Sadly, we didn’t get a summer movie season this year. But all is not lost. Each Friday, we’re presenting “The Ultimate Summer Movie Guide,” honoring the greatest, goofiest and most memorable aspects of blockbuster seasons gone by. Maybe it will be a celebration of an iconic film or actor. Perhaps it will be a ranking of every single Oscar-nominated performance. Or, like today, it will be a look back at sequels that effectively killed off their franchises.
Obviously, this has been a weird movie summer, but as it winds down, I was struck by a strange revelation: I haven’t seen a sequel in forever. So much of blockbuster season is built around the latest installments of popular franchises, but because studios put their potential hits on ice while waiting out the pandemic, we were deprived of the likes of Top Gun: Maverick, F9 and Wonder Woman 1984. One of the unexpected side effects of the lockdown is that, for months now, I haven’t had to prepare for a sequel by racking my brain trying to remember which characters from previous installments were dead, who’s married to who or what happened to that one villain. It’s been oddly liberating.
In our I.P.-crazy age, Hollywood is always producing sequels, prequels and reboots. Studios want to keep us hooked on their biggest franchises, knowing full well we’ll always show up for another adventure from Spider-Man or the Toy Story crew. But eventually, the audience may decide, “You know what, we’re good. We don’t want any more movies about this particular story.” The trick is that producers won’t realize that until after that one deal-breaker sequel comes out and nobody shows up.
And so, today, I’d like to pay tribute to those summer movies that stalled, stifled or straight-up killed the momentum of once-huge franchises. Maybe these films still made money, but they didn’t make nearly as much as previous installments. Maybe follow-up films were still made, but it was clear the franchise was now officially a shell of its former self. In each case, these were the films that, once they hit the marketplace, it was clear that a major rethink was in order: The initial enthusiasm for the property was now long gone.
These are the One Too Many Sequels…
RoboCop 2 (1990)
What Happened? After Paul Verhoeven’s masterful, satirical original, it was natural that a sequel would be made. And hiring Irvin Kershner made a certain amount of sense: After all, he had a track record for producing sequels that were even better than Part One. (He directed The Empire Strikes Back.) Unfortunately, RoboCop 2 was just a standard shoot-’em-up without the inspiration, wit or deeper societal commentary of the original. Plus, it sounds like Kershner, who was 67 when the film opened in the summer of 1990, was a total nightmare.
“Working with Kershner was the worst experience of my life,” co-star Nancy Allen said in 2014. “He took what was a good script and massacred it. He treated me disgracefully, and I think he ruined the movie and was borderline abusive to me. So every day was about overcoming that and putting a smile on my face and being a good little soldier. He didn’t like me and wanted to recast me, but the studio wouldn’t let him, so I guess he wasn’t happy about that and made it known on a daily basis.”
From a commercial standpoint, the news wasn’t any better. RoboCop 2 failed to win its opening weekend, losing out to the second week of Dick Tracy. (Meanwhile, Verhoeven’s Total Recall was at No. 3 in its third week.) Even Peter Weller, the man who played RoboCop, knew the second film wasn’t so good. “I was breaking up with a girlfriend at the time,” he said in 2013 of making RoboCop 2, “so I can’t say I really had a great time. … [T]he script did not have the code, the spine or the soul of the first one.”
Where Did It Leave the Franchise? RoboCop 3 came out three years later and performed even more poorly. Since then, there’s been a few TV shows and a dreadful 2014 reboot. There was talk of District 9 director Neill Blomkamp trying his hand at a direct sequel to the 1987 film, but last year he walked off the project.
In 2016, Verhoeven was asked why remakes of RoboCop and Total Recall have failed recently. “They take these somewhat absurd stories and make them much too serious,” he said. “I think that is a mistake.” Audiences agreed.
Jurassic Park III (2001)
What Happened? Steven Spielberg has walked away from cash cows before. After making Jaws, he stepped aside as one bad sequel after another was made. Likewise, the Oscar-winning filmmaker directed the first two Jurassic Park films and then handed the reins to Rocketeer director Joe Johnston for the 2001 installment.
As Johnston recalled, “[Spielberg] called me up and said, ‘You know, these movies are hard. I have too many kids now. So if you want to do a Jurassic Park movie, how about No. 3?’”
