–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

The “Franchise” Curse

by | Jul 11, 2024

I’m not sure when entertainment franchises became a thing. There always have been series, of course – I grew up watching The Honeymooners, MASH, and the original Star Trek, to mention a few – but when did the term that previously had been reserved for fast-food chains and auto lube joints start being used for movies and TV shows? I have no idea.

Some recent entries in the Who, Trek, and Marvel “franchises”

In the fast-food context, ‘Franchise’ connotes “cheap and reliable.” You might get a better hamburger at an independent restaurant or diner, but the McDonalds burger costs less, is delivered more quickly, and you know exactly what you are going to get. The Quarter Pounder with Cheese that you eat in Indianapolis will be the same as the one you get in Tucson. (It also will be the same as the one you ate in 1984.) A new menu item might appear and then disappear only to return later (the “McRib,” for example), different countries might have culture-specific items, and serving sizes might change (“super-sizing” and all that), but the core menus of most fast-food franchises have remained largely consistent across time and space.

But this sense of ‘franchise’ can’t be what we mean in the context of popular entertainment. Far from being consistent or reliable, series like Star Trek, Doctor Who, and Star Wars have changed beyond all recognition: Jodie Whittaker’s and Ncuti Gatwa’s Doctor Who are nothing like William Hartnell’s or Jon Pertwee’s; goofy and perpetually embarrassed Spock from Strange New Worlds bears little resemblance to the stoic Vulcan science officer of the original series; and whatever The Acolyte is supposed to be doing, it’s not what Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Return of the Jedi were doing back in the late 1970’s and early 80s.

There is another element to the common use of ‘franchise’, however, and that is a recognizable brand that will persist over time and serve as the basis for marketing and merchandising. The consistency and predictability of Big Macs and Quarter Pounders with Cheese aside, Ronald McDonald,™ the Golden Arches,™ the Hamburgler,™ and all the rest make you want to go to McDonalds regardless of what the food is like, and appear on toys, glassware, and clothing that the company also sells. It’s this sense of ‘franchise’ that is most apt when applied to contemporary entertainment, as Star Wars,™ Star Trek,™ Doctor Who,™ and Marvel’s Avengers™ are all well-recognized, highly valued brands whose characters and iconography appear on merchandise well beyond comic books, television, and movies.

McDonald’s toys from the 1970’s and Marvel Pajamas, today

The idea of a timeless brand makes sense when attached to a largely unchanging product. Tastes in quick and cheap cheeseburgers have remained constant so the McDonald’s brand attracts new people to its restaurants while continuing to appeal to those who have been eating Big Macs and Quarter Pounders with Cheese for thirty or forty years. But what happens when you apply a brand to something that changes dramatically over the decades, even in ways that seem contradictory to those who have been fans from the beginning? Inevitably, older enthusiasts will become alienated and express their dissatisfaction, younger fans will resent their elders’ complaints, which they will view as an attack on them personally (as children and adolescents are wont to do), and before long you’ll have an all-out, generational culture-war over these damned “franchises,” which is exactly what we are witnessing now.

Unlike cheeseburgers, juvenile and young adult tastes in heroes, villains, dramas, action, and the like have changed dramatically over the decades. My generation preferred villains to be cold, driven, ruthless and in-command, so you’d get characters like Darth Vader (Star Wars), Khan Noonien Singh (Star Trek), and Doctor Doom (Marvel). Today’s children and young adults want their villains to be tormented, manic, and dysfunctional so you wind up with the likes of Kylo Ren (Star Wars), Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor (Batman v. Superman), and the “Maestro” (Doctor Who). Kids growing up in the 1970’s and 80s looked to their favorite superheroes and science fiction to satisfy youthful power fantasies – hence, stories about the Farm Boy from Nowhere Who Saves the Galaxy (Star Wars) and Earth’s Mightiest Heroes Battle the Greatest Threat to the Universe (Marvel) – but young people today want heavy doses of explicit social justice messaging in their popular entertainment, so you wind up with characters giving and receiving lectures on pronouns and racism. As children, my generation thought being one of Doctor Who’s companions was the coolest, most fun thing imaginable, but today’s young people prefer to see them as traumatized survivors, so we get a support group for former companions scene, delivered with cringe-inducing earnestness. The adults who made the original Star Trek may have woven the social and political issues of their day into story plotlines and characterizations that would operate just at the edge of a youngster’s consciousness and might be missed entirely – think of episodes like “A Taste of Armageddon” and “Day of the Dove” – but in contemporary versions of Trek (and Who and Marvel, etc.), the social justice elements are often the central point, not just for the adult creators, but for the young people watching them.

