The pitfalls of second movie syndrome

Feature Mark Harrison 1 Apr 2014 - 05:47

Following new Captain America and Muppets movies, Mark looks at the challenges facing a second movie...

This article is spoiler-free, but it may contain some plot details about Muppets Most Wanted and Captain America: The Winter Soldier that you may not want to know if you haven't already seen those films, so proceed carefully.

The sophomore slump is a trend observed in academic study, whereby a decline in morale in second-year students can be linked to new stressors, and disaffection with what previously seemed new.

Its equivalent in the music industry would be the term “difficult second album”, which gets bandied around a lot, largely projecting audience anticipation onto an artist who has enjoyed a successful début, and now has the world snapping at their heels for an equally well-received follow-up.

And, in a film industry where brand-led tentpoles are becoming dominant, the enthusiasm of the consensus will usually decline with movie sequels. Even if the box office opening weekend is higher than the first time around, it's comparatively rare for a sequel to get better notices than its predecessor.

The cliché about second-year academic efforts, sophomore albums and movie sequels alike is that they regress towards the mean, suggesting that if something is first measured to be exceptional, any attempt at repeating that measurement will come markedly closer to average.

It feels timely to broach the subject in the week following the UK release of two massive sequels - Muppets Most Wanted and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Both are distributed by Disney, and both are ostensibly first sequels, to 2012's The Muppets and 2011's The First Avenger, respectively, but both manage to steer clear of second movie syndrome by acknowledging their part in a larger cinematic continuity.

Of course, for The Winter Soldier, it's really more like the ninth film in a Marvel series, than the first Captain America sequel - a film about intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D, in which Steve Rogers remains central. As we've discussed on the site before, the USP of Marvel Studios' films is that it's all one big continuity, more like a massive television series than a movie franchise.

The sequel introduces new recurring characters like its title character, the Winter Soldier, and the Falcon, and also includes continuing characters like Black Widow, Nick Fury and Maria Hill. It's also Marvel's third movie in the space of 12 months, which suggests that one way to beat the sophomore slump could be to keep producing a high turnover of consistently good films.

It doesn't look like the quality's going to fall off any time soon. Other studios with Marvel properties are gearing up to try and replicate that pace, with Sony prepping a Spidey universe that will include The Sinister Six and Venom, and Fox's creative consultant Mark Millar hinting at crossovers between X-Men and Josh Trank's new Fantastic Four.

But that momentum has taken a while for Marvel to build up - remember how the fall-off between 2008's Iron Man and 2010's Iron Man 2 was a little more steep? As with the first time around, the film had a release date before it had a finished script, but perhaps the effort of pretty much making two in a row so close together is the reason why Iron Man 2 didn't quite capture the alchemy that made the first one so successful.

The practice of setting release dates before the creative team are in place isn't unique to Marvel, but few others are delivering as well as they are, on time. The biggest problem with sequels is probably the lack of time taken in between. The standard turnaround is within two years, which isn't a great deal of time for filmmakers to break the story for a second instalment and get all of their ducks in a row.

It sometimes leads to rehashing the original - films like The Hangover Part II and Taken 2 couldn't have been closer to certain sequels from the 1980s if they had used the word 'another' in their title (Stakeout's was the last sequel to announce itself as Another, if memory servces). That's how The Hangover went from well-liked sleeper hit to a lumbering, mirthless trilogy within just four years.

That's not to say that a bit of the same is always bad. While Marvel has had the advantage of switching up genres from film to film, depending on the realm that each central character inhabits, they could never take the notion of a sophomore slump by the horns in quite the fashion that James Bobin and co. did with Muppets Most Wanted.

The Muppet characters are back, the sense of humour is consistent with what we expect from them, and Flight Of The Conchords' Bret McKenzie has played another blinder in his songwriting duties. McKenzie's opening gambit is the unnervingly catchy “We're Doing A Sequel”, which directly addresses most of the stuff we're talking about in this article.

There's arguably a second jab at the idea of follow-ups being inferior in the form of frog criminal Constantine's villain song, 'I'm Number One', in which he enumerates the ways in which he's better, stronger and smarter-er than Ricky Gervais' number two, Dominic. Number two is always inferior, right? Ironically, the second song isn't as good, but we get the point anyway.

And like the 2011 film, the sequel borrows liberally from the Muppets' previous hits. Structurally, it goes along the same lines as their original second film, The Great Muppet Caper, and it also finds time for a tongue-in-cheek reprise of 'Together Again' from The Muppets Take Manhattan. As Bunsen points out in that opening number, this is actually their seventh sequel to their original Muppet Movie, and it acknowledges the debt all the way through while still delivering plenty of fresh jokes and character moments.

But as mentioned, few sequels have the licence to get away with meta-textually addressing second movie syndrome as the Muppets can. Gremlins 2: The New Batch would be a good historical example, whereby Joe Dante's reported goal was to lampoon the first film, and simultaneously ensure that nobody could make a third movie. Few filmmakers go in with that kind of kamikaze mentality.

