For almost as long as there's been a "summer movie season," critics and filmgoers have complained that the local multiplex is too crowded with sequels. This year's been no different — except that now a lot of gripes are coming from inside Hollywood. With a few exceptions, 2016 has been a disastrous year for franchise films, with the likes of Alice Through the Looking Glass arriving with great fanfare before sinking at the box office quickly. Studio executives ought to be getting antsy, given that many of them have made big investments in the multi-picture/multi-year model of storytelling, looking to draft off the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Thursday is the start of another edition of San Diego Comic-Con, which is traditionally when Hollywood honchos stand in front of thousands of screaming science-fiction/fantasy/action/adventure fans and explain what the next 10 years of superhero movies and sword-and-sorcery epics will look like. But over the past few years, a lot of supposed-to-be mega-franchises — like the rebooted Fantastic Four and Spider-Man — have been forced back to the drawing board by audience apathy. Given those recent reality checks, what are the odds that all of the high-profile "shared universe" film series will make it to the screen exactly as originally intended?
Below are some educated guesses about what we're likely and unlikely to see at the movies over the next decade. Anything marked as "even" is pretty much guaranteed to get released, barring any major catastrophe. But anything "2-1" or up is more questionable, endangered by the fickleness of the market or the excessive ambition of their creators.
1. Star Wars (Disney)
Upcoming: Rogue One, 2016 (even); Episode VIII, 2017 (even); untitled Han Solo film, 2018 (even); Episode IX, 2019 (even); untitled Boba Fett film, 2020 (3-1)
Given how phenomenally well The Force Awakens turned out last year, there's no reason to doubt that the eighth and ninth chapters of the Star Wars saga will eventually be delivered as promised. (The as-yet-untitled Episode VIII just completed principal photography, in fact.) As for the plans to release "anthology" films from the Star Wars universe every two years… well, a lot will depend on how Rogue One goes over this fall. If the spin-off fails to draw big enough crowds — or if it disappoints the fans — then Disney and Lucasfilm may have to reevaluate. Chances are that Rogue One's fortunes won't affect the release of the "young Han Solo" movie, which already has a much-hyped star in Alden Ehrenreich and a January 2017 start date. But if the solo Solo struggles on the heels of Rogue One, then the Boba Fett picture may be a no-go.
2. Dreamworks Animation (Dreamworks)
Upcoming: The Croods 2, 2017 (even); How to Train Your Dragon 3, 2018 (even); Puss in Boots 2: Nine Lives & 40 Thieves, unscheduled (10-1); Madagascar 4, unscheduled (10-1)
The state of Dreamworks projects could be a cautionary tale for studios that announce their intentions well in advance — especially when they're working in a medium as mercurial as animation, where the process is slow and the audience grows up fast. Both Puss in Boots 2 and Madagascar 4 were at one point on the schedule for 2018, before a round of layoffs forced a change in approach for the studio. Dreamworks is reportedly still very much in the sequel business, but those two have been postponed indefinitely. Kid-flick franchises demand some combination of nostalgia and cultural momentum to thrive, and it's hard to imagine any kind of revival of Madagascar-mania four or five years from now.
3. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (Disney)
Upcoming: Doctor Strange, 2016 (even); Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, 2017 (even); Spider-Man: Homecoming, 2017 (even); Thor: Ragnarok, 2017 (even); Black Panther, 2018 (2-1); Avengers: Infinity War - Part 1, 2018 (even); Ant-Man and the Wasp, 2018 (3-1); Captain Marvel, 2019 (3-1); Avengers: Infinity War - Part 2, 2019 (2-1)
The Marvel movies have been so wildly profitable that the studio's future plans may seem inexorable. But don't be so certain. The next MCU film, November's Doctor Strange, is such an unusual property that it could well break the company's string of mega-hits, which would make some of their other offbeat pictures less of a sure thing.
Marvel has announced projects and then withdrawn them before, including The Inhumans, which was originally slated to go into the slot currently occupied by Captain Marvel. It's highly likely that Black Panther will survive, because the culture needs a black superhero to anchor his own story — and because the cast and creative team for that movie are first-rate. But if for some reason both Doctor Strange and Black Panther come up short, that endangers Captain Marvel (even though we also need a female superhero film) and maybe even the second Ant-Man movie, given that the original, while terrific, wasn't as hugely popular as other MCU products.
