Nearly 15 years after the (still) controversial conclusion of HBO’s signature series, “The Sopranos,” the beloved mob family has returned to the screen: the big screen, that is, care of Alan Taylor’s prequel “The Many Saints of Newark.” As sagely described by IndieWire’s chief film critic, David Ehrlich, the prequel feature is part fan service extravaganza, part “gripping mob drama” all on its own, but even those tantalizing pieces — plus a strong cast, including young Michael Gandolfini taking on the role of Tony Soprano made iconic by his late father, James Gandolfini — wasn’t enough to give this much-hyped feature installment big bucks at the box office.
For insight, we turn to the dueling mob families at the heart of entertainment — film and television, both alike in dignity — to examine what went wrong, what went right, and what might be next for a series trying to span multiple mediums in an increasingly complicated media landscape. IndieWire executive editor, film Kate Erbland and deputy editor, TV Ben Travers joined forces for this Double Take on the biggest questions inspired by a bruising box office reception to what should have the crossover hit of the year.
KATE ERBLAND: I’ll be honest: I expected to wake up this morning to a glowing email from the good people at Warner Bros. and HBO Max touting the blockbuster performance of “The Many Saints of Newark” on its streaming platform. Even now, I am still waiting for that particular missive to hit my inbox, but even if it never does (hell, even if it does), we at least already have one piece of the puzzle in place: Alan Taylor’s film did not light up the box office, pulling in just $5 million over the weekend.
We can argue the finer points for days — that we’re still in the midst of a pandemic, that this weekend was dominated by “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” (in the U.S.) and “No Time to Die” (in many European markets), that the streaming availability of the feature cut into the box office take (although that’s still a topic up for debate) — but the most obvious read, that this was not box office catnip, still stands. For whatever reason — for many reasons — fans did not flock to the multiplex to see the early adventures of young Tony Soprano and his ill-fated uncle Dickie, even with the added bonus of many incredible stars (Vera Farmiga! Corey Stoll! Jon Bernthal! Billy Magnussen??) playing younger versions of the mafia elite, and either stayed home to watch or didn’t watch at all.
Maybe people are used to watching these misadventures on the small screen (something that creator David Chase, of all people, seems to be against), or perhaps people just don’t have the compulsion to watch a movie prequel to a television series that ended long ago. But maybe we can drill down on something much more basic. So, let’s shoot straight: should this have been a film? Should it have been a miniseries? Should it (can it??) still kick off a new run of “Sopranos” stories, in whatever shape they might take?
BEN TRAVERS: Oof, OK, so I feel like you and I have a different concept of what constitutes a basic question, but I’ll do my best to answer with concision — in no small part because concision is a rare blessing in modern storytelling. Traditional TV series never end, limited series with endings built-in somehow get sequels, documentaries are extended into multi-part episodes: In a market driven by mass content, bloat doesn’t just go unchecked. It’s encouraged.
So should David Chase have made his first formal revisitation of the Soprano family as a film? Absolutely. Could it have been a longer film, in order to, I don’t know, provide female characters more autonomy and let Dickie Moltisanti’s Oedipal gangster saga breathe a little bit? Yes, I think that would’ve played just fine. But I have to admire any creator who in the year of Our Lord 2021 is emphatically against extending their story simply because they can. Chase wanted to make a film — he wanted to make one when he started working on “The Sopranos” and he finally got to with “Many Saints.” What’s here is the kind of moody, ethereal fight for the soul that befits a family defined by Catholicism and crime, as well as a fittingly not-reverential depiction of “the good old days” so often referenced in “The Sopranos.”
As far as the box office goes, I think WarnerMedia got exactly what it wanted, which is for the majority of viewers to watch on HBO Max. This was always going to be a tough sell at the theaters, so it’s playing the long game and banking on boosting subscribers/slowing the churn. (Send out that press release already, HBO Max!) As far as the future goes, Kate, I want to hear your thoughts: David Chase just signed an overall deal with WarnerMedia last week. We have no idea what, if any, projects are tied to that deal, but after seeing “The Many Saints of Newark,” do you want another movie? Do you want a prequel series or limited series devoted to Michael Gandolfini’s young Tony? Or do you want this family saga to finally be over?
KATE: In the spirit of getting to the point: I loved “The Sopranos,” I liked “The Many Saints of Newark,” and you’re right on the money here, a movie is fine, but we needed more of a movie this time around. (What a world! What a thing to say, when so many movies these days tend to chug through conclusion after conclusion, while also happily setting up for still more content to come; I blame post-credits scenes.) The issue for me is not the container in which it fits, but what goes into that container.
As for “Many Saints,” good container, pretty good contents! Chase may be outwardly reticent to turn his newest bits (read: oldest bits?) of “Sopranos” lore into a thoroughly small-screen venture, but “The Sopranos” is a venture that many still associate with the television world, and if that extended to how they watched it — streaming, at home, no movie theater popcorn to be found — I personally have no problem with that. See what you want, how you want to. And I still think people want to see the “Sopranos” universe writ large, and I count myself as one of those said “people.” I delighted in seeing “Many Saints” in a theater with a bunch of obviously devoted fans (I attended the film’s NYC premiere as part of Tribeca’s push into fall programming, and it seemed pretty clear that the starry event was accessible for plenty of people who aren’t in the industry and just like “The Sopranos” a whole lot; this was incredibly refreshing) who went totally nuts for every inch of this thing.
