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'Planet of the Apes' and the rise of the midstream director switch

'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' is the latest movie to buck the tradition of director-driven franchises

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is proving to be one highly evolved sequel, outperforming its well-regarded 2011 predecessor, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," with a better-than-expected $73-million opening weekend and excellent reviews to boot.

"Dawn" also marks the latest example of a burgeoning trend in the franchise-building business: bringing in a new director to handle the first sequel. Matt Reeves ("Cloverfield," "Let Me In") took the baton from Rupert Wyatt after only one movie.

Historically, many of the best blockbuster sequels have been handled by returning directors who built upon the groundwork they laid in the first film and took advantage of goodwill from the studio to realize their vision fully.

Take James Cameron's "Terminator 2," Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man 2" and Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight." (Outside the realm of popcorn entertainment, there's also Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather: Part II," of course.)

Reeves is the most recent director to buck that tradition successfully, bringing his fresh take to "Dawn" and elevating the franchise even as he hit the ground running. A chorus of film critics has praised "Dawn" as a refreshingly smart summer tent-pole that offers both eye-popping action and thought-provoking drama. Many reviews also declared "Dawn" to be better than "Rise."

Earlier this year, brothers Joe and Anthony Russo pulled off the same feat after taking over the "Captain America" franchise for its first sequel, "The Winter Soldier." ("The Rocketeer" director Joe Johnston helmed the first film.)

Like "Rise," the first "Captain America" movie was a solid, well-reviewed hit, but the Russo brothers' follow-up was hailed as an even better film and took in $712 million worldwide, compared with its precessor's $370 million.

Another high-profile switcheroo is coming to the "Star Wars" universe, where "Looper" director Rian Johnson is stepping in to helm "Episode VIII." J.J. Abrams is currently in production on "Episode VII," and many observers expected him to return for at least one sequel, but he'll be one and done.

Time will tell if Johnson is able to replicate Reeves and the Russo brothers' success. In the meantime, a number of other movie franchises have been sticking to the old-school single-director approach, including "Transformers" and Michael Bay, "The Amazing Spider-Man" and Marc Webb, and "Man of Steel"/"Batman v. Superman"/"Justice League" and Zack Snyder.

That said, while Bay's "Transformers" movies have consistently been box-office powerhouses, they've never drawn nearly the critical acclaim of Reeves or the Russos. As for the "Amazing Spider-Man" movies, No. 2 did the opposite of "Dawn" and "Winter Solider": It was less well-reviewed than its predecessor and grossed less money domestically.

It's interesting to note that Reeves has been tapped to return for a sequel to "Dawn," and the Russos have likewise been enlisted for the third "Captain America" movie. The filmmakers have already shown that they can take a franchise to the next level — now the question is what they can do to top that.

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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