14 '80s Movies That Tried (But Failed) To Launch Franchises
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.
- 13,036 VOTESPhoto: 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+ landed in 2022… and lasted just one season.
- 22,431 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.
- 32,230 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.
- 41,829 VOTES
Walter Hill's rock 'n' roll action fantasy Streets of Fire, his follow-up to box-office smash 48 Hrs., was naturally expected to be a hit. Star Michael Paré confirmed in an interview with TV Store Online that it was also meant to kick off a trilogy of films.
"They told me that it was going to be a trilogy," Paré said. "What happened was that all of the people that made Streets of Fire left Universal Studios and went to 20th Century Fox. It was made at Universal, so they owned the rights to the story. So it was left behind. I was told by Joel Silver that the sequel was going to be set in the snow, and the following film would be set in the desert."
The fact that the hyper-stylized $14.5 million-budgeted adventure picture failed to recoup its costs domestically, making just $8.1 million, sure couldn't have excited studio executives either. In the flick, stoic vagabond tough guy Tom Cody (Paré) must rescue his rock star ex-girlfriend (Diane Lane) from sinister local greasers. Chaos ensues.
- 51,976 VOTESPhoto: 20th Century Fox
The over-the-top 1985 actioner Commando sure seemed like it could be sequelized many times over. When the kid daughter (Alyssa Milano) of ex-Green Beret John Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is abducted by his old squad buddy Bennett (Vernon Wells), Matrix goes on an explosively murderous rampage to retrieve her, leveling much of LA in hot pursuit. Though the film was a modest box-office success (making $35.1 million domestically off a reported $8 million budget), a sequel ultimately never came to pass. Don't cry for Arnie, though - he wound up doing OK.
Decades after Commando came and went, venerated action screenwriter Steven E. De Souza revealed that he had penned a draft for a sequel soon after the original's release. "I did write a sequel for that which is floating around on the internet," De Souza conceded in a conversation with the Bristol Film Club, recapped by Action Elite. "So for Commando 2, we figured that Arnold, after blowing up half of Los Angeles, achieves some notoriety, retires from the army and, by the time the sequel occurs, is running a security firm. The plot would have seen him hired by a big corporation to oversee their security to protect their executives from being kidnapped, to stop people breaking into their building and to make sure their computers are secure."
In recent years, chatter has emerged surrounding a potential prequel detailing the original Green Beret squadron and eventual falling out of Matrix and Bennett. But how about going the other way? If there's not a septuagenarian Governator blowing up buildings, no one's interested.
- 61,724 VOTESPhoto: Buena Vista Pictures
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.