Not Everything Needs to Be a Cinematic Universe, from Fantastic Beasts to Mattel and Hasbro

The unambiguous success of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” sent a clear message to Hollywood: audiences are dying to see more auteur-driven, standalone blockbusters and will show up in droves if the movies are good. In a just world, the two films would kick off a new era of unprecedented Hollywood creativity. In our world, we might have to settle for 45 more Mattel movies. 

The toy giant is moving ahead with an ambitious slate of film projects at various stages of development. Everything from Polly Pocket to UNO is on the table as studios try to extract another “Barbie” from the company’s IP library. While most cinephiles would be quick to point out that their interest in “Barbie” stemmed from the involvement of Greta Gerwig and her top-notch cast, Mattel seems to believe its other toys can generate similar levels of excitement. 

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You can’t blame a studio for trying. The gravity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe spun Hollywood off its axis years ago, centering already-popular IP as the money-printing sun of our storytelling galaxy. Hollywood’s love of a good sequel was nothing new, but traditional franchises were always limited by the time-consuming process of making a movie. Between balancing talent schedules and allocating time for long shoots, you were guaranteed a two or three year gap before a series could return. But the concept of cinematic universes blew up that formula. By making movies that simply exist in the same world as other movies, a studio can flood the market with a limitless supply of content that ensures nobody ever has time to miss their favorite franchises.

Things are bleak, and even those responsible for that bleakness know it. Anti-franchising commentary permeates film culture to the point of such spectacular self-parody that “Scream V” — er, “Scream” (2022) — and “The Matrix: Resurrections” effectively made the same joke about sequels within a month of each other. The Most Online movies push that shallow self-awareness even further, blatantly capitalizing on corporate partnerships and sucking up to brands in the process. Look at “Free Guy” and “Ralph Breaks the Internet”: kids’ films that personify and effectively canonize business logos as characters in entertainment alongside video games’ greatest heroes and Disney’s beloved princesses.

IP humor is more cloying than cute these days. But waxing philosophical about the tail-chasing disaster that is modern movie franchising is in itself a redundant activity. So rather than wallow in the sudsy sadness of the entertainment washing machine, we’re taking a stroll through the graveyard of franchise disasters we get schadenfreude from revisiting.

The following 11 disasterpieces represent some of the biggest swings-and-misses in TV and film. Not all of them are crossover events or feature explicit multiverses. But every project outstayed its welcome, and reminded audiences that sometimes once is enough.

With editorial contributions by Wilson Chapman and Marcos Franco.

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