In his new book The Big Picture, writer Ben Fritz chronicles how, over the last decade, Hollywood has become less a place of rampant creativity and more one concerned with intellectual property management. The rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the revitalization of Star Wars, the continued presence of the X-Men and more all serve as examples of studios embracing the franchise model, churning out new series installments in a way that will satisfy audiences both foreign and domestic.
While there are certainly exceptions to this rule, most studios have more or less consistently adopted a title format that reads Brand Name: Subtitle. That’s a substantial change from 20 or 30 years ago when most sequels just had a “2” or whatever number slapped on the end of the title to demarcate it as something new.
From an outside perspective it seems as if around 2010 studios realized the numbered installments were working against the goal of encouraging people to turn out, making it seem as if the movies were just another sequel they could skip with nothing identifiably unique about them. By switching to subtitles, the movies are more clearly laid out as something individual and different, like chapter titles that convey the theme of that section while still falling under the larger franchise umbrella.
Still, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. Not only do the branding tactics sometimes vary from studio to studio but even within one studio’s release slate you can see different approaches being taken. Here are some key examples as to how this year’s biggest have – or haven’t adhered to that recent conventional wisdom.
To quickly recap, 1977’s Star Wars really was just “Star Wars” when it was originally released and continued to be thus for years. The release of The Empire Strikes Back really introduced the episode numbering to the series, though the three movies of the Original Trilogy were pretty much just known by their episode titles. Things got a bit muddled when the Prequel Trilogy came out and suddenly everything was “Star Wars: Episode # – Chapter Title.”
When Disney relaunched the series it opted to drop the “Episode #” from the title branding but retained the “Star Wars: Chapter Title” format specifically for movies that fit into the Sage, the core stories about the Skywalker family and their allies. Because the studio wanted to expand beyond that constraint it needed some way to differentiate between those movies and everything else that focused on new or ancillary characters. Thus the “Title: A Star Wars Story” branding was adopted that has been featured on 2016’s Rogue One and this summer’s Solo, both of which have more in common with the multimedia Expanded Universe than the central saga.
Disney/Marvel Studios have tried a little bit of everything with the titles for the 18 movies that have been released in the last 10 years. Let’s look at the studio has taken a number of different approaches to branding the cinematic outings of the heroes:
- First Movie Named After Character, Sequels Just Numbered: Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3
- First Movie Named After Character, Sequels Just Subtitled: Thor, Thor: The Dark World, Thor: Ragnarok
- First Movie and Sequels Featuring Character Name and Subtitle: Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War
- First Movie Named After Character, Sequel Adding Another Character: Ant-Man, Ant-Man and The Wasp
- First Movie Named After Team, Sequels Just Subtitled: The Avengers, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Avengers: Infinity War
It’s chaos, but the differing approaches taken don’t seem to be impacting anything. At least they’re consistent within each series and it remains to be seen what system will be in place for sequels to Black Panther, Doctor Strange and other films.
There’s been some goofy branding going on with the Jurassic franchise, which this summer gets its fifth installment. The first sequel didn’t use Brand: Subtitle for the title but flipped it for The Lost World: Jurassic Park. The third movie then dropped a subtitle altogether for the simply-named Jurassic Park 3.
When the series was restarted a few years ago it was given a new banner with Jurassic World, a brand name that’s now being continued with Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.
Paramount has branded the sequels to the 1996 original in a couple different ways that perhaps reflect how the approach to mindset around labeling has changed over the years.
The first two sequels were simply numbered as Mission: Impossible 2 and Mission: Impossible 3. Pretty clear-cut and understandable, telling the audience exactly what to expect, which is more adventures with Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt. Since the fourth installment, though, the studio has put numbering aside and decided to go with a series of subtitles, first Ghost Protocol, then Rogue Nation and this summer’s Fallout.
Fox’s mutant-centric series has taken a fast and loose approach to branding, just like Universal’s rampaging dinosaurs. X-Men was followed by X2: X-Men United, then X-Men: The Last Stand, which eschewed numbering completely but which, in 2006, was a bit early when it came to fully adopting the subtitle structure. Things got weird with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, meant to be the first in a series of stand-alone character-centric movies (not unlike the “A Star Wars Story” films) before settling down with X-Men: First Class, which rebooted the franchise.
Interestingly, Fox’s other X franchise – Deadpool – used a straight numbering for its sequel last month. That was somewhat disappointing since up until shortly before release it was still listed as “Untitled Deadpool Sequel” and it would have been great if that had been the actual title.
It’s worth pointing out that the granddaddy of them all, the great ancestor of these franchises, is of course James Bond. That series is over 55 years old but has never utilized the character’s name in any of the titles to its 24 films. While the 25th has just been announced it’s likely this will follow suit.
There are a number of other franchise and series that have applied different tactics when it comes to sequels.
- Matt Damon’s Bourne series inserted the name of the character into different declarations of intent until the most recent chapter, which just used the name alone.
- The Rocky series used simple numbering until Sylvester Stallone revived it in 2006 with Rocky Balboa and then turned the focus elsewhere in 2015 with Creed.
- The Fast and the Furious series has thrown all rules to the wind, using numbers, variations on the title of the original over the years. Of course Universal whiffed on an 83 mph fastball right at the belt by not titling the most recent installment F8 of the Furious.
- After sticking with the Brand: Subtitle format for a decade, the Transformers series is throwing it to the side for this year’s Bumblebee, which surprisingly doesn’t have any Transformers branding in the title.
The funny thing is, this isn’t even necessary for any other reason than name recognition among the audience. Using the same name at the beginning of the title made a certain amount of sense when movies needed to be arranged on the shelves of Blockbuster Video for easy discovery by someone on a Thursday night. Batman Returns could be right there next to Batman.
Now, though, it’s part of the story of the movie as a whole.
As long as Hollywood sees value in studios being brand overseers as opposed to incubators for original stories it’s likely this kind of thing will continue. The tactics may change but the need for the movies released to bear familiar, easily marketable branding in some manner will certainly remain.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.