Chris Hartwell over at the Hollywood Reporter wrote a column on a subject that Scott and I have discussed numerous times on The Breakdown podcast, how the need to lay the groundwork for cinematic universes full of sequels and spin-offs derails the movie being presented. The most classic modern example is The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which felt more like an infomercial for Sinister Six and others rather than an actual movie. As well, the DC movies in a desperate attempt to play catch up to Marvel has suffered from dragging down their narratives to shoehorn cameos and teasers for future movies like in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad. The blatant place setting for sequels and spin-offs is not the only poisoning of these movies, but it is likely a major cause for the lack of focus on making that movie the best it could be and have the actual voice of the filmmaker shine through.
I have to admit that much of the apparent set-up for the proposed six movie King Arthur series went right over my head in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. I was just battling trying to get to the end of a painful mangling of Guy Ritchie's street tough heist movie, grimy Games of Thrones visuals, magical infused adventure, historical epic-like retelling, and burst your ears rock show. I know the dream was for this was to be a mega-franchise with hopes for several spin-offs movies, but other than it being a blatant origin story by the end, the stink of advertising for future movies did not permeate off the screen like the other movies.
After reading the article, I did realized one lesser talked about franchise launching idea polluted the movie. When the Mage was introduced in the movie, I rustled out of my stupor to ponder where Merlin was chilling. His absence was notable enough that disappointed film-goers shuffled out at the end complaining the lack of Merlin. He did get referenced several times and the film does build him up as a significant figure in the world, but he never gets any screen time. Also during the viewing, I thought it was odd that a movie about King Arthur left out major characters like Guinevere and Lancelot. Their exclusions stood out because the reason for launching an Arthur franchise was due to it being a recognizable property, yet the most well-known non-Arthur characters were completely absent.
The reason for missing characters suddenly struck me while reading that article, the lack of recognizable characters was a way to build to future instalments. Somewhere some Warner Brothers studio executive had grand visions that the world would be rocking their King Arthur action figures and eagerly anticipating the follow-up to the epic after the title revelation of The Enchantment of Merlin.
The theory is likely that you can't deliver all the crowd-pleasing characters in the first movie, but rather draw it all out so there can be the big marketing hype for next instalment. We get no Merlin now, because it will stir up the crows for the eventual reveal. Over time we would finally get Lancelot and Guinevere, who likely would be played by major star roles by Chris Pratt and Scarlett Johansson. After that the hype would start for appearances for that sword forging dragon and an exciting spin-off devoted to those tree creatures.
I understand the idea of building anticipation and saving up some stuff for the future. The eventual reveal of Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi was a big moment because we had heard about him for two previous movies. The time he arrived was the natural moment for him to be involved in the story. There also was never a story reason for Jabba to show up in the first two movies. His role was so unnecessary in the original that it was initially cut and now its inclusions in the Special Edition elicits whines from the hardcores. The Star Wars franchise did have numerous characters that were referenced that were not seen until later movies, but their absence never harmed the narrative nor was there a feeling that their mention was some type of elaborate marketing campaign.
The goal every time is to focus on making the best possible picture now. A story should not be sacrificed in some misguided attempt to save things for some big epic sequel in the future, especially since a subpar movie means this may be all that gets crafted. There are times that a good story means some characters have no place and it is better to leave them off until a future story dictates it. More often it is being done so they can have the big debut in King Arthur: Lady Guinevere Battles the Mage Dancer.
Merlin, Guinevere and Lancelot may not have saved the disaster that was Legend of the Sword, but it would have opened up several more storyline possibilities. All three are major parts of the folk lore, and the exclusion did give the movie a feeling of being incomplete. Studios wanting to have a successful gold mining franchise has always existed but recently their obsession has meant more concern about future movies than current. The better strategy for long term health is doing everything possible to make the best movie now, which often means not holding back on cool story points or recognizable characters that are crucial to a recognizable properties. This means every movie should be loaded up to feel like a main course rather than an appetizer.