My favorite horror movie of all time is Ridley Scott’s Alien, a “haunted house in space” movie built from dirty film sets and unrelenting tension. It’s a brutal movie that doesn’t bother to explain very much of the “mythology” behind its alien worlds and species; for the most part, the audience is as bewildered about the details as the humans on board the Nostromo, which means we’re also just about as terrified. But Alien is also, of course, the first entry in a many-movies-and-comic-books-and-et-cetera franchise which most recently circled back upon itself with Scott’s Prometheus (which I have not seen).
I’d argue Aliens as a franchise really started with that movie — Aliens, the 1986 sequel directed by James Cameron. It’s remarkable, first of all, to imagine a seven-year gap between movie one and movie two in the context of our modern franchise-hungry Hollywood. (More on that in a bit.) But Aliens expands and simplifies the universe of Alien in ways that made it easy to expand. Alien’s deliberately singular, after all: There is one alien, monstrous and inexplicable, and its final defeat is really final, with little hint in the first film of future threat.
Aliens takes that creature design and makes it hugely plural, where the threat is not the singular force but the overwhelming swarm. (According to this spoilery and alien’s-blood-filled YouTube video, at least sixty aliens are killed in the second film.) That’s terrifying in its own way, to be sure, but it reduces the power of the single monster. Plus, now we have the “queen alien” and the idea that these monsters are not just less than inexplicable, but fall easily into an ant-colony analogy. The aliens are giant bugs, easily replicable. The threat is not fully contained at the end of Aliens; the franchise is born out of the opportunity to reiterate ad infinitum.
Interestingly, comparing Terminator to Terminator 2 gives you the same parallels. Both movies were directed by Cameron this time, but the first is much more of a thriller than the second, which is both more light-hearted and more expansive. Of course, the time travel concept allows Terminator to feel like a multi-movie world from the start; we have huge gaps of untold story from the start (untold story told in incredibly dull fashion in Terminator:Salvation).
But, again, the key is turning the singular into the plural. The original movie’s namesake is the single Terminator, sent from the future; he is one of many, but only in the barely-glimpsed prologue, and even so he has Arnold Schwarzenegger’s singular face. For the film’s purposes, we have one robotic (cold logic to the extreme, inexplicable and alien just like Alien’s creature) agent that seems nigh unstoppable until the very end. He hunts Sarah Connor until Sarah Connor manages to defeat him. Simple, singular narrative. In terms of the propulsive action, the climax, and the resolution, stopping this one monster is the whole ballgame. The second movie promptly introduces a second Terminator (the T-1000), a second Connor (John), a shade of grey for our original villain (the “reprogrammed” Arnold), and a swath of characters and expository details.
I’m not saying the second films are worse or lesser for switching things up (though I do prefer the first films in both franchises); in fact, I’m really saying that what these movies do is necessary for their existence. The singular works when you’re a single movie; if you don’t have to save anything for the sequel, then your main monster is the only villain who matters, making his single death the whole finale. Once you’re in the business of making more movies, though, you expand and attach new heads, so that lopping off one doesn’t kill the whole beast.
Movies today, if they’re planned starters to new franchises, tend to start with that hydra mentality, and is it any wonder people tend to like the “origin story” movie the least in a given sequence? I go back to the fact that Alien was released in 1979, and Aliens in 1986. Even Alien 3 came out six years after the second. Each movie, to some degree, had a chance to be its own movie, forced to work as film rather than depending on anticipation or prior investment to capture its audience.
How much better might The Amazing Spider-Man have been, for example, if the writers and studio had to pretend it wasn’t just extended set-up for a bankable set of intellectual proprties?
(Quick post-script: I can only hope that the relative failure of Amazing Spider-Man 2 is the beginning of a rebuke to this trend. It’s probably not, but I’ll keep my fingers crossed.)