A TALE OF FOUR SERIES: I'd like to briefly compare and contrast four recent movie series, each of which has had two out of at least three movies released. They are all designed to target the same general demographic, and all have huge budgets, but only two of them are really living up to expectations.
Star Wars: Taking the most recent movies as part of a new trilogy (episodes I through III), the general concensus is that they pretty much suck. Nifty new (ostentatious, gaudy) special effects and digital production don't make up for awful acting and absurd plotlines. Let's look at how The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones compare to the first three based on ratings from Internet Movie Database and RottenTomatoes:
Those are significant drops in approval, and anecdotally I think most people would agree that George Lucas' most recent forays into writing and directing were less than spectacular. No big stars in leading roles, unless you count Ewan McGregor.
Star Wars: 8.8/10, 95% fresh
Empire Strikes Back: 8.7/10, 98% fresh
Return of the Jedi: 8.1/10, 79% fresh
The Matrix: The first movie was obviously huge (8.5/10, 86% fresh) (although I wasn't a huge fan... it was good), but apparently the second isn't being as well received (7.5/10, 75% fresh). Not only that, but Donald Sensing notes that its box office receipts are plummeting much more quickly than expected. Decent star-power.
X-Men: The first movie came out in 2000 and was ok, but nothing spectacular (7.3/10, 80% fresh). The second came out in 2003 and was much better than most people seemed to expect (7.8/10, 88% fresh). The special effects were good, but there was also something known as a "plot". The characters had as many as two (even three!) dimensions, and the world wasn't completely black and white. Additionally, there were a good number of big stars.
Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring was pretty amazing (8.9/10, 95% fresh), and The Two Towers was excellent as well (8.8/10, 97% fresh). Again, good special effects, good acting (mostly), and a few moderate-size stars.
The first two series are struggling (some may disagree with regard to The Matrix, but box office receipts don't lie), and the last two are flourishing. I don't think many people expected much from the X-Men franchise when the first movie came out, and although people had high hopes for LoTR there was a prevailing sense of dread that the the beloved series would be butchered in production (as Star Wars was).
So what sets the last two series apart? There are a decent number of movie stars in each, they all have big budgets, they all have special effects, they all have boatloads of promotion... even Hugo Weaving is spread between them evenly. So what's the deal?
X-Men and LoTR are based on amazingly powerful prior works, and Star Wars and The Matrix are not. There are obviously hundreds and thousands of books and comic books that came out contemporaneously with X-Men and LoTR, and most of them failed and disappeared. That these two works survived long enough to be made into movies demonstrates their underlying fitness. In contrast, Star Wars and The Matrix were thrown immediately into the same entertainment niche with these proven contenders and will likely fall by the wayside, just as their earlier paper competition.
What's the lesson? Maybe Hollywood needs to consider that the same qualities that make for a good book also make for a successful movie. Special effects and promotional tie-ins will get people in for the first weekend, but ultimately a good story is what people are after. Conflict, character development, background depth, mystery, risk.
X-Men and LoTR had leading characters die (Boromir and Jean Grey). Star Wars killed off Qui-Gon Jinn (who was introduced for the sole purpose of killing off, it seems) and The Matrix has an invincible main character. In both, the heroes fight against robots who are killed by the hundred, but who cares? That's like killing Nazis -- no one sees the enemy as significant, they're just cannon fodder. In LoTR the orcs at least have some personality, and the Black Riders are actually pretty scary and cool. Their history as corrupted human kings gives them some weight, and Sauron's flaming eye is downright evil.
Magneto is more of a tragic hero than a villain, and the audience can relate to his desire to protect mutants, even if his methods are dangerous and destructive. There's a complex interplay between good and evil that's not seen in Star Wars -- the evil Jedi don't really seem that evil based on what we see on screen -- or The Matrix. Even though the evil in LoTR is very clear-cut, the conflict and struggle among and within the Fellowship is enough to sustain the feeling of apprehension and mystery (aside from the fact that we all know how it ends).
I certainly don't want anyone to take away from this the idea that movies should only be remakes of previously successful stories (argh, no!), but I think movie-makers could learn a lot from reading a few books.