Jurassic Park III brought back Sam Neill from the first installment — and, of course, plenty of dinosaurs — but the new movie just wasn’t the same because it didn’t have its spiritual architect. Funny enough, Jurassic Park III does have a script written by, among others, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, the Oscar-winning screenwriters of Election and Sideways.
“When you get jobs like that, it’s like boot camp,” Payne once explained. “We’ve probably done about four or five of these so-called production rewrites over the years. Each time, we take the job because we think we can actually offer something. But they’re also just such good boot camp training. It just helps you flex your muscles.”
Jurassic Park III was one of the year’s bigger hits, but it couldn’t duplicate the thrill of the first two films. What once was groundbreaking was now just another monster movie.
Where Did It Leave the Franchise? Jurassic Park stayed dark for 14 years until Universal launched 2015’s Jurassic World, which was a massive hit. (The third chapter, Jurassic World: Dominion, is due next summer.) This is one of the few franchises that withered away and then came back even bigger than before, which just validates my belief that people only see these films because of the dinosaurs.
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
What Happened? How could you ever make a Terminator movie without Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Cameron and Linda Hamilton? Well, Hollywood gave it a go with Terminator 3, which was Arnold’s last major role before becoming governor of California. But Rise of the Machines didn’t feature Cameron or Hamilton, and instead rising action director Jonathan Mostow (Breakdown, U-571) took over, telling the story of a female Terminator (Kristanna Loken) who goes back in time to kill John (Nick Stahl) and the woman who will eventually become his wife, Kate (Claire Danes). And once again, Schwarzenegger has to travel back to save humanity.
“I was initially pretty skeptical about why we actually needed a Terminator 3,” Mostow admitted in 2017, “because Terminator 2 was so good! From a business sense, the audience was obviously there.” Rise of the Machines is far from terrible, and some of the director’s attempts to make a film that’s a bit more lighthearted than its predecessors have their charms. (As he put it in the same interview, “I wanted the audience to accept us, and not think of us as a shameless effort to try and take their money. So, I made a conscious decision to use comedy as a method of disarming the audience. I thought that if I could make them laugh, they would unfold their arms a little bit.”)
But without Cameron’s knack for mind-blowing sci-fi concepts, Terminator 3 felt anticlimactic, an afterthought that no one really needed. Soon, Schwarzenegger was running California and it seemed like this would be the last we’d see of the T-1000.
Where Did It Leave the Franchise? Sadly, we’ve never been too far removed from more mediocre Terminator films. In fact, there are now more bad movies in the series than there are good ones, up to and including last year’s Terminator: Dark Fate. There was a TV series as well, but audiences haven’t been interested in much of anything after Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which was nearly 30 years ago.
Cameron, while developing the story idea for Dark Fate, went back and looked at the post-T2 movies to see where they’d gone wrong. “One of the things that seemed obvious from looking at the films that came along later was that we would need to get everything back to the basics,” he said, “and that we would need to avoid the mistakes of making things overly complex and that we needed to avoid stories that [jump] around in time and one that goes backward and forward in time.”
Or, maybe, it’s just time to accept that people don’t care about this property as much as the producers think they do.
Ted 2 (2015)
What Happened? Ted was one of the biggest commercial surprises of 2012. Family Guy mastermind Seth MacFarlane took to the big screen to do a live-action comedy about an adult man (Mark Wahlberg) and his best friend Ted (MacFarlane), his sentient childhood teddy bear. The record-breaking comedy ended up as one of the year’s highest-grossing films and, outside of Brave, was also 2012’s most successful non-franchise movie. Ted made MacFarlane an industry darling — he even hosted the Oscars the following year — so, naturally, it spawned a sequel … which ended up not doing nearly as well.
Where the first film made $549 million worldwide, Ted 2 brought in only $217 million. Both movies are pretty much the same — foul-mouthed, horny bear paired with lots of bizarre, Family Guy-style pop-culture references — but Ted 2 suggested that you only needed one helping of this novel concept… especially when the humor was this incessantly “edgy”:
Where Did It Leave the Franchise? Comedy sequels are hard. Once you’ve laughed at something, will the surprise of the joke be as potent the second time ‘round? That law of diminishing humor returns definitely seemed to impact Ted 2. As of now, there aren’t any plans for a sequel as MacFarlane focuses on Family Guy and other projects. “It’s all based on appetite,” he said in 2015 about making a third Ted film. “If Ted 2 does as well as the first one, it means people want to see more of these characters.”
