When film historians look back at this era of cinema, they will refer to this as the franchise wars: a time when studios fought one another to try and scrape out real estate for whatever comic book, young-adult novel series or toy line they could parlay into multiple films for years.
Franchises are nothing new, but the rate and frequency of them has ramped up heavily. It used to be a movie would go a few years between subsequent installments, but audiences seem to have an insatiable appetite for these big-budget spectacles. So, instead of a Marvel movie every year or two, we get two or more a year. Instead of spreading out a series of movies like “The Hobbit” across several years, we get an annual installment. Starting this year we’re getting a new “Star Wars,” and will continue to get one annually until Disney decides it is no longer financially viable.
While the proliferation of franchises and their importance to the movie studios increased exponentially, it was when studios started splitting very small stories into multiple installments to pad the bottom line that made potentially compelling stories trite. It started with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” which became two movies. Initially, it doesn’t seem too crazy a decision: splitting a very large book into two films. It was the seventh installment of the series and had spent 10 years building up to this conclusion. Even though “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” seemed to start this trend of “Part 1” and “Part 2,” it feels insincere to hold them responsible. However, once everyone in Hollywood saw they could get two for the price of one, others followed suit.
Less dense tomes like “Twilight: Breaking Dawn” were split into multiple installments, stretching already thin material into a brutal four-hour gauntlet. New Line Cinema turned “The Hobbit,” a 300-page children’s book, into three super boring CGI circle jerks without an ounce of soul or humanity. While it might be good for short-term profits, it’s starting to have an impact on the stories being told. There may be no better example of this than the cinematic adaptation of “The Hunger Games” books.
I liked “The Hunger Games.” In fact, I was kind of surprised by it. On paper it seemed like a typical dystopian nightmare scenario: Kids are rounded up from various districts by a powerful government and forced into combat with one another to determine a victor. It lacked the brutality of its spiritual predecessor, “Battle Royale,” but it was an interesting and well-constructed story. It lacked teeth (and blood), but at the core was a story about oppression and the will to survive in a world gone mad. The second installment, “Catching Fire,” did an even better job of building up that world and showing the growing resentment between the districts and the machinations of an evil regime willing to do whatever it takes to maintain control.
It’s the last two films that have served to unravel the overall quality of the series. That can be attributed to the idea there was no need for “Mockingjay” to be two separate movies. As an action film, “Mockingjay” is top-notch and full of enough of well-choreographed mayhem to be considered entertaining. Over the course of two movies, however, much of the weight has been alleviated. “Mockingjay” parts 1 and 2 feel padded. Sure, genuinely brutal moments exist in the film, and
I appreciate the ending, which doesn’t go for easy answers. But one of the problems with the perpetual franchises is it feels almost impossible to judge a single entry on its own merits.
Part 2 is a perfectly decent film. It brings back the franchise’s great actors who sport those ridiculous names: Katniss, Peeta, President Snow, Alma Coin, Haymitch, Effie Trinket, Beetee Laiter. These sound like names assigned by a 6-year-old wigging out on pixie sticks. I can’t remember a big-budget blockbuster franchise with this many award-caliber actors sharing the screen. Ultimately, the story still feels thin. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) never really gets fleshed out. In scenes that require gravitas, she comes across like a petulant child.
I certainly wouldn’t call “The Hunger Games” a failure as a series. There’s a lot of good over the course of four films, but I think as three films it may have been able to achieve “great.”
As well, keeping this young-adult series PG-13 greatly diminishes the darkness the original books paint. It’s why a movie like “Battle Royale” haunts, and movies like “The Hunger Games” struggle to provide real emotional weight. At the end of the “Harry Potter” movies, all of it felt earned because the audience had time to get to know the characters over a span of many years. “The Hunger Games” saga felt kind of forced. Maybe I’m just being judgy here, but there’s part of me that leaves “The Hunger Games” franchise not feeling sated.