I love smaller more personal movies like last year’s Moonlight and Hell or High Water, but the reality of Hollywood today is that you’re no one without a franchise. Disney has its Marvel Cinematic Universe, Lucasfilm and Pixar. Warner Bros. has the DC Extended Universe, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and the King Kong/Godzilla mashups. Universal is churning out Fast & Furious movies every two years while also letting Chris Pratt fight dinosaurs in Jurassic World (which, admittedly, is enough to coerce me into buying a ticket). With Hollywood overflowing with blockbuster sequels, it’s understandable that some movie series might fly under the radar. But today, I want to shine the spotlight on a film franchise that hasn’t gotten enough love in its run.
I’m talking about the Planet of the Apes prequels that kicked off 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, improved with 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and looks to conclude in explosive fashion with July’s War for the Planet of the Apes. Whew, that’s a lot of ape planets in one sentence.
For whatever reason, this top-notch series is not mentioned in the same breath as the superhero showdowns, the diesel-fueled action car showcases or intergalactic adventures when it comes to Hollywood’s best and biggest franchises. And that’s just not right.
Like all good superhero movies, this franchise began with an origin story. But unlike the cookie cutter caped collisions we’ve seen over and over again, our protagonist didn’t struggle with saving the world from a CGI threat. No, all Caesar wanted was to find his place in this world. The conflicted primate couldn’t stand with humans nor did he quite fit with his own kind. He was an alien – but unlike this new and dour iteration of Superman, he genuinely wanted to be accepted and to do good for his fellow apes. His desires and motivations were clear which made the circumstances acting against him all the more painful. Not even the presence of James Franco in a serious drama could dull the emotional connection viewers made with Caesar.
Iron Man and Batman and Dom Toretto may get all the headlines, but it is Caesar that is the most layered and sympathetic protagonist in today’s littered franchise landscape. Audiences responded to that specific characterization to the tune of $481.8 million at the box office, more than $100 million more than Batman Begins. It proves there’s a market for more intimate tentpoles.
The sequel helped ratchet up the scope of the conflict while doubling down on the character development for the apes. The looming war with humanity is just the sexy backdrop to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Yes, obviously monkeys riding horses while shooting machine guns is one of the more batshit crazy and badass images we’ve seen on the big screen. But it was the familial drama and political maneuvering that really grounded this film. It was basically Game of Thrones with apes taking the places of the Lannisters and Starks. You can’t tell me that doesn’t pique your interest.
Unlike the Guardians of the Galaxy or Spider-Man, Caesar is responsible for an entire society. People rely on him for leadership and survival. So to see his followers question his leadership and even rebel – with his own son opposing him nonetheless – makes for exciting and personal dramatic stakes. It gives the movie a beating heart of uncertainty and investment, something too many modern paint-by-numbers blockbusters fail to produce.
Obviously, the all-out war scenes help to establish Dawn as a true franchise installment. The action crackles with tension and well staged battles (again, apes + machine guns = awesome). All told, Dawn earned $710.6 million at the box office, topping more buzzy blockbusters like Doctor Strange.
And now the franchise will try to stick the landing after a small, character-focused origin story and a well-executed explosive sequel. But unlike The Dark Knight or Iron Man 3 or the upcoming Avengers movie, this trilogy-capping sequel isn’t being met with the same type of hype or excitement. It seems no matter what the Apes franchises accomplishes, casual moviegoers will still look at it as a second-tier franchise.
And that’s too bad.