’s important for the future health of the franchise.
Marvel vs. Planet of the Apes
The Case For POTA: To kids of a certain generation (mine), Planet of the Apes was Star Wars before Star Wars. The movies work on multiple levels and the original is a bona fide film classic, one of the most recognizable works of the 20th century. And it was a merchandising bonanza, especially as the series pressed on into the ’70s, with action figures, trading cards, coloring books and on and on. It spun off into TV as well, with both live-action and cartoon series.
The Case Against POTA: The producers ran the original series into the ground pretty quickly and neither TV series caught on. The movies endure today as pure entertainment and a kitschy callback to a groovier time, but by 1978 — a decade after the first movie came out — the Apes were over, dethroned by a little tale that takes place a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. The recent reboot trilogy was uneven — and far more notable for the distance it put between itself and the originals than for the occasional Easter egg thrown into the mix.
Marvel vs. Star Trek
The Case For Star Trek. Is Star Trek really a movie franchise? Or a pair of TV series that made the leap to film? It’s semantics, really, and I think Trek needs to be in this argument. I came relatively late to Star Trek — I was 19 — but I fell in love with the kitschy, yet thoughtful, world created by Gene Roddenberry. The Wrath of Khan is the most moving sci-fi film I’ve ever seen. (A fantastic way to kill a Saturday is to watch II, III and IV right in a row. But you knew that.)
The Case Against Star Trek. Unfortunately, this is a franchise that is incredibly inconsistent. For every Star Trek II, you get a Star Trek: Nemesis. And as far as the reboots go, the second and third movies sank the grand potential of the first. In any event, the movies have never surpassed the TV series in the popular imagination. Close your eyes. Think of William Shatner as Captain Kirk. What’s he wearing? It’s gold, isn’t it…
Marvel vs. Star Wars
The Case For Star Wars. Ah, and now we get to the big one. Is Marvel really greater than Star Wars as a franchise? Pop culturally speaking, I still think in terms of Before Star Wars and After Star Wars. My very idea of what was possible was turned upside down when I saw the original movie — I do NOT call it A New Hope — on its opening weekend in 1977. As film series go, I’d argue that there are no fans more passionate — for good and often very bad — than Star Wars fans, who have built a subculture that’s now more prominent than Star Trek, around beloved characters recognizable anywhere on the planet. Making a Star Wars movie is a license to print money.
The Case Against Star Wars. Boy are these movies a mixed bag, or what? I’m not even talking about The Last Jedi, which I really like but a lot of people — I think irrationally and, in some dark cases, misogynistically — utterly hate. I’m talking more about the first two prequels and even the overrated Rogue One. Even Return of the Jedi is an up-and-down affair: There’s plenty of whiz-bang action but it’s sandwiched between derivative set pieces like the climactic Death Star run and the Ewoks. I love Star Wars, but that’s a pretty high rate of misses to hits. Marvel’s got a 16-3 record — and is now turning out movies that are making Star Wars-level money. That’s a formidable combination.
OK, so why did I pick these five franchises? Because they’re generally analogous and there’s a tremendous amount of crossover appeal. (Though including Bond was a more personal choice.) Why not include Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings? Personal preference, really. Feel free to make your own argument. But either way, I don’t think they measure up to Marvel anyway.
Then again, nothing does.
— 13 QUICK THOUGHTS on AVENGERS: ENDGAME. Click here.
— The MARVEL MOVIES: What to Watch — and What to Skip. Click here.