Movie Franchises and Their Stars Need to Learn to Quit Each Other

By  · Published on September 9th, 2014

Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Will we eventually see Shia LeBeouf return to the Transformers movies? Could there ever be a Speed 3 starring Keanu Reeves? These are things I wondered when I saw that Orlando Bloom is talking about returning to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Let’s just go there and say he’d be crawling back, seeing as his career hasn’t been too hot since he left that series after the third installment (isn’t it enough that he was allowed back to Middle Earth for the Hobbit movies?). Among other reasons the fifth POTC will probably stink, its allowance for “Will Turner” to reenter the picture is a big one. This sort of thing looks bad for both the actor and the production, though it’s hard to tell which comes off more desperate. Probably Bloom, since I doubt anybody really cares if he’s involved.

Turner’s story arc was fairly complete by the end of At World’s End (there is apparently some fan debate regarding this, but never mind all that). And it’s rather neat and clean the way those first three movies form a trilogy. Meanwhile, Johnny Depp is seemingly bound to the franchise through some devilish deal with Disney, and if that must be true than it’d be better to see him have to work with new characters in their own stories, whether they’re one-offs like On Stranger Tides or a new three-part adventure. Of course, Captain Jack Sparrow’s charms wear thin with each installment, too, and if POTC must sail on, the question should be why Disney can’t trust another great actor to invent another iconic pirate role to carry the series afloat. Perhaps the studio feels it gambled enough on the franchise to begin with, and it’s rare to win a jackpot twice.

We used to dismiss movie franchises that quickly lost their main star, prematurely looking down upon Speed 2: Cruise Control, Predator 2, xXx: State of the Union and Hannibal for respectively going forward without Keanu Reeves, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Vin Diesel and Jodie Foster. Now, except in the case of something like that last one, where a character returns recast, such properties are better off without the anchor of the same old hero. Predator 2 is a good example, because it’s at least a whole different kind of movie than the first Predator. The producers made the best out of losing Schwarzenegger to a salary dispute by going in another direction. It’s not necessarily a good movie, but it was a good idea. And recast franchises can work as reboots in a positive way, too, as seen with the James Bond and (initially) Jack Ryan properties.

Instances where actors returned to franchises they’d left haven’t always been terrible. Diesel and Paul Walker and the Fast and Furious franchise might have all seemed desperate at the start of Fast & Furious (number four), but thanks to writer Chris Morgan and director Justin Lin that series actually improved through the regrouping effort (and has since continued to reinvent itself with additional stars and new narrative paths). Sam Neill’s return for Jurassic Park III was also okay, in part because the actor hadn’t left the series because he thought he was too good for it and in part because it somewhat worked for one of the sequels to center around Jeff Goldblum’s character and the other on Neil and Laura Dern’s characters. Sean Connery should have stayed retired from the Bond franchise, however, both times.

Following the Daniel Craig reinvention of Bond and the Christopher Nolan run with Batman, Hollywood hasn’t seen a lot of good reasons to quit their franchise stars. Transformers: Age of Extinction has been a huge disappointment domestically, and while that has little to do with the fact that it rebooted with new human characters and star Mark Wahlberg in place of LaBeouf, there’s no reason for Paramount to think that’s not a factor. And after the Conan the Barbarian remake flopped, producers quickly made plans to go back to the first continuity by getting Schwarzenegger to reprise his titular role – interestingly enough with Morgan writing the next installment. The Terminator franchise is also depending on his return to acting for a boost. Can’t they just let it go as far as his comeback is concerned?

Perhaps the possibility of the Iron Man series not continuing, as speculated by the recent words of Robert Downey Jr., could be a good influence. That property has the benefit of being attached to a bigger franchise, though. Marvel can afford to not make Iron Man 4 because they’ve got Thor and Captain America and Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers sequels to release, plus other characters’ series to take Iron Man’s place. At least for now. On the other side of the superhero coin, it would be nice if the low grosses on the Amazing Spider-Man series show that it’s not a problem to reboot a property, just maybe to do so with the same general storyline. We can deal with recycled characters if they’re in fresh material, a la the Nolan Batman trilogy.

The issue can work with talent behind the camera, as well. On an episode of the Fighting in the War Room podcast, Joanna Robinson complained about David Yates being hired as director of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them after having already shown us his take on the Wizarding World with four Harry Potter movies. While there are plenty of franchises that work well in retaining a single filmmakers’ vision – at least for a grouping of installments, a la Nolan with Batman, Gore Verbinski with POTC, Lin with Fast and Furious and Michael Bay with Transformers – there are also those that benefit for constant changes in direction and director, a la the Alien, Mission: Impossible and for a while Harry Potter movies. Hopefully also with the upcoming Star Wars trilogy and spin-offs.

Franchises themselves aren’t going anywhere. We need to get over that issue and hope that maybe they can just be dragged on in name only as opposed to tiring out the same characters and approaches to the material. Bring back former protagonists for minor cameos if you must, but otherwise Hollywood needs to learn to kick their habits, and that goes for the properties and their casts. Let them learn something from the past 50 years of the Doctor Who TV franchise: these successful entities don’t need to die, but they do need regular regeneration to last.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.