From start to finish, 2022 felt like a weird year, one where the stability of nearly everything we’ve taken for granted was greatly tested in some form or fashion. Southwest Airlines currently being in the middle of a massive travel nightmare feels like a pretty apt comparison; everyone’s either confused or pissed off (or, well, both), and there’s a general sense of feeling lost as we all try to process what went down this year. That collective desire we all have for the year to end is more out of exhaustion than excitement about what 2023 can bring.
For the entertainment industry, things have been particularly eventful, mainly during the last quarter of the year. Between endless shows getting cancelled, mergers, and subsequent layoffs, there was enough going on to fill a three-season prestige limited series. And in their own way, each of these topics were connected to franchises: whether it was the attempted beginnings (or confirmed end of) certain blockbuster tentpoles, or discussions about how specific works can operate in the machinery of their mothership series, we’ve all had franchises on the brain. We haven’t just spilled endless digital ink on what we want from certain franchises going forward—we’ve also endlessly wondered if the people involved know what they’re doing with said properties, and what it even means for a franchise to be a franchise in the first place. Try as you might, you couldn’t really get away from the talk of franchises, series, sagas, and the like.
Maybe that was inevitable; after 2020 saw much of the industry kneecapped because of the pandemic, 2021 was largely about studios playing chicken with release dates in case there was another flare-up of infections that resulted in production delays or audiences waiting for a film to hit VOD. If 2021's Spider-Man: No Way Home was a soft step back into franchise waters, then 2022 was more like cannonballing into the pool from the high diving board: Disney came in swinging with plenty of Marvel and Star Wars, but also Avatar and some surprisingly solid returns of older series via Prey and Willow. People who are franchises unto themselves, such as Tom Cruise and Jordan Peele, reminded audiences why they’re so beloved respectively via Top Gun: Maverick and Nope. New installments of Universal’s Shrek and Despicable Me franchises became high earners, and maybe even critical acclaim. Mobile Suit Gundam brought in a whole new audience thanks to The Witch from Mercury, and series like Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Owl House got (or will soon be getting) some triumphant last hurrahs.
But it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, was it? Beyond the messy way that studios handled some franchises or how certain installments were at best mixed or straight up bad, audiences lost more faith in the tentpoles and brands that have become a big part of our lives (and in some instances, people’s whole identities). There was plenty discussion throughout the year of the MCU’s Phase Four largely feeling so rudderless, or how Andor fails in the eyes of some by not feeling like other Star Wars series such as The Mandalorian. Warner Bros. Discovery continues actively setting itself ablaze, while still managing to make folks think about the viability of DC and a certain magical property going forward into the new year.
Sometimes that shattered faith was brought upon by the quality of a film or TV show; other times, it was because of the people involved. Recall how Dwayne Johnson tried very hard to let people know he wasn’t upset about Black Adam’s commercial performance and how his efforts ultimately blew up in his face. Think about Henry Cavill—he doesn’t have the cultural cache of Johnson, but you can’t deny that The Witcher made him a more appealing actor in the eyes of many. Whatever the heck happened over at Netflix with his sudden exit from that show, it’s quite clear that something is going on there that’s waiting to be uncovered. And the recent release of the Blood Origin miniseries isn’t completely instilling faith at the fantasy series’ future prospects without him. Cavill, meanwhile, will ultimately be fine, but that brief period where it seemed like he’d be Superman again until he wasn’t didn’t exactly instill confidence in his career choices.
Outside of movies and TV, a similar shift was happening in the video game space. For some series, like Silent Hill and Cyberpunk 2077, fans had their faith renewed, but others wound up having their longtime flaws highlighted. Pokémon Scarlet and Violet and Pokémon Legends: Arceus had longtime fans at odds over what the franchise could or should be going forward and who’s at fault for Scarlet & Violet’s launch issues. Square Enix’s next mainline Final Fantasy installment caught fire when its director gave a pretty terrible response to the game’s lack of diversity, which served as a reminder that just because a franchise is a blockbuster phenomenon, that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. Games are usually off in their own little world, but when they intersect with the larger entertainment landscape, you see how the medium is in a similar odd state as developers are getting acquired (which sent players into concern) or trying to win back favor with their fanbases after bad PR.
The year 2023 is looking like yet another big one for franchises thanks to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, whichever DC movies Warner Bros. decides to release, and who knows what else. But will it be as tumultuous a year as 2022? I’m honestly hoping that’s not the case. Even as I’ve enjoyed and appreciated wholly new experiences from the year like RRR and Barbarian, I do like to kick back with a reliable series and let it take me on a journey. That stability is easy to mock, and also hard to break off from. Sometimes you just want what you know has a generally consistent output. But this year was pretty explicit in showing that the franchises themselves can no longer coast on what they’ve reliably provided for years on end. They also have to be willing to shake things up or even just ease off the throttle so as to let new stewards take the reigns for a bit and let their particular talents shine.
For better or worse, every foreseeable year is just fated to have franchises take up most of the oxygen in the room. Here’s hoping that either next year or in the years to come, the cracks in the armor don’t show as badly as they did in 2022.
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