Summer is upon us, and we all know what that means: sequels, and lots of them. So with that in mind, SBM will be looking at how some writers and filmmakers manage the miracle of a satisfying and compelling sequel. In a latter post, we’ll look at why so many have failed by turning over and examining the corpses of such franchises as Spider-Man, Pirates of the Caribbean, and The Terminator.
A great film is a rare beast, and a great sequel even rarer. Ignoring the overly pragmatic financial reasons, a film merits a sequel because people respond to it in some marked way. But how can writers recapture that ineffable novelty of great films while growing the characters and themes that audiences responded to? The most obvious method is to plan ahead, and craft the first film as merely a piece of the whole. Star Wars and Lord of the Rings are beloved trilogies because they were conceived from inception as trilogies. That being said, each individual film still needs to feel like a compelling stand-alone piece of film-making, which becomes difficult when total closure is deliberately staved off. Each film, then, must end with a significant step forward, or the completion of a significant arc for one of its major characters, so as to avoid the appearance of stalling. Fellowship of the Ring ends with Boromir’s death/redemption, and The Two Towers with the epic battle at Helm’s Deep. Momentum needs to keep rolling, and a film’s central conflict can’t be left dangling.
Great sequels are also a chance to revisit and re-explore a world we fell in love with, and no movie takes that more literally than Back to the Future 2. Opinions are fairly split on this one, but I delight in how it expands and layers the first film, and allows audiences to re experience beloved moments in strange new contexts. Countless charming moments are relived, from the chase scene in the Hill Valley town square reimagined with future tech, to the Johnny B. Good performance that’s allowed to continue due to a second Marty insuring the safety of the first, to an additional Marty blindsiding Doc after the completion of the climactic race to the Clocktower. A new wrinkle or twist is added to classic scenes, and thus the margins of the first film are coloured and rendered all the more exciting. In most cases, so thoroughly recycling conceits of the first film is a cardinal sin, but Back to the Future does it with rare flair and creativity, expanding on its original premise and complicating it in almost dizzying fashion.
Few stories, though, allow for the plausible re immersion into a particular time and place like Back to the Future. Consequently, sequels usually must find new situations, experiences, and locales to challenge characters. The trick, though, is not betraying what made the character compelling or lovable in the first place. Probably one of the most iconic sequels, and the film probably most responsible for defining its characters in our popular culture, is Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Both of its central characters, Sarah Connor and the Terminator, play totally different roles from their earlier depictions. Sarah has evolved from a lost, confused waitress into a hardened, resourceful soldier, and the Terminator has switched from destroyer of the Connor legacy to its guardian. Part of why the film works so well is because these transformations and reversals are so plausible. It’s jarring to see Sarah Connor so completely transformed, but perfectly understandable given her circumstances at the conclusion of the first film. By pitching her so far into the opposite extreme of her personality in the first film, Terminator 2 can tell an almost cyclical story about Sarah Connor’s rediscovery of her humanity. When she fails to assassinate the man deemed by future events as the most responsible for the development of the evil Skynet, it’s a moving moment, a reemergence of the tenderness and vulnerability of her character in the first film. Obviously, such reversals can’t perpetuate themselves forever. But Terminator 2 succeeds by being a warped reflection of its predecessor.
Most films strive for a sort of emotional and thematic closure, so it can be difficult for sequels not to feel superfluous or redundant. Developing lingering threads from the first film can create a valuable sense of continuity and forethought. Consider The Godfather Part II. The first Godfather famously ends with Michael Corleone closing the door on his wife Kay, lying to her about murdering his brother in law. Godfather 2 shows where the relationship would develop from there. Kay and Michael become deeply alienated from one another, and Michael’s descent into evil reaches even more pronounced depths when he murders his own brother. The stakes are upped, and the consequences disastrous. If a character gets away with something in the first film, it’s best for it to come back to haunt them in the second.
Truthfully, what makes for a great sequel isn’t any different from what makes any other kind of film great. All great stories are stories of growth and new experiences, and that simply becomes more difficult when writer’s are forced to recycle characters and premises. Add that to the enhanced expectations that come with dropping a ‘2’ at the end of a beloved film, and pleasantly surprising an audience becomes an uphill battle. In “Sequels Part II: The sequel”, we’ll delve deeper into why so many sequels stumble.