The item here that most bears watching though is Avengers: Infinity War - Part 2, which directors Anthony and Joe Russo have already said might get a title-change because it's not really the second part of one story. If the first Infinity War can stand alone, is a second a certainty? Can anyone confidently predict that the public will still have a taste for bombastic superhero sagas three summers from now?
4. The DC Extended Universe (Warner Bros.)
Upcoming: Suicide Squad, 2016 (even); Wonder Woman, 2017 (even); Justice League, 2017 (even); The Flash, 2018 (3-1); Aquaman, 2018 (3-1); Shazam, 2019 (8-1); untitled Justice League sequel, 2019 (4-1); Cyborg, 2020 (10-1); Green Lantern Corps, 2020 (5-1); untitled Batman film, unscheduled (3-1); Harley Quinn, unscheduled (4-1); Booster Gold, unscheduled (15-1); Lobo, unscheduled (20-1)
The good news for DC fans is that advance word is strong on next month's big release, Suicide Squad, which should bode well for future films from Marvel's chief competitor. And after the critical drubbing that the ridiculously bleak Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice took this spring, Warner Bros. and the DC honchos seem to understand that they need to lighten up, and make their movies less punishing. Will those changes come too late, though? Warner has announced an ambitious slate of movies for the next five years, featuring superheroes that aren't exactly household names. If the Wonder Woman and Justice League films don't rebuild audience goodwill, it's highly unlikely that we'll ever see the likes of Shazam or Cyborg get their own solo pictures (as awesome as both could be). Really, the most intriguing DC projects right now are the ones with no release dates yet: Ben Affleck's standalone Batman movie (which the Oscar-winner will reportedly be writing and directing as well as starring in), and a showcase for Margot Robbie's puckish villain Harley Quinn (who's apparently the breakout star of Suicide Squad). Both of those may stand a better chance of getting made than yet another Green Lantern film.
5. The X-Men Universe (20th Century Fox)
Upcoming: untitled Wolverine film, 2017 (even); untitled Deadpool sequel, unscheduled (even); untiled Gambit film, unscheduled (2-1); untitled X-Men sequel, unscheduled (3-1); untitled New Mutants film, unscheduled (5-1); untitled X-Force film, unscheduled (5-1)
It's possible that by the end of Comic-Con this weekend, we'll have a lot more clarity about exactly what's definite and what's pie-in-the-sky about Fox's X-Men series. At this point, all we know for sure is that another Wolverine movie has begun shooting, and that Deadpool was such a hit that it's a lock for a sequel. Also, it appears that Channing Tatum will be on a movie set and playing Gambit by the end of this year, so that picture seems very likely to happen. But everything else — including whether or not there'll be another straight-up X-Men film after the relative disappointment of this summer's Apocalypse — is still up in the air. The big question that Fox has to ask is whether the Deadpool craze means that filmgoers are hungry for more super-powered mutants in general, or just for more Deadpool?
6. The Avatar sequels (20th Century Fox)
Upcoming: untitled Avatar 2, 2018 (2-1); untitled Avatar 3, 2020 (4-1); untitled Avatar 4, 2022 (6-1); untitled Avatar 5, 2023 (8-1)
This is one of the hardest franchises on this list to figure out. Writer-director-producer-visionary James Cameron has been talking about Avatar sequels since before the first film in the series was released in 2009. In the years since, the scope of the story has grown from two additional films to four; and as the bigger picture has expanded, the release date for Avatar 2 has continued to slide, from 2014 to 2018. Cameron has said that his plan is to shoot all four sequels simultaneously, which should mean that if one gets made, they all will. But what if the world is no longer as interested in spectacular 3-D ecology lectures as it was in 2009? Would Cameron cut his losses, and consolidate his footage into fewer films?
7. The Alien prequels (20th Century Fox)
Upcoming: Alien: Covenant, 2017 (even); three or four more untitled sequels, unscheduled (10-1 each)
The stealth Alien prequel Prometheus did very well in 2012, despite mixed reviews and some mockery from the franchise's longtime fans. While director-producer Ridley Scott has been working on the next film in the series, Alien: Covenant (which has begun shooting), he's also talked about making anywhere from three to four more movies, to link up Prometheus to the original Alien. Scott's on a roll after last year's magnificent The Martian, but he'll be 79 years old when Covenant comes out, and none of those other chapters in the saga appear to be anywhere close to going into production. If Scott's not around to make sure they happen — and if Covenant isn't a smash — will Fox have much incentive to see them through?
