The very best movies are the ones that end leaving us wanting more. They give us characters we fall in love with, worlds we enjoy spending time in, and stories we never really want to end. Those are the tales that capture our hearts and our imaginations, and they’re big hits for the studios that make them. Unfortunately, because they’re big hits, the temptation to drag the story on far past the point where there’s nothing left to say kicks in.
It’s easy to understand that temptation. Everybody reading this probably wishes they had a magic money tree they could keep kicking and getting a payoff from. Writing, directing and performing in a successful film franchise is the equivalent of hitting online slots sites like RoseSlots.com and winning the jackpot from every game. But just like gambling, there’s a lot to be said for knowing when to stop and walk away from the table. Here are some famous movie franchises that churned out too many sequels looking for another big money payday.
The Rocky franchise has moved on so far from its humble beginnings that it’s sometimes easy to forget that the original won “best picture” at the Oscars. It was an endearingly human tale at heart – a working class guy who never gave up, fought for his dream, and won his shot at the big time. It wasn’t overblown, it was gritty, and it was realistic. It made Sylvester Stallone a star, and it inspired millions. And then came the sequels.
Fast forward ten years, and the feel of the films has moved from believable boxing stories to outright action hero fantasy. Rocky battled Hulk Hogan. Rocky battled Mr. T. Rocky even had a punch-up in a car park at the climax of the truly terrible Rocky V. The title character just wasn’t who he was when he started out. The franchise itself even ventured into clumsy political commentary, as Rocky battled Russia’s Ivan Drago at the height of Cold War tensions. The sequels were blockbuster movies, but they had none of the heart of the original, and all the charm was gone.
We don’t mean to pick on Sylvester Stallone. We really don’t. He’s deservedly earned his place as a legend of the big screen. But he’s made some questionable decisions about sequels in the process. ‘Rambo’ was a war movie with a message. It was a touching, challenging and intimate portrayal of a soldier returning home broken by his experiences in Vietnam, and struggling to integrate back into American society. It was a commentary on real life issues facing Vietnam war veterans, even if it was slightly hyperbolic.
Contrast the first film with Rambo III and you could be forgiven you were watching a totally different character. Rambo has become a stereotypical, muscle bound action movie cliche, and the film is just a never-ending sprawl of explosions and gun fights. Just like with Rocky, the realism and intimacy has gone, replaced by stunts and popcorn fodder.
If you didn’t see The Matrix when it first came out, it’s hard to emphasize just how many years ahead of its time it truly was. It gave us big ideas about virtual reality and conformity, cleverly dressed up to look like a typical action movie. It encouraged people to question the things they take for granted, and even fed into some scientific theories that we really are all living in a computer simulation. It also made huge amounts of money, and so sequels were inevitable.
Instead of exploring the original ideas, though, the sequels just tried to get too clever for their own good. There was simulation after simulation, with the movies frustratingly telling us over and over again that nothing we’d seen before had actually happened. The writers played the same trick on repeat, with diminishing returns each time. By the end, the question wasn’t “is this all still just a simulation”. It was “who actually cares?”
There are many people who’ll tell you that the original Die Hard movie is the best Christmas film of all time. They might be right. It’s certainly one of our favorite action movies of all time. What made it great was that it was a story of a regular police officer, trapped in an impossible situation, doing what he could to save his wife. He didn’t want to be a hero. He was just a regular Joe, horribly out of his depth, likely to die at any moment. It was perfect. And then everything changed.
Take your pick of any of the sequels, and John McClane isn’t just a humble police officer anymore. He’s an indestructible fighting force who’ll murder anyone and anything that stands in his way. He pulls off survival feats that would make a Terminator wince. He’s no longer fighting for his family, he’s just a guy who seemingly always find himself in the center of huge conspiracies and exploding oilfields. By this point, the only thing we’re wishing would die hard is the franchise.
Speaking of Terminator, that might be the worst offender of all. Don’t get us wrong – Terminator 2 may have been one of the very few films that was better than the original. Two movies was the perfect length for this story about sentient machines and their war against humanity. Everything from the soundtrack to the dialogue to the performances is the stuff of movie legend. Everything after those two movies is a mess.
Instead of investigating future technology further, or finding us different takes on the tale, the Terminator franchise has just taken to cannibalizing its own past and playing with its own timeline. We’re even told the next installment will be a direct sequel to Terminator 2, ignoring the three films that have come in between. That would be annoying enough even if it wasn’t for the fact that Terminator: Genisys completely invalidated the first two films. You now need a fairly complicated guide to work out the continuity. How are we supposed to care about a story when it works so hard to make its own past count for nothing?
These films aren’t the only offenders, of course. There are many franchises that have persisted way past the pale, and they probably have similar issues to the ones we’ve identified above. So, in the unlikely event that there is a Hollywood writer out there, considering whether their pet project would benefit from a fifth installment: Stop. Think about what you’re doing. And then challenge yourself to write something new!