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When A Trilogy Isn’t Enough- Why Won’t Some Franchises Just Die?

May 10, 2010

Last week Tom Cruise announced his return to the Impossible Missions Force with Mission Impossible IV in 2011. It’s to be directed by Brad Bird (The Incredibles and The Iron Giant), scripted by Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec (the people behind the canceled US Life on Mars, the canceled October Road, and the soon-to-be-canceled Twin Peaks-lite Happy Town) and based on a story by J.J. Abrams and Tom Cruise (both of whom I assume you know).

The Mission: Impossible film series has been around since 1996. Fifteen years. The first two did very good business but the third could barely be considered a modest hit. (From The first one in 1996 made $180 million US/$457 worldwide and was the third highest grossing movie both domestically and worldwide for that year. The second one from 2000 made $215 million domestic/$546 million worldwide and was the third highest grossing movie domestically but number one worldwide. The last installment (#3) in 2006 made $134 million domestic and $397 million worldwide making it the fourteenth highest grossing movie of that year domestically and the eighth highest grossing movie worldwide.) But, to get to my point, is anyone really clamoring for a return of this series?

Put another way, has the series itself really taken a foothold on pop culture that warrants a fourth film? Are the first three really that memorable? Have you ever heard anybody talk about the Mission: Impossible films long (say, a month) after their release? Are they quotable? Do they have any classic scenes? (Okay, I’ll give them the hanging from wires hacking into a computer scene but that was fifteen years ago.) Have you ever heard anybody say “you know what I would love to see? Another Mission: Impossible flick!”? Probably not.

Part of the reason why the Mission: Impossible movies never really took off in our pop culture consciousness is that they never accomplished making the franchise more than the lead actor (Tom Cruise). While a recurring, and occasionally major, actor is often an important part of a successful franchise, the franchise itself should be bigger than (or at least equal to) that one guy. For example, James Bond the character is bigger than any of the actors playing him. Same with Batman. Same with Jason Vorhees.

There are also close calls as to whom is the most important part of the series: the actor or the character/franchise. Who’s bigger: Indiana Jones or Harrison Ford? John McClane or Bruce Willis? It’s difficult to answer and the best response might be that there exists a symbiotic relationship between the two. Bruce Willis has done plenty of action movies but none have had the lasting impact of Die Hard, yet at the same time it’s doubtful that a new Die Hard would be as successful without Bruce Willis.

But what makes those films different from the Mission: Impossible series can be boiled down to a single question: What was Tom Cruise’s name in the series? How long did it take you to come up with Ethan Hunt? Or, put another way, when someone says “Indiana Jones” or “John McClane” you can probably conjure up an image immediately. Whether it’s the hat and the whip or a man in a dirty white t-shirt crouching in Nakatomi Plaza or a guy jumping off a roof tied to a fire hose, something comes to mind. Now when you hear the name “Ethan Hunt” what do you think of? At best, it’s Tom Cruise being … Tom Cruise. He doesn’t even have a catchphrase.

Ethan Hunt not being memorable wouldn’t even be that big of a deal if the other characters had anything to offer. After all, the original Mission: Impossible television series was about a team. Except the films aren’t about a team- they’re about Tom Cruise being Tom Cruise while Tom Cruise runs away from buildings exploding behind Tom Cruise (standing in front of a green screen). The only thing I recall about the team was that Emilio Estevez was in the first one, Ving Rhames was in the others and Peter Graves was evil.

For an action film franchise to succeed, especially with bland characters, it needs something to make it stand out but the Mission: Impossible films lack any sort of quirks or nuances, ongoing storylines, ongoing character drama, original action or original plots to rise above the typical action-adventure movie. If the films were written smarter and more realistic that could work, or if the films decided to delve deeply into the realm of not-too-distant-future hard sci-fi that could be very cool, or if the team aspect came to the forefront and the films were more an ensemble that actually would be a angle not often used in modern action films (well, at least not until this year with The Losers, The A-Team and The Expendables). Instead we get … Tom Cruise and there’s no I in team, though there is TOM in Teamwork.

