According to behind-the-scenes footage from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Anthony Mackie (who played Sam Wilson, aka the Falcon) was in the habit of finishing his scenes, especially the wild and stunt-ridden more difficult scenes to film, with his own version of an affirmation: He’d call out, “Cut the check!” to indicate that they’d nailed another scene and everyone had earned their pay. After seeing Avengers: Endgame, the words that come to my mind are: Cut the check. Cut all the checks. Because there is no question Marvel has absolutely nailed its decade-long series of 23 movies devoted to the Avengers et al.
A lot of franchises have sought to achieve what Marvel has accomplished over the past decade, in terms of consistent quality, popularity and financial success; yet it’s safe to say that none of them have matched Marvel, and only a few have come close in one category, or maybe two, but not all three. It’s a singular triumph, to be sure. So the question, now that Marvel’s Avengers-based run is over, becomes: Could another movie franchise duplicate its success?
I’m not actually thinking of any of the existing movie franchises, of which there are too many to list here (well, I could list them, but I had a big lunch, and I’m feeling lazy right now). I’m thinking about what I’d like to see: A franchise based on serious science fiction content, so well-written, well-acted and well-produced that they are able to build a multi-movie world (or, ahem, universe if you must) and tell a far-reaching and highly entertaining story over a decade’s time.
For examples, there are certainly some possibilities in the SF literature world, but seriously, too many to mention; from Clarke’s Rama series, Steele’s Coyote Universe, Carver’s Chaos Chronicles, and lordy, so many more in-between, providing overarching epics worthy of movie treatment.
For maybe a better comparison, we can look to television… though there’s not many appropriate shows to look at there. You can consider Star Trek, clearly the most successful Sci-Fi series of shows on television… though in a lot of ways it’s not as serious an SF show as I’d like, and it’s never been a one-overarching-story series. There is also Babylon 5, arguably closer to serious science fiction than Star Trek and written around one overarching story. And probably the best example so far would be The Expanse, a highly realistic science fiction show (except for a single element, the alien life-form from outside our Solar System that seems to defy the very laws of physics) devoted to a single overarching storyline.
Looking at these bones allows us to extrapolate into a potential multi-movie series: The series could be based in the Solar System or beyond, and centered around groups of people in various locations in that shared universe. Although each of the first movies would be self-contained, there would be an underlying plot element that would link them together somehow, preferably to culminate in a story that would bring all of the groups together, or at least have them working together, to accomplish a shared goal. This plot element needs to be significant, with consequences large enough to impact major populations, future human development, or even humanity itself, to span the distances between planets or even star systems… but we’re talking about the science fiction genre, that’s not that far-fetched.
I know what I don’t want to see is the hackneyed old galactic conquest storyline that has plagued science fiction since Buck Rogers; I feel we’re well past ready to move beyond the fears spurred by the First World War and look to threats that don’t necessarily involve slaughtering each other for politics, territory or beliefs. Instead, encountering exotic and natural phenomena so alien and far-reaching as to threaten human efforts to explore and expand into the cosmos, would be great; it could take the form of alien life, but it could also be some other physical phenomena never before encountered by Man; and maybe having it be triggered by human contact, starting the chain of story events, would be ideal.
Most importantly, I’d like to see a series that embraced real science and tried not to foray too far into fantasy elements that were invented solely to simplify stories or save money on budgets (warp drive and transporters, I’m looking at you). I firmly believe there are plenty of sources for great drama, conflict, pathos and excitement without such tools.
Are we likely to see a multi-movie series like that, anytime soon? I can’t imagine how, considering the only thing movie producers think science fiction is good for are the same imperialistic-conquest-and-resistance stories typified by Star Wars, or for intellectual exercises suited only for potential entries in the next year’s award ceremonies. And audiences only shell out the kind of big money studios seek for action-adventure series. Yes, we’re much more likely to see more movies like Star Wars, Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, or perhaps scads more superhero fare, than we are to see a series of serious science fiction movies.
Maybe television or streaming services, with their different production and profit formulas, are the answer; perhaps individual stories broken up into multiple mini-series, each mini-series combined over time into a far-reaching saga, might do the trick. Speaking again of Marvel, this is about what they did on Netflix with their Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist series, all combined into The Defenders to tie up their individual stories. Or maybe there’s some hitherto-untried combination of movies, television and streaming, tying the saga together across multiple media, that will be the answer.
Either way, it makes for an interesting intellectual exercise… I even have some ideas ready for development. But nothing for which, I suppose, I expect anyone to cut a check.