Ever since Thomas Edison invented the humble Kinetoscope in 1891, movies have become the most widely enjoyed and lucrative artform on earth. As trends change over time, Hollywood continues to evolve. Franchises are now the bedrock of the film industry, drawing audiences into theaters again and again to see their favorite characters and narratives develop over the course of multiple films. A hit stand-alone might make millions, but a hit franchise is almost guaranteed billions! Even the time-honored trilogy isn’t enough anymore, leading to full-on cinematic universes that could potentially keep going forever. While monetary success isn’t always a good indication of quality, it is definitely an effective way to gauge popularity. So, whether you need some help planning your next movie night, or you want to bone up on your trivia knowledge, here are 10 of the most popular film franchises of all time! (Spoiler Alert: a lot of them involve superheroes.)
Based on the popular Disney ride of the same name, Pirates of the Caribbean blended absurd humor with swashbuckling action and made Johnny Depp a household name. Its wild success was particularly ironic given that most pirate films have not fared well at the box office. After five movies, from 2003 to 2017, the franchise sailed away into the sunset with a substantial haul of booty. However, that may not be all we’ve seen of the series, as a reboot is currently rumored to be in the works.
Gotham’s Dark Knight has proven to be a continual favorite amongst movie-goers who enjoy their superheroes on the grim and brooding side. Although the franchise started with a bang in 1989, it’s Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of films—released in 2005, 2008, and 2012—that proved to be the most profitable. They raked in almost $2.5 billion on their own. While not every film has been worthy of the caped crusader’s legacy, it’s obvious that Batman’s onscreen achievements paved the way for all other celluloid crime fighters.
In terms of recognizable superheroes, it’s usually a tossup between Batman and Spider-Man. However, judging from the box-office returns, audiences seem to prefer the web-slinger’s everyman relatability a smidge more. Sam Raimi’s beloved trilogy accounts for most of the franchise’s revenue; a little over a billion dollars. The series stumbled a bit during Marc Webb’s duology between 2012 and 2015, but Spider-Man’s ongoing involvement in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has effectively reinvigorated public interest in the character.
While solo heroes do quite well for themselves, the X-Men have proven time and time again why teamwork makes the dream work. From 2000 until present, the series has proved to be extremely versatile, encompassing a trilogy, multiple Hugh Jackman-helmed Wolverine movies, a reboot trilogy (soon to be a tetralogy), and the freewheeling Deadpool romps. No doubt the franchise’s mutant-like ability to adapt and experiment with new ideas has accounted for its incredible longevity.
It would be fair to label The Fast and the Furious “the little franchise that could.” Despite beginning as a relatively grounded series and spinning its wheels a bit during the second and third installments, the series soon morphed into a larger-than-life, blockbuster extravaganza. From film number four onward, each film has out-earned its predecessor (except for number eight, the latest one). The highest grossing entry so far was Furious 7, released shortly after the tragic and untimely death of principle star Paul Walker.
Once considered to be “unfilmable,” Peter Jackson proved the doubters wrong with his masterful adaptation of the Lord of the Rings book trilogy. Released between 2001 and 2003, the series struck box-office gold and received numerous accolades. In fact, the third film, The Return of the King, was nominated for eleven academy awards and won every single one of them! The Hobbit movie trilogy began nine years later in 2012 and ended in 2014. Critically, it was less well-received, but it still proved to be a financial juggernaut.
Played by six different actors across seven decades, James Bond is the longest running film franchise of all time. It has never really slowed down either. Starting in 1962, every single entry has been released within at least four years of the next. The franchise might be far less campy now than it used to be. It’s far more gritty and realistic now, but it’s clear that death-defying stunts, outlandish gadgets, and villainous monologues never go out of style!
Harry Potter was, and continues to be, a worldwide phenomenon, bewitching fans from every imaginable age group. It is probably the only series where the sales from the original books nearly outdo the box-office gross of the feature films. The initial franchise ran for eight movies between 2001 and 2011. It spawned a theme-park, a stage play, and a spin-off series: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which is currently on its second film (of a possible pentalogy).
It almost feels redundant to talk about the popularity of Star Wars, considering it basically pioneered the concept of a “film franchise.” Fans of the series are downright religious and it’s nearly impossible to walk through a store without coming across some form of Star Wars merchandise. While the original trilogy continues to be the most cherished part of the franchise, the critically maligned prequel trilogy still performed extremely well, and Disney’s latest run of films are converting a new generation of devotees.
While it could be argued that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not one franchise, but multiple franchises running simultaneously, the films share more than enough connective tissue to qualify. What Marvel and Disney have accomplished is truly unprecedented. Over ten years, twenty films, and thirty-plus heroes, they have steadily constructed one of the most epic, multi-faceted stories ever to grace the silver screen. It recently paid off in a big way with Avengers: Infinity War, but they’re not even close to being done yet! The Marvel Cinematic Universe changed how movies are made and has become the envy of all other entertainment companies. It is undoubtedly the most popular film franchise of all time!
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