Are big movie sequels getting better?

Has 2014 marked a turning point in the quality of major movie sequels? And could there be hidden consequences to this?

There have been a fair few stories circling over the past few days about how Hollywood has ‘suffered’ its worst box office summer season in nearly 20 years. That the 2014 summer season has seen a decline in ticket sales of around 15% over last year alone, with a bunch of films that didn’t do the numbers that well-paid bean counters were expecting.

There were high hopes, commercially at least, for films such as Hercules and Edge Of Tomorrow, the latter of which has only now cracked $100m in the US. Meanwhile, movies such as The Amazing Spider-Man 2, The Expendables III and How To Train Your Dragon 2 took in less cash than had been anticipated. As things stand, not one film has cracked $300m at the US box office this year, although Marvel’s Guardians Of The Galaxy is likely to by the end of its run.

The naysayers are thus out in force, and the fingers of blame are, somewhat inevitably, being pointed at sequels. With good reason too. Already, 12 further sequels to this summer’s films are in some stage of development, and those are just the ones that have been talked about. Furthermore, there’s been a steady diet of sequels, reboots and comic book movies since Captain America: The Winter Soldier kicked off the summer season back in March.

And yet I wonder if all the negative chatter does overlook one thing about the trend for big sequels: that the films themselves are actually getting better.

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If you go back to the 1980s, the mere idea of doing a sequel still had a degree of snobbery attached to it. Fast forward to now, and we’ve an utter reverse of that situation. As soon as a film is a hit, the clamour for a sequel in many quarters is pronounced, not least from large chunks of the audience. The 1990s and 2000s meanwhile marked – with exceptions – a graveyard of, in most cases, disappointing sequels that came off the production line with the financial cynicism comfortably outweighting the filmmaking art.

But whilst I’ve no urge to take a bullet for the idea of sequel after sequel, I do wonder if the implicit assumption that a successful film will get one means that at least most of the big follow-ups are being properly thought about now. That ideas are threaded, sometimes perhaps too overtly granted, into the first film. But at the very least, a sequel is not starting from scratch, and there are foundations to build on.

I’d argue out of this summer’s sequels that Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, the generally maligned The Amazing Spider-Man 2, The Purge: Anarchy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier were all better than the film that preceded them. Furthermore, there’s at least an argument that How To Train Your Dragon 2, X-Men: Days Of Future Past and 22 Jump Street built on their forerunners in interesting ways. Some would argue they were better, but at the very least, there was clearly some ambition to each of those projects.

The examples of follow-ups that haven’t really pushed things forward? They’re in surprisingly short supply. Rio 2, for me, was a pretty staid follow-up, content to sing a few more songs, demonstrate some excellent animation, but barely cobble together a story worth thinking about. I’ve not seen Sin City 2, but opinion seems sharply divided, and the box office has not been kind. As for Transformers: Age Of Extinction, it’s hard to say that it’s shortchanged too many people who went in looking for a continuation of what they got in the first three movies.

I do think, then, there’s a positive trend overall in the quality of major movie sequels. But then studios need sequels more than ever now, and they need lots of them. The penny seems to have dropped that if you want to keep making sequels to a big movie, it helps if they’re good, because then – and it’s not a perfect rule of thumb – you get a better chance of making some money, and consequently making another film.

I do want to temper all of this with two things. Firstly, the talk of the box office decline at the start there is limited to North America alone. Elsewhere, I don’t think the numbers are as bad. But secondly, more importantly, just because sequels are improving, I wouldn’t argue for their existence over an interesting, standalone project.

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The three big surprises of this summer for me have been Edge Of Tomorrow, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes and Guardians Of The Galaxy. Apes in particular proved that you could have a hugely accessible, deeply political and intelligent blockbuster movie in the midst of high season, and people would come to see it. The film has outgrossed the impressive Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, and has so far earned over $600m worldwide. There’s something quite heartening about that.

Guardians Of The Galaxy has been discussed lots and lots elsewhere, so I just want to hone in on Edge Of Tomorrow. Because if you’re looking for the collateral damage in a sequel-driven blockbuster industry, then Doug Liman’s excellent sci-fi movie was it. Appreciating that there’s a debate over whether Tom Cruise’s name over the title has a positive box office impact, at least in North America, Edge Of Tomorrow is the kind of blockbuster many of us have been appealing for. It’s clever, funny, exciting, has a bit of a shitty ending, but also has no eye at all on a follow-up. It’s a big, hugely entertaining blockbuster movie. And it’s made Warner Bros a loss.

For everything I’ve written here about how the bigger sequels are improving, they’re still rarely a match for a surprise such as Edge Of Tomorrow, but Hollywood studios will now, somewhat inevitably, be shying away from such material. After all, why make a loss on a big film lots of people love, when you can make a huge profit on one whose Rotten Tomatoes score is 20% less, but box office is 50% higher? If you’re a studio chief and your job was on the line, which film would you pick to make?

That said, it’s an encouraging trend to see sequels treated properly, to be given to interesting filmmakers, and to be logical extensions of what went before. Certainly, if more studios can look at the Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes approach, then it’s a step in the right direction. However, I’d argue that better sequels and interesting one-offs are not mutually exclusive. Sequels don’t exist away from standalone films, and if studios are opting for 12 follow-ups to this year’s summer films, then there’s 12 other big films that aren’t going to get made.

The improvement in big films – and it’s been an impressive summer in that regard, I’d argue – is welcome. But a broad mix is also vital to keep multiplexes interesting in the summer. Perhaps, when Edge Of Tomorrow lands on disc, we can all go out and buy a copy or two, just to give the system a bit of a nudge?

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