The Trouble with Sequels

We’re well into the age of "Movie Sequels and Series and Nothing Else". Complaining about it won’t go away. They’re low risk and usually high profit. This is how Hollywood is right now, and there’s nothing we can do about that.

So it’s important to take a look at how hard it is to make a good sequel, using two recent movies as examples of how to do it, and how not to do it.

Namely, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 and Pirates 5.

Now, my thoughts on Pirates 5 I wrote about already. Obviously GotG2 is better than P5. That’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about why.

So what makes a good sequel? What do we, as an audience, want in a sequel? Well, on a simple level, we want another adventure with the characters we liked from the first movie. That, of course, isn’t simple. Crafting a good story is hard enough, doing it a second time is even harder. Most movies considered satisfying have a solid character arc that contributes to and is impacted by the story. At the end of the movie, the character has changed, usually for the better. As an audience, we like to see this change.

But often that change has profoundly changed the character, so what’s left for them to do in another movie? This is one of the main reasons why so many sequels fail. The characters have nowhere left to grow, and merely go through the motions of whatever the plot needs them to do. This doesn’t have to be bad, there are plenty of “good” sequels that don’t have this, but they’re never as good as the original.

That’s the common refrain, right? The sequel is never as good as the original. Well that's is one of the big reasons why. If we take a look at the best sequels, there’s a common pattern. Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight are certainly in this category, as is (I would posit), GotG2. In each of these, the character’s arc of change continues, or more precisely, is forced to continue, along believable lines. The characters grow in a way that makes them feel real.

While it’s a bit unfair to use Pirates 5 as the counter in this argument, given that it’s the 5th outing in a fairly mediocre series to begin with, it demonstrates the issue really well. There’s really no arc to any of the characters. Their motivations are reasonably clear, but at the end of the movie… wait, spoilers.

Spoilers!

… at the end of the movie, nothing really changes. Captain Jack has his ship back, even though he wasn’t really looking for it. Forgettable Male Lead frees his dad… but you’d likely forgotten about that desire since it basically wasn’t mentioned after the opener. Female Lead Whatshername finds out about her dad, but only in a scene so pointless and rushed, there’s little to no emotion in it. Little time is spent exploring any of these issues so more mindless action scenes and cameos can get stuffed in, the movie feels lifeless, soulless, boring.

OK, end of spoilers

So what does this all mean. Well, that good sequels are hard. Harder, perhaps, than their predecessors. Even the most talented filmmakers working today aren’t immune to the challenges of sequels. Avengers was a masterpiece. Avengers 2 was definitely not. Cars 2 and Dark Knight Rises had their own issues, though the former was merely a surprisingly cynical cash grab, and the latter was not entirely Chris Nolan’s fault.

The biggest issue is actually time. There’s a window in which a sequel can be made and audiences still care enough to see it in big numbers (though we'll see about the upcoming Blade Runner sequel. Worse, these days sequels already have release dates years before a script is even written. With such a hard deadline, writers and directors have no choice but to move forward with a script that even they aren’t entirely comfortable with. There are certainly plenty of reports of movies being re-written on set during shooting, and that’s never good.

And in the end, it’s our fault too. We love going to sequels. We may hate the idea of them, but we’ll go to see them. As my friend Mark said of the absolutely terrible Star Trek: Nemesis: “Well, it’s a night out with old friends”.

So the bar is set pretty low by our wallets, and that doesn’t seem like it will change. Hopefully Hollywood will on its own.

LOL, yeah, right.