The movie franchises that made me

Matthew d'Ancona

Matthew d'Ancona on why Rocky Balboa means as much to him as Citizen Kane

09 October 2018 08:44

Movies are life – which is to say that they can become one. As for me, I know exactly when the whole damn thing began: in 1977, when I was nine, at Pinewood.

Not content with buying every fading copy of Photoplay that the unfeasibly-ancient newsagent round the corner had hanging from strings in his shop, I persuaded my parents to take me to the legendary studios in Buckinghamshire, which were hosting an ‘open day’.

Even wearing its Sunday best, Pinewood was a proper state. There was movie bric-a-brac everywhere, set parts, discarded moulds, unidentifiable metal objects strewn all around. The battered body of the amphibious Lotus Esprit driven by James Bond in The Spy Who Loved Me (Lewis Gilbert, 1977) lay forlorn and abandoned in a side-lot. It was as far from the imagined glitter of Hollywood as could be conceived. I was smitten.


‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (Lewis Gilbert, 1967)

Best of all was the huge 007 Sound Stage, built the year before, to house the water-tank in which Stromberg’s killer submarines would nestle until Roger Moore and Barbara Bach foiled the villain’s plan. By the time I visited, the stage had been remodelled to house the Man of Steel’s ice-bound Fortress of Solitude, in preparation for Superman (Richard Donner, 1978).

The late Christopher Reeve starred in three sequels to that movie, and Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006) notionally resumes the same timeline (with a different cast and aesthetic, naturally). In September, Cary Fukunaga was announced as Danny Boyle’s replacement to direct the still-untitled Bond 25.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that the two films that loomed over my day of cinematic epiphany were each part of a long-running franchise. And this, I now think, was no accident: or, at least, it was an accident that came to mean something.

When Pete first introduced me to his concept of the modern ‘Movieverse’ – a founding principle of DRUGSTORE CULTURE – I realised that, for better or worse, film franchises have given shape to, and punctuated, my life. Of course, I learned to love Bergman, Tarkovsky, Truffaut, Godard, Welles, Murnau, Powell and Pressburger and the rest. But they were not the spirits that first drove me to spend all my pocket money at the local ABC.

First, let us be clear what franchises are not. The Godfather trilogy is not a franchise. Nor is Kieslowski’s Three Colours sequence. Nor is the same director’s Dekalog, or Ozu’s ‘Noriko’ trilogy, or Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panjali series. There is absolutely no convergence between such films and, say, Mark Wahlberg making a fool of himself in Transformers: The Last Knight (Michael Bay, 2017).

No point in mincing words: a franchise is, or wants to be, a licence to print money. It takes the logic of 1930s episodic movie serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, and grafts it onto contemporary studio economics. The proliferation of franchises in recent years – The Fast and the Furious, Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter and its off-shoots, and, of course, Disney’s world-conquering Marvel series – has, at its root, the sharp decline in DVD sales.

This revenue stream used to support studio profits and cross-subsidise more innovative films. But no longer: it is box office outside the US that keeps Hollywood alive today, especially the multiplex markets of the far East. And these markets depend upon what is euphemistically called ‘pre-awareness’: polite language for the expectation that the next movie will be more or less the same as the last. The so-called ‘tentpole’ extravaganzas are the cash cows that deliver reliably, year after year, movie after movie.

Affronted by the shameless logic of global capitalism, cinephiles (as opposed to movie-lovers) tend to turn their noses up at franchises. It has become almost de rigueur to decode the predominance of superhero films as a sign that End of Days is at hand. And, when it comes to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it is hard to dissent.

Trailer for ‘Fantastic Beasts 2’

But that is not the whole of the story. I understand why many movie fans feel claustrophobic and encircled when they visit their local Cineworld and find that the latest Thor is playing in three of the screens. The trailer for the second Fantastic Beasts movie fills me with a sense of existential dread that there may actually be no escape from bloody Dumbledore.

But there is another way of looking at franchises, and a happier one. Appropriately enough, it was the great Jedi master himself, George Lucas, who alerted me to this when I interviewed him in 2005 to mark the release of Star Wars Episode III: the Revenge of the Sith.

