‘Knives Out’: Beating Franchise Films at What They Do Best

Knives Out is an Agatha Christie-esque old-style whodunnit with an ensemble cast comprised of the best Hollywood has to offer. The film is a politically relevant social commentary too funny and twisty-turny to take itself too seriously. 

Knives Out
(L-R) Michael Shannon, Jaeden Martell, Daniel Craig, Katherine Langford, Don Johnson, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, and Jamie Lee Curtis arrive at the Premiere of Lionsgate’s ‘Knives Out’ | Jerod Harris/Getty Images

Audiences fawn as the man behind James Bond utters the words “foul play” with a country drawl, and as our beloved Captain America sashes and scolds with a sense of superiority. With each passing scene, the movie manages to beat the franchise film at what it does best: exploit familiarity and uphold accountability. 

In the age of the franchise, it’s hard to guarantee box office sales for a movie that doesn’t have a number 2, 3, or 17 plastered to the end of the title. Franchises films win once — at the start — and then rely on that first win coupled with its subsequent familiarity to draw people back.

It can be difficult to drag people to the cinema, as Netflix pumps out original content in tandem — for an original concept that fans have no prior emotional connection to. However, that’s where Knives Out, and movies like the recent Murder on the Orient Express, enter the battlefield. They play the same game as franchise films, but they take a different approach. 

How ‘Knives Out’ beat franchise films at their own game

Knives Out exploited fans’ previous emotional connections via the ensemble cast. The movie presents an original narrative, yet draws on actors with pre-established industry identities, capitalizing on their individual histories, as opposed to the collective franchise’s history. 

Do you think the casting directors just so happened to place Chris Evans — the man known for portraying the nation’s most upstanding savior (Captain America) — into the story as the snotty and smug guy? This was utterly intentional, relying on Evans’ established identity in a previous franchise, capitalizing on that franchise’s years of work, to gain its fanbase for an unrelated tale. People wanted to see him “go against type;” in other words, they wanted to see him defy Captain America. The same holds true for Daniel Craig.

Daniel Craig is most known for playing the serious and sober James Bond, so what did the film do with him? They created a detective out of the actor, yet one whose donut analogies never make sense — one who is self-assured in a way that humorously undercuts his standing. They took his reputation and turned it into an effective joke that ran through the entire movie. They did not make a mockery out of Craig, yet they did make his detective a man daring to be debonair, yet falling short; Bond does not fall short.

Ways to exploit familiarity and nostalgia 

An ensemble movie is one way to exploit familiarity, and it’s the approach Rian Johnson’s film took. However, the film also used a murder mystery backdrop that has been winning fans over for decades. The film is a game of Clue on-screen. Again…familiarity exploitation. The film capitalizes on the murder mystery’s place in our culture.

A sense of fondness for the overarching genre draws you back for its newest addition. It’s a part of the “old-school murder mystery” franchise, joining the likes of Murder on the Orient Express, And Then There Were None, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and more. The film is a walk down memory lane, a nostalgia trip with a new set of faces…who you also already have preconceived notions surrounding (it’s like double-dipping).

Familiar stylistics/cinematography is yet another way to play this game. Consider Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; can you think about this movie without thinking of Tarantino? No, because in this case, the director is the franchise. Tarantino  — in and of himself — has such a signature approach to cinema that he has virtually created a franchise out of his filmic identity. The man even counts his films. In short, you do not have to be a franchise to beat a franchise; you must play the same game and find a different way to win.