“In many places around this country and around the world, franchise films are now your primary choice if you want to see something on the big screen,” Scorsese wrote. “It’s a perilous time in film exhibition, and there are fewer independent theaters than ever … no matter whom you make your movie with, the fact is that the screens in most multiplexes are crowded with franchise pictures.” While the director clearly has artistic objections to Marvel movies (he said he’s tried to watch a few, but “they’re not for me”), his more profound apprehension derives from their prevalence and the way other studios have embraced the model of never-ending sequels.
“Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes,” Scorsese wrote. “That’s the nature of modern film franchises: market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption.”
To be sure, some sequels are more interesting than others. Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep (a follow-up to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining) is a flawed effort to grapple with the legacy of a horror classic that ends up too indebted to Kubrick’s imagery. Terminator: Dark Fate is an attempt to reboot a flailing sci-fi series by bringing in legacy players such as Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger; but it, too, is decades removed from its superior forebears. Of the 10 highest-grossing films of 2019 thus far, only two are not sequels or remakes: Jordan Peele’s Us and the stand-alone Joker film (which is nonetheless still part of the comic-book-movie trend).
The bottom half of the yearly box-office chart is also filled with sequels—supposedly safe bets by studios that ate up money that could have gone to other, original works. Big money-losers this year include Dumbo, The Lego Movie 2, Men in Black: International, Dark Phoenix, and the remake of Hellboy. Despite those flops, executives aren’t too worried about sequel glut. In an assessment of Men in Black: International’s performance, the Sony chief Tom Rothman admitted that “there was not a strong enough idea in the story” to pull audiences in, but he predicted the studio would take another crack at the franchise one day. “Men in Black remains a very important asset that the company owns, and I would be very surprised if that is the last movie,” he told Business Insider.
Rothman’s comments obscure the fact that there hasn’t been a really well-received Men in Black since the first movie, in 1997. Though the series has had diminishing financial returns since then, with each film making less domestically than the last, Sony refuses to give up on it. The same goes for Dark Phoenix, the tepid conclusion of Fox’s X-Men films that eked out $65 million at the domestic box office this year. That underperformance didn’t trouble the Marvel Studios honcho Kevin Feige, who has already announced that the X-Men will be part of his Marvel universe, thanks to Disney’s acquisition of Fox.