I told Lucas that my father had taken me to see the original Star Wars – technically, Episode IV in the series – on the first day of its release in 1977. And now, more than quarter-century later, I was introducing my own sons to the legend.

‘Well, it is an interesting exercise in generational reality,’ he reflected. ‘A lot of what the movie is about is how one generation must correct the mistakes of the past generation… I think what’s going to happen now is that people can conceive of them and perceive them as one movie – even though it’s a big, long movie.’

George Lucas was on to something in his musings about the generational meaning of the best franchises.

At the time, Lucas was emphatic that the Star Wars saga was over. ‘That story will never appear on the screen again,’ he told me. ‘It’s finished. It’s complete.’ And yet, here we are in 2018, a little more than a year away from the release of Episode IX ­– which will mark the completion of the third trilogy that Lucas insisted would never happen.

Wrong about that, I think Lucas was on to something in his musings about the generational meaning of the best franchises. When Rocky was released in 1976 – and even when life trumped art and this small-scale boxing movie won the Oscar for Best Picture – nobody could possibly have predicted that Sylvester Stallone’s story of a debt collector turned heavyweight title contender would still be running 42 years later. Yet we are now eagerly awaiting the release of Creed II in November (or at least I am).

Four Rocky movies had been released before the star of the latest film, Michael B. Jordan, was born. The most enjoyably ridiculous of those was Rocky IV (Sylvester Stallone, 1985), a Cold War apologetic in which the former Philadelphia street punk, Rocky Balboa, becomes a shredded superhero of the ring, taking on the hilariously-taller Russian, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) to avenge the death of his former rival, turned best friend, Apollo Creed. I can remember going to see the film at the Barbican – of all places – because it was being shown at a slightly earlier time than in Leicester Square.

As much as I loved the Rocky series, I would never have believed that it would have been rebooted in 2015 to follow the fortunes of Apollo’s son, Adonis, under the tutelage of the ageing Balboa – and, even more implausibly, that the second Creed movie would pit him against Drago’s son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu).

Trailer for ‘Creed II’

I think it is safe to predict that Creed II will not be as well-received as its predecessor. For a start, it is not directed by Ryan Coogler, who showed that a reboot is not inconsistent with ingenious, excellent film-making.

It is also, to judge from the two trailers that have dropped so far, a much more formulaic movie: resuming the old rhythms of the original Rocky films, and the familiar ingredients of family, vengeance, pride and training montages. In 1985, the music was provided by Survivor. Now it is Kendrick Lamar. That, at least, is progress.

But I hope you will forgive me if I say that I won’t give a damn what the critics say. For me, and, I know, millions of others, Creed II will be a ritual event rather than an artistic experience: the latest iteration of an essentially recurring tale that has been told, in one form or another, for more than four decades.

You find yourself tracing your life in a franchise that you care about. Like life, they have their ups and downs, their wrong turns and apparent catastrophes. They also recover, or the best ones do. Who would have thought that Stallone could come back from the excruciating Rocky V (John G. Avildsen, 1990)? And yet he did, 16 years later, with the splendid Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, 2006).

The patchiness of franchises is not a defect. It is the whole point. It’s their unexpected authenticity.

That’s how things sometimes work out. Just when you think that Jar Jar Binks has ruined your future, along come Rey, Finn and Kylo Ren to change the odds. The patchiness of franchises is not a defect. It is the whole point. It’s their unexpected authenticity.

So it is odd, in the most pleasing way, to find myself, aged 50, watching the same film series with my teenage sons that I watched when I was their age with my father. Such movies describe the arc of a life. They give shape to generational change. And, in their own way, they partially fill what Alex Evans has brilliantly described as the ‘Myth Gap’ in his book of the same name: the absence in modern times of stories that explain and explore the deepest patterns of experience.

Art can be mythical. But not all myth is art. The contemporary movie franchise, with all its rough edges and flaws, is the closest humanity now gets to the dispensing of folklore around the flickering camp fire.

It is in no way embarrassing to me to admit that Rocky Balboa means as much to me as Citizen Kane: more probably, because his story is so entangled with the passing of the years in my own life. And I confidently expect his saga, like Star Wars, like the legend of the Avengers, like all the best and most enduring narratives, to long outlive me.

That’s the whole point, really. The story goes on, no matter what. That’s movies, you see. That’s life.