Drawing a Steady Line: Some Guidelines for Sequels

Sequels. They’re ubiquitous. It seems like at least half of the movie news I see is regarding some sequel or prequel. Action movies of various stripes (fantasy, science-fiction, superhero, and more) are the genre most prone to receive sequels, but comedies and the occasional drama are known to receive them as well. There are over a dozen sequels being released in 2012, and it’s not even a big year for sequels. And there are, of course, more on the way. But this isn’t a new trend in Hollywood by any stretch; it’s been going on since The Fall of a Nation in 1916, which also started the trend of sequels that were directed by a different person.

And sequels aren’t an inherently bad thing. Hollywood wouldn’t keep churning them out if people didn’t go to see them, and people wouldn’t go to see them if they didn’t at least hope they would be entertained. Some have even achieved critical acclaim, with The Godfather: Part 2 winning an Oscar for Best Picture, and Toy Story 3 receiving a nomination for the same. But there’s also no question that there are a lot of bad, or just disappointing, sequels and prequels out there. So, under the same presumption that went into my Guidelines for Adaptations, I thought I would take a look at what can make or break a sequel. Again, none of these suggestions are absolute binding rules… but they’re pretty reliable guidelines.

So what goes into a quality sequel?

Make Sure There’s Room for a Sequel: Before you even start producing the sequel, or prequel, make sure the original movie supports the idea of a sequel. Is there more story to tell? Or are you just extending things out for the cash grab, without regard to whether or not the story, as told, can support it? Terminator 2: Judgment Day continued at a logical place from the original movie; The Terminator had an ending that let you know things weren’t necessarily over, and T2 jumped ahead to a point where it could pick things up. And then it ended things. The ending of Terminator 2: Judgment Day is clear and unequivocal about there being no future plot elements. So when Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines came along, it had to undo that and, effectively, change the ending of its predecessor. Skynet may have been pre-emptively destroyed in T2, but T3 came along and said “Nuh uh! We’re gonna have some other guy build it anyway!” It’s not so much the chain-yanking that’s the irritation here — though that’s a factor as well — it’s that the previous movie felt complete, and now comes another movie that shoehorns its own plot demands in at the expense of that completeness. Highlander is another example of a “complete” movie — even more so as it was done-in-one — there is no room, at all, for a Highlander sequel. There can only be one Immortal, and at the end of Highlander there definitively was only one. The story was over.

The way to make this work is for there to be room for more stories in the series. Sometimes this comes down to have a story that is told in separate parts, with each part whole but nevertheless part of a larger whole — like chapters in a book. The Harry Potter films succeed because they really are adaptations of smaller stories within a larger series, but it’s not the only way to achieve that effect. The original Star Wars trilogy has three movies that are all connected, and in which the first two films have room for expansion, but in which all three movies nevertheless tell their own stories. Another approach is to simply have a different story that can be told with the same characters, similar to episodes of a television series. Superhero movies often take this approach; there isn’t much of a direct connection between the plots of Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, but the sequel succeeds because it doesn’t need to build much on the first movie. Even with less-successful sequels, this can still be a valid strength; Fletch Lives may not be as good as Fletch, but there’s nothing wrong with the basic idea of Fletch investigating another mystery.

Live Up to the Film People Imagine: This is something of an abstract point, and in a lot of ways the rest of these guidelines contribute to it. But it warrants stating on its own. Even if your original film has an open ending — or an open beginning for prequels — that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s necessary to continue that story. It may not even be wise, because the fans will build up the potential story on their own, and it may not be easy, or sometimes even possible, to live up to the film they’ve built in their heads. The sequels to The Matrix didn’t really need to be made — the film is a great example of a movie with a complete story and yet having further adventures being obvious. But telling those further adventures required the Wachowskis to write a better story than people imagined. Not impossible, but not an easy proposition. They failed. There are reasons (trying to stretch things out, going too deep into the philoso-babble), but the end result is that people were unhappy with the films. People will always judge more harshly when they have high hopes.

Of course, The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions were hardly the first science-fiction sequels to get an utter thrashing from the fans. The Star Wars prequels were probably the most highly-anticipated film sequels in history, from the moment Return of the Jedi ended to the moment when The Phantom Menace finally came out. And then people couldn’t quite believe what they saw. People wanted to see the origins of Darth Vader… they didn’t want to see some happy-go-lucky kid racing his pod around and shouting “Wha hoo!” all the time. It didn’t feel like there was any trace of Darth Vader in the character — while I’m not going to hold up the other prequels as great films, at least it’s possible to see something of Vader in Anakin in episodes II and III. Regardless of the numerous other flaws with The Phantom Menace, the biggest flaw is that it simply was not the film that the fans were expecting. While it’s not wise to give the fans exactly what they want all the time — surprises can be good — it’s also not wise to completely avoid what the fans want.

