Alien? Mission: Impossible? Toy Story? What is the greatest movie franchise ever?

<span>From top left, images from Before Sunrise, Scream, The Hunger Games, Mission: Impossible and Toy Story franchises</span><span>Composite: The Guardian/Alamy</span>
From top left, images from Before Sunrise, Scream, The Hunger Games, Mission: Impossible and Toy Story franchisesComposite: The Guardian/Alamy

Mission: Impossible

When a blockbuster franchise is seven movies in (and counting), and the consensus choice for worst entry was directed by John Woo, arguably the most influential action film-maker of his time, you’re looking at an uncommonly consistent series. Though the Mission: Impossible movies have cycled through many directors – one apiece for Brian De Palma, Woo, JJ Abrams and Brad Bird, before settling on Christopher McQuarrie – the first film, particularly the astounding Langley break-in sequence, established the franchise as a showcase for impeccable crafted set pieces. The plots may be an enjoyably hokey tangle of global threats and clever unmaskings, but the series’ determination to keep topping itself, leaning on the physicality of stunt work and practical effects, has provided reliable thrills for approaching three decades. With each film, Tom Cruise continues to outrun his own mortality and another classic sequence or two is added to the inventory, from Cruise dangling from the Burj Khalifa high-rise during a sandstorm in Ghost Protocol to him zipping off a cliff on a motorcycle in Dead Reckoning Part One. It’s a high-wire act that has yet to tumble off the line. Scott Tobias

Toy Story

You don’t get much more of a wallet-hoovering, competition-squashing corporate megalith than Toy Story. Pixar’s biggest beast never stops trying to flog you wallpaper, happy meals and bedroom slippers, yet there is an ingenuity, wisdom and occasional sadism here that makes the blood-sucking not just OK, but welcome. Obviously, all the Toy Story movies are superb, the third a masterpiece, and even Lightyear (the big dud) an entertaining and inventive genre pastiche. But for me it’s the shorts and ancillary vids that best display the diamond core in this plastic mammoth. Take, for instance, Toy Story That Time Forgot, 2014’s holiday special, in which Trixie the perky Triceratops has a playdate with a superannuated dino solider called Reptillus Maximum. If you ever have 23 minutes to kill with someone under 10 (or over, or just by yourself), this is the way to spend it, with wit, thrills and wild romance (there’s even a semi post-coital moment). Never will the words “Next Tuesday, around 3.30” hit the same again. Catherine Shoard


High art to some and schlock to others, the Hellraiser films predicate themselves on a potent notion rooted in BDSM and queer culture: what if getting torn limb from limb into fine ribbons was actually the hottest thing the human senses could ever hope to experience? The perverse commingling of sex and violence has sustained this series through 11 installments, some born as unrelated scripts and juiced with a third-act insert of breakout pain-bringer Pinhead, one rushed into existence for the contractual obligations of IP retention. Yet through all the vicissitudes of low-budget franchising, a winning spirit of depravity keeps the ritual flayings lively. These wet nightmares have such sights to show us, from the maximalist styling of hell into a Kafkaesque institutional workplace with Hellbound and Judgment, to the delightful pre-fame cameos from future celebs (if Bloodline had only delivered unto us Adam Scott as a powdered-wigged French nobleman, dayenu), to the inventive spirit with which anything – a CD player, a subway train, you name it – can be refashioned into an instrument of mutilation. So go ahead. Open the puzzle box. You know you want to. Charles Bramesco

