Scattered Thoughts: Sequels Part II – The Sequel

Earlier, SBM tried to delve into what made great sequels such a special and rare beast. Here, we’ll look at why so many fail.

It should be obvious that the motivations that drive sequels into production are not exclusively artistic ones. Consequently, a lot of films that strive for closure end up with sequels anyway. Writers then frequently resort to reversing course in the development or evolution of their characters’ arcs. Characters then end up seemingly unlearning or forgetting lessons learned in the first film. Recently, The Hangover Part II was ridiculed for totally recycling the first film’s plot, but comedies are judged on whether they’re funny or not, and that was its main failure. Better yet, think of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, where Will and Elizabeth repeatedly take Jack at his word despite all their history, irrationally making pawns of themselves and playing along with Jack’s machinations so the plot can advance. Worse yet, there’s literal amnesia, as put to use in Spider-man 3 when Harry Osbourne conveniently forgets his friend Peter’s secret identity, all in the name of repeating the experience of discovery and betrayal already played out in Spider-man 2.

An inability for writers to build upon their characters can lead to another pitfall in sequels: over-expansion. When writers fail to see new frontiers with which to develop their characters, they often colour the margins of their world, adding peoples and settings with which characters can engage. Unfortunately, this can mean beloved characters fail to get their due. The most egregious example I can think of is X-men: The Last Stand, wherein Cyclops gets harshly swept aside when he’s killed by his wife Jean Grey, without so much as the respect of an onscreen death. I hate to dwell on this particular series, but Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End gives another classic example, where the famous Kraken is killed (and quite irrationally, to boot) between the end of the second film and the beginning of the third.

Occasionally, writers and producers misjudge what audiences responded to in the original film, or in this upcoming example, films. Probably the most reviled sequels/prequels in film history are the ones to which George Lucas has attached his name. Before we get started, I am more an admirer than an out and out fan of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series, so I lack the intense response to the latest films that many others do. To me, the flaws of the recent incarnations are flaws that were prevalent throughout both series, and only nostalgia and rose-tinted memories have saved the earlier films from similar criticism. Still, countless others have put forth with breathless detail the missteps of the more recent entries of both franchises, and all the reactions spring from the same sentiment: the new films lost sight of what made the original films so appealing. Star Wars in particular focused excessively on the politics of a senate and a monarchy rather than on the adventures and rebellion of an outmatched band of misfits, an inherently more appealing and universal premise. The new films also tainted the chemistry of the original players with unwanted new characters. Jar Jar Binks to many is a blight and embarrassment that reverberates beyond even the world of film, and Indiana Jones’ son Mutt Williams didn’t win too many fans, either.

Often sequels also feature new writers, and that can lead to substantial changes to the themes and values of the original piece. Perhaps the greatest betrayal of an original film’s central message comes in Terminator 3, where the self-actualization and triumph of will of the first two films loses out to fatalism and inevitability in the third. In the first two films, the core lesson is repeated again and again: no fate but what we make. The future is not promised, and the entire purpose behind the time traveling of Kyle Reese and the various Terminators is the manipulation of upcoming events. Terminator 3, on the other hand, deems Judgment Day unstoppable, which consequently undermines all preceding events. Optimism gives way to Pessimism. All stories should be battles between opposing forces, so it’s often desirable for chapters in a series to end with differing ideologies seemingly winning out. But when writers are forced to hand off their babies to others, the initial intention of a piece can get lost, or even warped or perverted. Terminator 3’s ending isn’t necessarily a mistake, but taken in the context of the first two, it’s certainly a betrayal of James Cameron’s central parable, and a cynical and maybe even condescending one at that.

A recent practice for extremely successful films has been to shoot a pair of sequels consecutively or even simultaneously. Back to the Future, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Matrix all took to this method, all with varying levels of success. Inevitably, the sequels in these cases tend to be thought of as companion pieces. Problems in critical reaction and audience appreciation seem to arise (recently, at least) when the second film doesn’t function as a stand-alone piece. Back to the Future 2, POTC: Dead Man’s Chest, and Matrix Reloaded all end with cliff hangers that were met with grumbles and sighs. It turns out people resent watching the wheels spin for two hours with no satisfying resolution. The cliff hanger, though, clearly isn’t destined to fail. Perhaps one of the most beloved sequels of all time (The Empire Strikes Back) ended with a massive cliffhanger: Luke Skywalker discovers Darth Vader is his father, and Han Solo and Princess Leia are taken captive by the evil Jabba the Hut. It may be blasphemous to say so, but the entire 2nd act of the film is also basically stalling, with Leia and Han simply running around and hiding out so Luke can have enough time to complete some semblance of a training regimen. That being said, though The Empire Strike Back posits similar problems to the POTC and Matrix sequels, there’s no doubt the cliffhanger it drops is far more exciting and novel than any film in its wake has since managed.

Generally, the characteristics that make up a bad sequel are the same qualities that make a bad movie. That’s no shocker: sacrificing character depth and plausibility to make way for plot machinations is never going to work out. Above all else, sequels happen because people responded to and identified with a group of characters, and when sequels fail to do proper justice to those characters, it becomes a nigh insurmountable task to satisfy an audience.

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