Don’t Contradict the Original: I mentioned that the movie Highlander had a very firm and solid ending. So just how did Highlander 2: The Quickening “continue” the story of Highlander when the original clearly said it was all over? By essentially saying everything about the basic premise of Highlander was a lie. It’s not a coincidence that this is one of the most reviled sequels of all time. I’ve personally refused to even watch it after the first one emphatically made an ending, but it’s one of those films that you wind up hearing a lot about if you discuss movies, and particularly sequels, with movie fans. It brings in more “immortals”, makes them highly-advanced aliens instead of mystical beings… and in general makes a mockery of everything the fans loved about the original. I find it daffy that I should even have to say “don’t contradict the original” as a guideline for sequels, but here we are.

If people liked the original movie, they liked it for what it was — not for what it wasn’t. Changing what it was retroactively is about as close to an intrinsically bad idea as you can get in film-making. It’s the whole notion of playing fair with the audience… people like to have some sense that the plot makes sense, and that a conclusion is genuinely a conclusion. Contradicting the original film breaks that trust. It’s like the kids on the playground saying “No, what really happened is this!” back and forth at each other as their story becomes more and more incoherent. (Yes, I picture the average sequel-maker as the intellectual equivalent of an elementary school child.)

Don’t Simply Re-hash the Original: I actually like Ghostbusters II, but it’s hard to deny that it doesn’t live up to the original. The biggest reason is simply that it’s too much like the original. The Ghostbusters start out broke again, with New York City mostly distrusting them again, despite saving the city before. Venkman is trying once again to hook up with Dana Barrett, who is once again the target of the major supernatural threat to the city. The Ghostbusters have to convince the mayor of the danger, are obstructed by a petty bureaucrat, and spend some time behind bars. The same could be said — and in fact I did say it — of the direct-to-video WarGames: The Dead Code. Too much of it is simply too familiar if you’ve seen the original film — and if you haven’t seen the original film, why would you watch the sequel?

Preserve the Tone of the Original: You don’t want to re-hash the plot of the original, but you do want the film to largely feel the same. Not completely — The Empire Strikes Back is a much darker film than Star Wars — but even there it’s a change in tone that’s a natural growth from the events of the first movie. A sequel that takes a radically different tone from the original, or even one that puts the emphasis on the wrong themes from the original, can wind up being received poorly. I’m not going to say that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen wasn’t going to be received poorly regardless, but a significant part of its failure was that it devoted the first half of the movie, and most of the second half, to ridiculously juvenile humor instead of action, adventure, mystery, or anything that people actually liked in the original film. People weren’t expecting high-brow fare out of Michael Bay, but they did expect that the majority of the film involve giant robots bashing on each other, and they expected those robots to be impressive. They did not expect mechanical testicles, and they certainly weren’t looking to spend any length of time staring at John Turturro’s ass. Nobody wants to see that.

Strike While the Iron is Hot: If you want to make a sequel to a movie… make it relatively soon after the movie. Otherwise, not only do you run the risk of losing key components of the original as actors back out or die, or simply grow too old to play the same role, but you also run the risk of letting the historical perspective on the film start to gloss over the film itself. If a film is remembered as having a rosier outlook than it actually did, because the ending was positive and that’s what people remember, you’ll have trouble preserving its actual tone in the sequel. More importantly, you’ll be facing a one-two punch of apathy and antipathy. People will be disinterested in your sequel, or actively opposed to it, and the longer it has been since the original, the stronger those reactions will be. I don’t know exactly what the flaws are with The Godfather: Part III; I’ll admit I still need to see Part II. But with Part II coming out only two years after the original, I have to ask if at least part of the problem was that nobody was looking for a Godfather sequel 16 years later. Greatly-belated sequels are becoming more common nowadays, from Terminator 3 to TRON: Legacy to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but positive receptions for the films are few and far between.