What makes this news even more disappointing is that M:IIV is going to be Brad Bird’s live action directorial debut. Brad Bird is an animation genius responsible for a lot of work on the early seasons of The Simpsons, The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille. To see that his first live action film will probably amount to a traditional action movie/Tom Cruise vehicle is disheartening. I’m not saying it’ll be terrible but it could be in danger of lacking the spirit and creativity that one wants and expects in a Brad Bird film. It’s not like the Mission Impossible directors have fared well. When was the last time anyone heard of the first Mission: Impossible’s Brian De Palma? MII2 basically caused John Woo’s exile back to China. And Mission: Impossible 3’s J.J. Abrams, well, he’s still going strong.

Yet it’s not that the franchise concept is dead other than in the superhero realm, modern action franchises can work.

The Fast and the Furious is going to get a fifth film. Whether you love it or hate it, that’s a legitimate franchise and it’s probably because it has a unique hook- shiny cars that go vroom. The cars are bigger than the dual acting powerhouses of Vin Diesel and Paul Walker combined. And like many successful franchises, it’s set up to survive no matter who from the first movie stays involved as long as people in fast automobiles engage in probably civilian killing Death Race 2000-style (not Death Race) contests.

On the other side of the equation are the Bourne movies, which are probably closer in spirit to the Mission: Impossible films because it’s centered around a single guy (Jason Bourne) and a single actor (Matt Damon). Those movies found their niche by being a kind of realistic take on the action genre while having an interesting lead character and maintaining its own internal universe. The Bourne series definitely had an impact on the action genre as evidenced by the Bond series revival in 2006’s Casino Royale. (Sidenote: CR was the ninth highest grossing US movie of that year and the fourth highest grossing worldwide movie. See above for stats on 2006’s Mission: Impossible III.)

Meanwhile, what does Mission: Impossible have to offer? DVDs that explode at the end of a message? The theme song? Is the Mission: Impossible name really that much of a draw, or is it more about action hero Tom Cruise, no matter what the movie’s title is? If it’s the latter, as I assume it is, why not just try and start fresh?

Before I wrap up, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about Scream 4- another film franchise that probably should be left for dead also returning to theaters in 2011. While the original film was definitely influential film on the modern meta-horror genre, the second one tried unsuccessfully to duplicate the ‘we know we’re in a horror movie’ gimmick and the third one (not even written by series creator Kevin Williamson) was pretty much ignored.

Wes Craven has said in interviews that part of the reason the series is coming back (in a possible new trilogy form) is for the audience to see what’s happened to the characters since we last encountered them ten years ago. And that’s part of the problem. Very few horror series can coast solely on the strength of human protagonists. There’s The Evil Dead trilogy with Ash (Bruce Campbell) and…The Evil Dead trilogy with Ash (Bruce Campbell). (Also, possibly Alien depending on what genre you place those films in.) But is Scream one of them? Have Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), Dorothy Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox-Arquette) and Dewey Riley (David Arquette) risen to the level of classic horror movie characters like Ash or Halloween’s Laurie Strode?

Another problem with the series is the lack of a definable bad guy. What makes many horror franchises work is often a singular, nigh-unkillable monster. While the Scream mask made a good image, Ghostface could never really rise to the level of a Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers or Freddy Kruger because the person/people behind the Scream mask were humans as forgettable parts of a convoluted mystery killing people for increasingly stupid reasons.

The film is hinging itself (and a potential new trilogy) on the spurious concept that we care about the survivors a decade later. While taking a serious look at the long term psychological impact of surviving a massacre (let alone three) could be a very interesting concept, it immediately loses its power by becoming yet another slasher flick. Also, in this hyper post-modern, overly self aware world, what will the new Scream films’ novelty be?

But at least we’re not getting Charlie’s Angels 3.



May 8, 2010

Although I haven’t posted in awhile, I might get back into this sometime this weekend. Just typing this to sort of remind myself/get back into the “grind.” Topics might include: Mission Impossible IV, the Cinco De Mayo American flag shirt controversy (siding with the shirt wearers but in a non-“This is America and if you hate it, get out!” way), and I don’t know.

And this is the end of my high school girl livejournal-esque post.  Stay tuned non-readers.