While there have been some excellent film follow-ups in Hollywood history, and the occasional sequel that improved upon its predecessor, they seem to be a rarity. Hollywood sequels tend to be disappointing at best, and horrifically awful at worst. Why is this? Well, if you'll give me a few minutes of your time, I'll outline exactly why I believe sequels generally suck.
Before we continue, let's take a look in what has often been described as one of the most disappointing sequels of all time, The Godfather Part III:
Big Movie Studios Are A Cowardly Lot
Have you noticed that the medium-sized movie has pretty much disappeared? We see small indie flicks that cost little to produce and often aren't even promoted outside of film festivals, and huge, tentpole blockbuster flicks that cost a couple-hundred million to produce, and often a similar amount to market.
Let's look at Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, shall we? The estimates are that the movie cost around $450 million in both production and marketing. While it was a critical disaster, it took in $860 million worldwide. Still, some considered it a financial failure. Seriously? A profit of $400 million is a financial failure?! The situation has become that if a blockbuster doesn’t surpass the $1 billion mark, it’s a financial disappointment. That's insane!
Warner Bros. and DC were rushing to catch up with Marvel Studios to make the obscenely huge dollars and create a decade-long successful franchise. The problem is that the size of the investment for big movies forces the suits to get involved in the creative process. If I’m investing hundreds of millions of dollars in a project, yeah, I’d probably want to micromanage it myself, despite the fact that I am considerably unqualified.
Marvel is doing it right. The studio has Kevin Feige, who oversees the entire slate of Marvel flicks. He had a vision and a plan, and thus far it has worked out pretty well. Warners and DC respectively have Kevin Tsujihara and Zack Snyder — one man who doesn't have a plan outside of being reactionary, and another man who is yet to demonstrate a basic and fundamental understanding of the characters.
With fewer people actually going to the theater nowadays, and the continuation of movie piracy, big studios aren’t willing to gamble on a large investment. This is the exact reason why medium-sized movies are a rarity today. Studios want a built-in audience; folks the studios know will flock to their films. Captain America and the Feverish Dachshund? I’m there. It says Captain America. Batman V An Inanimate Carbon Rod? Hey, Batman is in it!
Sadly, even with this built-in audience, the studios will be forking over huge dollars, so they want to follow the proven template. Look at any Marvel movie. Heck, look at any Dan Brown/Robert Langdon flick. It’s as though the scripts were all written with the same Mad Lib, only just changing the proper nouns.
All of these movies are the same. And I'm not just calling out Marvel here. Man of Steel was essentially Superman Begins. Christopher Nolan was even a producer.
The fact that it worked once does not mean it'll always work, but studios continue to churn out ridiculously similar content because it is a proven formula. Avengers 1 and 2 were basically the same movie, and Age of Ultron took a lot of heat for it, but Ultron did make an obscene amount of money. Marvel, 1:Critics, 0.
Sequels Reduce Characters To Caricatures
In the first movie, the characters are likable. Often this is because we see their genesis. Harry Potter learning that he's a wizard. Bruce Wayne deciding to don the cape and cowl. Han Solo saying, "Rebellion? F**k it, I'm in!" (I'm paraphrasing here). Things like this make my inner geek go, “Oh, hell yes.”
Our heroes have nuance, and we're endeared to them. They are like a dossier pitch; we get their backstory, we learn the impetus that galvanizes them into doing what they do, and we see them embracing their full potential.
In the sequel, they often regress into no more than an elevator pitch.
Ghostbusters II has always been my favorite go-to example. All four Ghostbusters had distinction and subtlety in the original film. In the sequel, Egon was just a nerd, Ray was just a goof, Peter was just a dick, and Winston was just the black guy.
All of the wit and charm of the original flick was gone. There's no joy. The movie starts with Ray and Winston playing a kid's birthday party like they were clowns or mimes, in a rather meta (before meta was a thing) example of exactly what I'm talking about. Our heroes are reduced to their most base forms, and we, the audience, don’t want to see that.
Sequels Often Change The Creative Team Driving The Film
Certainly this is not always the case, but it does happen rather frequently. Sometimes it’s because of budgetary concerns, and other times it is simply due to scheduling. Unfortunately, there are times when a writing team strikes absolute gold — perhaps because they have an innate understanding of the characters, or just a perfect synergy — but aren’t able (or aren’t invited) to reprise their writing roles.
