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How ‘Star Wars,’ Marvel’s ‘Guardians’ And ‘Fast & Furious’ Made ‘Star Trek’ Obsolete

When J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek debuted to rave reviews, strong buzz and a $79 million domestic debut, there was every reason to believe Paramount
had a massive “new” franchise on its hands. The Chris Pine/Zackary Quinto sci-fi adventure had out-earned (in raw domestic grosses) all but three out of the ten prior Star Trek movies (The Motion Picture, The Voyage Home and First Contact) in just the first three days. Even as Star Trek soared in North America ($256 million) but merely performed okay overseas ($385 million worldwide), it was viewed as a long-term investment. Surely the eventual Star Trek 2 (version 2) would be a breakout sequel akin to The Dark Knight or Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, right? But that didn’t happen, partially because the very things that made Star Trek viable in the current marketplace got supplanted by rival franchises.

In terms of “What if” box office scenarios, what might have happened if Star Trek Into Darkness had opened not in the summer of 2013 but rather the summer of 2012? Four years is a long time for a sequel, especially by today’s standards. Two years would have felt rushed and would have run into Paramount’s stacked summer-of-2011 line-up (Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Kung Fu Panda 2, Super 8, Thor and Captain America). At the very least, Star Trek Into Darkness opening in (offhand) mid-June of 2012 would have made it the court-appointed tentpole between The Avengers in May and The Dark Knight Rises in July. It would also have meant that, by default, Star Trek Beyond would have presumably opened in the summer of 2015, perhaps instead of Terminator: Genisys and (more importantly) six months before Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

One big issue with the continual popularity of the Bad Robot-produced Star Trek movies was the unexpected return of Star Wars. J.J. Abrams fashioned this Star Trek reboot as something approximating the mega-budget and swashbuckling outer-space thrills found in the original Star Wars movies. To a certain extent, Star Trek was the approximation of the 1980’s Spielberg/Lucas fantasy adventure that at least some moviegoers found lacking the Star Wars prequels and the previous summer’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But when Disney
bought Lucasfilm in late 2012 and began to actually make new Star Wars films, hiring J.J. Abrams to direct the first newbie no less, a key element that made Star Trek unique in the marketplace, a Star Trek movie that felt like a Star Wars adventure, no longer mattered in a world where Star Wars was back.

So yes, you can argue that Disney killed Paramount’s Star Trek reboot franchise by hiring the guy who made Star Trek into a Star Wars-type crowdpleaser to make an actual Star Wars movie. But when you look at the franchises that either began or bloomed between Star Trek Into Darkness and Star Trek Beyond, it’s not just The Force Awakens. For audiences who wanted outer-space swashbuckling thrills, quirky heroes and anti-heroes and a certain gee-whiz sensibility, well, Marvel and Disney’s Guardians of the Galaxy soared into theaters in August of 2014 and earned a whopping $333 million domestic and $773 million worldwide. Fine, but what if you wanted a fast and/or furious ensemble adventure featuring a diverse/inclusive cast featuring a rag-tag group of adventurers who view their crew as surrogate family and sometimes break the rules to save the day? Uh oh…

Fast & Furious 6 opened just a week after Star Trek Into Darkness, earning $238 million domestic (just above STID’s $228 million cume) and $788 million worldwide (way above STID’s $467 million global total). Moreover, the sixth film in the franchise was banking off the much-loved Fast Five ($620 million in 2011), which refashioned the “street racing and outlaws” franchise into an A-level action-adventure blockbuster series where our outlaw anti-heroes were fighting the good fight against outright villains. By Furious 6, in a franchise entry whose marketing emphasized the comparative diversity of its cast, Dom, Brian and their “family” were the good guys, implicitly deputized agents fighting murderous villains in the Fast/Furious equivalent of a superhero movie. Heck, Fast & Furious 6 played so much like a modern Star Trek movie that Justin Lin was hired to replace J.J. Abrams on Star Trek Beyond.

The triple-whammy of Fast & Furious 6 (which affirmed the Vin Diesel/Paul Walker series as a top-tier ensemble action franchise in a way that glorified spin-offs 2 Fast 2 Furious and Tokyo Drift did not) in 2013, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy (which affirmed itself as a superhero franchise for folks who preferred Star Wars to Spider-Man) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2015 rendered Star Trek both entirely non-unique in the marketplace. Moreover, slight digression, the marketing for Star Trek Beyond, which argued that the threequel was more like a big-budget episode of the original TV show (maybe for that middle hour but the first 30 minutes and last 30 minutes are as blockbuster-y as the previous films), essentially told general audiences that it wasn’t an event right during a time when audiences stopped showing up in theaters for non-event movies.

By 2016, if you wanted an outer-space swashbuckler that felt like a Star Wars movie, you had The Force Awakens. If you wanted a character-centric ensemble deep-space adventure movie featuring roguish do-gooders (with Zoe Saldana romancing one of the lead heroes no less), you had Guardians of the Galaxy. If you wanted a diverse/inclusive action-adventure, directed by Justin Lin no less, about a surrogate family risking it all for the world and for each other, you had Fast & Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6. All that made Star Trek unique and an unmissable cinematic event in 2009 were canceled out by rival franchises and/or the genuine article, in films that shared cast members and directors with Paramount’s Star Trek reboot. As such, Star Trek Beyond bombed in July of 2016, earning just $158 million domestic and $338 million worldwide on a $185 million budget.

The Star Trek trilogy grossed $1.19 billion combined on a total budget of around $525 million, never reaching the top-tier heights required to justify the $150 million-$190 million budgets. It made sense in 2009 for Paramount to presume the $385 million-grossing Star Trek would lead to a much bigger Star Trek 2. We had seen just that with The Dark Knight (from $371 million to $1.004 billion) and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (from $610 million to $837 million). Paramount was in the middle of a hot streak (Transformers in 2007, Iron Man in 2008, Star Trek in 2009, Thor and Captain America in 2011, etc.). But Star Trek Into Darkness ($467 million, partially thanks to a 3-D conversion), perhaps by opening so long after Star Trek that audiences had moved on to Marvel and Fast & Furious, was not the breakout sequel Paramount had hoped for. Star Trek Beyond outright bombed.  

Star Trek is flourishing on streaming, with Star Trek Discovery and Picard pulling decent notices on and (presumably) decent ratings on CBS All Access. If there is no Star Trek 4, Star Trek Beyond ends on a lovely farewell note, with a fade-out almost worthy of the “second star to the right and straight on till morning” close of Star Trek VI that still makes me well up. The new franchise did not live long and prosper, partially because it was rendered cinematically irrelevant thanks to Star Wars, Guardians of the Galaxy and Fast & Furious. It did keep the Star Trek property alive long enough for the IP to be reborn via episodic streaming series (and for Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville to offer a lovingly intelligent and optimistic modern-day homage). As a wise captain once said, better to die saving lives than live with taking them.

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