BEST MOVIE FRANCHISES
By Andrew Morgan, Host of The NOMCAST – Netflix Original Movie Podcast
With the inception of the “Summer Blockbuster” with Jaws in 1975, the movie industry changed forever. Prior to Jaws, most major film releases came out during the Winter months when most people would go to the movies (especially in the Northeast to escape those terrible winters or your relatives during Christmas). After Jaws’ massive success and new way of marketing films, the studios decided they could market major action/adventure/thriller films in the Summer when young people are out of school and Air Conditioning & cold soda was just as important as indoor heat in the Winter. On the heels of Jaws, Star Wars was released in 1977 and made EVEN MORE money than Jaws did in ‘75. Smelling the blood in the water (see what I did there), the studios realized more than ever that to try to repeat the success of films like this may mean to try to bring the concepts right back and give the people what they want: the magic of that first film. Previously, you would get a lot of films that were more like copycats & imitations of the big successful film, but why do that when you could try to bring the EXACT SAME team back together (or at least mostly) and try to recapture that same magic (and gross earnings) again and again.
THUS, the franchise was born. 1978 saw the first Jaws sequel, 1979 had the release of Rocky II and 1980 saw the Empire Strike Back (to big returns). Again and again, we were treated to big time thrill-ride films being brought back to life to thrill us again.
While this was a HUGE phenomenon in the 80s, it feels like we’ve perfected it now in the 21st Century. The major studio releases and the backbones of most of our major streaming services are built on who has the biggest and brightest franchise IP.
Below are my Top 10 favorite Movie Franchises of All-Time (Please note I was born in the early 80s and this might tip my bias in such decisions, but THAT is what makes it mine):
10.) ROCKY BALBOA EXTENDED UNIVERSE
As a society, we tune in every year to our favorite sports teams and the players we love. We get sucked into every play, every quarter, every game just to see if our rooting interest has what it takes to win it all. The inherent drama of sports makes it a perfect vehicle for a movie franchise because the phrase “there’s always next year” doesn’t just have to apply to my New York Mets (sad, but true).
In 1976, ROCKY gave birth to a new cliche in films: the Sports Underdog. It was a huge success. With a budget of less than a million dollars and a first feature-length script written by a virtually unknown actor in Sylvester Stallone, Rocky came out swinging to the tune of $117 Million in the U.S.
Stallone had bet on himself and won big, but as for his titular character, Rocky doesn’t win his big fight in the first film (45 YEAR SPOILER ALERT); as opposed to it’s blockbuster predecessor JAWS in 1975, this film was practically BEGGING for a sequel! We needed Rocky to take on Apollo at least one more time. In 1979, we were treated to just that. Rocky II was released and cemented the cult of, not only, Rocky Balboa, but also Apollo Creed. The Rocky franchise went on to have 5 Balboa-led sequels and 2 Creed films starring Michael B. Jordan as Apollo’s offspring rising to the ranks in a similar fashion to Balboa those many years ago.
With 8 films and only one true STINKER among them (sorry Rocky V), this is one of the most successful to ever grace the screen.
9.) THE AVENGERS
Though some may consider the MCU to be an all-in-one monolith that should be treated as one mega franchise, I consider the character films and the team films to be separate entities in the franchise film discussion.
With that said, The Avengers films are kind of a cheat code of the greatest kind; following the breadcrumbs or collecting the clues to get to an epic apex that requires the likes of all these heroes to combine for one main cause on a big stage.
In 2012, The Avengers assembled for the first time after the first 5 MCU movies introduced all the main heroes that would be coming together, the main villain (Thor’s brother, Loki), & the central weapon that would be the catalyst for the film’s war on earth: The Tesseract. With all this backstory and character development already laid, it’s no wonder that “The Avengers” blew me and most audience members away. “The Battle of New York” is still an iconic sequence in action film history with all the heroes taking on Loki and an entire alien army through the streets of the Big Apple (which was only a decade in recovery post 9/11).
From it’s initial release, the film broke box office record after box office record. It had the largest opening weekend ever and largest opening week ever. It peaked at #3 all-time behind Titanic & Avatar for Cumulative Worldwide Gross. The film also had critical praise with it’s Academy Award nomination for outstanding special EFX and it’s several wins in the coveted Teen Choice Awards.
After Phase One’s big splash ending, The Avengers would come together 3 more times under their franchise banner. Though “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is a hot mess and “Endgame” has some structural difficulties (especially with the always complicated time travel), the series has brought me and audiences some of the best set pieces in cinematic history and continues to set the bar for special effects work in modem cinema (or at least when James Cameron is taking his long naps between films). It also continues to be a huge box office draw with all 4 films landing in the Top 11 of all-time, including “Endgame” at the #1 spot.
