Imagine you fell into a coma some time around the start of the millennium and just woke up. What year is it? You scan the cinema releases for clues. Let’s see: Keanu Reeves just had a new Matrix movie out, Tom Cruise has a Top Gun sequel coming out, Patrick Stewart is on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, Jamie Lee Curtis is working on yet another Halloween sequel, and Michael Keaton is returning as Batman. Surely you’ve only been out a few months? Except, wait a minute: all these actors appear to have aged several decades. Except Tom Cruise, which is even more confusing.
Welcome to the new reality of franchise movies, which is suspiciously like the old reality. Everywhere you look, veteran actors are being dragged out of retirement and back to roles they thought they’d moved on from years, even decades, ago. It’s like the opposite of cancel culture. It used to be that A-list actors would occasionally dip their toes in a blockbuster world when they had a new house or a divorce to finance, say, but increasingly they are finding that, as the Eagles would put it, you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.
Franchise movies have come to dominate the box office in the past decade, at the expense of most other kinds of film. But post-pandemic, it’s by no means certain that dominance will continue. Instead of moving forwards, mainstream entertainment seems to be going backwards; back over old ground, back to old characters and back, perhaps, to a time when blockbusters were a surer thing than they currently are.
The coming year promises to be one big deja vu. We already had a taste of it with recent superhero spin-off Morbius. Casual viewers may have been surprised, or simply confused, by the movie’s post-credits scenes, which suddenly introduced Michael Keaton – who’d had nothing to do with the preceding quasi-vampire antics. This was teeing up the return of Keaton as the Vulture, the villain he last portrayed five years ago in Spider-Man: Homecoming – the first of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man movies. Keaton’s next superhero callback is even more jarring. In DC’s forthcoming The Flash, as has been widely reported, Keaton returns as Batman for the first time since, er, Batman Returns, 30 years ago. Ben Affleck’s recently retired Batman also reportedly returns in The Flash, even as Robert Pattinson unveiled his new Batman incarnation this February.
Moviegoers might be experiencing a sense of double deja vu here. It was only last year that Marvel pulled the exact same trick. In Spider-Man: No Way Home, Tom Holland was joined by preceding Spider-Men Tobey Maguire (who last appeared in the role in 2007) and Andrew Garfield (last seen in 2014), plus vintage villains played by Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina and Jamie Foxx. Both Marvel and DC are playing with “multiverse” storylines, which provide a convenient excuse to bring back popular actors with whom older viewers might be more familiar.
It’s not just superhero movies, though. In May, Tom Cruise is back in the cockpit for Top Gun: Maverick after a hiatus of 36 years. In June comes Jurassic World: Dominion, which includes a few thespian dinosaurs alongside the CGI ones, namely Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum – reunited for the first time since the original Jurassic Park in 1993. Jamie Lee Curtis is currently working on a new Halloween sequel, having returned to the franchise in 2018 after a 16-year absence. And as well as his small-screen return as Star Trek’s Jean-Luc Picard (also after a 20-year break), Patrick Stewart is to resurrect his X-Men character Charles Xavier in the next Doctor Strange movie – again, 22 years after he first played him, and five years after he supposedly died in 2017’s Logan.
Actors reprising their old roles is not a new phenomenon in an era where every expensively acquired IP must be optimally monetised through reboots, sequels and spin-offs. But something seems to have changed. Look at Harrison Ford. In 2008, he returned as Indiana Jones after two decades, ostensibly to pass the whip to the next generation in the form of Shia LaBeouf, who played his son. Ford then returned as Star Wars’ Han Solo in 2015, alongside Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, again forming a bridge between the original movie trilogy and the latest one. Then in 2017, Ford was back after 35 years as Rick Deckard in Blade Runner 2049, again lending a sense of continuity to the long-delayed sequel.
None of these roles have done Ford any harm, but in torch-passing terms they haven’t worked out so well. The Indiana Jones franchise looks to have backed the wrong horse in LaBeouf, whose career has since veered away from A-list roles and been rocked by allegations of sexual assault (which LaBeouf denies). As a result, Ford, who turns 80 this summer, is back shooting a fifth instalment of Indiana Jones, due out next year. With Star Wars, too, there seems to be little appetite for further adventures with the new generation. Instead, the franchise is winding back the clock: next month comes an Obi-Wan Kenobi miniseries, with Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen stepping back into Jedi robes after a break of nearly 20 years.
It seems as if Hollywood’s franchise movies are eager to move their stories on and put the pandemic behind them, but cinema audiences just aren’t coming with them. It is telling that the only genuine post-pandemic blockbuster has been the three-for-the-price-of-one Spider-Man: No Way Home. That took $1.9bn globally, making it the sixth highest-grossing movie in history. Marvel’s other post-pandemic offerings, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Eternals, both of which introduced brand new characters, each took less than $500m worldwide – underwhelming by Marvel’s high standards.
Could the problem be young people? Traditionally, the 18-25 demographic has been the lifeblood of cinemagoing, but even before the pandemic there were signs young audiences were in decline. According to industry researcher Stephen Follows, UK cinema admissions for 15- to 24-year-olds fell 20% between 2011 and 2017, while the proportion of older cinemagoers grew. It is a similar story in the US and elsewhere. In his research, Follows often meets teenagers who have never been inside a cinema before. “Going to the cinema has got more expensive, which much more negatively affects younger audiences, because they have less disposable income,” he says.
In addition, the pandemic did much to accelerate the rise of streaming. For the first time, major studios released their tentpole movies online either simultaneously with or instead of a cinema release. The theatrical window has been broken, and is unlikely to ever be fixed. In the digital era, no one has to go to the cinema any more, not least young people.
In this light, the reinstatement of older actors to draw back older viewers – the ones who still remember the magic of moviegoing – makes sense. It is still too early to predict the shape of cinemagoing post-pandemic, but it may never return to the heights of 2019, says Comscore’s senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “If we wind up at 70 or 80% of pre-pandemic levels in North America [for 2022], I think that’s a great place, but we really need more than that to get the industry much more robust,” he says.
The future of cinemagoing is not just down to demographics, Dergarabedian adds: “Appealing to nostalgia with casting is great as long as the movie’s good.” Spider-Man: No Way Home was successful not just because of the casting but because it was a genuine crowd-pleaser. “If, let’s not call it stunt casting, let’s say if inspired casting is the catalyst to get people to go back to the movie theatre to see a really good movie, so be it. That’s great.”
In that respect, dragging the old guard out of retirement to sustain flagging interest could be a short-term fix at best. If audiences see it as a desperate gimmick to boost a cash-hungry Hollywood that’s running out of ideas, that would only accelerate the decline. But are we talking about the decline of cinema, or simply the decline of blockbuster cinema? Franchise cinema now dominates the movie market at the expense of all others. In 2019, franchise movies took 83% of worldwide box office for Hollywood movies. If they fell back a little and made space for the kinds of movies that have been squeezed out, it might mean one less pay cheque for a few seasoned actors, but it could make all the difference for the future of cinema.