Let’s look at Deadpool as an example. Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick absolutely nailed it. Would you want a new writing team to take on the sequel? No. Why would you? They did a nearly perfect job.
Now, let’s look at Batman. Sam Hamm was nowhere to be seen in the credits of Batman Forever or Batman & Robin, and boy (wonder), does it show. Akiva Goldsman was brought in to pen those two follow-ups, and we all know how that turned out. Granted, these movies were helmed by Joel Schumacher rather than Tim Burton, but, as much flak as Schumacher has received for his Batman movies (and rightly so), he’s actually a solid filmmaker. The Lost Boys, A Time To Kill, Falling Down, Flatliners, The Client — dude has made a number of great flicks. Even Phone Booth, The Phantom of the Opera and The Number 23 were pretty good.
As stated above, studios want to save every buck they can (I understand, I buy one-ply for the same reason). But, while it is generally in the best interest of the audience to keep the same writing team, Hollywood movies are a dollars game. Sure, there are studio execs who truly care about making great art, but — and call me cynical here — in the end, it all comes down to convenience and frugality.
The Audience Is Emotionally Attached To The Original
We glom onto the things we love, be they movies, music, etc., and we can’t let go. We are fundamentally unable to see our beloved characters in a new light, a new premise, with new jokes or set pieces, because that flies in the face of what we already know and love. This is why we often find ourselves listening to the new album from our all-time favorite band with much trepidation.
How much do I love This is Spinal Tap? I’d give it an 11/10. While part of me wants more Spinal Tap content, I don’t want to see a sequel because, on a deep level, I worry that it will “ruin my childhood.” This is something we saw very much with the Ghostbusters reboot. Was it a great movie? No, it wasn’t (read my review here), but did it ruin my childhood? No, it didn’t do that, either. It didn’t mess with the original in any way. We, the audience, need to relax a little bit. Remakes and reboots don't ruin the original intellectual properties. We still have those movies to look back on.
We Don’t Want A Rehash, Yet We Don’t Want Anything New
We the audience are impossible to please. I loved The Force Awakens (because member berries), but it took a lot of heat for being a remake of A New Hope. Blair Witch (read my review here) was a scary-ass movie, but was beat for beat the same as the original. However, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull broke new ground for the franchise. The Indiana Jones franchise was always about archaeology, and it always had some kind of supernatural bent, yet the inclusion of aliens was a bridge too far. It was too far apart from the oeuvre of Jones. Also, it was terrible.
My point is that we are all pining for a reliving of the experience of seeing a movie we love for the first time. Unfortunately, sequels cannot provide that experience for us. They will either be too similar (the studio banking on what worked before, as written above), or too different (the studio wanting to branch out). Truly, in some ways, we are our own worst enemy.
Dumb and Dumber To took heat for being the same as the first one, but 20 years later. Indeed, it was. Two idiots have to go on a road trip, end up completely out of their element amongst high society, and are trailed by a bad guy who pretends to be their friend. It was a carbon copy of the original flick, and for me, that’s why it was so good. We didn’t see Harry and Lloyd grow in any way. They were still our idiot friends from two decades ago. The plot was familiar, and therefore comfortable.
Now, if the premise had been something like one of them gets accepted into Harvard by some correspondence mixup, that would not have worked. It would have been too far from the original premise, and would have felt wholly tacked on.
The Sequel Game Is A Double-Edged Sword
We want more of our favorite characters, but we often can't get on board with a new premise or new jokes, and we hate it when the plot and jokes feel recycled. Studios want more of our dollars, so they try to appease us with what they think we want — and they're often wrong.
Occasionally, it works out. I would argue that (I'm totally dating myself here) Addams Family Values is superior to The Addams Family, and that A Very Brady Sequel is better than The Brady Bunch Movie. But for every sequel that improves upon its predecessor, there are a myriad sequels that fail to impress. Is there an answer to this? Personally, I doubt it. Maybe a little time in the Harmony Hut.
What are some of your favorite sequels? What are some of your most hated? Hit the comments below, and let's discuss! As always, thank you for reading!