From his start in comic books in the late 1930s to now, America has always been fascinated with the world’s greatest detective, Batman. For every generation since his creation, there has always been some cinematic version of the caped crusader though many (including myself) start the movie franchise clock in 1989 with Tim Burton’s Batman starring Michael Keaton in the titular role.
Batman (1989) shattered box office records; drew critical praise for direction, Danny Elfman’s amazing score, & Prince’s outstanding original soundtrack; and put Batman back in the pop culture zeitgeist after a long absence left from the ‘60s TV show. Burton would return for it’s peculiar but engrossing sequel, Batman Returns, but would end his run thereafter as the studio wanted the Batman films to be more mainstream & commercially viable (they lost the Happy Meal contract!).
Even though the franchise lost it’s way critically with the Joel Schumacher directed “Batman Forever” & “Batman & Robin” (B&R arguably being the worst comic book film ever made), it would be reborn in a major way with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy of films starting in 2005 with “Batman Begins.” This series of films is why the Batman franchise has moved ahead of our previous entries and why Christopher Nolan has been hailed as one the best directors in the current age of cinema. “Begins” established a long look at the development of Bruce Wayne never before seen in the cinematic version of the character, while also introducing the audience to villains such as Scarecrow and The League of Shadows only previously seen in comics & animated tv shows. His follow-up, “The Dark Knight”, in 2008 brought critical praise that had never been heaped upon a comic book film before. Heath Ledger’s brilliant performance as “The Joker” was awarded Best Supporting Actor posthumously at the Oscars as part of EIGHT nominations and two wins for the film. While “The Dark Knight Rises” is a flawed conclusion to the trilogy, it still ranks as the 30th all-time in box office success and created memorable set pieces like the football stadium destruction or Bane’s escape from a plane mid-flight in it’s opening sequence that would remain in the mind’s of film lovers everywhere.
With Ben Affleck’s small run as Batman and a future of Robert Pattinson in the role to come, we haven’t seen the last of this franchise that has created some of the best action films in cinema history.
7.) CAPTAIN AMERICA
That’s right! We return to the MCU for their best single character franchise since Iron Man started Phase 1 in 2008: Captain America. The 3 films of this franchise are all good in their own right with “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” being one of the best MCU movies made to date.
2011’s “Captain America: The First Avenger” may be too safe, easy, & predictable for the opening tale of Chris Evans’ portrayal of Steve Rodgers, but it does a great job in establishing all the characteristics of Rodgers’ symbolic hero and the creation of the Nazi-led HYDRA project and its striking leader, Red Skull. The film also caught on well with audiences as it did 2.5x it’s budget at the box office.
As previously stated, 2014’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” was a standout critically for the MCU at the time of its release and continues to be one the best films they have ever released. Following up on mythos of the thought to be defunct HYDRA project, Winter Soldier draws from amazing performances by Robert Redford & Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes aka The Winter Soldier. It’s a spy/government conspiracy thriller that harkens back to some of the best films of Redford’s career (All The President’s Men, Three Days of the Condor, Spy Game). The film even received an Oscar nomination for its technical achievement.
For good measure, Phase 3 was kicked off by the last Captain America film, “Captain America: Civil War” and it blew up everything: the box office (#12 all-time at its release; #22 currently), the relationship between members of The Avengers, & the actual SIZE of Ant-Man in one of the most amazing fight sequences in MCU & Action Film history at the airport hanger.
Though it may only have 3 films to its name, the Captain America films have some of the most iconic images that will stay with comic book fans for a very long time and don’t have an incredible critical failure (or several) like many other successful franchises.
6.) STAR WARS
Some people have religion. Some people have Star Trek I guess. But for a younger version of me, Star Wars was everything. The Original Trilogy (Episodes 4/5/6) was played ad nauseum in my house growing up. Lightsabers, toys, video games. I had them all. To this day, I still have my Return of the Jedi poster I got from Pizza Hut in the 90s framed in my basement. It’s a film that inspired many of the sci-fi action films that came after it and, as previously mentioned, changed the idea of a summer blockbuster & franchise film forever.
So … why is it #6? Let’s look at the tale of the tape.
For how much I LOVE the original Star Wars trilogy (I recently bought Funko Yoda complete with his Dagobah home if you think its worn off), the films since 1983 have not lived up to the franchise’s good name. To date, Star Wars has 3 trilogies (Episodes 4/5/6 ‘77-’83, 1/2/3 ‘99-’05, 7/8/9 2015-19) and 2 films related to those trilogies in “Solo” & “Rogue One”. 11 Films in total.
