No one wants new Lord of the Rings movies – why can’t franchises die any more?
Whether we want it or not, we’re getting more Lord of the Rings. The press release that announced it read like the work of a cyborg. “The opportunity to invite fans deeper into the cinematic world of Middle-earth is an honour,” whirred the Warner Bros chatbot. “We are excited to partner with Middle-earth Enterprises and Embracer on this adventure.” The dull, unenthused syntax felt appropriate, but at the same time surprising. No one wants a raft of new Lord of the Rings content, after all. Many fans have already voiced their despair, still burned by three interminable Hobbit movies in which Martin Freeman wandered around poorly rendered cliff-sides looking confused. But to see a major Hollywood studio struggle to feign even a smidge of creative urgency to it all is something new. Instead, there will be more Lord of the Rings simply because there needs to be more Lord of the Rings. It is the modern status quo; a doddering, exhausted bit of intellectual property defined by its increasingly diminishing returns.
This is the new normal in entertainment. By now, IP’s chokehold on film and television is well-established, and not always inherently bad. The Last of Us was a video game and now one of the best things on television. Prime Video’s take on the bestselling novel Daisy Jones and the Six looks promising. John Wick: Chapter 4 is out next month, and what monster would say no to that? What is scary, though, is the gradual feeling that a number of long-in-the-tooth, big-screen franchises are becoming the walking dead – films that no one particularly likes any more yet feel compelled to see anyway. Call it obligation. Or nostalgia. Or a populace of deeply blockbuster-pilled people who can’t turn their noses up at the third Ant-Man film despite every instinct telling them they’ll hate it.
What does it actually take to kill a franchise today? The new Lord of the Rings follows a trilogy of Fantastic Beasts movies that everyone pretends don’t exist, a trilogy of bad Godzilla movies, and divisive Star Wars and Jurassic Park revivals that launched decently before becoming unbearable. Linking all of the above was a sense of constant displeasure among fans, few of whom seemed to actually like what was being presented to them. Save for one or two of these movies, these films tend to be bad blockbusters as culturally unpopular as they are financially successful – a toxic brew that makes everyone ultimately miserable in the end.
More and more, the franchise ethos at work in Hollywood seems to be “run it into the ground”. Hate every last one of the X-Men movies? Let’s revive it by a different studio and see what happens. Dislike Transformers 4, 5 and 6? Have a seventh this summer. Did the Lord of the RingsTV spin-off series The Rings of Power have the cultural impact of a bouncing, desert tumbleweed last year? Yes, but have four more seasons of the thing. And now more on the big screen, too!
Importantly, this is sort of our fault. If social media has made rage and confusion our default approach to art, it has also revealed that we seem to love watching absolutely terrible things. Last week’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania drew some of the worst reviews in MCU history (the Rotten Tomatoes algorithm currently places it second only to 2021’s dismal Eternals). The internet has spent the last week making fun of its terrible CGI and bad jokes. Yet it still, inexplicably, grossed $106m in its opening weekend at the US box office, comfortably making it the most successful of the Ant-Man series so far. While numerous think-pieces have emerged in its wake that question the future of the MCU, the series’ creative slump won’t be properly fixed until the money starts dwindling. If Quantumania can break franchise records at the box office, where’s the corporate motivation to change course?
If not money, though, what else can firmly shut down a major franchise? Because there’s always some prequel or sequel waiting in the wings – on a semi-related note, an It prequel series was announced last night, too – it’s difficult to say. It used to be your main character dying, but Hugh Jackman’s impending return as Wolverine in Deadpool 3 put that to bed. Really, the only expired franchise to have its coffin firmly tossed to the bottom of the ocean is The Terminator, and that only happened once it seemed its backers were truly out of options.
After the genre-shifting Terminator 2 in 1991, the franchise embarked upon a rollercoaster of rot. Terminator 3, released 12 years later, was a critical disaster. Terminator Salvation had a post-Dark Knight Christian Bale and no Arnold Schwarzenegger, and bombed. Terminator Genisys had more Arnie and a stupider title, and still bombed. Terminator: Dark Fate brought back Arnie and original star Linda Hamilton and lost its backers $122m. Somewhere in the middle there was a short-lived TV show that bombed, too. Sequels. Recastings. Spin-offs. Actor comebacks. Timeline changes. TV. Movies. All roads were exhausted. The message finally got through.
This was, in many ways, a victory for anyone who loved the original two Terminators. But a neatly resolved franchise shouldn’t require a raft of disliked sequels and a handful of TV spin-offs before people realise it’s done. Just as all of us come to accept the inevitability of death, Hollywood needs to recognise the importance of dying with dignity.