When the contents of the Sony hack were revealed in late 2014, the cache of documents revealed a number of previously unknown pieces of information about the company’s studio arm and its creative heads, including a number of bandied-about film ideas that had yet to be reported. Among them: the possibility that the studio would launch a comedy crossover that would marry its “Men in Black” franchise — then three films deep, all of which made big bucks at the box office — with its also-popular “21 Jump Street” movie series.
In leaked emails, “21 Jump Street” star Jonah Hill reportedly called the idea “clean and rad and powerful.” While it mostly sounded like Movie Franchise Mad Libs at the time, as the fourth film in the “MiB” franchise opened this weekend and promptly bombed, perhaps Sony should have pursued that idea instead.
In a summer rife with sequels, reboots, and “re-quels,” the failure of films that spring from profitable series stings all the more, and highlights the hard truth that not every movie franchise can be saved — not every reboot idea is a good one, and not every series that was a winner a decade ago still has something to say.
It’s hard to fault Sony brass for what would become “Men in Black: International,” armed with the kind of “good on paper” premise that the “Men in Black on Jump Street” (or whatever they might have called it) crossover initially lacked. Designed as a universe-expander, the F. Gary Gray film moves the action of the New York City-set original trilogy to London, boasts a pair of winning leads who have already proven how good they are together on screen (“Thor: Ragnarok” stars Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson), and organically adds in a timely diversity element.
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It should have been a slam dunk, but as with the weekend’s other big sequel bust, the latest “Shaft” revival, it sunk. As IndieWire’s box office editor Tom Brueggemann noted in his weekend wrap, the films together grossed under $37 million; by contrast, when “War for the Planet of the Apes” opened to $56 million two years ago, that franchise was seen as in jeopardy. (The series is not officially over, but it has yet to spawn another sequel.)
That “Men in Black: International” and “Shaft” arrived just a week after the bomb that was “Dark Phoenix” — yet another sequel in a long-running and multi-million-dollar series that will now forever be defined by how hugely it failed at the box office — only further solidifies that sequels aren’t the guaranteed money-makers they used to be. So why keep pushing them?
The answer is obvious enough: because the ones that do work out, really, really work out. Marvel dominates the box office with its Cinematic Universe which, despite ending one of its so-called phases this summer, is already gearing up to make movies into the next decade. Of the top ten movies of 2019 so far, six are sequels or are part of a bigger series, while one (“Pokemon: Detective Pikachu”) is clearly designed to kickstart its own series, and two (“Dumbo” and “Aladdin”) are part of a historical Disney lineage, and only one (“Us”) is an original concept.
Sequels can make money, and audiences often do love franchises. But that doesn’t mean that every series is deserving of continuing on indefinitely. Films like “Men in Black” have outstayed their welcome, and even armed with some contemporary trappings, can’t break through as their predecessors did. Those trappings aren’t enough. Maybe a “Men in Black” and “21 Jump Street” crossover would have flamed out too, but at least it offered something bold (or, in Hill’s parlance, “rad”) in a landscape that seems content to add decorative touches to old properties and call it something new.
Some franchises still have some life in them, even the ones that aren’t panning out at the box office. Despite underperforming, “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” deserves a shot at reestablishing itself for domestic audiences, thanks to a rich franchise history and plenty more modern corollaries to mine.
This summer will, of course, soldier onward to see the eventual release of a number of other sequels and franchise-continuers. There’s even some that sounded unnecessary at the time they were first announced (“Toy Story 4”) and that pick up almost immediately where other summer releases ended (“Spider-Man: Far From Home”), more films hoping to beat the growing sequel slump.
Some of them surely will — “Toy Story 4” is already enjoying solid reviews, though most of them noticeably go out of their way to mention that this tacked-on series-ender really does work on its own — but certainly not all. Maybe it’s time to dip back into the Sony archives. Surely there’s another good idea buried somewhere in there, because the box office needs them more than ever.