In my opinion, there has been nothing released since “Return of the Jedi” that can even hold a candle to the Original Trilogy. While this is my list, I will look to outside counsel to see if I’m off base.
In the metric of IMDB user ratings (people, not just critics), the numbers seem to speak to my previous statement. The Original Trilogy has scores of 8.6, 8.7, & 8.3 out of 10 overall. The prequels averaged 6.8 per title and the latest trilogy averaged 7.2 (The Force Awakens is the highest since Jedi at 7.9). Solo & Rogue One came in at 6.9 & 7.8 respectively. So 11 films and one could argue that it has AT LEAST 4 critical bombs (below a 7) and some would say more.
My love for the Original Trilogy makes me want to put this as the best franchise to ever be put to celluloid, but I know it just simply isn’t so. To have 11 films that span 5 decades is an achievement in itself and we are definitely going to have more Star Wars in the future, but for right now, it’s firmly in at #6.
5.) The GODFATHER TRILOGY
The most critically successful franchise ever made is another product of the sensational ‘70s: THE GODFATHER. With 2 of the 3 films listed on the prestigious AFI Top 100 list (the rest of these franchises only combine for 3), there is no question that Francis Ford Coppola’s epic saga of the Corleone crime family should be listed as some of the best work in cinematic history. To further the point, let’s add 29 Oscar Nominations between the 3 including Best Picture for all and 9 wins including Best Picture for the first 2 films. That’s QUITE impressive.
Why is this number 5? For 2 reasons: 1.) I didn’t really like Part III. It’s a lukewarm retread of the first 2 with the unfortunate casting of Sofia Coppola in a borderline obnoxious performance; and 2.) While the first 2 are unassailable all-time films, they haven’t stuck in my consciousness like other people who gravitate towards these films do. Incredible performances, amazing craftsmen doing their best work at times, but ultimately not going to defeat the ones to come head-to-head in my unreliable, often mistaken brain.
4.) HARRY POTTER
Yes. Harry Potter. Before you take this opinion in, I want you to know that I was not one of the many fans of J.K. Rowling’s book series who read every one of them cover to cover and waited in line at the bookstore overnight to get the latest edition. I read the first two books in anticipation of those films and I have not returned. It’s not that they aren’t good. I enjoyed them. It was just not my favorite pastime and that’s why we have the MOVIES. Now, here is why this globally popular series is above the likes of something like Star Wars or Batman, which I hold the best of those films in supremely high esteem: Consistency & Rewatchability.
The Harry Potter Universe has 10 films in total including the Fantastic Beasts spinoffs. In my opinion, you can watch at least 8 of them start to finish with great enjoyment, 1 with middling results (Goblet of Fire), and 1 pretty bad watch (Sorry, Crimes of Grindelwald). Furthermore, when I had cable or before I had kids, Harry Potter would be an instant marathon contender; sometimes, TNT or some other cable TV network would already have it running for my wife and I. No matter where it was in the series or within the film itself, I found myself watching for long stretches of time and most times to the very end. This is the mark of an incredibly deep & effective product. It is pure wizardry to make that many films and produce that many quality films, especially with different directors throughout and young actors at the crux of every chapter of this tale (just ask The Hunger Games ugh).
Oh yeah and they made a truckload of money with 3 films in the Top 50 all-time; not to mention that all 3 films peaked in the Top 10 all-time upon their initial releases. YOU’RE A WIZARD, HARRY!!
3.) THE BOURNE SERIES
Jesus Christ, it’s Jason Bourne! That’s right! It is.
One thing that the Bourne franchise has in common with Harry Potter is a main thing I look for in movie franchises: Rewatchability. If Harry Potter did it to me most of time, the first 3 Jason Bourne films do it to me EVERY TIME. These movies have everything you want: incredible fight sequences, high-octane car chases, government conspiracy, and some of our best actors at their absolute best. Sound like Bond? Shut up! The adults are talking! (I like Bond, but there is a lot of trash there over and the ratios aren’t good – Don’t hate me) This is NOT Bond! This is way more legit. This took the work done by Jack Ryan and made it more relatable & relentless.