By skewing towards a larger cinematic canon, it's as if both Muppets Most Wanted and The Winter Soldier want to slip out of being called second movies on a technicality, and it's not hard to see why, given the general reception for certain successors to popular movies.

Some reviews have opined that Most Wanted doesn't measure up to its predecessor, and although we don't entirely disagree, (it's tough to recast human leads after the perfect choice of Amy Adams and Jason Segel, although they give it a really good go with Tina Fey, Ty Burrell and Ricky Gervais, to varying degrees of success) it still looks bloody marvellous in comparison to most other films since the last one.

We can talk about factors like quick turnaround and creative exhaustion between films, but the sophomore slump is still a subjective trend, observed by viewers rather than ingrained in the text. If we're disappointed by a sequel or an album, it could as easily be down to a general fetishisation of new-ness on the audience's part- for as much as we protest that we want to see something new, the demand for sequels and reboots and adaptations remains high, and if the first 'new' thing does well, more will follow.

It afflicts directors as much as franchises. To give just one pertinent example from geek culture, Kevin Smith followed Clerks, a movie about friends talking about pop culture in a convenience store, with Mallrats, a movie about friends talking about pop culture in a shopping mall. The former was a Sundance success story, but the latter, released a year later under the Universal banner, was excoriated by critics, even though the two are entirely consistent in Smith's canon.

It's tough to actually quantify second movie syndrome, because the second measurement of a formula, in this case, is always going to be subjective. Maybe the sheer volume of sequels being released has either lowered the bar or re-defined the average, but there might as easily be someone who preferred Quantum Of Solace to Casino Royale, or thought that The Dark Knight didn't fulfil the promise of Batman Begins.

As much as production factors can play a part in the underwhelming pinch of the sophomore slump, a viewer is always going to project their own expectations onto the screen along with the film they're actually watching. While you can judge that a filmmaker might have taken less than two years to make a follow-up to your favourite film, you've spent that two years thinking about what was so good about that first one, and a relatively infinitesimal time to measure your enormous disappointment in the film you've just seen.

Is it a cop out to write this much and conclude that it's all relative and subjective? That's for you to decide, (see what I did there?) but there are too many cases of the sequel either expanding upon the world advanced in its predecessor (as in The Winter Soldier), or simply giving us more of the same and delivering a similar level of entertainment (Muppets Most Wanted), to keep on with that cliché that the sequel is never quite as good.

Now, fourth-movie syndrome? That could be something worth studying. Answers on a postcard if anyone can satisfactorily explain Superman IV: The Quest For Peace?

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I'm one of the only people on the planet apparently who enjoyed Quantum Of Solace yet hated Casino Royale. I wanted to give them both a go again before Skyfall came out and when I did, I revised my loathing of Casino and can admit I kinda liked it. I still love Quantum tho. And the result: I ended up hating Skyfall. Go ahead, mock me ;-)

Naw... I'm with you on that one.

Glad to know I'm not alone

Great piece, some second movies are awesome and some are lame, but we're always gonna judge them 10x harder than we did the first!

The typical sequel is bigger and more of the same. Although one of the first one's was a big success ("Aliens", that is), most of them are not as good as the original feature ("Die Hard 2"; "Bad Boys 2", "The Siege 2", "Predator 2", "Men in Black 2", "Basic Instinct 2", "RoboCop 2", each and every Horror sequel except "Evil Dead 2", each and every Comedy sequel except, no, there is none...).

When they change direction and try something new, it's mostly hit and miss ("Chronicles of Riddick", "Mad Max 2", "Aliens", "Batman Returns", "A Better Tomorrow 2", "Mission: Impossible 2", "Gremlins 2"). The mentioned ones were all better in my book, but the missed ones are countless.
It certainly is a mixed bag with these sequels. Although lately there were some big successes since the 2000s ("X-Men 2", "Spider-Man 2", "The Dark Knight").

I don't mind sequels, but I curb my enthusiasm for them. Works best, I guess.

Gotta say, I much preferred The Winter Solider in comparison to The First Avenger. That said, I find the setting of World War II to be quite a boring backdrop for any film, let alone a superhero film, which I know is something I'm probably in the minority about

No mocking needed, slight story problems aside Quantum of a Solace is my fav Craig bond. The song lets it down. I do like Casino and Skyfall and no I'm not a Bourne fanboy I just the QOS doesn't get the recognition it so clearly deserves.

Terminator 2 Judgment Day. Best of them all and it was a sequel.

I thought Muppets Most Wanted was better than 'The Muppets' actually! But then I'm nearly 40 so a return to the more 'Muppet Caper' type of film is a bonus for me!

maybe in the minority but definitely not alone. ;)

So what do you think was the worst geek sequel to a film that had so much promise? I will open with Highlander 2. Highlander was a great film, the sequel added in an alien planet, regeneration just from calling a name. Oh so rubbish. And don't get me started on number three which slotted between 1 and 2 basically undoing the winking of the prize. Rubbish franchise, great stand alone movie! Any others?

Surely with music it's the difficult third album?

No mocking but you are wrong about quantum, and while box office doesn't mean it is a great film (look at Bays destruction of my childhood favourite with transformers) most people prefer sky fall based on sheer bums on seats!

