But all that penny-pinching and time-saving comes with a hidden cost: really, really awful sequels. Hollywood knows we won’t pay for original documentaries about the realities of divorce or the strength of the human spirit—so we simply get more Batman, more Bilbo, and more Bourne.
Enough is enough. Let’s tell Hollywood we’re ready for something better. We’ll take a quick look at a couple of series that somehow got things right, then count down the most stale series in Hollywood, from “starting to smell” to “spoiled rotten.” Just remember: this is our fault, not theirs.
Quick note: for this list, I only considered series with at least one installment since 2010, or series with firm plans for a new entry within the next couple of years.
First: Series That Got it Right
B. The Fast and the Furious
Both series have avoided sequelitis, but for opposite reasons. Bond is the rare series that takes itself seriously enough, reworking old concepts, consistently featuring great villains, and even recasting the leading man every few years to keep things fresh. With the possible exception of the last couple Pierce Brosnan Bonds, you never feel like a new Bond installment is there only for the money. They’ve got a classic brand to protect, and they’re not going to waste it on a B-quality film.
The Fast and the Furious, meanwhile, never took itself seriously in the first place. The series made a few critical decisions early on—looks over acting talent, fast cars over intricate plots, one-liners over realistic dialogue—and stuck to them, churning out six supremely entertaining films in just over a decade.
If only we could say the same for the following series…
The “Don’t Push It” Category
22. The Toy Story Series
21. The Despicable Me Series
The chatty, critically-adored Before series was a quiet surprise (Before Sunrise), then a charming sequel (Before Sunset), then a surprisingly raw drama (Before Midnight). With nearly two decades between the first and third entry, the series has already survived far beyond anyone’s expectations. So let’s be happy with that and not fiddle with a good thing.
Similarly, we should proceed cautiously with Pixar’s last great film (Toy Story 3) and the best non-Pixar animated series of the last five years (Despicable Me). Toy Story remained impossibly good in its third installment, while Despicable Me probably has done well enough to deserve one more feature film (already slated for June 2017). Anything else, however, and either series likely jumps the shark.
The “What, They’re Still Making Those Movies?” Category
19. The Alvin and the Chipmunks Series
18. The Madagascar Series
While we’re discussing animated films, let’s throw these three hidden gems in the conversation. Air Bud is now in straight-to-video mode, but with 12 entries, something had to be said. Let’s toast the times we’ve had and put these puppies to sleep.
Alvin and co. are a bit more worrisome (after 2009’s The Squeakquel and 2011’s Chipwrecked, we’re all set to bottom out by Christmas 2015), but the real threat is the new soundtrack, not the upcoming movie. The world can only take so many chirpy, shrill pop-singles-turned-Alvin-mp3s.
And yes, finally, the Madagascar series is still trotting along defiantly, with both a direct-to-video and feature film release planned through 2018. I think we all would have been happy to leave things in Africa after #2, but this whole thing was a literal zoo in the first place. Let’s not pretend we can control it.
The “Got a Little Greedy” Category
16. The Die Hard Series
Some series earn classic status, then take things one installment too far, tarnishing their legacy slightly, but not fatally. Think Michael Jordan on the Wizards or Tiger Woods' sloppy play post-2009.
Say what you will about the Harry Potter film series (poorly paced! worse than the books!) but the films had achieved something resembling a satisfying hum by entry #5. Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) had finally developed some acting chops, Emma Watson (Hermione) was clearly destined for a long acting career, and Rupert Grint was, well, Ron. Then Warner Bros. demanded that the 7th book be split into two, reminding us that the whole thing was just a big money grab after all. Shameless.
The Die Hard series got a little greedy too, but only because it kept milking the series all the way through 2013. For anyone who doesn’t know, here’s the official rule: if more than a decade has passed before the last installment in a series, you get one (1) bring-the-band-back-together reboot, and only one. For Die Hard, 2007’s Live Free or Die Hard was that movie. 2013’s A Good Day to Die Hard? Now that’s just embarrassing. Give it up.
The “It Was Old, But Maybe It’s Not Anymore?” Category
14. The Mission: Impossible Series
For this category, things can go one of two ways: first, a classic series can be revived with stunning success…or that same series’ legacy can be tainted forever. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Star Wars is the most obvious example, with Episode VII looming in 2015. We exhausted the whole “but wait, you just can’t make more Star Wars movies” narrative back in 1999-2005. Today? We’re just numb. Episode VII will determine everything: whether Episodes I-III were the sophomore slump, or the beginning of a slow, multi-film death, more agonizing than death by Sarlacc.
