For better or for worse, we live in the age of the franchise. It’s a cliché that holds more than a grain of truth that so many of the features we see these days are prequels, remakes, sequels or some other rehashed effort. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a creative dearth in film, it’s just that the divide between independent cinema and the realm of safe-betting big-budget movies is now a chasm that very few flicks bridge.
As Francis Ford Coppola remarked, it used to be the case that you graduated from the tight-fisted controlling world of indie cinema to get a shot at having free reign over a big budget, but now it is the other way around. Take, for instance, the case of Chloé Zhao, she graduated from creative control over a small budget on Nomadland and was instantly swallowed into the world of Lycra seemingly seconds after her Oscars were collected.
However, while this might not seem that creatively fruitful, there are more than a few franchise debuts from various eras that have been so good they not only warranted a second serving but it was demanded by the masses like a less tentative mob of Oliver Twists.
Below, we’re looking at the ten best franchise debuts in history. (Sadly, with Speed having only two films under its belt, it’s apparently not technically a franchise, c’est la vie.)
The ten greatest film franchise debuts of all time:
10. Dr No (James Bond)
With No Time to Die currently scoring rave reviews, Bond, James Bond, is receiving a heap of column inches at the moment. Thus, it’s worth remembering that none of the 25 films that have followed would’ve been possible without the Terence Young-directed franchise debut of Dr No way back in 1962.
While certain elements of the picture are now rightly deemed condemnable, the fun, thrills and utter insanity that it offered was engrossing enough to ensure many more would follow. Though the reviews at the time were mixed with some cheering “movie magic” and others touting that it “seems slightly silly,” that was all part of the inherent fun. People wanted more of this debauched character and, with that attitude among revellers, the future of franchises was set in stone.
9. Batman Begins (Modern Batman series)
Peculiarly, when Christopher Nolan ventured from the realm of independent thrillers into the fabled territory of everyone’s favourite aristocratic mammalian vigilante, it was a franchise reboot that nobody was really calling for. Three films later and it’s hard to think of any modern cinematic outings that have had more of an influence.
Although the debut effort might get lost in the praise for its follow-up, it still resides as a brilliant picture in its own right. Although clearly a few of the details are being ironed out, it set in motion a wheel that drove the caped crusader away from hammy comic book action and into a territory akin to a straight-up thriller with a flamboyant costume budget, even if some of the Joker-based efforts to follow have somewhat dropped the ball.
8. Dirty Harry (Dirty Harry series)
“Well, are you feeling lucky, punk?” – it’s a line that has gone down in cinema history as an archetype of badass utterances that a thousand scriptwriters have tried to copy. Ultimately, however, it comes down to the delivery; even this original epic could’ve been rendered as cheesy as all the permutations that have followed if it wasn’t done with such inherent style.
In some ways, the line has wrongfully eclipsed the magnificent movie that spawned it. Dirty Harry is a flick that still proves influential on crime noir today let alone the franchise that came after it. With its perfectly on the money of the zeitgeist aesthetic, dark realism and cut-throat lines aplenty, it’s a debut that still stands the test of time and resides as a Friday night-in phenomenon.
7. Raiders of the Lost Ark (The Indiana Jones franchise)
The action-packed adventures of Indiana Jones have proved so beloved that even at 79-years-old Harrison Ford is once more set to crack the whip on all the filthy treasure stealing Bolshevists that besiege this world. Whether the forthcoming instalment sits as a peak or trough on the undulating curve of the archaeological franchise is anyone’s guess.
With the debut picture, Raiders of the Lost Ark, a sort of subterranean Star Wars was born. While its casual use of Nazi’s might be facile and there is a fair swathe of absurdity regarding other elements, there is enough wholesome intent to skirt it into classic territory without too many slings and arrows in its flanks.
6. Alien (The Alien series)
The Alien series is less of a franchise and more of a loose hodgepodge splurge of recurring characters like a lazy tenant’s frustrating lack of cutlery draw organisation. While it’s difficult to keep track of everything that has followed, like a summer signing who has a few great games early on but doesn’t put the work in and drifts into obscurity around Christmas, Alien got off to a start that promised so much.
With Sigourney Weaver refreshingly anchoring a rare strong female lead in the era and a superb ensemble including the late great John Hurt, Ridley Scott brought about a new sci-fi revolution that is now ubiquitous. Shocking and intriguing in equal measure, it had enough substance to back up the style and etched itself onto the sensibilities of viewers immediately.
5. Die Hard (The Die Hard series)
Action franchises might be as common and frustratingly unoriginal as “sure go ahead skip this advert” commercials these days, but there was a time before a certain “Yippie Ki Yay” espousing lunatic came along, that action heroes barely had enough depth to stretch out over 90 minutes.
When it comes to Die Hard, there is something beautifully formulaic that made a follow up a foregone thing. It’s a box-ticking movie that might not sound like a great artistic compliment, but it never sets out to be a movie Mona Lisa and as such, there is something wonderfully satisfying that it does everything it set out to achieve.
4. Mad Max (Mad Max franchise)
The crazed kaleidoscope of the Mad Max dystopia is one that raised the bar for action. With his manic universe, George Miller set about his work like a surrealist artist, dishing out flourishes of the fantastical to add a perverse twist to his allegorical tale of the future.
On a low budget, Miller achieved the gargantuan feat of pushing indie madness into the stilted mainstream with aplomb, and he didn’t water down the piece one iota to do so. Riding along on a classic structure of storytelling vengeance, the colourful surface and masochistic touches subvert the usual ‘maverick cop with integrity’ tropes and the result is thrilling.
3. The Silence of the Lambs (The Hannibal Lecter series)
The Silence of The Lambs is 118 minutes long, Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter is in just 16 of those. In that short time on screen, he not only secured himself an Oscar for Best Actor in a ‘Leading Role’ but also imbued the viewing public with such an indelible impression that Martha Stewart had to stop dating him because she couldn’t stop associating him with a brain-eating lunatic.
The fact that 30 years on people still regurgitate lines that the mind-walloped-psychopath snarled out, is a testament to an unforgettable performance in an unforgettable film. While the follow-ups have never bettered this original, Hannibal Lecter is a very welcome addition to the cinematic universe.
2. Star Wars (Star Wars)
Star Wars changed the entire world of cinema perhaps more than any other movie. Suddenly toys and annuals were being made to ensure that the legacy of a film lived beyond the big screen and people came back for more. Rather than a horrible trick of art-defiling mass commercialism, there was so much integrity and ingenuity behind this film that it seemed lightyears ahead.
The franchise has now transcended the world of cinema and is woven into the fabric of society. None of this would’ve been possible if the big-budget debut had flopped, but it had enough classic storytelling to go with the escapist universe to ensure it would live on in imaginations and big screens for millions of years to come.
1. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Middle Earth)
Fantasy is a much-maligned genre outside of its ever-growing core of fans, but the Lord of the Rings / Hobbit franchise not only broke into the mainstream but frankly toppled it off its perch. A world of orcs and dragons is laughable to some because quite frankly it often is, but for others it offers escapism. The reason that Lord of the Rings conquered the wider public was because it was a world so perfectly realised that none of the details seemed frivolous or kitsch.
With stunning cinematography and an epic score, Middle Earth transcended the boundaries of Warhammer stigma and becoming an Oscar-adored piece of art. Granted, it’s not for everyone, but the fact it converted more people to fantasy than any other film and its influence is still being felt to a fevered degree means it ticks the classic review box of ‘you don’t have to like fantasy films to enjoy it’. As it happens, its first outing was probably its best.