14 '80s Movies That Tried (But Failed) To Launch Franchises

List Rules
Vote up the '80s movies that deserved the sequel treatment.

For every Terminator or RoboCop, there is a Howard the Duck. The 1980s were a big decade for the Hollywood special-effects blockbuster. But not every high-concept adventure picture was met with the kind of commercial or critical plaudits that warranted studio bigwigs writing checks for future installments. Presenting, for your sadistic reading pleasure, a collection of pictures that were supposed to spawn sequels, but failed to launch.

From disappointing box-office performances to behind-the-scenes conflicts, these flicks were grounded quicker than their makers had anticipated. Back in the days when film studios were willing to explore some truly wacky original concepts, this was a routine risk. A similarly robust slate of franchise whiffs hit screens in the next decade, too.

What are your favorite failed franchise movies from the '80s? Vote up the flops you love to love - or love to hate, whichever - from the list below.


  • 1
    2,774 VOTES
    Willow
    Photo: MGM

    Howard the Duck isn't the only weird non-franchise that producer George Lucas tried to get off the ground in the '80s. The Lord of the Rings-core fantasy saga Willow, directed by American Graffiti alum Ron Howard, was notably better-received than Lucas's earlier Marvel miss. Standout Return of the Jedi Ewok Warwick Davis stars as Willow Ufgood, a very Frodo Baggins-esque rural farmer from a village of Nelwyn (little people), who eventually finds himself protecting an errant Daikini (tall people) baby prophesied to free her people from the tyrannical rule of wicked sorceress Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh). Willow soon teams up with wild-child mercenary Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) and together they help defeat Queen Bavmorda and her soldiers. Along the way, Madmartigan falls in love with Bavmorda's daughter Sorsha (Joanne Whalley, with whom Kilmer would actually fall in love), who soon joins the good guys.

    The $35 million adventure turned a tidy profit, raking in $57 million worldwide, but was not the earth-shattering smash its creators had hoped it would be. It also did not resonate with critics the way the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises had up to that point. Don't forget, we're talking 1988, when there wasn't yet an Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull or a Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace. The movie's effects are still impressive today, the chemistry between our three leads is convincing, and Marsh is terrific as the spooky villain. It has been suggested that Willow may have leaned too heavily into its earnestness and felt a smidge too derivative. One can't necessarily dispute that, though certainly it's a lot of fun to watch now. Howard had previously indicated a sequel had definitely been on the table - but instead, decades after the original film, a sequel series for Disney+ is where the story of Willow Ufgood is set to continue.

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  • 2
    2,000 VOTES

    That's right, kids. Before 2021's best picture-nominated, Denis Villeneuve-helmed blockbuster, and even before the Syfy Channel's fairly well-received miniseries, weirdo auteur David Lynch took a stab at adapting Frank Herbert's signature sci-fi novel in 1984.

    The newer Dune indeed launched a sequel. But 38 years on, we're still waiting for David Lynch's Dune Deux.

    Like a lot of the films represented here, at the core of the '84 Dune's struggle to take off at the theatrical box office is a pretty simple problem: It's really, really bad. Critics and audiences alike were turned off by the dense, silly narrative, epic run time (137 minutes - a drop in the hat these days, but far outside the norm for non-Oscar bait back then), and underwhelming special effects. Despite a starry cast featuring Lynch favorite Kyle MacLachlan, Sean Young, Sir Patrick Stewart, Linda Hunt, Dean Stockwell, Virginia Madsen, and, uh, Sting, Dune '84 was not the Star Wars-esque franchise-starter its producer Dino De Laurentiis was hoping to make.

    The movie persists now as a fun curio, well worth a watch-party screening with friends. Lynch, MacLachlan, and Stockwell would rebound qualitatively in a huge way with their next collaboration, a nasty little suburban nightmare called Blue Velvet.