Apparently, people didn’t.
X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
What Happened? The first X-Men came out in 2000, had two hit sequels and then focused on Wolverine standalone films. After that, Fox rebooted the franchise by doing prequels, starting with 2011’s X-Men: First Class. That was followed up with X-Men: Days of Future Past, the series’ biggest hit and (for my money) also the best installment. So things were looking good for the 2016 sequel, which would bring on red-hot actor Oscar Isaac to play the terrifying villain Apocalypse. That sounds pretty great.
Well, it wasn’t for Oscar Isaac, who is here to tell you how much he hated the experience:
But that was just the start of Apocalypse’s problems. Director Bryan Singer, who was accused of sexual misconduct spanning two decades in a 2019 Atlantic piece, was notoriously absent from the set, which forced others to step in as director. (And, according to actors who worked with Singer, when he was there, he was deeply unpleasant to be around.) Reviews were awful for Apocalypse, and the film ended up grossing less than the Deadpool movies or Logan, to say nothing of Days of Future Past. Suddenly, the X-Men seemed pretty mortal and ordinary.
Where Did It Leave the Franchise? There was one final Fox mutant movie, last year’s disastrous Dark Phoenix, and allegedly the spinoff New Mutants will arrive at the end of this month. But this era of the X-Men is dead and buried, waiting for Disney to resurrect the characters and presumably try to fold them into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Star Trek Beyond (2016)
What Happened? For a show that was only on TV for three years, Star Trek has had a remarkable afterlife. There have been several spinoff shows, but there’s also been three different iterations of the property on the big screen: the original Kirk-led films, the subsequent Picard movies and, since 2009’s Star Trek, a reboot of the franchise with Chris Pine as Kirk on a new timeline.
J.J. Abrams’ first reboot was a commercial and critical hit, and 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness — apparently, the budget didn’t have room for buying a colon for that title — made even more money. When Abrams departed before Star Trek Beyond, there was reason to be optimistic: Justin Lin had been successful as a director on the Fast and Furious films, and the script was co-written by Simon Pegg, who played Scotty in the new movies.
But although critics generally liked Beyond, the film made less money than the previous two chapters, suggesting that there just wasn’t much interest in this newfangled old-school Star Trek. But Pegg also thought Paramount failed to capitalize on the franchise’s 50th anniversary. “I wasn’t happy with the way the film was marketed,” he said in 2018. “It was a big year for Star Trek, and I felt it was never embraced. I feel sometimes people get scared of the Star Trek fan base as being a kind of closed shop. If we were to mention Star Trek in some way, it would turn all the other people who hadn’t seen Star Trek off. It felt an odd thing to do.”
For a movie that had Pegg, Pine, Zoe Saldana, John Cho and the late Anton Yelchin — all popular actors — it was baffling that Beyond was such a thorough commercial disappointment. Rebooting the material ended up doing little to revitalize it.
Where Did It Leave the Franchise? Uncertain. Legion creator Noah Hawley was set to do a new sequel, but now that’s not happening. For years, Quentin Tarantino has talked about doing a Star Trek movie, but who knows whether that will ever see the light of day. “The fact is, Star Trek movies don’t make Marvel money,” Pegg said in February. “They make maybe $500 million at the most, and to make one now, on the scale they’ve set themselves, is $200 million. You have to make three times that to make a profit.”
If it makes Trekkers feel better, this isn’t the first time the franchise has seemed dead in space: In June 1989, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier was a dud that signaled that the William Shatner crew was on their last legs. The next rebirth for the U.S.S. Enterprise could be just around the corner.
Alien: Covenant (2017)
What Happened? When people discuss the Alien films, they’re really only talking about the first two: Ridley Scott’s Alien and James Cameron’s Aliens. There were two more sequels made, and then also Alien vs. Predator, but Scott sought to restore the franchise to its original, non-cheesy glory with the 2012 prequel Prometheus, which would introduce the terrifying alien presence that will later wreak havoc on Ripley. That film did fairly well, and so a follow-up was planned, with the hope that 20th Century Fox had successfully relaunched a beloved sci-fi series.
