Are sequels getting better?

The old mantra was that a sequel was bound to be worse than the original. But is that still the case, wonders Simon…?

Throughout the 1990s, the letters pages of many film magazines would, at one time or another, have a thread arguing that film sequels are never better than their originals. Furthermore, a month later, a correspondent would inevitably argue for the likes of The Godfather Part II, for Aliens, or perhaps even for Terminator 2. Then the argument would be forgotten, until the next crappy sequel was released. That usually didn’t take too long.

But I wonder now whether the idea that the sequel is instantly a bad idea has been rendered moot. Because, just off the top of my head, the last few years have brought us Toy Story 3, Kung Fu Panda 2, The Dark Knight, Fast Five, X-Men: First Class, Voyage Of The Dawn Treader, The Bourne Ultimatum and Scream 4, each of which, at the very least, was up to the standard of the film that preceded it. And, in some cases, better. Granted, not all of those films are straight, traditional sequels, but I wonder if that’s part of the evolution that’s taken place.

Going back still further, how about X2? Spider-Man 2? Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban? Final Destination 2, even? These are, to varying degrees, sequels that are superior to the films just before them. They either take the ideas and concepts of the preceding film and have a bit of fun with them, or genuinely expand on the characters and try something different.

We saw that happen a couple of times in the 90s, and it didn’t always give studios the reward for it. Addams Family Values and A Very Brady Sequel we touched on last week when discussing comedy sequels, in particular, but then there’s the case of My Girl 2. The first My Girl was a crappy Macaulay Culkin movie that’s best forgotten. The sequel? It’s not great, but it took some creative risks and tried to expand a little on the first film. It subsequently failed at the box office, although that’s more than likely down to the absence of the then-young Culkin.

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This year, it’s been well reported that there are in the region of 27 sequels heading to cinemas in one form or another. And this, clearly, isn’t a great thing. Original thinking and new ideas are far preferable to rehashing the same old characters and concepts. However, I no longer immediately fear the sequel in the manner in which I once did, because finally, filmmakers (and, crucially, studios too) are getting to grips with how to make a good one.

The recipe, at heart, isn’t tricky. For a sequel to work, it needs to do something a little different, tell a different story from the first film, and in some way to be treated as a separate entity. Anything that progresses the narrative and characters, or a story that naturally spans more than one film, tends to help, too.

Thus, far from getting the kind of sequel that was dreamed up in a board room (Paranormal Activity 2, for instance), we’d had the likes of the Bourne trilogy, that rarest of cinematic treats where each chapter of the story got progressively better. You could tell that time was taken over the Bourne films, and the impact of it is on the screen.

Then there’s the Toy Story trilogy, which is arguably the most perfect trilogy in cinema history. Here, time is what makes the franchise work. By having three films span a decade and a half, it makes the story more logical, removes the movies from the production line cycle, and each film is memorable in its own right.

That said, even films on tighter turnaround are getting better. Kung Fu Panda 2 is no cinematic classic, but it certainly bothers to try. It fuses excellent action, a progression of the narrative and a different tack than we were expecting with the story, and delivers a thumping good film in the process.

Good filmmakers are, I’ve concluded, learning how to adapt sequels into their thinking (a by-product, arguably, of the importance of sequels to a business plan: they have to be considered from the off). The likes of Christopher Nolan are working their stories around multiple chapters, and considering the narrative right from the start. That doesn’t mean mapping everything out in minute detail, but it does mean that Nolan probably knew where The Dark Knight Rises would take us a good five years back. Even when it wasn’t certain it would be made.

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There is one further ingredient, though. When discussing whether sequels are getting better, or at least trying harder, it’d be remiss not to acknowledge that the original films themselves might just be getting worse. Look at films such as G.I. Joe, Fantastic Four, Sherlock Holmes and The Incredible Hulk. Some of those are decent enough, but they seem so concerned with putting the building blocks for sequels in place, that they lose a little of the impact of the story they should be telling there and then. It’s as if it’s a concession to the filmmakers: make the first one a hit, and you get to make the story you really want to make with the follow-up.

My personal view is that we still lose more than we gain with a diet of ongoing sequels, but then I temper that with a keenness to see the next Batman, Thor, X-Men and Star Trek movies. I’m gratified that the number of good sequels is on the increase, although I do wonder if that’s a by-product, too, of the number being made.

Nonetheless, there’s little doubt that blockbuster cinema will be sequel and franchise dominated for the next decade at the very least. And with that in mind, I’m happy that the best sequels do seem to be earning their commercial rewards, which wasn’t always the case. Sadly, so do the lazy ones, and it’s not lost on me that Pirates 4 and Hangover 2, the two laziest sequels of the summer to date, are the ones that are bringing home the most cash.

There’s still more cloud than silver lining, it seems…

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