STAR WARS, Nostalgia and the Delicate but Potent Franchise Relaunch

Let’s get this out of the way first. I didn’t hate Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I loved certain moments. Disliked some others. And checked-out once or twice from utter disinterest. As far as big franchise resurrections go, J.J. Abrams’s return to that galaxy far, far away is about average. It checks all the nostalgia boxes, revisiting memorable lines and referencing classic moments. It moves at hyperspeed, sometimes to the point of illogic, as Abrams movies are wont to do. And most of the new central characters are more interesting than the old ones. I guess “not bad” is as far as I’m willing to go here. Star Wars: The Force Awakens… it’s not bad.

But in a year where we’ve seen four high-profile franchise relaunches, I think we’ve learned something: There’s a fine line between a franchise flick and fanfic. The Force Awakens is more fan film than mega movie masterpiece, which is good enough for most. That’s really all the studio brand managers producers really want.

So What’s a Relaunch Anyway?

I’m using the word relaunch here because these films aren’t reboots (Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Amazing Spider-Man), remakes (The Ring, A Star is Born, The Karate Kid) or even traditional sequels (more examples than worth mentioning). The relaunch is a fairly new phenomenon in the motion picture business and the art of cinema born out of the franchise era we’re in now. It’s a torch passing from one generation to the next, with plot beats that mimic remakes but with characters from the franchise universe.

Outside of the Bond films, with Qs and Ms moving from Bond to Bond, it’s hard to find historical franchises that function this way. And it’s certainly not limited to movies, thanks to the high-demand for original content these days.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in turn, is mostly paint-by-numbers retelling of Star Wars: New Hope (with references to Empire and Jedi) that continues the Skywalker family saga. The planets have new names, but are obvious replacements for old ones. There’s a bigger, badder Death Star-type weapon with a single, exploitable weakness. There’s even a knock-off Cantina scene. From a story standpoint, there’s not much new here other than a few characters with slightly different motivations.

You can say the same thing about Jurassic World and Creed, two other 2015 relaunches the function as hybrid remake/sequels. Of the relaunches this year, the one that’s mostly unique is Mad Max: Fury Road, but it’s the only one directed by the franchise originator, George Miller.

A Delicate Balance

I hated Jurassic World, enjoyed Mad Max: Fury Road and loved Creed (for reasons you’ll see below). Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a movie I like just fine, in spite of its myriad flaws. And while the relaunch as a form is being defined to coincide with the franchise era, it’s worth noting that the most successful ones, from a filmmaking standpoint, aren’t limited by their own fan bases.

The problem with Star Wars and Jurassic World is they are exactly the movies many fans wanted to see. They took the safe, often lazy, route to achieving what needed to be achievedreviving ailing franchises, story and character be damned. Who can blame the filmmakers though? The bar was set pretty low for both movies, based on the earlier prequels and sequels.

That just means Star Wars and Jurassic World fueled almost entirely on nostalgia, which to paraphrase Don Draper is delicate but potent. The filmmaking teams behind them emphasized the potent to their benefit, but didn’t really make delicate part of the deal. Because we’re bludgeoned by nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, it doesn’t do anything to move the story or motivate the characters. It’s just… there. While Star Wars may have fared better based solely on Abrams’s ability to move past problems so quickly you barely see them, it’s fair to say it has more in common with the incomprehensibly terrible Jurassic World than other relaunches.

Mad Max: Fury Road, on the other hand, wasn’t encumbered by a massive fan base. And while there are certainly Mad Max die hards, their numbers don’t come close to the multi-generational, global legions of fanatics claimed by the two films above. With master filmmaker George Miller at the helm once again, Fury Road was able to relaunch with an energy that left mostly non-fans breathless. Is this the model for the relaunch of the future? Not necessarily.

The Very Model of a Modern Franchise Relaunch

Creed, the seventh film in the Rocky series, is a movie I didn’t expect to love as much as I do. And given the attempt at franchise continuation in 2006 with the Stallone-directed Rocky Balboa, a film that didn’t work more often than it did, Creed had a lot going against it. What made Creed work more than the others is it has the best elements of Fury Road and Star Wars/Jurassic World, with few, if any, of the flaws.

Like Fury Road, Creed is a masterfully made motion picture. Director Ryan Coogler, in only his second effort, proves the flickers of great filmmaking in his freshman outing Fruitvale Station, were just a sign of things to come. His single-shot boxing match sequence is exactly the type of filmmaking that makes the boxing genre so attractive to filmmakers. You can do impressive things in the ring, and Coogler does.

Like Star Wars/Jurassic Park, Creed is steeped in nostalgia for the earliest, most beloved franchise films. Chasing chickens, training montages, a walk up the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps. It’s all there. But without the constraints of a fanbase, Creed’s nostalgia is handled delicately enough to be to make an impact without overwhelming the audience. The nostalgia propels the characters and story. It’s not there just to prove to the audience that the filmmakers gets them. Nostalgia is part of the story, and Coogler’s aptitude for handling it shows he as the chops to be one of the master storytellers of his generation.

Creed isn’t complex. It’s not groundbreaking. It’s classical in the best sense of the word. Coogler’s Rocky relaunch is an exceptionally well-made film, with great characters and a succinct story. It exactly what mainstream popcorn cinema should be.

One Film Doesn’t Define a Franchise

We’ve seen plenty of relaunch attempts in the last few years, from Prometheus to Scream 4 to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skull. We also have more to come, like Independence Day: Resurgence and the inevitable Indiana Jones mulligan. None of them have been or are likely to be as big as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but my hope is that some of them will be as good as or better than Creed.

Of course, we’re living in the franchise era, and each of these films in just an episode in a continuing metanarrative. We shouldn’t count a subsequent franchise film out completely, not based on its relaunch. That too is part of the form. I’m a fan of Star Wars, and I’ll be there for the next one. I’m an even bigger fan of the Rocky franchise now, and eagerly await the Creed follow-up. Part of the joy of these franchises is knowing that, as Marvel has proved time and time again, the next film has the potential to be better than the last. In the case of The Force Awakens, I especially hope that’s true.