State of the Genre: a sci-fi movie franchise report card

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Feb 9, 2017

Let's face it: We sci-fi and genre fans love our franchises. Although we bellyache about endless sequels and reboots and prequels and spinoffs, the truth is that we troop out in droves every time there's a new Marvel entry or the next chapter in the Star Wars saga. And since success breeds imitation, every studio in Hollywood is desperately hoping that its next attempt at universe-building will be as massive as the two we just mentioned.

With tentpoles being the lifeblood of the movie industry and various geeky brands doing their best to pump out new films and, in some cases, expand to TV, we thought it might be a good time to take the temperature of 13 of the biggest properties out there and see whether they're still hale and healthy or looking a little pale and sickly. The focus here is on movies, with a TV component analyzed as well if it exists (a full TV/cable round-up demands its own article).

Share your thoughts below on the state of the genre in 2017 ...

Star Wars

Next for the franchise: Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi (Dec. 15, 2017)

There's no question that since buying Lucasfilm several years ago, Disney has brought Star Wars back in a huge way, releasing both the seventh episode in the Skywalker saga (The Force Awakens) and the first in a series of spin-off films (Rogue One) to critical and fan acclaim and gigantic box office. The former earned nearly $2 billion while the latter has just passed the $1 billion mark, and the newly titled The Last Jedi is sure to join that club. Best of all, the movies have been good -- yes, they both have many flaws, but they're nowhere near the crippled disasters that were the prequels.

Is there anything to look out for? Sure: Lucasfilm needs to stop relying so heavily on fan service and begin telling less nostalgia-based stories. Hopefully The Last Jedi moves in that direction but the Han Solo origin story just seems pointless. And it remains to be seen whether a new Star Wars movie every year is what audiences want going forward -- although the evidence suggests they do.

Grade: B

Marvel Cinematic Universe

Next for the franchise: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (May 5, 2017)

Marvel seems to do no wrong at this point. Even secondary characters like Doctor Strange are scoring $700 million worldwide box office hauls and strong critical support, while their tentpoles like Captain America and the Avengers continue to rake in billions. And the movies, by and large, are terrific fun and getting even better. Captain America: Civil War was a series standout, while Doctor Strange -- despite a standard origin story script -- proved that the MCU could introduce even stranger visual and thematic concepts to the canon. This year, Guardians 2 should be a home run, while Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok will determine if the studio can fine-tune two of the weaker stand-alone series (the former by teaming with Sony) and get them back on track. Marvel's next challenge? Shaking up the status quo, which is what Avengers: Infinity War should do.

On the TV front, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was rejuvenated this season (at least in its first half) by the appearance of Ghost Rider, but Netflix shows Luke Cage and Daredevil were aimless and tedious in their first and second seasons respectively. We're looking forward to The Defenders, though.

Grade: B+

Fox Marvel Universe

Next up: Logan (March 3, 2017)

Kneel before Deadpool. That has to be the mantra over at 20th Century Fox, where the Merc with a Mouth's modestly budgeted screen debut was a success beyond anyone's dreams (nearly $800 million worldwide), creating one of the few positive stories last year for Fox in general and its Marvel mini-universe. On the bright side, Logan could be the best stand-alone Wolverine movie yet. But with Hugh Jackman, Michael Fassbender (Magneto) and Jennifer Lawrence (Mystique) all out of their contracts, Fox is betting on The New Mutants to revive the cooling X-Men series.

Fantastic Four looks like a dead issue for now, as does Gambit, and even the inevitable Deadpool 2 has hit a bump with a change in directors. The new or upcoming TV spin-offs, Legion and another unnamed X-Men series, may juice the franchise, but it's weird how Fox, with a stable of Marvel characters second only to Marvel Studios itself, has largely refused to knit together a coherent universe. Maybe Fox needs a bold move -- like giving the Four back to Marvel -- to really electrify fans.

