So how about that Mandarin? What a great villain! And who can forget tasting the fiery Wrath of Khan…again! Yeah…
In lieu of the polarizing effects of Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness, we at Den of Geek have decided to explore that point where fans just give up. The sequel that inevitably causes a huge split between true believers. Often the rift is so insurmountably large that most audiences throw up their hands and abandon the franchise like rats on a cascading money train. Other times, the film series can manage the renewal of some dignity. Either way, these are the type of movies that just SUCK and ruin it for everyone.
Let the lynch mob begin…
The first type is also the most obvious: The sequel that nobody wants. Long before sequels, prequels and mid-quels (it is a thing, look it up) made up the lifeblood of the studio system and their “tent poles,” audiences viewed sequels almost exclusively as the providence of the greedy and desperate. These are the movies that nobody with intelligence should want and that ultimately deliver a product that ensures the imminent death of the supposed “franchise” that came before.
These desperate cash grabs did not really take on their modern appearance until the 1970s. As the studio system entered the decade of the auteur, shell-shocked producers who had completely lost the pulse of American audiences would latch onto absolutely anything remotely populist for a sequel. While occasionally that meant sequels that had the audience’s respect and interest, such as the relatively well-liked Rocky II, it also meant a decade of rehashes that absolutely no one wanted to see.
One of the earliest “modern” celluloid rejects was Rooster Cogburn (1975). A post-studio system film cranked out like a World War II serial that starred either The Thin Man or The Wolf Man, John Wayne’s penultimate performance was a return to the eye-patch, which won him that elusive Oscar six years earlier. It was an awesomely terrible movie that coasted off supposed audience fondness for the actor, as well as Katherine Hepburn. Immediately, it earned the dubious legacy of being one of the most embarrassing entries on either’s late filmography.
The decade also saw similarly unwanted revisits, such as 1974’s Airport 1975 (yeah….), a remake for washed up Charlton Heston to step in for washed up Burt Lancaster’s lead in Airport (1970). But producer Irwin Allen outdid even those aerial nightmares when he repackaged his popular moldy cheese The Poseidon Adventure (1972) with the never-remembered Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979). Hollywood legend has it that the film’s disaster is that nary a soul saw it.
With other unwanted sequels in the ensuing decade like Grease 2 (1982), Saturday Night Fever follow-up Staying Alive (1983), Cannonball Run II (1984) and Caddyshack II (1988), it is no wonder that sequels developed the reputation of being the last refuge for schlock and naked desperation. So why do these unwanted cinematic pariahs continue to show up?
Because, however improbably, these cash-in rehashes can succeed, despite nobody ever admitting to liking them.
Jaws (1975) is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. It combines popcorn thrills with 1970s filmmaking ambition. It is both an adventure story and, in some ways, a character piece about three men who hate each other grappling with nature. It is a story that taps into our primordial fear of the deep blue sea and our love for crowd pleasing happy endings. It is such a simple classic that Saturday Night Live ran a popular skit during its inaugural year called “Jaws II” about a “Land Shark” devouring unsuspecting urbanites using the ruse of candygrams. And you know what? That would have been better than the actual Jaws 2 (1978) inflicted upon the world a few years later.
Jaws 2 is everything people hate about the sequels: almost none of the original talent, save for Roy Scheider picking up a paycheck, came back. Spielberg is gone, Richard Dreyfus is gone and, worst of all, the terror is gone. Instead, the film is a proto-slasher about a bunch of teens partying on sailboats before a Great White mercifully comes to devour them. Jeannot Szwarc’s is so slap dash in his aesthetic that it does not even qualify as workmanlike. Also, the writing smells painfully of committee pandering to teenagers. It is impossible to find a single soul who likes the movie, but it was a runaway hit, spawning increasingly appalling and ridiculous follow-ups like Jaws 3-D (1983) and Jaws: The Revenge (1987).
I have never heard a single person confess to liking these unholy creations, not even the producers. But audiences’ ability to return to truly inane and inept sequels can often be as reliable as the sunrise. Hence, the dramatically hated Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) spawning the only slightly less-despised Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011). And they will be back for next year’s Transformers 4.
