Franchises! It's easy to understand why some folks hate them and decry their influence on the entertainment industry, but it's also easy to see why so many people love them, casual fans and hardcore enthusiasts alike. Today's vast, intricately-realized franchises forge a sense of continuity, not just through their elaborate storylines, but through personal memories as well. Seeing the latest Star Wars movie or watching the newest iteration of Doctor Who on TV creates a link between the present moment and the time you first encountered those characters as a kid or a teenager. A really good long-running franchise can generate epiphanies that blow your damn mind. It's powerful stuff, and along with the odd sports event or national election, it's probably one of the few events that qualifies as a genuine communal experience in a society that feels increasingly fragmented and divisive.
But like everything else, all franchises have a natural lifespan. It can be extended indefinitely by sequels, prequels, sidequels, spinoffs, and all matter of reboots, but eventually even a popular series starts to show signs of exhaustion. Not all of these situations are necessarily fatal, but they often require interventions or catastrophic misfires in order to regain their balance. Herein, a not-at-all-comprehensive rundown of the ways in which franchises run out of gas.
This is the simplest reason: There just isn't enough material left to continue the story in an interesting way. One of the Lord of the Rings' greatest virtues is that, despite being part of a massive story cycle and "legendarium" spanning millennia, dozens of tales, and hundreds of characters, it is largely self-contained. You can read the novel (it's not technically a "trilogy") and enjoy the story without having to delve into Tolkien's larger mythos unless you really want to. Similarly, Peter Jackson's movie adaptations stand on their own — everything you need to know about the characters and their world is contained within the three films. Or at least that was the case, until The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and its two sequels.
Now, Tolkien's Hobbit is a charming kids' novel and could be easily adapted into an enjoyable two- or, if you really wanted to push it, three-hour movie. But it's almost impossible to justify expanding the story to fit three movies whose collective running time rivals the original LotR trilogy. That wasn't because Jackson or the studios involved wanted to make a Hobbit movie, though. What they really wanted was more LotR movies, period, with epic battles, romantic triangles, cosmic struggles, and hubristic tragedy — even if the source material barely supports any of it. I liked the first two Hobbit movies just fine, and there were some masterful scenes in both, but there's a lot of padding, and the look and feel is frequently more "Tolkienesque" than Tolkien. There simply wasn't enough material for Jackson and his collaborators to draw upon, and it shows.
Not to single out the Hobbit movies, because really almost any prequel that isn't Godfather II is straight up asking for it. The Star Wars prequels are generally seen as inferior because of George Lucas's amateurish dialogue and bad acting, but what's really disappointing about them is that they don't really add anything to the original trilogy, introducing a lot of concepts like "The Chosen One" and midi-chlorians that never show up in the "later" films. Neither does Prometheus expand all that much on Alien or its sequels. Does knowing that the Aliens were created by a bunch of omnipotent Space Mimes, or that Weyland Yutani was founded by Mr. Burns, who apparently named his company after his loyal personal assistant, really add to your appreciation of those movies? Does it make Alien scarier, or Aliens more intense? It's half-assed "mythology" in search of a story that it can attach itself to in order to drain its vital juices, lamprey-fashion. Prequels are narrative remoras.
Not everybody is a perfect match for their material. Tim Burton's Batman played up the baroque aspects of the character and his world, but still managed to capture something of the hero's tragic nature and isolation. When Joel Schumacher took over the franchise in the '90s, he thought "Comic books!" and covered the sets in day-glow paint and his leading men in be-nippled latex. Bryan Singer's first two X-Men movies worked because he understood that "mutants" were a metaphor for outsiders and minorities of all kinds; when Brett Ratner filled in for The Last Stand, he emphasized action scenes over characterization and social commentary. In both cases, the franchises went dormant for a number of years before undergoing revivals, though at times it looked as if they might have gone permanently dark. Batman rebounded with Nolan's trilogy; X-Men stumbled with an equally bad Wolverine movie before returning with First Class, a prequel disguised as a reboot, and Days of Future Past, which effectively wiped Ratner's film from continuity and managed to tie the remaining plot elements together pretty nicely. It's the X-Men movie equivalent of the Dude's rug.
Arguably the best example of clueless creators working on a beloved franchise is the new Star Trek movie series, which is the product of multiple impulses rather than a unified creative vision. Paramount wanted a summer action tentpole, director J.J. Abrams wanted to make a Star Wars-type space adventure movie, and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, while claiming to be hardcore Trekkers, seemed eager to add another big budget franchise to their careers. It's surprising that the first movie is not terrible, despite Chris Pine's dudebro Kirk and a Hero's Journey story arc that doesn't have much to do with Gene Roddenberry's vision of an egalitarian future. (A lot of that is thanks to the character of Spock, as played by Zachary Quinto and Leonard Nimoy. He's the real tragic hero of the story, while Kirk is more of a Jack Burton-style buffoon who tends to blunder in and out of situations without the original Kirk's curiosity or diplomatic cunning.)