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  • 3
    1,573 VOTES

    Like a lot of the ambitious projects represented here, The Black Cauldron was developed with its studio expecting to ride a box-office bonanza to a wave of sequels. Instead, the movie almost destroyed Disney animation, eventually prompting a massive sea change in the way the Mouse House produced its animated fare forever. Sporting a budget somewhere in the range of $25-40 million, the flick was the priciest animated movie ever at the time. It stumbled massively stateside, earning just $21 million domestically. The movie was such a flop, Disney did not even deem it worthy of any kind of home video release until 1998.

    The first PG-rated animated Disney feature film, Cauldron was adapted from the first two novels in author Lloyd Alexander's five-part fantasy series The Chronicles of Prydain. The film was a Tolkien-esque tale of magic creatures and plucky heroes, in which it falls to young farm boy Taran (Grant Bardsley) and his pals to protect a magic MacGuffin (in this case, the titular cauldron) from a covetous emperor (the Horned King). The Black Cauldron aspired to appeal to a slightly older fanboy audience. Unfortunately, it did not. Still, the movie actually holds up pretty well, and is hardly deserving of its ignominious reputation.

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  • A Hitchockian assassin thriller prominently featuring a famous national monument, helmed by a signature Connery/Moore James Bond director and starring an action movie veteran in his first name-above-the-title role, along with the future Captain Janeway! What could go wrong?

    Well, certainly one really, really big thing. Even if it was nominated for a Golden Globe at the time, it's pretty darn reprehensible now, and it won't be discussed in this space.

    The optimistically titled Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, helmed by director Guy Hamilton (who directed two Sean Connery Bonds, including Goldfinger, plus two Roger Moore Bonds, including The Man with the Golden Gun), opened to audience apathy and a muted critical reception, despite some bravura setpieces. In the flick, star Fred Ward plays the titular hitman, who begins his journey as a Brooklyn cop named Sam Makin before being reborn as "The Destroyer" Remo Williams.

    The movie was adapted from Destroyer, a hit book series comprising over 140 novels, and its producing studio MGM certainly hoped there would be follow-ups (Ward signed on to make three Remo Williams movies). The movie failed to catch fire at the box office, but did eventually yield a telefilm sequel with Jeffrey Meek replacing Ward, Remo Williams: The Prophecy (originally shot to be a TV pilot that was not picked up to series).

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  • Before striking gold as Robocop, Peter Weller was the name above the title in another prospective sci-fi saga, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. This earlier adventure didn't quite take. Not every special-effects action spectacular possesses the brilliant, biting covert satire of that Paul Verhoeven classic, so it's not quite fair to make an apples-to-apples comparison.

    As with most of these movies, probably the single biggest reason the movie's threatened sequel Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League (which was mentioned in the movie's end credits) never materialized is that nobody saw the first flick. It grossed a paltry $6 million at the US box office, a mere fraction of its supposed $17 million budget. The tale of a combination rock star/physicist/brain surgeon/pilot doing battle against encroaching extraterrestrials and mad scientist Dr. Emilio Lizardo (John Lithgow), Buckaroo Banzai boasted plenty of creative concepts, and has since become something of a cult flick.

    Director W.D. Richter told Giant Freakin' Robot that the underwhelming audience interest ultimately precluded any sequels. "That seems like a real cheat, to put [mention of a possible sequel] there and not make the movie," Richter acknowledged. "But again, if the movie had gone out to make a fortune, we would have made it."

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  • 6
    2,177 VOTES

    Flash Gordon star Sam Jones claimed in a 2020 Radio Times interview that he had signed on for "at least five or six" possible movies (Jones even claimed there were proposed narratives being prepped) in a franchise that never came to pass. A big reason successors never transpired is that the pricey film (it apparently cost in the $20-27 million range), boasting a crackerjack score of original Queen songs, was not the box-office hit its makers wanted it to be. It pulled in $73 million worldwide, but a lackluster stateside showing ($27.1 million) precluded successors.

    In the movie, it falls to New York Jets quarterback Flash Gordon (Jones) to save planet Earth from the nefarious extraterrestrial Emperor Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow, in a pretty tasteless casting) and his minions on the alien planet Mongo. Though intended to be a relatively straightforward sci-fi adventure made in the vein of Star Wars (and adopted from a hit '30s serial), the flick plays as a kitschy comedy now.

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