Unfortunately, Alien: Covenant brought in about half as much as Prometheus — roughly $241 million worldwide — and suggested that while audiences were interested in giving this reboot one try, they weren’t committed to it for the long term. Apparently, people just weren’t that into watching Michael Fassbender kiss Michael Fassbender.
Where Did It Leave the Franchise? The head of Fox at the time, Stacey Snider, was asked about the future of the Alien franchise after Alien: Covenant failed to catch on with audiences. “It was a disappointment, but I trust Ridley … to know the right story when they find it,” she said. “When universes are as rich as Alien they can stay in a too-familiar groove — in which case you’re in trouble — but they can also find a planet or a storyline or a villain that also lives in that universe that can be groundbreaking.”
In other words: Back to the drawing board, folks. And even Scott seems to understand that: This summer, the director said, “I still think there’s a lot of mileage in Alien, but I think you’ll have to now re-evolve. What I always thought when I was making it, the first one, why would a creature like this be made and why was it traveling in what I always thought was a kind of warcraft, which was carrying a cargo of these eggs. What was the purpose of the vehicle and what was the purpose of the eggs? That’s the thing to question — who, why and for what purpose is the next idea, I think.”
The question is, does anyone care enough to see it?
Cars 3 (2017)
What Happened? Of the first wave of Pixar films, Cars was far from the most innovative or memorable, but every single boy I knew who grew up at that time absolutely loved it — and forced his parents to go into bankruptcy buying every piece of merchandise from the movie. Cars 2 shifted gears radically, having Mater be the main character and turning the story into a James Bond-like spy adventure. But for Cars 3, Lightning McQueen returned to the spotlight as a now-aging racecar trying to keep up with the high-tech new kids.
It proved to be a prophetic storyline considering that audiences found the whole thing passé. Of all the Pixar films released this century before the pandemic, only The Good Dinosaur made less money than Cars 3, a clear indication that a new generation of kids weren’t into these talking cars. The film’s disappointing commercial performance also meant that it was the first Pixar franchise to completely stall out.
Where Did It Leave the Franchise? Spinning its wheels, hopefully. Even though the first Cars reportedly sold $10 billion in merchandise, it’s hard to imagine this uninspired property getting a fourth chapter, especially since Pixar is planning to move away from sequels for the immediate future. That’s fine by me: I’d rather take a chance on something new from the studio than ever having to watch Mater again.
Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)
What Happened? For nearly a decade, Michael Bay’s Transformers films were a commercial jackpot. But after 2011’s Dark of the Moon and 2014’s Age of Extinction, both of which grossed over a billion dollars worldwide, the franchise came crashing to earth with The Last Knight, which revealed that… the Transformers were around in the days of King Arthur? The loudest, dumbest installment of the series, The Last Knight made far less money than any of its predecessors. And Bay sounded like he was ready to move on.
“These movies that I’ve done, they are massive movies. They take a lot out of you,” he said around The Last Knight’s release. “I’ve done it enough, and I’ve had a great time doing it. I’m going out with a bang on this one, and I feel like you gotta go out while you’re ahead, you know. I think I’ve had a good run, and I’ve got a lot of other movies I want to do.”
At least Anthony Hopkins looked like he had fun playing an earl who is part of a secret human organization that has helped protect the identity of the Transformers for generations. I mean, he didn’t get to flip anyone off in The Remains of the Day.
Where Did It Leave the Franchise? After The Last Knight made “only” $605 million worldwide, Paramount had to rethink the franchise, resulting in the very charming spinoff/prequel Bumblebee, which came out at Christmastime in 2018 and, happily, wasn’t directed by Bay. Travis Knight, who directed Bumblebee, said that Bay, a producer on the film, gave him some valuable advice.
“He said the one thing you have to do is protect the movie,” Knight recalled. “That was advice Jerry Bruckheimer gave him, and he passed it on to me — remember the movie you intended to make and protect it.” With Bumblebee, it seemed like the trick was protecting the film (and the franchise) from Michael Bay.