Ranking the top 10 film franchises of all time
by Steve Sykes, Staff Writer
As one movie franchise passes a significant milestone (just maybe breaking the all-time box office record in the process), and another prepares to put a capstone on a nine-episode saga, it’s a good time to survey the cinematic franchise landscape. And if you’re going to go there, why not go big? That means a ranking article, and this one’s a doozy — wherein I submit for your consideration my top 10 movie franchises of all time.
Of course, this is a tricky proposition, given the wide variety of criteria one could use to judge such things. While my ranking is a completely subjective exercise, I did take a few accepted markers of success into account: total U.S. box office, adjusted for inflation (and courtesy BoxOfficeMojo.com); critical consensus (informed by some number-crunching on the old Tomatometer®), longevity and consistency. One other thing: For the purpose of this article, a franchise must comprise at least five movies. Sorry: my list; my rules. And we’re off!
10. The DC Extended Universe
Total adjusted box office: $2.12 billion ($302 MM/film)
Average Tomatometer score: 56.9%
Ah, the DCEU — everyone’s favorite franchise punching bag. And it’s true that with one major exception (2017’s “Wonder Woman”), the first five films staggered into theaters, bloated by a sense of self-importance. Then against all odds, “Aquaman” made a respectable showing both critically and commercially. But the DCEU really needs to thank the delightful “Shazam!” (my review), for without Billy Batson, this franchise wouldn’t have cracked the top 10.
9. Star Trek
Total adjusted box office: $2.56 billion ($196 MM/film)
Average Tomatometer: 68.7%
We’re counting both the movies featuring the original Enterprise crew and the trilogy that takes place in the Kelvin Timeline. It’s a good thing, too, as the J.J. Abrams-led reboot lifts the overall critical reputation of Star Trek movies above some pretty ignominious efforts. (I’m looking at you, “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.”)
8. Jason Bourne
Total adjusted box office: $1.05 billion ($209 MM/film)
Average Tomatometer: 73.4%
Remember that five-movie minimum? No franchise benefits from it more than the Jason Bourne films. If you’re wondering what earned Bourne a berth in this top 10, look at that per-movie box office average. Pretty stellar, considering “The Bourne Legacy” didn’t even have box-office darling Matt Damon in it. Like, other than a photo or two. No, the Bourne producers carved out a comfy niche by doing spy action every bit as proficiently as … well, another entry on this list.
7. The Rocky movies
Total adjusted box office: $1.92 billion ($212 MM/film)
Average Tomatometer: 69.5%
The Rocky franchise shows how you keep a franchise alive when conventional wisdom says it’s time to pull the plug. First, Sylvester Stallone managed to erase the disappointment of “Rocky V” (what is it with those fifth movies?) with the surprisingly good “Rocky Balboa.” Then, and perhaps even more surprisingly, he shifted focus to a new hero in “Creed,” a movie which brought critical acclaim the series hadn’t enjoyed since the original won Best Picture nearly 40 years earlier. (See Lou Hare’s ranking of all the Rocky movies.)
Total adjusted box office: $2.78 billion ($252 MM/film)
Average Tomatometer: 74.1%
It seems unfathomable that the first X-Men movie is 19 years old. Yet it’s still chugging along, with "Dark Phoenix" having premiered June 7. Of course, “Dark Phoenix” is getting dreadful reviews, and it’s a certified box-office bomb, so rate this franchise “Number 6 with an anvil.”
Even so, it very well could’ve ended as a trilogy after “X-Men: The Last Stand,” a movie so bad it was essentially retconned out of existence in “X-Men: Days of Future Past.”) One other note: “Deadpool” and its sequel are included in this franchise, as the “merc with a mouth” debuted in the otherwise forgettable “X-Men: Wolverine.”
5. Harry Potter
Total adjusted box office: $3.2 billion ($320 MM/film)
Average Tomatometer: 78.5%
We start our top five with a series that might be rated even higher had producers not gone for the cash grab that has been the “Fantastic Beasts” films. The Harry Potter film series proper was meticulously crafted and winningly acted, and it showed in consistently good reviews and magical box office receipts. It may also be the most revered adaptation of source material in this list.
4. James Bond — 007
Total adjusted box office: $5.9 billion ($236 MM/film)
Average Tomatometer: 70.9%
James Bond and Doctor Who have a number of things in common: They’re both British, they debuted within a year of each other and they’ve survived due to dependable formulas and innovative casting. The longevity of the Bond film franchise is stunning — it will have been running for 58 years by the time the 25th film debuts in April 2020. And much like “Doctor Who,” each generation has “their James Bond.” (For the record, I grew up with Roger Moore, but nobody does it better than Sean Connery.)
3. Middle Earth (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings)
Total adjusted box office: $2.47 billion ($411 MM/film)
Average Tomatometer: 79.5%
Peter Jackson’s sprawling Middle Earth is sumptuously filmed (The New Zealand Film Commission thanks you) and is the unquestioned definitive film adaptation of Tolkien’s works. In addition to being a box office juggernaut, the series has far and away the most Academy Awards in this list. One can only hope the upcoming Amazon Prime series doesn’t tarnish the Middle Earth legacy.
2. Star Wars
Total adjusted box office: $7.56 billion ($687 MM/film)
Average Tomatometer: 74.8%
The Force is strong with this one. Star Wars movies dominate the box office like no other franchise (even the #1 franchise on this list), and its impact on pop culture cannot be overstated. Perhaps the only thing keeping the Star Wars movies out of the top spot is the prequels. They weren’t horrible, but they were close.
1. The Marvel Cinematic Universe
Total adjusted box office: $7.69 billion ($350 MM/film)
Average Tomatometer: 84.4%
There is no denying the MCU the top spot. Think about it: the James Bond franchise produced 24 films in 53 years. The MCU’s 22 films were released in a span roughly one fifth that long. And unlike the Bond series, the MCU films were constructed as one mammoth saga — a dizzying feat of continuity and character building.
Then there’s the box office magic. At the time of this writing, the MCU movies have averaged a gate if $350 million a film, but that number will go even higher once “Avengers: Endgame” closes its record-breaking run. For a 22-movie to consistently make that kind of money is ridiculous.
Finally, speaking of consistency, take a look at that average Tomatometer ranking. An average score of 84% fresh is crazy good. The fact that the consensus “worst” film in the series (“Thor: Dark World”) still notched a rating of 66% is mind-blowing.
Just missing the cut: “Batman,” “Superman,” “Jurassic Park,” “The Fast and the Furious,” “Alien,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Die Hard.”
Steve is a marketing content developer for Horace Mann and has more than 20 years of professional communications experience. In addition to contributing for the FRN, Steve has also written columns for multiple Miami Dolphins fan sites. He enjoys karaoke, board games, community theater and taking various FRN team members’ poker money.