But Don’t Rush It, Either: Of course, while you don’t want to wait forever, you also don’t want to just turn around and rush your sequel out immediately. It’s not so much because the audience’s level of interest — though you do run the risk of burnout if you provide too much too quickly. But the main concern is simply one of quality. Putting the movie out the next year, or sometimes even just two years later, means a film where the production was hurried. A script that was either rushed to completion without as much oversight as the original movie, or worse yet a script that was originally for another project that gets shoe-horned into being a “sequel”, along with a lack of time for re-writes, re-shoots, technological improvements… all of these can make a rushed sequel a candidate for the rubbish pile. Look Who’s Talking was, against all expectations, a success at the box office; just one year later, the sequel came out and was received far less favorably (though even that didn’t stop an attempt at a third film.) In general, the right balance for sequels appears to be around three or four years. It gives enough time for the creators to work out any bugs in the project, while getting it out soon enough that people are still interested.

Avoid Two-Part Trilogies: So you want to make sure your sequels have a short turn-around time without rushing them… what to do? Hey, why not shoot the second and third film back-to-back? It sounds like a good idea, in principle, and it’s certainly a popular one. Hollywood seems to announce trilogies more often than individual sequels nowadays. And once in a while it can work, such as the Lord of the Rings films. But in that case, it was used from a production standpoint, with a series that was already a cohesive whole (from the novels) with clearly delineated breakpoints. When writing for a new script, it doesn’t always work so well.

The problem that keeps coming up is the “two-part trilogy”, where the second and third film feel like they’re really one movie stretched out over two. There isn’t enough plot to provide a satisfactory feeling of depth to either movie, and the second movie tends to feel particularly incomplete. It acts as a bridge between the first and third, unable to stand on its own as it draws too heavily on the first, and it has an implicit “To be continued” at the end — well, sometimes implicit; some trilogies make it overt. Either way, it leaves the audience feel like they’ve bought one movie-going experience for the price of two, or that one of the films just didn’t really matter. I like the Back to the Future trilogy a lot, but the second film is far and away the weakest of the three, and it’s because it feels like it exists solely to get the characters from the end of the first movie to a point where the third can take place. It doesn’t have much strength on its own.

Remember Who the Audience is Interested In: Bring back the main characters and actors. Don’t try to focus on side characters who the audience didn’t care much about before. Who was it who said “Hey, the audiences loved Bruce Almighty, so let’s do a sequel based on the guy who Bruce mocked in one scene!”? It wasn’t any of the audience members, that’s for sure. People didn’t want to see Evan Almighty because they had no attachment to Evan, and Steve Carell wasn’t received as a strong replacement for Jim Carrey anyway. Change the main characters, change the lead actors, and you run a major risk of losing the audience. Cars 2 is regarded as the first out-and-out bad film from Pixar, and a lot of the criticism seems to be that it’s all about Mater, the sidekick from the original. Teen Wolf Too is infamous for its inability to bring back star Michael J. Fox, and so it focuses on a hitherto unknown cousin of the original film’s main character. And even if it is done well, and the ad campaign has been upfront about its nature, the biggest obstacle that 2012’s The Bourne Legacy is going to face is people asking “Where’s Matt Damon”?

Escalate Carefully: This is a problem that superhero movies and action movies in particular often run into, but it can apply to any movie series. It is tempting, and indeed somewhat necessary, to escalate the events in the sequel. The protagonists have already overcome obstacles in the first film; in order to be believable, the events in the sequel have to be that much harder to overcome. But there’s such a thing as taking it too far. You don’t want it to become unbelievable that the hero is able to overcome any odds, and you also don’t want the plot to be crowded out by the need to build things up. A common problem with superhero movies in particular is that they confuse “bigger” with “more”. Often the only movie in a superhero franchise to have just one villain is the first one. The more sequels, the more plot elements they throw in. Spider-Man 3 fell afoul of this by throwing in the new Green Goblin, the Sandman, and Venom, all in the same movie, and none of the plot lines received enough focus to be interesting. Cutting out one or more of the villains and their plots would likely have made for a stronger film.

Don’t Go Direct-to-Video: Many, arguably most, sequels are direct-to-video. Cartoons in particular are commonly subjected to this, because of the ease in selling a bad movie to a minor who hasn’t developed taste yet. Disney is fond of producing direct-to-video sequels of their movies, whether they’re a year old or fifty years old (though rumor has it John Lasseter has stated this is no longer going to happen, so good for him.) Nearly every Don Bluth film has received the same treatment, always without Don Bluth’s intervention. There is one theatrical release in The Land Before Time; there are twelve direct-to-video sequels, and it’s no coincidence that only the theatrical film received any critical acclaim. It happens with live-action films as well. WarGames: The Dead Code was direct-to-video, as were S. Darko and Get Smart’s Bruce and Lloyd Out of Control. I realize that many of these examples may be films nobody has heard of. That’s part of my point; they’re poorly-received films that never received any positive word of mouth. It often seems as though when a movie is poor, they just release it straight to video in the hopes that the home video market will be more forgiving; or, taking it the other way, that they make a film for the home video market and conclude they don’t need to put as much effort into it. My feeling on the subject is “do it big, or don’t bother.” Aim for the big screen, aim for quality, or don’t even start making the film.