Fortunately, these cynical boardroom votes can still backfire. Sometimes they wipe out with a soft thud, like 2007’s unloved Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and sometimes because of the spectacularly awful opportunism on display. Enter Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997). The hot follow-up to 1994’s most exhilarating foulmouthed popcorn experience, on paper Speed 2 looks like a no-brainer. They even got back director Jan de Bont and the first’s instant American sweetheart, Sandra Bullock. How could it fail?
Well, besides recasting its male lead from Keanu Reeves to Jason Patric (who may actually be the better actor), the filmmakers made the fatal assumption that brands are everything. If Speed was Die Hard on a Bus, then Speed 2 would just be Die Hard somewhere else. Unfortunately, Die Hard itself had taken airports out of the equation with Die Hard 2 (1990). Planes were also off the table thanks to the concurrent 1997 flicks, Air Force One and Con Air. Even Stallone was claiming dibs on the premise when he literally pushed all other writers off his mountain in Cliffhanger (1993). So, BRILLIANTLY, de Bont and writer Randall McCormick framed the sequel nobody was asking about around one of the few remaining frontiers: cruise ships. Yes, to follow up the white-knuckle thrills of Speed, the movie about a SPEEDING BUS WITH A BOMB ON IT, producers set their high-octane adventure on the preferred mode of vacation for senior citizens. Genius.
Speed 2: Cruise Control is a landmark bomb in Hollywood history, one that nearly pulled Bullock’s career down with it beneath the waves. Patric was less fortunate. But at least they put a little effort into their sinking albatross…
Direct to Oblivion
Yet studios are sometimes aware that sequels, even to beloved originals, just may not have a heavy pull at the box office. This leads to that awkward moment when a would-be franchise throws in the towel on quality before the second round has even started. Sequels intended singularly for home release, whether on DVD or that ancient technology which historians call “VHS,” almost come with an expected mediocrity.
Usually studios wait until a franchise has been so over-milked that PETA is about to file an injunction over abuse before they damn a brand to this wasteland. But occasionally, very popular films that fans love get sequels released to this bargain bin of doom. It is rare, but some studios are infamous for jumping into this self-flagellating market with their beloved characters. And by some, I mean Disney.
The House of Mouse has made a vast fortune by hastily excreting little-seen bastardizations of their most beloved works. It began relatively harmlessly with Aladdin: The Return of Jafar (1994). More an animated prequel to their animated Aladdin TV series, the short film has its fans. It may seem improbable because Robin Williams, the true star of the 1992 classic, was absent from the film and the animation and original songs were…a step down, to say the least. Yet it still has defenders. Still, it may be fair, because that home release is not the real culprit. Rather, it was the first wave in a tsunami of trash.
I would say we all remember how atrocious Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World (1998), The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride (1998) or The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea (2000) are…except, it is impossible to recollect the etchings of a plot in these “movies.” I distinctly recall sitting a kid down to watch The Lion King II, but on my life I could not tell you what happened in that film. Nor can Disney, other than the fortune they made from pimping out around the back alley the title of their greatest animated achievement.
The greatest significance from these stand-in babysitters is how they created a new form of storytelling. Sure, there they made Cinderella and Aladdin into trilogies, but far more fascinating is how they created the MID-QUEL. When there just is not enough story left for either a prequel or a sequel, but there is a legion of children with parents desperate to placate their Magical Kingdom needs, it’s time to create a threadbare storyline from WITHIN the original film. Hence, Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas (1997). Now, I do not know if I ever saw this gem or not, but the mad genius of the project supposes that there was an entire Christmas adventure that occurred during a montage of the BEST PICTURE NOMINATED original. And that adventure was some imminently terrible story of the protagonists relearning the lessons from the movie’s first act while fending off the sweet, sweet seduction of Tim Curry’s voice. It was such a wondrous money generator that it led to several more mid-quels to that classic, as well as Lion King 1 ½ (2004), Bambi II (2006) and other titles whose evil I dare not summon here.
