Now You See Me 2? How about now I definitely don’t see you—or review you, either—given that neither I nor anyone I know was hungering for a sequel to 2013’s totally fine caper flick Now You See Me, your critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes hovers around 33 percent, and your existence appears to be justified mainly by the opportunity it offers critics to make inevitable-yet-amusing plays on words involving the practice of stage magic? (“The only sleight of hand going on here involves your wallet,” quips the Austin Chronicle’s Josh Kupecki.) Maybe this weekend the American public will reiterate its disdain for critical opinion by making Now You See Me 2 a bigger hit than its predecessor. More likely, the movie will underperform, joining the ranks of 2016 franchises that weren’t really franchises at all.
Thus far this year we’ve already stayed away in large numbers from Kung Fu Panda 3, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, X-Men: Apocalypse, Zoolander 2, The Woman in Black 2, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, and the Divergent series’ third installment, Allegiant—all movies that performed worse than their predecessors at the box office, sometimes dramatically so. Still to come later this year are unasked-for return tickets to other less-than-widely-beloved cinematic destinations: Ouija 2, Ice Age: Collision Course, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. (Psst, Jack—did you not read your own subtitle?)
As both the industry’s major trade papers, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, observed this week, the major studios in 2016 appear to be suffering from something called “sequelitis.” (Variety tastefully compared this malady to the Zika virus—the difference being, presumably, that one illness shrinks unborn babies’ cranial capacity, while the other merely shrinks the imaginative horizons of already-born filmgoers.) Critics have long bemoaned Hollywood’s dependence on the megafranchise; Mark Harris, for example, wrote a definitive analysis of the issue for Grantland in 2014. What’s different about this year, it seems, is how much smaller and sillier the sequels have become, and, relatedly, the way sequel fatigue syndrome has spread from critics to audiences. The industry’s overreliance on the tried-and-true formula of giving the public more—several more—of any movie it even briefly exhibited signs of enjoying has resulted in a glut of sequels and spinoffs that the viewers themselves neither asked for nor show any signs of wanting. “Have we reached Peak Sequel?” asks Matt Singer in an excellent analysis of this phenomenon on the film site Screencrush.
We now live in a globalized entertainment economy where the continued existence of theatrically projected moving pictures as a medium—in competition with streaming video, an exponential growth in television channels, and the siren song of the smartphone—depends on the reliable drawing power of a handful of recognizable brands. Typically, the annual summer rite of critical garment-rending over the dearth of original properties at the box office tends to resolve itself in the shrugging concession that, by definition, the mass-appeal sequel is a critic-proof genre. A corollary to this idea is the notion that blockbuster franchises are market-powered juggernauts, built into multimedia events designed to plow inexorably forward regardless of any individual movie’s quality.
Even if scribbling wretches had condemned it, this argument goes, Star Wars: The Force Awakens would surely have broken world box office records, thanks to four decades’ worth of loyal fans primed to revisit a beloved fictional universe. Jurassic World, last year’s other ostentatiously expensive addition to a decades-old action franchise, was widely mocked by critics (affectionately in some quarters, but still mocked). That didn’t keep the film from chomping its way to second place in the history of domestic box-office returns, a spot it held onto until The Force Awakens displaced it. (Neither one of these hugely profitable films, though, was able to break the ceiling of Titanic’s or Avatar’s total profits overseas; Kevin Lincoln explains the cultural and economic logic behind this discrepancy in an informative post on Vulture.)
When studio investments in viewer brand loyalty hit the jackpot (as happened last year with The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, and most, if not all, of Disney’s Marvel universe releases) they generate gushers of revenue for the entertainment conglomerates behind them, creating an incentive for other companies to make similar bets. But what happens when you don’t have a Star Wars universe, a Marvel universe, or ginormous mutant dinosaurs, but you still need to present a safe-seeming slate of films to the board of directors in an age in which more and more (and better and better) entertainment options compete for audience eyeballs? Of course studios have an interest in seeking to create lasting franchises, even from movies that failed to stir most viewers’ hearts the first time around. In fact, it’s become commonplace for not only big-budget action tentpoles but run-of-the-mill genre films to serve as the wobbly foundations for would-be franchises—as was the case, for example, with the first Now You See Me, a modestly budgeted thriller about a team of stage-magician con artists that became a surprise hit in 2013. Though the original was greeted with the most tepid of backhanded compliments—one critic called it “an engaging B-movie” that “sadly degenerates into an overcomplicated mess”—the production companies behind Now You See Me, Lionsgate and Summit Entertainment, decided their new property had forged enough lasting viewer goodwill to justify a trilogy, whose middle chapter opens this weekend.
The worst-case scenario for the studios, it seems to me, would be for this glut of overfamiliar material to cast even real megafranchises in the same tepid, who-cares? light as the Now You See Mes and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtleses that plod their way weekly onto the release calendar. Could it be that this is happening already? Warner Bros. is soldiering ahead with the juggernaut model, despite the disappointing performance of Batman v. Superman—a movie that, as Forbes magazine noted, managed to top $800 million at the worldwide box office and still be interpreted by many in the industry as a flop, after negative word-of-mouth from beyond-underwhelmed viewers caused a steep drop in attendance over the first two weekends after opening. Warners is planning at least six more films based on DC Comics heroes to be released by 2020. The next one out—whose title may prove uncomfortably prophetic in the context of this year’s struggling market for sequels—is set to debut on Aug. 5: Suicide Squad.