No Interquels: An “interquel” or “midquel” is a movie that takes place between the events of a movie, or between two already-existing entries in a series. It was largely coined in reference to some of Disney’s direct-to-video releases, but you just know that sooner or later Hollywood is going to try and make this the next big thing with theatrical releases. And personally, I think that would be a recipe for disaster 99 times out of 100. The thing about a movie that shows events that happened during another movie is that those events weren’t shown for a reason. They aren’t interesting, or at least aren’t important. If they didn’t have enough of a point to be included the first time around, why bother with a movie dedicated solely to them? Move onto something else where you haven’t already said “this doesn’t matter”.

Work Like It’s the Original: I decided to go with a poster of The Empire Strikes Back for this point, as one of the best sequels out there, because if I went with a sequel that violated the point, I could pick almost any of them. Maybe even ESB, as well, though it seems to hold close to the ideal. And it is an ideal, rarely lived up to. But I think that most sequels would be improved if the creators approached it the way they approached the original. All too often, there seems to be an assumption that, since the audience is already familiar with the franchise, it isn’t necessary to put as much work into it. The hype machine is less, there isn’t quite as much effort into developing characters and plot, effects are more grandiose but not necessarily as groundbreaking… any number of things where, because the filmmakers feel they don’t have to work as hard at winning the audience over, they don’t try as hard. And, to be fair, they’re right about not having to work as hard to win the audience over. But they should do so anyway. Treat each film as if it were going to succeed or fail entirely on its own merits, and then do the utmost to ensure that it is worthy of success. This can only help the film. Because what would you rather have? A good sequel… or a great sequel?

About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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7 Responses to Drawing a Steady Line: Some Guidelines for Sequels

  1. Bubbawheat says:

    Some nice points there, though I have enjoyed a few of Disney’s sequels like Cinderella 3… and I could have sworn there was another one, but I can’t think of it right now. Toy Story 2 was intended to be a direct to video sequel, and look how that turned out. Sequels are always a hit and miss, even from the same studios. Shrek’s another example, Shrek 2 came out and was a great movie, then Shrek 3 came out and they added way too much to it, but then they came back with Shrek 4 which was another pretty decent movie. And not only that, but they made a successful spin off with Puss in Boots, even though I didn’t personally enjoy that one quite as much.

    • It’s true, sequels can go against these guidelines and still wind up being good. I just think those are the exception, rather than the rule. I haven’t seen Toy Story 2 yet, so I can’t vouch for it, but I suspect it kind of supports my point in a roundabout fashion. Even if they originally were thinking “direct to video”, they evidently approached it the same way they would a theatrical feature. They didn’t go recasting the voice roles, or anything like that, which they probably would have with the lower budget expectations for a direct-to-video release.

      And yeah, there’s definitely a lot of variance within a studio, or even within a series. Although I tend to think that the declining quality of sequels has more to do with these symptoms than anything inherent in simply being the Nth film in a series. Hard to say, though; certainly most series do have a steady decline with each one on, but that may just be because they’re trying to build on an increasingly unstable foundation.

  2. Great points; especially don’t contradict the original, and escalate carefully.

    Another point to add would be not to negate the outcome of the previous movie; which is why I think “Alien 3” did not succeed w/ the audience. Though I liked it, (SPOILER ALERT) within the first five minutes the outcome of “Aliens” was eliminated by revealing Newt and Hicks didn’t make it.

  3. Pingback: Back to the Drawing Board: Some Guidelines for Remakes | Morgan on Media

  4. Excellent points to which I agree with all of them. Though sequels can have their surprises (Toy Story 2), for the most part, they fail to be enjoyable (Cars 2). Hollywood should consult your list. 🙂 And interesting point you made about the Bourne reboot-do you think people will be receptive to Jeremy Renner?

    • It’s possible, and if it were just a question of Renner’s acting ability, I don’t think it would be a problem. But since the movie has the baggage of being a Bourneless Bourne movie, I’m not optimistic about its chances.

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