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.
May 4, 2018
I think with the exception of the original run of Planet of the Apes, and even to some extent that one, you’re comparing apples to oranges. All of the examples you gave are film series-i.e. different creative teams spread out over many years and in some cases decades. It wasn’t until Hollywood realized they could keep spooning us CGi pablum and people would keep buying tickets that the “film franchise” was born.
I agree the MCU has a reasonably consistent narrative and kudos to them for being able to accomplish it, but I’d take Bond (the original five Connery’s, the Lazenby and the first three Moore’s) over any of these because with those films the amazing stunts you saw on the screen were actually done by human beings, they weren’t animated cartoons which is what these Marvel Movies are. Watching a CGi Spider-Man fighting a CGi Vulture is boring as hell and the thing all of these movies lack is any kind of dramatic connection to the characters– you know they’re all going to be fine, even if they die, because they are corporately owned characters whose primary directive is to sell merchandise.
The worst part about them is I just don’t care about ANY of the characters because they are so clearly acting. There’s zero connection and the reason they are so popular with fanboys is the connection THEY built up on their own with these characters, it has nothing to do with the film-makers.
I’ll give you the MCU is head and shoulders above the messes that were BAT V SUPEY and JUSTICE LEAGUE; MAKE IT STOP but even WONDER WOMAN which is so highly regarded is ridiculous– now I thought Gadot was great, but she jumps through slow motion blue hued battle fields does some backflips while blocking rifle shots with her shield and bracelets comes through an explosion and then lands with her hair and makeup perfect while she makes yet another grand pose–absolute nonsense.
You guys who are rallying to these superhero films need to look at them objectively and let go of how much you’re just excited to see these characters come to life. I feel for you, I was there cheering LEGENDS OF THE SUPERHEROES in 1979 because I finally got to see Hawkman and Green Lantern in live action– sitting there rocking back and forth as a 9 year old saying “it’s really good, it’s really good” when it was actually terrible.
Watch a real movie. Rent a Kurosawa, an Orson Welles, Hitchcock or even a Wes Anderson movie and clear your brains. Film franchises like these mean we’re just going to keep getting these overdone CGi spectacles.
May 4, 2018
Andy, I disagree with most of what you said.
Film franchises have been around forever. They only recently started calling them franchises, instead of series, but film makers and studios have always made a habit of identifying popular characters/worlds/universes/formulas that they could remake and repeat for a willing audience, to wit: Godzilla (kaiju in general), Sherlock Holmes, Rin Tin Tin, Tarzan, Zatoichi, Frankenstein (all Universal monsters, for that matter), The Pink Panther, The Bowery Boys, The Muppets, Dr. Mabuse, Herbie the Love Bug, The Thin Man, Dirty Harry, on and on. Some are more episodic, and some have more consistent film-to-film continuity. Some are good, some suck. Most of these have nothing to do with CGI. The point is, franchises are nothing new. The new(er) part is the more deliberate multifilm story arcs, which people seem to enjoy.
I personally find the acting the MCU films quite good, for the most part, given the genre. Maybe it’s because these are favorite characters of mine that I’ve enjoyed since youth, as you suggest. But I think that Marvel has always done a good job making their characters multidimensional, even in the comics, and I think this is well captured in the films. I do feel for them, and a lot of it has to do with good film making.
CGI can always be overdone (Transformers?). But it’s not inherently bad. For instance, The Lord Of The Rings couldn’t have been properly realized without it, unless you want all your fantasy films to look like Labyrinth; nor could Thor. Judicious use of the CGI tool enhances a film, it doesn’t detract. Yes, some of the aerial acrobatic scenes are all CGI, out of necessity, but that’s not a bad thing: remember, these are comic books come to life, so we expect and enjoy some physics-defying ridiculousness.
Your last line is a bit condescending (regardless of the winking emoji afterthought). I watch ‘real’ movies all the time, and enjoy them just as much as superhero flicks. The acting in some supermelodramatic early Hitch greats pales in comparison to some overdone CGI spectacles.
May 4, 2018
Exactly what EvanNot BobBanda said.
May 7, 2018
I think you hit the nail on the head here Andy. While I do enjoy the slate of superhero movies coming out these days, I can recognize that they are homogenized corporate creations with well thought out marketing strategies to sell many many toys and such. There was something to be said for those movies in the day that came from a more singular vision and not so much subject to focus groups.
May 4, 2018
Yeah, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a planned franchise. All the others just happened.to turn into franchises. Kudos to Marvel/Disney for their blueprint! 19 films over 10 years!!! That is Uncanny! Amazing! Mighty! Invincible! Incredible! Ha! 😉
May 4, 2018
Star Wars has had 3 films in a row to top a billion dollars. That’s impressive. Most impressive.
May 4, 2018
Yes. But money doesn’t count for everything. As much as I dig Star Wars, I recognize that it’s an inconsistent franchise.
May 4, 2018
The comparison to the Bond franchise is ridiculous. The Bond franchise has been around for almost 60 years and has at least 3 generations of committed fans (WWII generation, Baby Boomers, and Gen X). It’s irrelevant that kids “aren’t into Bond” – kids aren’t into Elvis or the Beatles either, but only an idiotic fool would say that Taylor Swift is a better artist. Come back and talk to me in 2050.
May 4, 2018
I don’t think I’m going to want to come back and talk to you in 2050.
May 5, 2018
As a huge Bond fan, I nonetheless have to agree. Lots about the Bond franchise is great. Then there’s A View to a Kill. Moonraker. Timothy Dalton.
But then, Bond movies generally tell one story. Bond v. madman. They vary in tone — some campier, some leaner and more serious. But the bones are the same. (Exceptions are Casino Royale and Skyfall, which were, in a large sense stories about James Bond himself — who he is and how he becomes what he becomes.)
The Marvel universe, with its many heroes, allows for much greater variety. But now I’m just repeating one of your points.
Star Wars started out great and might have stayed that way if not for those three prequels.
But Rogue One overrated? I respectfully, but definitely, disagree there. I thought Rogue One was among the best.
May 10, 2018
“Timothy Dalton. Oy.”
That would be the Timothy Dalton whose only serious competition for the title of Greatest Bond Ever is Connery himself? Oy, indeed.
May 6, 2018
The Simpson’s are a franchise…but on the little screen. Is the little screen out of the running ? The show seems to be successful. I too am high after the first viewing of Infinity Wars. I undoubtly will see it again. This one had the right balance. The last Thor almost was a walkout for me. But they got my money. But in agreement of the point the marvel universe is stitched together better then the others. But as pointed it out that seemed to be way more intentional then the others in the discussion. However it can only said as others have “it’s like tevee does it to even add how radio did it.” It ya gotta give it to em like the MCU is doing it. But is it because they are doing more of it or doing it better might be a better discussion.
May 9, 2018
If you’d count all of the Disney fairy tale movies as one single entity, then, *that* is the greatest “franchise” ever. 🙂
June 8, 2019
Y’Know, it’s kind of ironic. The way you feel fond about The Man With The Golden Gun, is the same way I feel fond of Octopussy and the way you feel disappointed by Octopussy is the same way I feel disappointed by The Man With The Golden Gun. But, then again, that’s why Baskin-Robbins has thirty-one flavors, Right?
June 8, 2019