Grade: B-

DC Extended Universe

Next up: Wonder Woman (June 2, 2017)

What is there to say about the DCEU? Despite strong box office for both, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad were hot messes -- and fans noticed. Lack of strong leadership, a confused and ever-shifting vision and constant studio meddling has gotten DC's answer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe off to a shockingly shaky start. It hasn't helped that we've seen directors come and go on projects like Wonder Woman, The Flash and now The Batman, with Ben Affleck deciding not to direct and just star instead. (Is he looking to limit the damage to his own brand?) Sure, DC promoted Geoff Johns to be in charge of the whole shebang, but he's not the answer: he's a comic book writer, not an experienced studio production exec. We can only hope that Wonder Woman is as good as its trailers suggest and that November's Justice League is not another Zack Snyder deep dive into grim, brooding portentousness -- and that directors are found soon for The Batman and The Flash.

On the TV side, meanwhile, Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl are all doing relatively well (your mileage may vary) and even enjoying crossover events ... why does it seem so hard on the big screen?

Grade: C

Star Trek

Next up: Star Trek Discovery (TBD 2017)

When Star Trek: Enterprise went off the air in 2005, it seemed as if Gene Roddenberry's creation had hit the end of the road after ten feature films and six TV series. Yet just a scant four years later, J.J. Abrams and a fresh new cast rebooted Star Trek to generous acclaim and the movie franchise's best box office ever. All the good will generated by that movie, however (and make no mistake, it had its detractors too), was largely tossed away by the insulting Star Trek Into Darkness -- which may have sadly reflected on last year's far better Star Trek Beyond, which noticeably underperformed with audiences.

But Star Trek Beyond had its issues too, indicating that the studio simply doesn't understand what Star Trek is. After the blah response to Beyond, I doubt we'll even see Star Trek 4 despite it already being announced. All eyes now turn to CBS' Star Trek: Discovery, which -- despite its many travails already in getting launched -- could keep the brand trekkin' for a while if it's a success.

Grade: C

Transformers/Hasbro Universe

Next up: Transformers: The Last Knight (June 23, 2017)

Hard to believe it's been ten years and Michael Bay has yet to make a good movie in this series. Okay, the first one back in 2007 had its moments, but every one since has been close to unwatchable. And yet the series has grossed billions and billions of dollars, although 2014's Transformers: Age of Extinction just slightly underperformed in the U.S. (it still made more than a billion overall though, so it wasn't exactly a box office dud). So whatever Bay has been doing, it's worked four times now for vast amounts of moviegoers. The Last Knight will be his last Transformers movie and will give us a chance to see if any long-term fatigue is setting in for the series. As for the rest of the Hasbro "universe," the G.I. Joe series seems to have sputtered out after two movies, although a crossover with Transformers could easily revive it. There's no word yet on what Paramount intends to do with the rest of the "universe," including Micronauts, Rom and others.

Grade: C-

Planet of the Apes

Next up: War for the Planet of the Apes (July 14, 2017)

Restoring the glory of the original five movies and erasing the bad taste of Tim Burton's disastrous 2001 remake, the rebooted Apes franchise has been almost perfect through its two films so far. 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a satisfying origin story, while 2014's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes added surprising depth, scale and even emotional resonance that had not been seen in an Apes movie since perhaps the first one in 1968. Now Dawn director Matt Reeves is bringing an even more epic feel to War while keeping the continuity loosely paralleled to that of the original films. The effects have been top-notch, Andy Serkis has done Oscar-caliber work as Caesar, and the new movie is one of the top must-sees of this summer. Go Ape!

Grade: A

Harry Potter / Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Next up: Fantastic Beasts 2 (TBD 2018)

It was inevitable that Warner Bros. Pictures could not let the Harry Potter franchise rest after the completion of the original eight films, but doing a spin-off instead of a direct continuation seemed a much better and creatively less contrived way to go. Even if the movie was based on a book that wasn't even a novel, it was also a savvy move to have J.K. Rowling pen the screenplay and flesh out the concept herself, with regular Potter director David Yates providing the visual continuity. The results got mixed responses both critically and financially; while doing healthy box office worldwide, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was the lowest-grossing Potter-related film here in the U.S. Responses ranged all over the map as well from reviewers and fans. It's questionable whether the ideas can be sustained over a planned four more films, but that's never stopped Hollywood, has it?

Grade: B-

The 'James Wan Universe'

Next up: Annabelle 2 (August 11, 2017)

Is there any filmmaker working today as closely associated with the horror genre as James Wan? Since making his directorial debut in 2004 with Saw (a far better and more original film than the many sequels that came after it), Wan has created a horror empire for himself as a director, writer and producer, working both with production juggernaut Blumhouse and with major studios like Warner Bros. And the thing is, a lot of it has been great, quality stuff, from Insidious to the two Conjuring films to movies he's produced, like Lights Out.

