By Matt Singer | Criticwire May 3, 2012 at 8:49AM
Despite the best efforts of one female critic out to destroy all that is good and pure in this world (according to Internet commenters who I trust implicitly because Internet commenters never lie or distort the truth), "The Avengers" is still rocking a 93% approval rating amongst critics at Rotten Tomatoes. Even if that number comes down a bit during the final round of reviews, that's still an enormously high number for what a cynical observer could call a soullessly opportunistic brand leveraging maneuver that unites four disparate franchises into one can't-miss mega-sequel. Which got me wondering: what is the best reviewed franchise of all time? Which brings up another question: is "The Avengers" and its five antecedents one franchise? Which raises an even more fundamental question: just what makes something a franchise in the first place?
Wikipedia -- which is easily as trustworthy as Internet commenters -- says a film series is "a collection of related films in succession." OK, simple enough. But wait: does that mean any collection of films about the same character are part of the same franchise? What if the actors change? Are the James Bond films all part of one series? Or are they a series of series, each about a different James Bond? What happens to a film series when a new director or writer comes in? How big is Warner Brothers' Batman franchise? Are the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher films their own series? Or does Christopher Nolan's trilogy count as well? And what if you reboot a property from square one? Is the remake of "A Nightmare on Elm Street" part of the same franchise as the Wes Craven original? How about public domain properties? Anybody can make a Sherlock Holmes movie these days; do Basil Rathbone and Robert Downey Jr. belong to the same franchise?
(Before we continue, I'd like to mention that I just got off the phone with the folks at Guinness, who informed me that, yes, I just broke the record for the most questions in a single paragraph of English prose. What an honor.)
Generally, these questions are totally meaningless, but if you're trying to determine "the best reviewed franchises of all time" you've got to consider these things. After careful deliberation over at least three glasses of scotch, I came to a decision. If you want to get technical about it, I passed out first. But when I came to some hours later, I realized that movie franchises are like pornography: you know 'em when you see 'em. All the Batman movies since Burton's in 1989 have come from the same studio and at least a couple of the same producers (Michael Uslan, for example, executive produced all seven films in that time span). Hence, one franchise. The James Bonds, for all their wonky continuity contradictions, come from one production company, Eon, so that's one series too, though Sean Connery's one non-Eon Bond, "Never Say Never Again," doesn't count. Basil Rathbone had his Sherlock Holmes franchise and now Robert Downey Jr. has his, but those are two distinct series about the same fictional character. The new "Nightmare on Elm Street" is a reboot, so it doesn't belong to the old Craven franchise. The new J.J. Abrams "Star Trek," though, is part of the old "Star Trek" series, because the writers cleverly built an in-continuity excuse for their revised timeline.
My head's starting to throb from the combination of statistical minutiae and hard alcohol, so let's move on to the list. To arrive at this ranking, I tabulated the average review scores of over 80 franchises on Rotten Tomatoes. This approach has obvious flaws: not every film has a page on Rotten Tomatoes, and many older films' RT pages are hopelessly incomplete. Even if I wanted to include Dr. Kildare on this list I couldn't, because you won't find a page for, say, "Dr. Kildare's Wedding Day" on Rotten Tomatoes. To create the most definitive list of this kind would require dozens or maybe hundreds of hours of library research. That said, with about one dozen hours of time put in on this list, I feel relatively confident that it's pretty accurate, at least within the realm of English language cinema.
So here they are, The Best Reviewed Movie Franchises of All Time:
1. Toy Story - 100%
2. The Man With No Name Trilogy - 96%
3. The Lord of the Rings - 94%
4. Mad Max - 92%
5. The Evil Dead - 89%
5. The Godfather - 89%
7. Indiana Jones - 86%
7. Jason Bourne - 86%
9. Harry Potter - 85%
10. Spider-Man - 82%
Obviously I rounded out the numbers here; if you want to be technical about it, "Toy Story"'s average RT rating is 99.67%. Interestingly, "The Avengers" -- if you consider it along with "Iron Man," "The Incredible Hulk," "Iron Man 2," "Thor," and "Captain America: The First Avenger" a franchise -- currently ranks eleventh, with an average rating of 81%; "Star Wars," done in by its poorly received prequels, comes in twelfth at 79%. If you're curious: according to my research, two films are tied for the dishonor of Worst Reviewed Franchise of All Time: "Leprechaun" and "Big Momma's House," each with a dismal 14% approval rating.
Can we draw any conclusions from the list? With very few exceptions, the best reviewed franchises are the ones that, despite lofty box office aspirations, come from strong, authorial voices. That strong voice, by the way, needn't be a director: "Harry Potter" had four different directors over eight films, but just one J.K. Rowling guiding the characters' destinies. Still, none of the other franchises on the list besides "Potter" have more than two directors; seven have just one. These series are cohesive; they tell longform stories over the course of multiple films. In the case of "Potter" and "The Lord of the Rings" they were designed from conception to do exactly that.
When you think about it, "The Avengers" has been conceived that way too. The six movies in Marvel's cinematic universe come from five different directors, but they all share the same group of Marvel producers who've been guiding the linked continuity of the individual Avengers' stories. From the very beginning of "Iron Man" -- or, if you want to get technical about it, from the very end of "Iron Man" -- they've been building towards "The Avengers." Which would make it a unique franchise, but a franchise nonetheless. And a pretty well-reviewed one at that.