Mission: Impossible finds itself in a similar place, although the stakes (and chances of future success) are both a bit lower. When the last installment--Ghost Protocol--was first announced, it seemed the series was headed toward the direct-to-video bargain bin, or as it’s come to be known in 2014, "Netflix.” But with Brad Bird at the helm (The Incredibles, Ratatouille), Ghost Protocol was light on its feet, briskly-paced, and best of all, playful. Suddenly, Mission: Impossible has an outside shot to become another Fast and Furious action series: reliable entertainment, year after year. But perhaps more likely, the series will end up a proud member of the next category...
The “We All Realized, All At Once, The Series Was Done” Category
12. The Expendables Series
Call it a victory. When a series ends with a truly rotten installment—so rotten that even the studio knows it—everybody is better off. We avoid the slow decline of straight-to-Netflix sequels. We go back and watch the good entries to forget the stink of the bad one. We dodge the usual “what went wrong” cocktail party post mortems, because, well, everybody knows exactly what went wrong. Trust me: this is the least painful way to go.
The “Just Getting Going” Category
10. The Iron Man Series**
9. The Pirates of the Caribbean Series
8. The Bourne Series
These series all should have ended abruptly, but regrettably, are just picking up steam. This can happen for two reasons. First, the latest installment might actually be pretty good (ex: Batman, Iron Man), and the studio misinterprets the good vibes as a reason to keep churning out sequels. This is unfortunate, but not dire—not even the studio can take the good entries away from us.
The far more ominous situation, however, is when a series’ latest installment is bad (ex: Pirates, Bourne), but not bad enough for the studio to get the message. Rapidly, the studio begins to act like a spurned suitor whose object of desire didn’t get the message across. A long line of misfires follow, each an attempt to “make up” for the last transgression, but each even more awkward and offensive than the last. And so we implore Pirates and Bourne: save yourselves the trouble, give it up, and move on, please. Maybe if we’re both still single by 2024, we can try again.
*I know the Christopher Nolan series is officially over, but I’m counting Batman vs. Superman (2016) as an extension. For reference: superhero films must wait at least one (1) decade between series before I’m willing to sit down for another slate of films.
** It looks like Robert Downey Jr. is done with Iron Man. But I don’t trust Marvel to kill this thing. Hopefully, I’m wrong.
The “It Was Immediately Old Upon the First Film’s Release, and Somehow, is Still Going” Category
6. The Divergent Series
This happens most often with me-too film series trying to recreate the success of another hit. After The Lord of the Rings blew up the box office, Disney signed on to distribute the closest thing they could think of: Narnia! It was perfect. The book series’ two authors (Tolkien and Lewis) even used to get together at the same pub in Oxford. While the Narnia series has done just fine in the box office (read: all that really matters), the series’ entries have gotten steadily worse. I don’t care how much The Silver Chair makes—this won’t end well.
Meanwhile, Lionsgate hopes Divergent will be the next Hunger Games (they even reference “The Hunger Games” by name in some promotional materials). The two leads aren’t bad, but the film itself is comically unoriginal, a patchwork of Hunger Games-style class warfare, angsty teenagers, and stern societal rules. The film is desperate to make a bad concept work. More films won’t fix this.
The “Colossal Nose Dive” Category
4. The Transformers Series
Some film series suddenly drop off after a good run. Others fade off gradually. Still others hang around for a decade, releasing a stream of similar, mediocre installments year after year.
Not these series. Men in Black and Transformers are unique: they both began on high notes, promptly released terrible sequels, then somehow continued the negative trend, releasing third (and in Transformers’ case, fourth) installments, each noticeably worse than the last. This is rare territory. We’re beyond the low-profile flops and quiet killers—these films are Godzillas, destroying the collective will of moviegoers with each loud, terrifying release.
In a metaphor far too tidy for the disastrous state of the series, USA Today reports that Michael Bay will “pass the baton" for future Transformers installments. Here’s hoping he botches the hand-off.
The “Please, Please Just Stop" Category
2. The X-Men Series
1. The Spider-Man Series
And so we arrive at the worst of the worst. These series are the sadistic villains of the movie world, deriving pleasure from audience pain, insulting the intelligence of moviegoers around the globe. At one point, we used to joke about these series, wondering “how long they could possibly go” and whether people would “keep paying” to see the "same plot" played out for a third, fourth, or even fifth time.
Today, we’re past the jokes. There’s nothing funny about turning 300 pages of a single children’s book (The Hobbit) into three, 3-hour films. There’s nothing funny about releasing eight X-Men films since 2000, with two more already in development. And there’s nothing funny about rebooting Spider-Man after the Tobey Maguire series had already tried the world’s patience, then adding a single word (“Amazing”) to the series title, as though that excuses such a shameless burst of unoriginality.
Stop the madness, Hollywood. We know we started it, but we promise to be better. It’s time for a fresh start.