Every year the online film journal Senses of Cinema calls for written contributions from film critics, scholars, and cinephiles around the world that reflect the most memorable and significant viewing experiences during the year gone by.
I would usually read this annual poll with interest and curiosity but also a sense of disconnection with the type of film and viewing practices that regularly appear. Since my academic research interests and personal tastes keep me regularly invested in the latest Hollywood blockbuster, I never really thought my regular viewing habits had a place in this project.
However, I wanted to contribute to the recent poll because I think mainstream and commercial cinema has creative and industrial value and shouldn’t be ignored when reflecting on the year of cinema. This is especially true for my own experience of movie-going and I think that the franchise movies released in 2017 took some interesting directions. Some failed terribly and some were very successful, but what I really wanted to reflect on was how these releases are important to the development of franchising as a mode of cinema production.
There is a lot more to be said about each of the movies listed, and I hope to expand on these reflections in other posts throughout the year. I have reproduced my contribution below with kind permission from Senses of Cinema. Check out the original post and be sure to also have a look at the many other entries submitted to the project.
Apparently 2017 was the year that cinema died…again. This is largely attributed to Hollywood hitting peak franchise fever…again. I have a lot of appreciation for the complexities of franchise cinema, and so I hope this fever rages on. I think the franchise movies released in 2017 presented exciting possibilities for this still-developing mode of blockbuster cinema. So here I have focused on ten movies that I consider important for shaping this development in 2017 (listed in order of release, not ranked).
1. Logan (James Mangold, 2017)
Mangold’s take on the Wolverine character from the X-Men franchise kicked-off the year of taking franchise movies in new directions. Hugh Jackman’s performance gives a complex perspective to this aged character, but what I love most about Logan is its western genre undertones, punctuated by an homage to Shane (George Stevens, 1953). Many critics have said that Logan is good ‘for a superhero movie’, but I think it shows that the superhero genre can be profound in its own right.
2. Kong: Skull Island (Jordan Vogt-Roberts, 2017)
This iteration of the cinema icon gives new life to Skull Island, by way of a hat-tip to Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), and continues to realize Kong’s defining role in the history of innovative animation. There is a lot I love about this movie, including how this adaptation of Kong draws from all three past iterations (1933, 1976, and 2005). The post-credit ‘stinger’ scene, however, reveals that this isn’t just another adaptation of Kong, but a set-up for a monster universe also inhabited by Godzilla with a bigger world yet to explore.
3. Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017)
I was in awe of the aesthetic used to portray Diana Prince in-action throughout this movie. I loved Jenkins’s bold use of slow-motion and close-ups (in tandem with a rocking music motif) to cinematically draw attention to this superhero’s long-overdue arrival on the cinema screen. The critical, popular, and, especially, financial success of Wonder Woman seems to have also had a major influence on the DC franchise universe, as Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2017) (see entry 9) explicitly negotiates and discusses Diana’s leadership role.
4. The Mummy (Alex Kurtzman, 2017)
This movie was intended to kick-start the Dark Universe franchise by drawing from Universal Studio’s catalogue of classical Hollywood monster movies as source material. Despite the failure of this strategy, this premise is still so exciting to me and I find the ambition of this strategy intriguing. It’s a bold claim, but I think the critical and box-office failure of The Mummy makes it one of the most important franchise movies released this year.
5. Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott, 2017)
Scott has taken the Alien franchise in new and contentious directions. However, I think his experimentation with transmedia storytelling has been a bold inclusion into the narrational fabric of this franchise. I watched this movie twice in the cinema. The first time I was very aware of how my experience of this movie was shaped by the two prologue shorts (misunderstood by many to be trailers during publicity)—titled Last Supper and The Crossing—and I was fascinated with the richer experience it gave me of key scenes and revelations. My second viewing was in a screening hosted by Luma Pictures, one of the Melbourne VFX studios who worked on Alien: Covenant as well as Spiderman: Homecoming (see entry 6). It’s always a profound experience to be in a cinema space with local artists who have worked on an international blockbuster movie and to share applause with them as their names rolled during the credits.
6. Spider-Man: Homecoming (Jon Watts, 2017)
This made all the right creative moves for me: it embraced a John Hughesian ‘teen movie’ expression of the superhero genre and it beautifully celebrated Spider-Man’s homecoming into the Avengers universe. This wasn’t only notable for Marvel audiences, but the collaboration between Marvel and Sony made this an important franchise movie.
7. War for the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2017)
Reeves concludes the trilogy started by Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, 2011) and offers a compelling take on how the ability to speak defines our humanity. I experienced a phenomenal (if hyperbolic) moment in the cinema watching this movie: I felt honoured to be alive on the same planet where cinema is made. I think it’s significant to still be affected by the illusion of cinema like this in 2017.
8. Thor: Ragnarok (Taika Waititi, 2017)
Waititi expertly commands the difficult task of negotiating his own eccentric auteur style within the Marvel Studios franchise formula. I don’t get a lot of opportunity to watch many Australian movies in the cinema lately (I’ll have to blame that on the franchise fever), so I was delighted to not only appreciate the Australian and New Zealand contributions to this movie, both in front of the camera and behind-the-scenes, but to also enjoy its familiar tone and humour (anyone who missed the reference to The Castle (1997) voiced in a Kiwi accent missed out big-time).
9. Justice League (Zack Snyder, 2017)
This is worth listing because of how overtly it tries to understand and negotiate the direction of the DC universe, which, despite the success of Wonder Woman, remains in Marvel’s shadow. I enjoyed Justice League because of how genuinely it acknowledged and tried to address this struggle in its character dynamics (see entry 3).
10. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, 2017)
My response to this latest Star Wars instalment has been nothing short of confronting. The Last Jedi’s subversive discard of the past makes it a divisive movie amongst audiences. Personally, after viewing The Last Jedi multiple times, this negation has forced me to question my connection with what I think defines Star Wars and has indeed strengthened my relationship with the Force (however it works anymore).