Four film franchises. One decade. More than $10 billion worth of theater tickets sold.
In their best moments, the "Lord of the Rings," "Spider-Man," "X-Men" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies have delivered unforgettable adventure and escapism for audiences. Now, though, with the decade winding down and all four franchises sitting as nice, tidy trilogies, the question must be asked: Isn't three the magic number? Do we really need a fourth movie from any of these aging popcorn enterprises? The answer (in Hollywood, at least) is, of course, yes, but each franchise faces unique challenges moving forward.
'Lord of the Rings'/ 'The Hobbit'
The story so far: Director Peter Jackson's majestic and magical interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien's epic is arguably the gold standard now for fantasy-film franchises. The "Rings" film trilogy piled up a staggering $2.92 billion in worldwide box office (plus more than $3 billion in DVD and other ancillary sales) and also pulled off a magic trick that has eluded the "Star Wars" or "Harry Potter" franchises -- it cast a spell over voters in the marquee Oscar categories of best picture, director and adapted screenplay.
The challenge: The bad news is: Jackson won't be directing this time. The good news, though, is that Guillermo del Toro is his handpicked successor. After the unsettling and singular fairy visions of the Oscar-winning "Pan's Labyrinth," there's plenty of reason to get excited about the Guadalajara, Mexico, native's mighty imagination coming to bear on, say, the black forest of Mirkwood. Still, "The Hobbit," published in 1937, is considered by some to be Tolkien's literary warm-up act for his 1950s "Rings" epic, which is more complex, darker and intended for an older audience. The stakes are high: "The Hobbit" will be told over two films with a combined budget north of $300 million.
The status: Work is well underway in New Zealand on "The Hobbit," although principal photography won't begin until April. Major casting announcements are imminent (Ian McKellen is already in, as are Andy Serkis and Hugo Weaving, according to recent comments by Del Toro in a BBC interview) and there will be plenty of time for fans to debate them -- the first of the two films isn't due until December 2011, with the sequel to follow in December 2012.
Jackson is onboard as co-writer and executive producer and, by all accounts, his working relationship with Del Toro is a supportive and upbeat one. And, miraculously, the film seems to have finally escaped the dreaded pits of litigation; an ugly dispute with the late Tolkien's heirs was settled in September and Jackson's scorched-earth battle with New Line Cinema was somehow resolved in 2007 and now seems like a fading memory -- well, at least to all of us who didn't pay attorney fees.
The story so far: Not that long ago, the standard assumption in Hollywood was that there were only two superheroes with enough general-audience appeal to carry a film franchise -- Superman and Batman. That changed in May 2002 when "Spider-Man" swung into theaters and grabbed $115 million domestically in its opening weekend, a new record at the time. Unlike the majestic Man of Steel of Metropolis or the handsome billionaire prowling Gotham, this hero was a high school nerd bitten by a bug. Not only did he fight villains, he had to contend with homework, money problems and a losing streak with girls.
The franchise, directed by Sam Raimi and starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, has continued to soar commercially -- "Spider-Man 3" in May 2007 again set the mark for the biggest U.S. opening weekend with $151 million (although last year's "The Dark Knight" edged it with $158 million).
The challenge: A fourth "Spider-Man" film is a no-brainer for Sony -- the web-slinger movies rank as the three highest-grossing films in the studio's history. But while the first two films were widely praised for their verve and heart, the third struck many viewers as noisy, hollow and disjointed. Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan wrote, "It's as if its plot elements were the product of competing contractors who never saw the need to cooperate on a coherent final product." The fourth movie has other challenges: How many other ways can the relationship between Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson be bent without totally losing its shape? What villain left on the list can connect with a wide audience?
The status: In May, Raimi told The Times that filming on the fourth film will start in February. In that interview, he said he has regrets not just about the third film, but all of them. "What would I have done differently? I would have done everything differently, every single shot, I think, in every picture that I've ever made. Everything that I've done torments me."