The Hunger Games

Franchise fare is so ubiquitous – and often derivative, spineless and obligatory – that it’s easy to forget it can sometimes be revelatory. Such is the case with The Hunger Games, a series of four films between 2012 and 2015 that I’m still amazed got made. Suzanne Collins’ dystopian book trilogy wasn’t the surest bet for a blockbuster. Set in a future authoritarian US in which children are forced to fight to the death on national television – Collins was inspired by flipping between TV coverage of the Iraq war and reality shows – it’s propulsive, thematically heady and brutally dark. And yet, the first film is a triumph of movie-star charisma, world-building and genuinely galling stakes, helped significantly by Judianna Makovsky’s zeitgeist-catching costume design and a true star-is-born performance from Jennifer Lawrence. The second, Catching Fire, coasts on straight adrenaline. But it’s the final two Mockingjay films that distinguish the Hunger Games as an all-timer franchise, deftly and ambitiously exploring what it takes to sustain a rebel movement, what it means to be a symbol, how violence corrodes even the noblest principles, how war only destroys – thorny, dense, depressingly current stuff that feels thrillingly un-Hollywood. Adrian Horton

Bad Boys

The year is 1995. A major studio commissions a music-video director to make a big-budget buddy-cop vehicle for two sitcom stars. Oh, and those two actors? Black – so, good luck selling that at the box office. On every score, Bad Boys should’ve gone down as a colossal flop. Instead, it made back its money seven times over, stamped Michael Bay as a top action director, and transformed Will Smith and Martin Lawrence into bona fide celluloid A-listers. It’s thanks to their enduring chemistry, not any story progression or plot twist, that Bad Boys is beloved to the point of justifying a fourth film, even as the June release catches the two stars at a decidedly low ebb. That isn’t likely to remain the case once the bullets and banter start flying between Detectives Lowrey and Burnett. You might call Bad Boys '“copaganda” if it didn’t flout convention so flagrantly. Andrew Lawrence


Sustained investment in a slasher franchise can be a lofty ask. It’s a subgenre populated by the broadest of archetypes – the dumb jock who has it coming, the slow-walking yet fast-stabbing masked killer, the virginal brown-haired final girl – and so our enjoyment is usually of a punchy, primal kind – a giddy, gory rush in the moment without a second thought in the many moments after. It made the Scream series then feel like such an electrifying jolt; a set of textured poppy thrillers led by smart, self-aware characters, a procession of fun Agatha Christie meets Scooby Doo shock reveals and, most importantly, an undying sense of purpose, each finding a nifty new reason to exist, providing knife-sharp commentary on the state of horror as well as the media at large. The films have even survived the inevitable remake/reboot/requel cycle with ambitious thematic reinvention while also sticking to the same charmingly soapy story of betrayals and quite literal back-stabbing told over almost 30 years. I’ve grown up with them and with the seventh out next year and more planned, I’ll likely grow old with them too. Benjamin Lee


Before it descended into Alien vs Predator mashups (still fun) or got dragged too close to the sun with creator Ridley Scott’s operatic creation story in Prometheus (still fascinating), the Alien franchise was as perfect as any. Directors such as Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet each put a distinctive stamp on the material, using the pure simplicity of a creature with acid blood and no particular motivation but to breed and kill – a pitch-black reflection of humanity perhaps – as a canvas to project their own singular aesthetics and compulsions. Scott’s original (the greatest!) is an elegant sci-fi haunted house movie that doubled as a pro-choice allegory. Cameron’s Aliens stayed true to the visceral chest-burster thrills of the original while becoming a gargantuan interstellar war movie not unlike First Blood Part II (which he wrote). Fincher’s unfairly maligned Alien 3, his feature debut, was a slick back-to-basics thriller fixated on the predatory instincts among the men being preyed on. And Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection was a delicious, Euro-weird take with mommy issues – a sequel, like the ones before, that works because it felt unmoored from its all-timer predecessors and free to drift into its own space. Radheyan Simonpillai

Before Sunrise

The Before trilogy is remarkable for the intensely strong chemistry between romantic leads Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, and the close collaboration among Hawke, Delpy and director Richard Linklater in hewing out the twisty shapes of these romantic interludes. When you add in the fact that these movies play out largely in real time, what you get is one of the best cinematic depictions of the texture of romance and infatuation – and how they lead to emotions of love. The trio struck fire with 1995’s Before Sunrise, in which an American man and a French woman meet on a train and fall into youthful, naive love over the course of a day in Vienna, vowing to return in six months. The second finds them reuniting for an afternoon in Paris nine years later, exploring why the meeting never happened, and the third meets them as a married couple with children. The trilogy’s strongest theme is the intensity of new love – the seeming inevitability that it will become domesticated, and the search for a way to maintain romance amid the forces of familiarity. These films are incredible distillations of exactly that romantic fervor, and the product of a rare alignment of three singular cinematic minds. Veronica Esposito


