Jonathan Majors and the Problem with Franchise Media
Jonathan Majors is right on the precipice of his big breakout moment in Hollywood. After a well-received and critically acclaimed performance on HBO’s Lovecraft Country, he has entered the big time by entering two major franchises – the Rocky/Creed universe and the MCU. In the latter especially Majors was set to be what is probably the single most important piece in the long running franchise’s fifth and sixth phases – the ultra-powerful big bad Kang (a performance I have previously praised at length as the highlight of the latest Ant-Man film). So, what do we do about Jonathan Majors and the problem with franchise media?
Major was recently charged with assault and harassment, a crime to which he still asserts his own innocence.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that a large franchise has been riddled with controversy in one of its leading stars. Ezra Miller, whose Flash film is still scheduled to be released this summer, has been accused or charged with assault, burglary, and grooming behavior, despite Warner Bros. and DC still wanting to use The Flash as a new beginning for their rebooted DCEU. Johnny Depp played the key role of Grindelwald in the Fantastic Beast franchise for two films when his domestic abuse case with Amber Heard began. And, to add insult to injury, Ezra Miller also had a key role in Warner Bros.’ troubled Harry Potter spinoff.
Over the past decade or so, Hollywood has really changed the game. Film studios, and increasingly television studios as well, have pushed aside smaller and mid-budget films in favor of large and flashy franchises. Everything in Hollywood seems to be some kind of extended cinematic universe, whether it is the superhero properties (Marvel and DC), the Transformers franchise, the expanding and growing Despicable Me machine, or even The Fast and the Furious, which is set to wrap up its current storyline in Fast X before undergoing a soft reboot. The film Renfield, coming out in April 2023 about Dracula’s put down upon servant, is going to be the second attempt to creating a “dark creatures” extended universe (the first was the Mummy movie starring Tom Cruise that bombed at the box office).
As consumer practices and behaviors have changed over the years, major entertainment studios have become more conservative and cautious. While the box office is rebounding, many people are more selective in which movies they are going to see in theaters vs. those that they feel like they can wait at home for and watch for “free” on streaming. A bit part of this is because these film studios trained us not to go to theaters by putting films on their streaming services so soon after their theatrical run (something that is also changing), but my point here is that studios have this belief (whether correct or incorrect) that the only movies that will have successful and profitable theatrical runs are splashy, big budget franchise plays. Studios are driving their IP into the ground as they mine for every last property that someone somewhere has probably has heard of.
Now, in many respects this has been a successful strategy. Marvel films still do big at the box office, although those numbers are slowly becoming a bit inconsistent. On the television side, Netflix’s Wednesday, which has minimal Addam’s Family DNA in it, would not have as successful if it was just a “weird girl goes to magical school” teen drama. Heck, even AMC just announced the premiere date for its Maggie and Negan spin-off of The Walking Dead, with at least two more spin-offs in the works.
There are many problems with this franchise strategy. There is the obvious problem that these franchises are killing smaller, independent films that are normally more daring and diverse in their storytelling. But another looming problem is that these franchises are often multi-billion dollar projects involving innumerable moving parts that can come crashing down with just one wrong move.
Let’s return to the Fantastic Beast franchise. This seemed like a no-brainer for Warner Bros. Take a beloved franchise like Harry Potter and explore another part of the world. Duh. The first film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was a charming if imperfect nostalgia-trip for fans as they got to return to their favorite wizarding world. The first film was an undeniable success, grossing over $800 million worldwide. Then things started to go awry. The second film only grossed $650 million, and the third (and now likely final film) grossed just north of $400 million. Yes, part of this was the less-than-steller audience response to the quality of the franchise. But it also comes down to the Depp (and lesser extent, Miller) controversies I brought up earlier, and the transphobic comments made by JK Rowling. These comments and actions made by just two people (out of likely thousands of people who worked on these three films) sunk what could have been a multi-billion dollar profit endeavor. And with the Wizarding World, this is going to test whether audiences are ready to return en-masse to film/television properties in this world again (the recent Hogwarts Legacy controversy suggests the jury is still out on this one).
Which brings us back to the recent charges against Jonathan Majors. One of the major complaints about Phase 4 of the MCU was that it felt aimless. After the tightly plotted Thanos arc, Phase 4 didn’t seem to have a purpose or reason for being. We got spinoffs about minor characters and tons of new origin stories without getting a sense that the MCU was going anywhere. Part of this was the result of the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting production timelines, and I have to imagine that part of it was financial (who can afford to pay Robert Downy Jr. millions and millions for a 3 second cameo in every film?).
The tide seemed to be turning for the MCU with the introduction of Jonathan Majors’ Kang character in the first season of Loki and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. We finally got a sense of the next major villain; the entity that was finally going to force The Avengers (whoever they even are now) to come unite. We finally had a story arc to be excited about. And Disney/Marvel were smart about who they cast; they cast an extremely talented up and comer who had the experience to command the role, but probably was willing to sign on to a multi-film deal for a less than true A-list stars would have commanded.
But with these recent charges this can all come crumbling down. I’m not saying that Jonathan Majors will be convicted of anything. I’m not saying that even if he is convicted that Disney/Marvel will even fire him (similar to how DC didn’t fire Ezra Miller). However, no matter what this entire Kang Dynasty arc is tainted. Will Marvel end up recasting the role? How does that change the dynamic of Kang’s character and their long-term plans? Do they completely drop the storyline, putting the MCU into complete chaos? Or, do they go with Majors as scheduled, but weather some potential blowback from audiences as Marvel continues to support a (currently, allegedly) assaulter and harasser?
This is the problem with the big franchise play. When these kinds of controversies pop up in individual films, it is easy to either bury the film or recast a role. Problems quickly propagate as you build a 4-5 year plan, encompassing multiple films and tv shows, around one actor and one person. Because unfortunately we live in a world of uncontrolled toxic masculinity. Unfortunately, we live in a world where mental health is not taken seriously nor well treated. Unfortunately, we live in a world where the rich and famous are glamorized and glorified, but also harassed and mocked and scrutinized. We live in a world with the internet and the 24-hour news cycle where we know everything little thing that happens. We live in a world where problems are going to happen.
And these problems will continue to fester and take over these large media conglomerates because everything has to be a franchise. As a viewer, I’m tired of it. I’m tired of following and becoming emotionally invested in a story just for literal years of storytelling to come crashing down because of the actions of one person.
I’m also tired of abusers and criminals getting to walk away with a slap on the wrist because they are financially profitable for whatever studio they are currently working for. Ezra Miller should have been recast or the film pulled. Full stop. They should not be gearing up for some apology PR tour to try and save a franchise when they have caused irreparable harm to people.
Maybe it’s time that we take a step back from franchises; maybe it’s time that we start telling smaller and more contained stories again.