The critical and financial success of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows ignited a short, but powerful new trend in Hollywood. Apparently studio’s could double their intake by splitting films in half! The Twilight Saga was the first to take the bait. Despite their negative reception, the Twilight films had quite a strong following, which allowed its producers to cut their film reel in half and double their intake on Breaking Dawn. The result was even worse than expected: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part I told the story of how Bella and Edward prepared for their wedding, said the words and then consummated their marriage. Though its runtime was nearly two hours, the whole film could have been summarized as the 15-minute setup for Part II. As with The Deathly Hallows, the first part of Breaking Dawn lacked action, while the second part had a surplus of it. In both cases however, the second part received praise for delivering on the franchise’s overall storyline.
It’s easy to compare the development of the multi-part film franchising strategy to the trend of creating cinematic universes. Marvel Studios set up the first five films of the MCU as the lead up to its climax, The Avengers. Just like with the split of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, this idea came from the desire to tell a great story. The franchises that followed The Avengers wished to duplicate its success by trying to quickly milk their own cash cow-franchises, but by doing so before even raising their calf to cow. The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, The Mummy (as well as Dracula Untold) and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword all became franchise killers rather than grand successes. The same happened with the multi-part film.
The red flags raised by Breaking Dawn didn’t prevent other franchises from trying to cash in on the latest trend. In an attempt to prolong their respective series’ existence, The Hobbit famously split its paper-thin storyline into an overly long three-part film series; The Hunger Games massacred its audience’s goodwill by slaughtering the franchise’s pacing with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part I; and perhaps the most painful of all: The Divergent Series decision to split its final film into two films turned out so bad that the studio never even bothered to finish the franchise.
The Superhero Contribution
Meanwhile, two major franchises still had a “Part I” and “Part II” in the pipeline. In October 2014, both Warner Bros. and Marvel Studios announced to split their team up-films: they would present us with Justice League Part One and Part Two and Avengers: Infinity War: Part I and Part II. After the critical reception of Mockingjay and Allegiant, however, the tags for both franchises were dropped and each film was marketed as separate story. Unfortunately, Justice League didn’t fare well critically or commercially and any plans for a sequel – whether as a “part two” or as a separate storyline – were put on hold.
In turn, Avengers: Infinity War was neatly folded into the MCU as a singular entry. Though there are some people who wish to argue Avengers: Infinity War had an open ending, this is far from true when looking at the story the movie tells. In the year leading up to the release of Infinity War, the Russo brothers often pointed out that the film would tell the story of Thanos, marking him as the film’s main character. In the film, Thanos’ storyline follows the same traditional three-act structure as, for example, Tony Stark’s storyline in Iron Man. In Infinity War, Thanos hoped to collect all six infinity stones to be able to balance the universe. Along the way he was thwarted by a series of enemies and, after being almost defeated and losing something precious to him, he finally managed to defeat the bad guys and achieve his goal. Though the film carried the bankable Avengers name, the superhero team’s role in the film was that of the antagonists.
The Future of the Multi-Part Film
The commercial and/or critical failure of most of the multi-part films released after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows seems to have lessened the willingness of the major studios to take the risk of splitting their films, regardless of the strategy’s short-term financial benefits. The decisions made by Marvel Studios and Warner Bros. to shy away from the model after having already announced the release of their split films, gave a clear indication that Hollywood’s major studios began to see the long term consequences of splitting their stories in half.
Marvel Studios’ clever way of handling the story of Infinity War and the decision not to cut back on the three-hour runtime of Avengers: Endgame now seems to have truly put a nail in the coffin of the short-lived franchising strategy. If it’s up to the Russo brothers – and while handling a franchise as successful as the MCU, it kind of is – the future of film seems to be a return to the days of old, when movies like Gone with the Wind and Ben-Hur still ran for as long as it took to tell a great story.
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