Yes, he's had his share of clunkers, too, and while he's off directing Aquaman this year he's also producing a few too many sequels (like Insidious 4) for our taste. But Wan has done a lot to help revive the genre at the major studio level (and among indies), so we hope he continues to work within it and create more original and truly creepy material.

Grade: B

Stephen King

Next up: The Dark Tower (July 28, 2017)

Like horror itself, adaptations of the work of Stephen King seem to have been reborn in the past few years. There was a glut of them decades ago, then the occasional film or TV movie here and there for a while, but now King's work is poised to return to the big screen in spectacular fashion. Two of his most seminal works, The Dark Tower and It, will hit theaters this year, while films based on smaller but excellent novels like Revival and Gerald's Game are also on the way. And while the recent Hulu miniseries based on 11/22/63 did not make a tremendous splash, TV series adapted from The Mist and Mr. Mercedes are nevertheless coming down the pipeline.

At the same time, we have concerns about both The Dark Tower and It. The former had its release delayed by half a year and we still have yet to see a second of footage from the film, let alone a full trailer; It has drawn jeers for the look of Pennywise the Clown, although the casting of the film's young protagonists and its R rating are both encouraging. And The Stand remains stuck in development hell. Will supernatural intervention be required to turn King into a successful cinematic brand again? It remains to be seen.

Grade: N/A

The 'Monsterverse'

Next up: Kong: Skull Island (March 10, 2017)

The 2014 American version of Godzilla heralded the arrival of a shared giant monster universe that was clearly meant as a homage to where it all began, Toho Studios, whose own original Gojira back in 1954 launched a stable of monsters (kaiju) like the world had never seen. Now it appears that some of those Toho icons, like Mothra, Rodan and King Ghidorah, will be rebooted as well, and America's own colossal beast, King Kong, is joining the fray as well with his new movie, Kong: Skull Island, to be followed by Godzilla: King of Monsters and Kong vs. Godzilla.

Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards (Rogue One), was a mixed bag: it delivered spectacular monster mayhem, but only about 15 or 20 minutes of it. While we're under embargo at the moment, we've seen Kong: Skull Island and can tell you that it not only improves on the monster action but the human characters as well while providing a clever introduction to the "Monsterverse." So we're going to say we're optimistic about this franchise ... for now.

Grade: B

The Universal Monsters

Next up: The Mummy (June 9, 2017)

This shared universe has yet to officially launch -- that will happen with the release of The Mummy this summer. While 2014's Dracula Untold is now considered a false start, The Mummy looks a lot more interesting in the way it attempts to bring both large-scale supernatural terror and modern action together in one film (at least that's what the trailer hints at). And yes, The Mummy also lays the first building blocks for future films starring Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Invisible Man and the Bride of Frankenstein.

Can it all work together? Well, in a way, the original Universal Monsters did turn into the first interconnected film universe, so there is precedent. But not all these characters fit into a tentpole-sized feature (we're not even sure the Mummy can), so it remains to be seen how the filmmakers charged with overseeing this -- Alex Kurtzman (Star Trek) and Chris Morgan (The Fast and the Furious) -- balance the needs of the studio with fidelity to the characters, while making it all scary.

Grade: N/A

Alien, aka the Weyland-Yutani Universe

Next up: Alien: Covenant (May 19, 2017)

Can you believe that we're about to see the eighth film starring those famous xenomorphs in just a few months? Alien: Covenant is sort of a rebuttal by director Ridley Scott to his own Prometheus from 2012, putting the focus of the action clearly once again on the original aliens and the tone squarely on horror, as opposed to the Engineers and the (muddled) big ideas we got in the previous movie. Which is a shame, because we like big ideas in our sci-fi, but it seems that these movies always come back to xenomorphs doing all kinds of unspeakable things to human bodies.

Frankly, there has not been a great Alien movie in more than 30 years, and we're not sure that Alien: Covenant can turn the ship around either. But we remain hopeful that Sir Ridley -- who did find his own creative spirit again with the soaring The Martian -- can hit that sci-fi/horror sweet spot one more time. And maybe blow our minds a little, too.

Grade: C