Falcon gives his anti-racism speech in “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” and Kirk and Spock destroy the disintegration booths in “A Taste of Armageddon”

The issue is not that these changes are bad in any objective sense, but that youthful tastes have changed enough over the decades to render the older and newer versions of these “franchises” largely incommensurable. Those who grew up with Darth Vader as Enemy #1 in Star Wars are going to be put off by Kylo Ren’s insecurities and whingeing and think him a wuss rather than a convincing villain, and those who expect their heroes to be paragons of modern social justice are going to find Captain Kirk’s womanizing and the sexiness of Marvel’s Bronze Age heroines (usually dressed in skimpy costumes) hopelessly “problematic.” Certainly, there are some old fans who love the new stuff and new fans who love the old, but the degree of polarization one finds in the fandom today suggests that beyond its political dimension (which cannot be denied), there is a deeper one involving generational sensibilities and tastes. Today’s thirteen year olds may want to see She-Hulk “twerking” and Star Trek characters breaking out in song during musical-style episodes, but today’s fifty year olds likely do not.

Ms. Marvel (1977) and Ms. Marvel (2019)

Beyond the clashing tastes and sensibilities across generations that we’ve been talking about, applying the franchise model to popular entertainment creates other significant problems, the two biggest of which are: the incoherence and bloat that comes from steady addition and expansion over too long of a period of time; and the retcons and reboots that inevitably follow. 

Over in the gaming industry, World of Warcraft faces a problem that is unique given its status as the most played MMORPG in history: It has had so many expansions on the original game; so many systems added; so much lore developed and extended and turned back on itself; so many new character classes and specializations and professions; that the new player experience is byzantine and impenetrable. It’s also alienated players who have been with the game since the beginning to the point that Blizzard Entertainment has created “Legacy” servers, which make it possible for those who have grown sick to death of the whole thing to play the game in its original form. (Funnily enough, when this “WoW Classic” came out, it was more popular than the retail version of the game.)

Substitute ‘players’ with ‘viewers’ and you’ll find that the same is true of our biggest film and TV “franchises.” First, there were three Star Wars movies. Then there were three more. Then three more. And then an avalanche of spinoff TV series and films of wildly varying quality. The situation is even worse with regard to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) with its “phases” and similarly bloated television landscape. Star Trek is trying to get in on the action too (alas), and though Deep Space Nine may have overlapped with the end of The Next Generation, and Voyager might have overlapped with the end of Deep Space Nine, in the era of Nu-Trek we got Discovery, Lower Decks, Prodigy, Picard, and Strange New Worlds pretty much all at once, and more is coming: something to do with Starfleet Academy; a show about “Section 31”; and whatever else comes out of the Trek think tank. The greatest writers in human history couldn’t maintain consistent plotting, characterization, and lore through this much “content,” and the people writing for the MCU, Star Wars, Doctor Who, and all the rest are a galaxy far far away from being humanity’s greatest writers.

Visual “maps” of the Star Wars and MCU “franchises.” The MCU’s map is so densely packed, you need to blow it up to a full sized page in order to make its “content” readable.

At a certain point, this all becomes unwieldy and such a barrier to entry and retention that retcons and “reboots” follow. Producers want Star Trek to appeal to the ADHD generation, so they reboot it into a slick action series, with a Spock who screams and fornicates, and a Kirk who couldn’t pass up a harrowing stunt even if he was a quadriplegic. Star Trek Discovery strays so far from the original Trek that it is supposed to precede and contains so many continuity and lore violations that writers send the whole gang 900 years into the future, so as not to mess things up even more. Star Wars’ “Force” has been retconned twice and is, at this point, incomprehensible. The character of the Doctor in Doctor Who has become convoluted and confusing: now there’s a “War Doctor,” a “Fugitive Doctor,” a “Meta-Crisis Doctor” and who knows what else. Marvel has always done this sort of thing, even before there was an MCU, but I never thought it worked. Multiple versions of Thor, Spider Man, Iron Man, Captain America, etc. might make some sort of weird nerd-sense, but the only ones people really cared about were the originals, which is why they’re the ones that featured in the first – and the only really good – group of MCU films, by which I mean “Phases” one through three.

Franchising may be good for cheeseburgers, but it’s an artistic and creative disaster for popular culture and entertainment. You want to make a series? Great. But when you’re done, rather than turn it into a “franchise” that will set fans against one another, stoke the already godawful “culture wars,” and become so messy and bloated that you need to retcon and reboot the thing until it’s unrecognizable, just make something new instead.