The 2017 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express opens with legendary detective Hercule Poirot (played by Kenneth Branagh, who also directed the film) at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, having been enlisted by the local chief inspector to find out who stole a religious artifact. As Poirot monologues in his thick Belgian accent, he sticks his walking cane into the wall. He then reveals that the very person who hired him for the case was actually the culprit, who tries making a quick escape. In the ensuing chaos, the chief inspector runs straight into Poirot’s meticulously (miraculously?) placed cane, clotheslining himself like one of the Three Stooges.
It’s a ridiculous sequence, not least of all because Poirot’s skills apparently include clairvoyance. But perhaps Poirot’s unconventional wizardry was a point unto itself: In a blockbuster landscape dominated by superheroes, the world’s greatest detective needed some superpowers of his own. And before the credits closed on Murder on the Orient Express, Poirot’s powers of perception even catch wind of a sequel: He’s asked to investigate a death on the Nile.
Murder on the Orient Express is hardly the first murder mystery with aspirations to become a franchise. (I’ll never forget when The Snowman, one of the most breathtakingly terrible movies of the past decade, teased that detective Harry Hole would take on a new case.) But with Branagh’s film grossing over $350 million at the box office, it’s clear that audiences had an appetite for this particular kind of old-fashioned whodunit, especially one led by an absolutely stacked cast featuring the likes of Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, Leslie Odom Jr., and Johnny Depp. And so 20th Century Fox followed Poirot’s lead, green-lighting a sequel based on Christie’s Death on the Nile with another star-studded ensemble. But in a twist that the mustachioed detective might appreciate, Death on the Nile’s journey to the big screen has been more complicated, and unpredictable, than anticipated.
There are a few culprits for Death on the Nile’s rocky road to theaters, which finally ended on Friday. For one, the movie was pushed back six times from its original December 2019 release because of the pandemic, which had serious ramifications throughout the industry. What’s more, several Death on the Nile castmembers have since been enveloped by controversy: multiple women have given accounts of sexual abuse by Armie Hammer, Letitia Wright and Russell Brand have expressed anti-vax sentiments on social media, and Gal Gadot has continued to face scrutiny for comments about ongoing violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories. (People were also pretty mad at her for being the ringleader of a celebrity sing-along to John Lennon’s “Imagine” at the start of the pandemic.) But perhaps nothing has affected the film more than the fact that just weeks after being green-lit, Death on the Nile’s studio, 20th Century Fox, was acquired—and later renamed 20th Century Studios—by Disney, whose priorities for its new collection of assets remain unclear.
It’s hard to fault Disney for pushing back Death of the Nile’s release several times during a pandemic, or for reportedly considering recasting Hammer’s role. (They decided that significant reshoots would be too difficult because Hammer appears in so much of the movie.) But as Death on the Nile heads into the weekend with underwhelming box office projections relative to its $90 million production budget, it continues a worrying trend for 20th Century films under its new flagship company. While the pandemic is certainly to blame for a depleted box office performance for adult-oriented tentpoles—especially ones that aren’t being headlined by controversial actors—it doesn’t appear that Disney is doing these projects any favors, either.
In the past five months, 20th Century and its sister studio Searchlight Pictures—formerly Fox Searchlight—have released buzzy films from four celebrated filmmakers in Ridley Scott (The Last Duel), Wes Anderson (The French Dispatch), Guillermo del Toro (Nightmare Alley), and Steven Spielberg (West Side Story). But of these projects, only The French Dispatch managed to gross more than its production costs—and it also happened to be the cheapest of the four movies with a $25 million budget. Despite critical acclaim—and two Best Picture nominations among them—The Last Duel, Nightmare Alley, and West Side Story all comprehensively bombed. Conversely, even though The French Dispatch made a modest profit, it also became the first Anderson release since The Darjeeling Limited to fail to secure a single Oscar nomination, which is not a great endorsement for Disney’s campaigning for the film.
While Sir Ridley was quick to blame “millennians” for The Last Duel’s poor box office showing, its October release wasn’t exactly helped by having to compete against a superhero movie (Venom: Let There Be Carnage), Daniel Craig’s James Bond swan song (No Time to Die), and a sequel to an iconic horror franchise (Halloween Kills). (The millennials on Twitter who loved The Last Duel, meanwhile, pointed to the movie’s poor marketing.) A similar fate befell Nightmare Alley and West Side Story in December, having been set up to be overwhelmingly overshadowed by Spider-Man: No Way Home, which was released within the same seven-day period as both films. The predicament was so disheartening that Martin Scorsese penned an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times imploring audiences to check out Nightmare Alley out of nothing other than a genuine appreciation for a fellow auteur’s vision.
Again, these aren’t the types of films that have otherwise lit up the pandemic-hampered box office, which has largely leaned on the young male demographic to revive theaters. But Disney’s decision to put these movies up against massive blockbusters—including one from Sony Pictures that’s part of the Disney-controlled Marvel Cinematic Universe—seems apathetic at best, and is hardly what three Oscar-nominated filmmakers deserve. Never one for subtlety, Scott has hinted at friction with 20th Century’s new corporate overlords, revealing in a Hollywood Reporter profile that, after Disney acquired the studio, “They wanted me to do a wizard film, and I don’t do wizard films … it wasn’t a good idea.” Scott’s sentiments echo James Mangold’s fears that Disney would change the studio’s mandate of creating adult-oriented tentpoles. “If what they’re supposed to do alters, that would be sad to me because it just means less movies,” he told Deadline. (Though it’s worth noting that, in spite of those concerns, Mangold is currently directing Indiana Jones 5.)
But in light of 20th Century Studios’ recent critically acclaimed box office bombs, these type of comments tiptoe around a larger concern: That Disney’s main interest in 20th Century wasn’t cultivating the audiences of the best filmmakers of this generation so much as it was landing the rights to the X-Men and the Avatar franchise. Around the time of the merger, there was a slight hope that the House of Mouse would swing its weight around to raise the profiles of its newly acquired prestige flicks. Instead, it’s telling that Spielberg, Scott, and del Toro have set up their next films at Universal, Apple, and Netflix, respectively.
Of course, it’s one thing for Disney to cast off movies like The Last Duel, Nightmare Alley, and West Side Story, none of which carry the promise of a franchise. The future of Branagh’s Poirot-verse at 20th Century Studios—and if there even is a future—will be much more instructive. For all the controversies attached to Death on the Nile’s ensemble, the on-screen product is exactly as advertised: an old-school murder mystery in which a bunch of suspects have a motive, and where the truth needs to be elaborately sussed out by a mustachioed sleuth. These kinds of whodunits still have their charms—there’s a reason Rian Johnson’s Knives Out has two sequels on the way—and perhaps the greatest virtue of the Poirot-verse is that, outside of its lead detective, the casting slate can be wiped clean for the next mystery. But with Death on the Nile expected to flop for a studio that’s suffered a string of them, the prospect of Branagh adapting another Agatha Christie novel is hardly guaranteed. To keep things in Poirot’s vernacular: a pattern has been established, and it doesn’t look good.