All of these conflicting impulses come disastrously into play in the 2013 sequel Into Darkness. The story makes no sense, and serves no purpose other than to reboot Khan and make him into a Dark Knight Joker-style übervillain, which he never was on the original series or in Wrath of Khan. (The thing about Montalban's Khan is that despite his supposed genetic superiority he's actually kind of a histrionic, swaggering dumbass, and not a cool Hannibal Lecter type.) There's a subplot about terrorism and political conspiracies, and 9/11 and the War On Terror are evoked (again, really, considering all the exploding planets and angry insurgents in the first movie). It's timely, sure, just like the old TV series… but is it Star Trek? By the end, even the characters seem to be acknowledging that they've just been in a lousy movie, and want to go back into space, far, far away from the collapsing skyscrapers. Six Characters In Search Of A Final Frontier.
Nothing stays cool or relevant forever. For every James Bond or Batman, there are a dozen Mike Hammers or The Phantoms. (I think you're always supposed to say the "the.") Some franchises are flexible enough to represent new concepts or ideas. The original Planet of the Apes was a metaphor for the social unrest of the '60s, and the sequels expanded on that theme in different ways. When the franchise was rebooted a few years ago with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the filmmakers used the story to tap into a variety of modern-day concerns: Alzheimer's, genetic engineering, inhumane animal testing, and animal viruses mutating and spilling over into human populations and triggering pandemics. It has little to do with the Charlton Heston movie (though it could conceivably be a distant prequel), and nothing to do with the campy 2001 Tim Burton movie, but it builds on the original material and places it in a new, wholly contemporary context.
In contrast, consider the Terminator series. Part of what made the original 1984 movie so powerful was the way it tapped into Reagan Era fears of nuclear war, arriving nearly a year after The Day After had aired on television. The movie had a grim, fatalistic vision of the future; even if Sarah Connor defeated the Terminator and guaranteed Skynet's destruction, she wouldn't be able to prevent the catastrophe that would kill off most of humanity. Over time, this fatalism was mitigated; T2, produced as the Cold War was winding down, implied that the future could be changed; T3, released a couple of years after 9/11, suggested otherwise. (After all, no WWIII = no franchise, which is why the nonstarter reboot Salvation is set entirely during the reign of the machines.) Judging from the crazy clusterfuck trainwreck of a plot summary given for the new movie, Genisys, it's not really clear what anxieties, if any, the filmmakers are trying to tap into. At the moment, nuclear war, while still a distinct possibility, is a lot farther from the minds of moviegoers than say, fears of terrorism, or Ebola, or economic meltdowns. A Terminator that travels back in time to drain your bank account and hack your social media profile? Now that's really terrifying. Mostly though, the new movie seems to be about showcasing the leathery ex-Governator as a battered vintage T-800, which brings us to our next category:
Sometimes it's just as hard for creators to be objective about a story or its characters as it is for the fans. When Steven Spielberg agreed to make Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, he knew that doing so would result in a veritable shitload of money. At the same time though, he probably relished the chance to team up with George Lucas and Harrison Ford (and Karen Allen, yay!) and revisit the world of Indiana Jones for the first time in nearly twenty years. In doing so, not only was Spielberg returning to one of the biggest movie franchises of all time, but he, Lucas, and Ford had an opportunity to relive their youth making Raiders of the Lost Ark in the late '70s, when they were at the height of their popularity. It was probably such an amazing experience that they didn't even notice the story kinda, well, sucked. Needless to say, we haven't seen either a fifth Indy movie or a Mutt Williams spinoff series. (Which I visualize taking place entirely in Vegas.) It's almost certainly just as well.
Speaking of Lucas, I don't want to go into another discussion about the pros and cons of the Star Wars prequels, but with Crystal Skull in mind, I have to wonder what the creative vision behind J.J. Abrams's Episode VII is like. (After all, this is the space movie he really wanted to make all along.) Joss Whedon reputedly turned down the job because the studio wouldn't let him do a story about brand-new characters; Michael Arndt's script was rejected because he focused too much on the original heroes' children, rather than Luke, Han, and Leia. Apparently the new movie features the original Star Wars cast as much as it does the new generation, which is probably a delight for old-school fans but seems like a recipe for Skull-like shenanigans, with a 70-year-old Solo and a geriatric Chewbacca keeping sass-mouthed whippersnappers in line. And when you consider all the kids born after Revenge of the Sith who've grown up with the prequels and the Clone Wars cartoons, the core audience for the film might have a very different understanding of what constitutes a Star Wars story compared to the 48-year-old Abrams. But then again, given Ford and Fisher's grouchiness about being associated with the franchise after all these years, it's surprising that they agreed to return at all. That's often the case when…
In the cases of some long-running movie or TV series, the idea itself is the star. Doctor Who is the perfect example; virtually any actor with the right attitude and vision can step into the role of the demi-immortal Time Lord. The same is true of ensemble-based programs, like Law & Order or MI-5 (aka Spooks); in real life, such organizations would be in a constant state of flux, so it only adds to the realism to have regular characters leave, die, or get transferred somewhere else.
