News broke courtesy of Deadline on Friday night that Sylvester Stallone may be leaving his Expendables franchise.
The motive is apparently old-fashioned creative differences between the star-producer of the throwback franchise and Millennium chief Avi Lerner. China's Recon Holding bought Millenium outright and there are still allegedly plans in place for the fourth installment of Millenium's Expendables franchise.
But if Stallone is indeed expendable to the franchise that he created, then that series should be retired for good. Just because you have an IP doesn’t mean you have a hit, especially when the IP has thrice burned fans.
As you probably know, The Expendables, released in the summer of 2010 by Lionsgate, was the long-gestating dream project teaming Sylvester Stallone and a number of his action contemporaries in an old-school Cannon Films-style carnage-fest.
But while Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis cameoed, the first film was mostly just Stallone, Jason Statham, and whoever would say yes. Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li and the likes of Terry Crews and Randy Corture filled out the team with Steve Austin working for the bad guys. The film was still a success, with a $35 million debut, $103m domestic gross and $274m worldwide total.
We got The Expendables 2 two summers later, also courtesy of Lionsgate. Stallone stepped out of the director’s chair for Simon West and this time Schwarzenegger and Willis came to play along with Jean-Claude Van Damme as a movie-stealing villain and a flashy Chuck Norris cameo.
It was bigger, more explosive and more of what fans wanted the first time around. Although it was less of a real movie than Stallone’s first meditative action drama, which was something of a “Yes, we can!” answer to Stallone’s self-critical Rambo. The film earned $85 million domestic but $314m worldwide, so we got The Expendables 3 in August 2014.
The good news is that a ton of new folks came to play, including Mel Gibson as the baddie and supporting turns from Harrison Ford, Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas and noted action superstar Kelsey Grammer. And the director was relative newbie Patrick Hughes, fresh off the very promising film noir western Red Hill.
The bad news is that, after two films where The Expendables had to fight for an R-rating, the third time wasn’t the charm and The Expendables 3 went out with a PG-13. It was a fatal blow for a franchise that wasn’t exactly known for being modern action classics in the first place.
When it earned just $36 million domestic and $214m worldwide (including $72m in China) on a $100m budget, it was a rare super-flop that year.
The adults and action junkies were appalled, while the younger demographic that Expendables 2 hoped to draw opted for Guardians of the Galaxy and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles instead. That the film was leaked online in a DVD-quality bootleg three weeks prior to release didn’t help either, but I still argue that it was the PG-13, not piracy, that killed the beast.
Under normal circumstances, the franchise would be finished. But in an environment dominated by IP and franchises, not even failure can keep a mediocre franchise down. Ironically, as the industry becomes more dependent on franchises, the bar for success gets lower. Now even the utter failure of Terminator: Genysis or Fantastic Four isn’t enough to stop endless rumors or speculation about continuations, simply because “Gee, maybe we’ll get it right this time.” In 2001, we wouldn’t have gotten Pacific Rim 2 and in 2013 Fox probably would have tried a sequel to Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes.
The very idea that The Expendables is getting the fourth chapter is indicative of this weird new thinking. I’m old enough to remember that when part three flopped you didn’t get a part four. And now if Stallone goes, then you don’t really even have the franchise itself. Yes, there are lots of action stars who have popped up in one or more of the Expendables films. But this series is absolutely Sylvester Stallone’s baby and it has always been the “Sylvester Stallone and Friends” adventure.