While “The Bourne Legacy” & “Jason Bourne” are not the fine cuisine that the first 3 films are, the first 3 are SO good that it makes the others extremely tolerable if you had to make a marathon of the franchise. Matt Damon has been one of my favorite actors of all-time ever since the bastard made me cry in “Good Will Hunting” and Bourne cemented his stature with this series. Very few franchises have perfect films within them and some don’t come close to matching the success of the one that started it all. Bourne has both a perfect film in the first film and two films that are almost equal. **Cue the Moby Music and let’s move on**
2.) BACK TO THE FUTURE TRILOGY
Chuck! Chuck! It’s Andrew! Your cousin, Andrew Berry! You know that amazing franchise you were looking for?! Well listen to this! Or uh read … I guess …
Remember that poignant summation I had about how very few franchises have perfect films within them? Well, in this writer’s opinion, Back to the Future is as close to a perfect film one could get. Don’t trust my opinion? How about the creator of the hit TV shows “Community” & “Rick and Morty”, Mr. Dan Harmon? Or the creator of “The Goldbergs” on ABC or the countless others who will bow at the altar of Marty McFly & Doc Brown?
For it’s upcoming 35th Anniversary, I had the honor of going on the Pint O’ Comics Podcast where we engaged in the deepest of dives about all three films. In preparation for this recording, I watched all 3 films again and the documentary “Back In Time”, which not only discussed the behind the scenes creation of the film, but also the cult status in pop culture that it still has all these years later. I thought for sure that I would be sick of this series after doing so much research and replays, but absolutely not. The only things that have changed for me over the years with this franchise are: 1.) How wildly underrated it is that they STOPPED after Part 3 and vow to never make a 4th or reboot as long as Director Robert Zemeckis is still alive, 2.) How much better Part 3 is than Part 2, 3.) How much more attune I am to the story of George McFly vs Marty as I age, & 4.) How risky a movie like this was to make given that studios like Disney considered it “the incest movie”. You can also throw in the obvious comparisons to Biff in Part 2 to Donald Trump as an unintentional modern happenstance, but I’ll save that for another time.
Part 1 is a masterpiece and the best time travel movie of all-time, Part 2 endures as a wild comparison piece to how our own futures lined up with the movie’s version, & Part 3 is a perfect finale for Doc & Marty’s relationship and truly shows how touching this weird friendship had become over time (and time jumps). These films are the reason for big screens and butter popcorn … so why isn’t it number #1?! Because Harrison Ford is a goddamn legend.
1.) INDIANA JONES
So what have we learned so far about what I believe makes a great movie franchise?
Have at least one all-time perfect classic.
Rewatchable as hell.
Consistency in character, tone, & quality.
Box office records, critical praise, or both.
Don’t overstay your welcome and fill your resumes with garbage.
Many of the franchises I have listed before our top spot have had at least a couple of these attributes, but rarely does a franchise have ALL of them and more!
Yes, I realize that “Crystal Skull” is not very good and they keep saying that Indiana Jones 5 IS going to happen (let’s hope not), but even with that said, Indiana Jones encompasses everything that makes a movie franchise great.
It has MORE than 1 all-time perfect classic (Raiders and Last Crusade are perfect front to back; Gotta love fighting Nazis).
All of the films in the original trilogy are wildly rewatchable popcorn adventure films. “Temple of Doom” is clearly in 3rd place here, but it is on TV ALL THE TIME and people will make the “Um Num Shiva” noise while trying to rip out your heart more than they quote almost any other film in the franchise.
Indiana Jones, as a character study, is as consistent as gravity. He maintains the same bold, brash, intelligent, charming, yet flawed & human characteristics throughout all the films. Even when portrayed as a young boy by River Phoenix in “Last Crusade”, the writers & director Steven Spielberg knew exactly what mannerisms, dialogue, & distinct qualities to use to make it seem seamless when transitioning from the opening scene with Phoenix to adult Indiana (no not the dog).
How about Box Office results? The Indiana Jones films were ranked #4, 6, & 11 in the Highest Grossing Films of the 1980s.
How about critical praise? 7 Oscar wins, 14 Nominations, & Raiders ranked #60 on the AFI Top 100.
Of course, my “don’t overstay your welcome” is in grave danger with a possible Indy 5 in 2022, but as of now, having 3 above average films w/ 2 all-timers plus an average film several years later is a really good ratio and helps make them look better compared to the Star Wars, Batman, or previously unmentioned Die Hard (too many sad, old man John MacLane films) or Lord of the Rings (get your boring, drawn-out, unmemorable Hobbit films out of my face) franchises of the world.
Bottom line, Indiana Jones is one of the best movie characters of all-time. Spielberg, Lucas, Kasdan, John Williams. All amazing craftsmen in the prime of their careers. THAT THEME. Everything screams best franchise of all-time. Tune in next week when I beg the GOTS crew for a rewrite! No time for love, Dr. Jones!