But this isn't always true. Consider The X-Files. For the first seven seasons, the show was almost exclusively about Mulder and Scully. There were virtually no regular supporting characters besides A.D. Skinner and the Cigarette-Smoking Man, and those who did stick around for more than a handful of episodes tended to get killed off or revealed to be agents of the Syndicate. There was an elaborate backstory about aliens and conspiracies, but the core of the show, and what made it so accessible to a wider audience, was the working relationship between the two agents.
By the end of the seventh season, David Duchovny was trying to launch his career as a movie star, and took an extended hiatus from the series for most of the eighth and ninth seasons. In response, the showrunners expanded the cast to include new characters like Annabeth Gish's Monica Reyes and Robert Patrick's John Doggett, while expanding the roles of Skinner and Kersh, and promoting Gillian Anderson to the series lead. (And bringing in Cary Elwes for some reason.) The series also doubled down on the increasingly dull UFO "mythology," introducing "super-soldier" aliens and focusing on the mystery of Scully's pregnancy. (Because nobody but the legions of online shippers could figure that one out.) But this approach failed to win new fans, and alienated old ones. All along, the heart of the show had been the interplay of Mulder and Scully's divergent, but not necessarily opposing, philosophies. Once Mulder disappeared, once Scully became a true believer, once the show introduced characters whose only real function was to eventually replace the main characters, the X-Files was finished. It just took another couple of years for the end to arrive. But it's pretty common for franchises to just linger on, especially once…
Sometimes you just want an ending. It's great to have universes that go on forever, full of characters who will be constantly reinvented and rebooted and remixed for new audiences and new stories. But sometimes true satisfaction comes from knowing that the story is really and truly over. No more sequels, no more prequels, just a complete unit of storytelling. And if you think about it, most movies are like this, as are most novels. So are most TV shows, once the last episode has aired. Ongoing franchises just represent a tiny 0.01% of all the stories being told right now.
There is, of course, an urge to find out what happened next, and it's especially powerful in SF and fantasy series, where the entire world is made up. J. Michael Straczynski's space opera Babylon 5 hasn't aged particularly well, thanks to its '90s-era CGI and inconsistent acting and writing. But at the time of its airing, from 1994 to 1998, it was a unique show, both among genre shows and television programming in general. Conceived as a "novel for television," it was designed to tell a single epic saga spanning five seasons, a radical notion at a time when not all the networks had adopted serial drama. Characters would evolve, plots would unfold, and nothing would be the same from one year to the next. It would tell a self-contained story, with a beginning, middle, and ending.
Except it didn't. There was a chronological ending, set several years after the events of the series, but it wasn't the end. After the show was picked up for a final season by TNT, Straczynski began introducing new plot threads that were designed to lead into a spinoff show called Crusade. That show failed to catch on, despite having an elaborate five-year plan that was very similar to the parent show, as was the case with another spinoff on the Sci-Fi Channel, The Legend of the Rangers, which didn't make it past a pilot. Another project, The Lost Tales, appeared as a straight-to-DVD release in 2007, but failed to become a series. There are any number of reasons why the shows failed to connect with viewers in the same way as Babylon 5 — poor production values, bad writing, not enough marketing on the networks' part, a dwindling fanbase — but the simplest explanation might have been that they weren't really Babylon 5, just a blatant attempt to extend a brand past its natural life cycle. That may be why Straczynski is trying to reboot the franchise as a series of big budget theatrical movies, rather than drawing upon the established legendarium of the original show(s).
Not a lot of people know this, but at one point Tolkien planned a sequel to the Lord of the Rings, called The New Shadow. Set a century or so after LotR, it would have told the story of decadent Gondorians seeking to revive the worship of Sauron and overthrow Aragorn's son. Tolkien wrote about a chapter — you can read it in his posthumous collection The Peoples of Middle Earth — but abandoned the book because, as he put it in his own words, it was "not worth doing." The heart and soul of the story of Middle Earth's history was in LotR and The Silmarillion, but The New Shadow would have been just "a 'thriller'." This runs 100% counter to contemporary publishing wisdom — consider all the sequels Frank Herbert wrote to Dune, and then all of the sequels and prequels written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson after his death — but there is something about a story just reaching closure in a way that's emotionally satisfying and makes perfect narrative sense. Obviously the history of Middle Earth goes on for some time after the end of LotR, as Tolkien documented in his Appendices and other writings. But the story ends with Sam coming home and saying, "Well, I'm back." That's really all you need. Not all endings have to be mercy killings.