‘National Treasure,’ ‘Spider-Man,’ And More Franchises That Quit While They …

Today is the tenth anniversary of National Treasure. Fear not, this will not be an essay attempting to explain the rich cinematic tapestry of Jon Turteltaub’s “Da Vinci Code, but with American history!” adventure movie, but rather a box office history lesson in regards to the odd fact that we never got a National Treasure 3. To the extent that the film, which centered on Nicolas Cage stealing the Declaration of Independence in order to find a treasure map, has any place in cinematic history, it arguably marks something of a turning point for the industry.

It’s arguably when Hollywood started to stop making “kids films” and “adult films” and instead made mostly “for all ages” would-be blockbusters with hopes of worldwide global grosses. The Nicolas Cage caper was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, a man whose mid-1980′s and late-1990′s output basically defined the adult-skewing blockbuster in the wake of Star Wars and Batman respectively. Yet despite the real-world setting and adult-skewing cast (Cage! Jon Voight!  Harvey Keitel!), it was a PG-rated and wholly family-friendly adventure, somewhat representing a blurring of the lines that would define the next decade of mainstream Hollywood cinema.

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The original National Treasure opened with $35 million over the key before-Thanksgiving weekend slot, now typically referred to as the Harry Potter/Twilight/Hunger Games slot. It had a solid run and ended up with $347m worldwide on a $100m budget. National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets performed even better across the board in Christmas 2007. It earned $219m domestic and $457m worldwide off a $44m debut and on a $130m budget. And then… nothing.

It’s been ten years since National Treasure nearly seven years since National Treasure 2. Yet despite the fact that the second film was vastly more successful than the first film, and despite the fact that the franchise was basically Nicolas Cage’s final glory as an A-level movie star, we have yet to see a National Treasure 3. Oh sure there are rumors here and there that one is coming down the pike. Perhaps Walt Disney was scared off by the Jon Turteltaub-directed The Sorcerer’s Apprentice ($215 million on a $150m budget, even if I defend that movie unto death as an absolute delight) in 2010.

But considering how franchise-happy Hollywood was and is, and considering how Cage could surely use a “big” hit and the rest of the high-toned cast are of the “I say yes to most things I’m offered because I’m a working actor” variety, I remain flabbergasted that we never ended up with a third installment of the painfully stupid, but genuinely entertaining franchise. In a way, the death of the “real world, with real stunts” franchise was a metaphor for how Hollywood seemingly turned its back on all things not fantastical even when there was money to be made. Since I’ve said most of the “insightful” things I have to offer about the two-film franchise, I’d like to look at a few more franchises that more-or-less quit while they were ahead. These were ongoing franchises that basically just stopped even as the respective predecessor’s box office implied that there was either room to grow or at least money to be made for the right price.

For the record, these were not “The first film flopped, but golly there’s a cult following!” entries (sorry, MacGruber Kills Yet Again), nor will this be about extending franchises that actually ended their respective story (sorry, Matrix Resurrection or Shadow of the Bat). These were all franchises that went out on a somewhat high financial note and could have continued had Hollywood chosen to march onward, even if you might argue that the moment has now passed. These will be in ascending order in terms of the end of the given franchise. To wit…

Austin Powers (1997, 1999, 2002):
My thoughts on the original Austin Powers (best mainstream American comedy of the 1990′s) and the two sequels (um… less good) are well known. Yet despite what many fans felt was a case of diminishing returns by the time Austin Powers: Goldmember rolled around, it bears worth remembering that this Mike Myers series went out at a ridiculously high financial plateau. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery was a well-reviewed small opener ($9 million in May of 1997) that had strong theatrical legs and a major VHS cult following that turned a solid hit ($67m worldwide on a $16m budget) into a cultural phenomenon.

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me pulled a proverbial Terminator 2, earning more on the opening weekend ($54m, the third-biggest debut of all-time at that moment) than the original film grossed in the US total ($53m) and racing to $209m domestic and $312m worldwide on a $33m budget during the summer of 1999. Three years later, Austin Powers: Goldmember opened with a scorching $73m, back when that was the fourth-biggest opening weekend ever and earned $213m domestic and $296m worldwide on a $63m budget.