To be fair, without the sequels we might never have been lucky enough to see the TV show. It was so bad, in a good way, we used to have communal viewings when it was on America Plus, on Star TV, back in the 90s.

So many immortals, all so chummy.

Aliens vs Alien is a subjective debate - very different movies and both superb,

Empire Strikes Back vs Star Wars?

One music example I know is the Killers (awaiting the comments to crucify me for my taste in music).

The first album, Hot Fuss, was a huge success and loved by critics.

For the second album they decided to completely eschew the sound of the first and as a result it infuriated a lot of people.

But out of a lot of the rock bands that emerged at the same time, The Killers are one of the few that still achieve some level of success. I feel like if they kept to their same sound they would have fallen out of public awareness very quickly.

The craftmanship in Empire is much better. Better camera work, better pacing. Star Wars is a bit obviously 70s while Empire seems much fresher. I guess Irvin Kershner was a better Director than George Lucas. And the fact that they had a bigger budget didn't hurt either...

I was just about to mention Highlander 2 when saw this. I am still scarred beyond tablets by that awful movie. Only time I have ever contemplated asking for my money back. In the end I couldn't be bothered.
I am truly speechless that it was ever made.

Fourth movie syndrome? Rocky IV was the most successful sports film ever made. As average as plenty of part fours can be, it's part fives that go hideously wrong. At least Jaws 4 had comedy value, Die Hard 5 was a goddamn tragedy.

Personal, I don't think the 1940s setting let it down. I thought the third act was really poor and the Red Skull was just another two dimensional villain.

What about delayed sequel syndrome? Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Rambo, Rocky, Star Trek and upcoming Jurassic World, Ghostbusters 3, Terminator: Genesis and many more are faced with huge expactations that are almost impossible to meet.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture vs Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, anyone?

Have to say that I found Winter Soldier to be the best sequel Marvel have come up with yet. I too found First Avenger a little underwhelming (the WW2 backdrop was OK, but beyond being an origin story the film didn't really go anywhere) but this one built on everything that film did, as well as Avengers, and came up with a great combination between 70s style conspiracy thriller and superhero action movie. I don't agree with some critics that there were too many characters (just because I wanted to see more of a character, doesn't mean they were surplus to requirements, in fact the opposite) and I thought its run time was fully justified. The fact that it told such a complete story in itself and then still managed to set up furture strands (Von Stucker, Crossbones, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, the hunt for Bucky, Fury goes wandering, Agent 13) was also great.

Toy Story 2 and 3, Psycho II, Aliens, T2, Color of Money, The Before Sunset trilogy, Return to Oz, Wes Craven's New Nightmare (plus Freddy vs Jason, H20), Rocky Balboa, The Thing prequel. I'd throw in Scream 4 and American Reunion, even though personally I thought very little of them. Sure some are more belated and successful than others, but I don't think the word 'belated' should be cause for alarm.

I like Skyfall, it's very well put together in the sense that everything is very calculated for a purpose, whether it is due to being an anniversary film or Cold War style English quiet scheming I still can't decide. Casino Royale is not the usual paces of James Bond like Quantum of Solace, which is kinda exciting; whereas QoS is more "traditional" James Bond's wham bam thank you ma'am. So I guess there is one for everyone.


it can be, with certain bands, Oasis are pretty much defined by that.
but some others find that the second album is so much harder to focus on than their breakthrough. Damien Rice's "9" is an example, the first album came out of nowhere and was released when he was ready to release it. The second album came out because everyone wanted a second album and he wasn't happy with it and you can (to an extent) hear that in the songs.

I think Quantum is great if you've watched Casino Royale lately, I think it was pretty ballsy having a Bond sequel pretty much pick up from 2-3 minutes after the last one finished. The fact that it came out three years later meant that beginning doesn't have the same effect unless you can remember the journey in Casino Royale.

I'd argue with you on the Comedy sequels but no, I can't think of one either, that's pretty weird.

I thought Mad Max 2 was the better of the trilogy. I may be in the minority but for me it was just simply the greatest. It improved on the wasteland and degeneration of human society from the first movie and the vehicular action sequences were outstanding. Beyond thunderdome was where they effectively blew it out of thier rears

It is, isn't it? Although they try, nobody bettered an orginal comedy. Mostly more of the same. In fact, everytime more of the same regarding Comedy.
Seems logical: you don't change your humor when doing another one. That must be it.

Superman - The Movie vs Superman 2 or Superman 2 (The Richard Donner cut)

I love The Great Muppet Caper, such a fun film, if it doesnt make you smile you must be dead!

Maybe the new muppet movie would do better if the only promotion for it ive seen (in the UK) wasnt that bloody subway advert.

Haha! ST:TMP looks more expensive, and the Jerry Goldsmith score is sublime,thats the best I can say about it! Actually dont get me wrong I do like the film, its certainly a lot better than Trek 5!

Love Quantum too. Skyfall felt like a backward step

With music I feel it is the first album after you make it and are now rich. Once you take the struggle away then the music often becomes bland.

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