Which includes the ending, which quite gleefully sets up for more adventures with young Tony (a role the younger Gandolfini has made clear he’d happily reprise) as filtered through the “Sopranos” lens (that moment when the show’s iconic theme song kicks up? people went wild). Personally, I’d take another film in this vein, but I also think that Taylor’s feature has set up wider worlds to explore, pre-“Sopranos.” Young Tony is the heart of it, of course, but there should absolutely be some sort of series about Leslie Odom Jr.’s character’s rise to mob prominence, and as you mentioned, what about the women of this world? They’re certainly here, now lets give them something more to do. Whatever Chase is signed up for — come on, it has to be “Sopranos” stuff, right? — I’d like to see it, and no matter what the box office says, I think the fans do, too.
So, Ben, do you want to see another movie? Another series? Was there someone — or something — introduced in “Many Saints” that made you think there’s still more to be mined from this property?
BEN: You caught me: I originally punted these questions to you because I don’t really like answering them. And I don’t really like answering them because I don’t really like telling creators what to do with their creations. Should there be a second season of “Watchmen”? I dunno, ask Damon Lindelof (except don’t, he already gets that asked too often). Is “Gladiator 2” really a good idea? Beats me, but I guess I’ll trust Ridley Scott. Should there be a “23 Jump Street”? Yes, fine, I’m totally comfortable telling Phil Lord and Christopher Miller they need to complete their trilogy.
But continuing to expand “The Sopranos” feels like a far more delicate operation. For one, I’m not eager for any kind of sequel to the series. That’s not to say a great film or show couldn’t take place after the events of HBO’s ending, but exploring that timeline would likely provide a definitive answer to the purposefully ambiguous “cut-to-black” conclusion. (Honestly, the ending of “Many Saints” — with a young Tony Soprano sitting in the same ice cream shop from the finale, waiting on a man who didn’t see his own death coming — sits a little too close to swaying opinion of what ultimately happened to an adult Anthony.) On the other end, part of what I liked about the prequel is how its themes spoke to “The Sopranos” far more than its plot. Yes, we learned a bit more about the environment and relationships that motivated a teenage, college-bound football player to instead make his name in the mafia, but “Many Saints” said more about Adult Tony by excoriating its new lead, Dickie (another violent, short-tempered philanderer who likes to think of himself as a good guy) in order to emphasize how unrewarding and ugly his lifestyle really was; it was like Chase wanted to make sure any original fans of “The Sopranos” who admired Tony and his gangster life had to recognize the hard truth now. (To be clear, the series doesn’t make this argument, but plenty of people only saw what they wanted to see.)
So for me, it comes down to what Chase has left to say through this world and these characters. Is there room for more of Harold McBrayer’s story? You bet! Would it be fascinating to watch Michael Gandolfini spend more time exploring and (re)defining the character his father created? Of course, and he’s clearly up for the job. But whatever Chase does next, everyone should be watching. He’s earned as much, especially with the thoughtful script and clear dedication to craft in “Many Saints.” (Don’t get me started on the lensing by Taylor and DP Kramer Morgenthau. The movie didn’t light up the box office, but it looked spectacular — like a heavenly spin on “No Sudden Move,” which is another HBO Max gem I appreciated from home.)
At this point, my questions around “Many Saints” and the future of “The Sopranos” are really questions about WarnerMedia and the future of TV. If the HBO Max viewership numbers are high enough to label this film a success, what does that mean for what’s next? We’ve already got a “Game of Thrones” prequel as well as a “Sex and the City” sequel on the way, not to mention a “True Blood” reboot in development — what about other prominent HBO programming? Should we expect more from “The Wire” and “Six Feet Under”? Were those original fan bases too small to court continuations? And if it’s fair to assume any hit will eventually be revived or rebooted eventually, is it in the creator’s best interests to expand and define their world while they’re still in control of them? Should David Chase at least lay the groundwork for whatever extensions may happen in 10, 20, or 30 years down the line? Kate, please calm me down. I’ve gone and scared myself.
KATE: Thirty years down the line? THIRTY?
Yes, I did push you because a) I knew you were reticent to answer and b) maybe I already knew the answer already. No, let’s not tell anyone, especially creators of some of the best entertainment of the past three decades, what to do with their talents. But we can gently suggest! And I’d gently suggest one more young Gandolfini-starring film and then perhaps a more wide-ranging series (limited, if we have to!) about the wild world of Newark and its dueling crime contingents during a period of massive change. If nothing, let’s give Odom more work — who doesn’t like that idea?
And, as you note, HBO has leaned in pretty hard when it comes to bringing back some of its most beloved series in a whole mess of shapes, some to great acclaim, some to nothing but worry. Chase signing on for a deal with WarnerMedia is a good thing, because at least we know that whatever he creates, it’s really his, but if that means laying the groundwork for content to come long after he’s retired, well, that’s harder to swallow. Chase is “The Sopranos,” and I want him to take it wherever he wants, for as long as he wants. Movie, series, limited series, whatever, but if we’re already looking toward a three-decade-on exploration of, I dunno, the dudes who started the pork store or the glory days of the Bada Bing!, I think I am less enthused. Sometimes more is just more.
A Warner Bros. release, “The Many Saints of Newark” is now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.
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