There are a lot of movie series that made it through four or five entries as an unusual rotating showcase for different directors before giving in to the temptation to re-hire past successes. I still love the Alien and Mission: Impossible movies dearly, but they’ve also made me extra-grateful for the rare franchise that has managed to never repeat a director or major (human) cast member. I’m talking – for now – about the Predator movies, the B-movie little siblings to the classier, weirder, more thought-provoking A-list Alien. Only one is bad – the second Alien vs Predator match-up, nonsensically subtitled Requiem. All of the rest, where various badass aliens hunt various opponents (including Arnold Schwarzeneggar, Danny Glover, Olivia Munn, the xenomorph and Adrien Brody, among others) for sport, filter their premise through a different vision of monster-movie splendor. On one level, you always know what you’ll get: clicky noises, gory deaths, those triangle laser-sight things. Yet the specifics have plenty of wiggle room: should they be scary, funny or nasty? Action, horror or sci-fi? It’s a throwback to when movie franchises knew their place as fun programmers, rather than tentpole sagas. Alas, Dan Trachtenberg is about to become the first Predator director to return to the series. He did a great job with the entertaining Prey; it’s just a shame for the series to lose its constant one-and-done churn. For now, I’ll continue to savor those no-nonsense weirdos with the ugly mandibles and over-elaborate armor, and their accidental compatibility with B-movie auteurism. Jesse Hassenger


Shortly into 2001’s Ocean’s Eleven, conman Danny Ocean is paroled from prison in a tuxedo. In an image, Steven Soderbergh has told us everything about the sensibility of his stylish, witty Ocean capers, which, aided by dangerously charismatic ensemble casts, unlocked a formula for the perfect popcorn movie. In remaking a forgettable 1960 Rat Pack vehicle as the thinking man’s Fast & Furious, Soderbergh launched a franchise for people snobby about franchises. Ocean’s Twelve relocates the gang to a moodier European locale, with a cold open that would delight Billy Wilder or Ernst Lubitsch. (As Brad Pitt’s Rusty gets home from “work”, his unsuspecting girlfriend, a Europol detective, sleepily mentions finding a strand of hair at a heist crime scene; Pitt looks at a dandruff shampoo bottle, sighs, and jumps out a window.) Two more generic but enjoyable sequels followed. Although part of the films’ pleasure is the mechanics of the heists, their real lure is characters, dialogue and atmosphere, in a world of charming criminals who never kill or get killed and only steal from those who can take it. (Casinos are the world’s least sympathetic victim.) The movies are convoluted and winking and have impossibly neat endings. But you aren’t watching for real life, are you? J Oliver Conroy


Most franchises let you down in the end, some quicker than others. Alien held out pretty well until the arrival of Prometheus, but The Matrix self-destructed almost instantaneously, nothing but crud after that amazing first film. For me, the Spider-Man series is the only franchise that has found a way to meaningfully keep standards high, though of course that’s relative (no one is going to the wall to defend the Spidey-adjacent Venom movies). But the main franchise entries, despite the constant need for rebooting to keep control of the IP, have been very watchable in their various formations and different casts. Featuring the most humanly relatable superhero, the Spider-Man films benefit from their teen-anxiety linkage (at heart, you feel, they are basically dressed-up John Hughes flicks), evolving slightly as they reflect their era: Tobey Maguire’s emotionally constipated nerd, Andrew Garfield’s louche skate hipster and Tom Holland’s ripped, volatile techie. Even better are the animated reconfigurations: brilliant, densely layered creations that broke genuine new ground. It’s a franchise that shows no sign of running out of ideas. Andrew Pulver