8. Universal monsters (Universal)
Upcoming: The Mummy, 2017 (even); untitled Wolf Man film, 2018 (3-1); untitled Frankenstein film, unscheduled (2-1); untitled bride of Frankenstein film, unscheduled (3-1); untitled Van Helsing film, unscheduled (4-1); untitled creature from the Black Lagoon film, unscheduled (5-1); untitled Invisible Man film, unscheduled (8-1); untitled Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde film, unscheduled (10-1)
Quick quiz: How many of you remember that the critically panned, barely profitable 2014 action-horror picture Dracula Untold was actually the first piece in a new shared cinematic universe? Looking to get into the crossover business using its own popular pre-existing properties, Universal announced a few years back that it would be reviving its classic 1930s/1940s monster movies, and weaving them all together into one mega-saga, overseen by Star Trek/Transformers screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci. Since then, Kurtzman and Orci have dissolved their filmmaking partnership, and thus far only The Mummy has actually begun shooting. The biggest news to come out of the series lately has been the reports that Javier Bardem will be playing Frankenstein's monster in one or more films. All of these titles are so well-known that if the remakes are any good at all they stand a chance to clean up at the global box office (except perhaps in China, where supernatural themes are frowned upon). Still, it's weird for a concept that has yet to produce one recent hit to be working so far ahead.
9. Godzilla-Kong (Warner Bros.)
Upcoming: Kong: Skull Island, 2017 (even); Godzilla 2, 2019 (4-1); Godzilla vs. Kong, 2020 (6-1)
Let's be frank: The money film here is Godzilla vs. Kong, which at present is slated to come out in the middle of the next presidential primary season. That's an eternity from now. But it's the nature of post-Avengers Hollywood to think that every good idea needs at least three movies of set-up (to maximize ticket sales, if nothing else). So even though the first Godzilla reboot was hit-and-miss, and though the second one currently has no director, and though the first King Kong reboot is being handled by a filmmaker (Jordan Vogt-Roberts) whose only previous feature was the wan indie dramedy The Kings of Summer, we still have to wait four years to see the most potentially exciting picture in this series. For that to happen, Skull Island and Godzilla 2 will have to do well enough to keep Godzilla vs. Kong viable. At the moment, there's not much reason to be optimistic.
10. The King Arthur cycle (Warner Bros.)
Upcoming: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, 2017 (even); five untitled sequels, unscheduled (20-1 each)
Here we come to the project that best represents what this entire list is about. Warner Bros. spent years trying to capitalize on the Hobbit/Game of Thrones fantasy craze by developing a new King Arthur movie. During the height of franchise fever in 2014, the studio announced plans to make a six-film Arthurian epic. In April of that year, with Guy Ritchie on board to direct — but no cast secured — Warner went ahead and set a July 22, 2016 date for King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, staking out a position in a summer already crowded with big tentpole movies. Legend of the Sword started shooting in early 2015, and wrapped in December. Not long after that, the studio bumped the release date from summer of 2016 to February of 2017, then to March of 2017. It's currently set to open in July of 2017, one year after it was originally intended. No timetable has yet been given for the five — repeat, five! — sequels.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword could be a great movie, and a huge hit. It could set off a frenzy for all things Arthurian, and make the producers look like geniuses for planning so far ahead. Or, if recent patterns hold, the first film will do very well, and then by the time the second one comes out — too many years later — the public won't remember why it was so crazy for King Arthur in the first place.
Making blockbusters is time-consuming and expensive, but as the Marvel Cinematic Universe has proved, it's also incredibly lucrative. Because timing is everything in Hollywood, it makes sense to be prepared to capitalize if a project connects. This summer, though, exposed the folly of planning out a blockbuster release schedule a decade in advance. It's as though, five years ago, each studio individually went ahead and ordered the same fried chicken dish for the 2016 summer cinema party. And now that the big event has arrived, the guests are walking down the buffet, asking, "Do you have anything lighter?"
That has to make Hollywood nervous.