Having just watched the mesmerizing “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” I find it difficult to argue sequel extension when a trilogy ends with such gratifying emotional closure. That being said, while “Return of the Jedi” was a satisfying denouement to Luke Skywalker’s personal Jedi Knighthood arc, I couldn’t imagine the saga existing without its prequels, spin-offs, and continued episodes. Yet, audiences are constantly faced with the looming prospect of a new franchise sequel potentially tainting a perfectly established farewell. Take for example Pixar’s upcoming “Toy Story 4,” which could mar the emotional goodbye between Andy and his toys by lessening its impact of finality. To sort out this ambivalence, let’s list some pros and cons of Hollywood’s decision to extend a franchise trilogy.
World-building and Transmedia Storytelling – When a franchise creates a universe with such expansive depth, it’s an injustice to simply focus on a few characters at the center of the conflict. To make background noise meaningless when it informs so much of the immersive experience invalidates the narrative’s scope. Therefore, even when audiences are disappointed with the overall main trilogy – like in the case of the Wachowski sisters’ “The Matrix” – they can at least understand via well-received ancillary content (companion anime film “The Animatrix” and video game prequel “Enter the Matrix”) that there’s more to the struggle than just the messiah audiences are revering. Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi” doubles down on the significance of world-building with the film’s final scene featuring a young Force-sensitive boy on Canto Bight, looking to the stars for hope.
Distance Makes the Franchise Grow Stronger – Oftentimes, space is needed after a trilogy concludes to make fans salivate for a reunion. Think of the decades passed between the sixth and seventh “Star Wars” episodes, and how much more it meant to see the core three after such a long absence. Moreover, “Mad Max: Fury Road” – released over 30 years after “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” — demonstrates that a new generation of moviegoers is sometimes required to refuel a franchise. By utilizing practical effects and incredible stuntwork, mainstream audiences used to computer effects-driven action found appreciation for a cult-classic series unwilling to compromise its aesthetic integrity. Moreover, not being bound to a serialized format allowed anyone unfamiliar with Max and his post-apocalyptic survival crusade to dive right in.
New Leadership Evolves The Material – Without Brad Bird’s deft direction of enhancing the cinematic experience or Christopher McQuarrie’s insistence on separating Ethan Hunt from the cold and episodic nature of a James Bond mission, “Mission: Impossible” would be another formulaic action franchise banking on nostalgia. Sometimes new leadership elevates the impact a franchise can have, offering dimension and new perspective previously stymied by the original author’s tunnel-visioned focus. Cinema should reflect the ever-shifting cultural landscape, its evolved progressive ideals and prioritized inclusivity. When extended property content doesn’t follow suit, it hurts the overall brand and forces fans to look elsewhere.
No Plan, No Fans — If a studio decides to elongate a franchise, it better has a complete idea of where it’s heading. The “Alien” films are a prime example of drawing the ire of its fan base by embellishing the significance of its narrative. Ridley Scott’s “Alien” is a moody affair that harnesses horror tropes in a first contact scenario, making it one of the most spine-tingling masterpieces of the genre. Once successful, 20th Century Fox pumped out sequels to capitalize on the marketing effectiveness of the Xenomorph.
Transitioning from 70s experimental auteur horror to commercial blockbuster, the “Alien” franchise fell into the trap of world-building for the sake of financial elasticity. Unlike “Star Wars” or “Star Trek,” there’s nothing thematically or socially resonant about the “Alien” franchise. Yet, its rabid worshipers refuse to see it in any other light. Therefore, it’s no wonder that the more “Alien” films churn out, the more the disappointment grows. No studio can hope to match what was never meant to be replicated.
Prequels Should Enhance, Not Explicate — There is a reason beyond their oversaturated presentation that the “Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” prequels are universally reviled. Peter Jackson and George Lucas correctly assume brand loyalty is enough to guarantee extended content support without requiring additional layers of innovation. No matter the quality of the final products, hordes of devotees poured into theaters opening night to see the prequels of these respective trilogies. However, once the credits rolled and patrons emerged from the theater, what remained was a hollow feeling of emptiness. All audiences were given was exposition and some irreverent action sequences that help carry the overly complicated plot forward. Missing was the exhilaration, imagination and memorable fellowship camaraderie that cemented the initial trilogies as bedrocks of pop culture.
No End in Sight — This is what separates the current state of the “X-Men” franchise from its biggest star’s grand finale in James Mangold’s “Logan.” Knowing when to hang up his hero’s jacket, Mangold snuffed out Wolverine in the most tributary and reverent of ways, earning the film a deserving “Adapted Screenplay” Oscar nomination. However, the studio can’t seem to give up on Logan’s fellow mutant allies. Installment after installment either retcons past lambasted work or revisits storylines with earlier character versions. If there’s no plan to conclude at least some of these characters’ adventures, then lasting peace isn’t so much fought for as it is unattainable. The same can be true from the “Terminator” movies, which always come up with some concoction to postpone the true judgment day…or reversal of.