How The Legacy Film Gives New Life to Franchise Cinema

Dan Golding explores a recent trend in which older blockbusters are passed on to a new generation.

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A curious trend has emerged in recent years among blockbusters. An old franchise is brought back, but more than a continuation, it’s framed as a revival, featuring both familiar faces and fresh newcomers. Thes sequels revitalize a once-popular film series that was laid to rest for a while but is now ripe for a reimagining. It’s the “legacy film,” and a new video essay from Dan Golding gives this trend the breakdown treatment.

Golding attributes the term “legacy film” — or the “legacy-quel” — to the journalist Matt Singer, pointing to 1994’s Star Trek: Generations as the first of its kind. In the last few years, plenty of other franchises have adopted the same model: the Rocky franchise became Creed, the Skywalker Saga was reinvented with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Jurassic Park is now Jurassic World, and Blade Runner was revived with Blade Runner 2049. That’s merely a fraction of franchises that have made a legacy film, which has proven to be the perfect formula for both a major pop culture moment and box office success.

But these films do more than just make money. Golding posits that the main attraction of the legacy film is the “intergenerational transference,” when a relic from an older generation is passed on and made new for its younger counterpart. Parents do this on their own, by introducing old favorites to their kids. But now, as Golding suggests, legacy films do it for them, catering to a younger crowd while also tugging on the heartstrings of aging audiences.

Golding’s video offers a detailed explanation of what distinguishes the legacy film from other blockbusters, broken down into five essential criteria. First, we rediscover the legacy character, who acts as the glue between the new and old films. They’ve likely retired by this point, or their previous experiences have made them cynical and apathetic. We then meet the successor, the young blood who helps their older counterpart find a new purpose. These characters are usually played by young movie stars or newcomers (e.g. Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049, or Daisy Ridley in Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and are sometimes the older character’s child.

The film then revisits the original narratives. This usually involves heightening the stakes in some way, reminding us why the original is so beloved while still having the plot pass through a new perspective. A lot of narrative build-up goes into creating the handover moment when the baton is literally or figuratively passed from the legacy to their successor. And then, finally, the legacy fades, as the older character’s death or final hurrah serves as the emotional heart of the film.

A few highly anticipated 2020 releases have the potential to be legacy films. A third Bill & Ted film, entitled Bill & Ted Face The Music, was officially confirmed by Keanu Reeves and Alex Winters this week. The film will follow the now-middle-aged characters on another journey through time — and perhaps they’ll meet another duo of young stoners on their way.

Plus, another Ghostbusters film is in the works, with Jason Reitman slipping into his father Ivan’s directing chair. The new film will be a return to the original 1980s series, with no connection to Paul Feig’s 2016 remake, starring Carrie Coon as a single mother and Stranger Things actor Finn Wolfhard as her son. There’s room for original stars Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson, and Dan Aykroyd to return to their roles, and Ivan Reitman even referred to the new film as “a passing of the torch,” so that’s one indication of where this chapter in Ghostbusters history is headed.

The widespread appeal of the legacy film makes sense when so much of popular discourse is dominated by discussions of intergenerational differences. Think of Creed, where Adonis tells Rocky that a photo taken on his iPhone is already in the “cloud,” and a bemused Rocky looks upward: “What cloud?” The classic baby boomer–millennial contrast makes for good comedy, but it’s also a strong foundation for conflict. Maybe the legacy character doesn’t want their successor to make the same mistakes they did, or maybe they think that things should be done the way they were the first time, and their successor resists them. It’s a classic struggle between two characters at opposite ends of their lives.

The legacy film is also a good opportunity for a franchise to reboot with a more socially conscious approach. Sometimes that means a more diverse cast, subverting the well-tread lore of the white male franchise hero and bringing in new audiences. Golding attributes the popularity of the legacy film to the climate change era, as older generations must confront what kind of world they’re leaving behind for their children and grandchildren. This is certainly true, but there’s something else at play: legacy films resonate because they use nostalgia differently than other films.

By recalling older stories and characters, the legacy film deepens the sense of attachment that the moviegoer has to a franchise. This distinguishes the legacy film from movies that use period-specific visual cues to evoke a different time or place. Any other movie can accomplish that, but the only way to see Han Solo in action is to see a Star Wars film. There’s no need for ’80s iconography to make you wistful for the past if your favorite childhood character is on screen. Ultimately, that’s what makes the legacy film the right kind of blockbuster for this era.

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Jenna is a writer from Montreal, where she studies liberal arts at McGill University. She enjoys history and is the world's preeminent Gosling scholar.