There is a school of thought that states Disney, by providing more product for children who love these characters, is providing an “acceptable” outlet for families. A 60-minute distraction of uninspired music and bright colors while mom and dad get some peace and quiet. Yet, such rationalization for bankrupt artistry is why all these characters have been devalued to little more than a Happy Meal logo. Imagine if Toy Story 2 (1999) and Toy Story 3 (2010) were so shamelessly lazy and lacking in ambition. Pixar could still have made bank, but thankfully they did it without trivializing the allure of one of their most treasured classics.
Prostituting a Dead Horse
Of course, not all sequels are made with the worst of initial intentions. While follow-ups often fail to live up to the originals, they can be created with an eye on continuing the story in an earnest and respectful manner. Whether they are good, bad or indifferent, fans tend to stick to their beloved characters and stories as long as a minimal effort is applied. Unfortunately, the law of diminishing returns is nearly unavoidable.
If a series is durable enough, it can skate by mediocre entries to live to die another day (ahem). Then again, how often does that really happen? Usually, there is that one really bad movie where that spark of creative ingenuity from the original(s) is snuffed out and never returns. In television terms, it is when a series “jumps the shark.” However, as long as fans show up, producers will continue to produce. By the time it is over and the once beloved series is ashes, then fans will have permission to lift their dreary eyes back to the movie that caused it all.
One can go back to any series that was once adored and is now a punch line. Before Rocky IV and Rocky V, Stallone’s character was still considered something of a great creation in writing and acting. Prior to Lethal Weapon 4, that series was once considered dramatic and intense. However, the most infamous in our geeky circle is what happened to Batman.
When Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) came out, even their critics admitted they featured a daring style and vision from Tim Burton. Perhaps, a little too daring. When McDonald’s had to pull their Happy Meal line for the second Burton trip to Gotham due to parents complaining about the Penguin giving their children nightmares, Burton, Keaton and any sense of artistic integrity was gone faster than you could say HOLY FRANCHISE SUICIDE! Batman Forever (1995) is the film that added “bat-nipples” to the pop culture lexicon. Jim Carrey offered an entirely harmless villain who did more to sell green Halloween jumpsuits than threaten Batman. But oh, the movie moved SO MUCH merchandise. At the time, fans desperate for any Batman defended Forever as a lighter, but justifiable vision of the character. How little they could realize that their beloved Dark Knight was now as luminous as a disco ball. Enter Batman & Robin (1997), a movie whose ice puns are likely used as a form of torture in black sites to this day. In retrospect, it should have been obvious that this Bat-Dance was over the moment Val Kilmer said, “I’ll get drive-thru.”
For a more recent example, look no further than the once-loved Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. When the 2003 original was released, it was a breath of fresh air. Overnight, Johnny Depp exploded as a movie star and even got an Oscar nomination out of it. The rum-tinted good feelings that movie created left a fanbase clamoring for more. Be careful what you wish for. Despite all their CGI spectacle and hyperactive comedy set pieces, the first two sequels to Pirates lost the fun of the original. In its place was a dour “adventure” that reached for Peter Jackson-scale emotional weight, but came up with little more than horrendous scenes involving a giant sea goddess and Orlando Bloom becoming a damned ghost captain. Yet fans, still chasing that golden mirage from the glistening original, insisted that a lighter take would save the franchise. Then came the crushing reality of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011).
The movie was billed as a return to the happier, lighter tones of the original with Johnny Depp as a sort of intoxicated Indiana Jones. And while Depp’s nutty Jack Sparrow was now the sole hero, casting aside Bloom and Keira Knightley, there was something missing from the project…creativity. Gore Verbinski, director of the first three films, was replaced by Chicago-helmer Rob Marshall. Instead of injecting the series with new life, it felt even more tired with a look of boredom creeping into Depp’s once mischievous eyes. Other than a fun sequence involving mermaids, the movie made no pretense that the franchise is now only going through the motions. Sure, it made a billion dollars worldwide and ensured 2015’s upcoming Pirates 5. But do you know anyone who really cares anymore? Whether as an epic trilogy or a quirky serial, whatever made that first so special is long gone, including the perpetually out to sea Depp.
This is not uncommon. While Depp sticking around this long is a bit surprising, few sequels can keep the same creative team or high intentions going for more than a couple installments. How it burned the X-Men is almost uncanny.
While Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men films were primarily well regarded among audiences, critics and fans alike for their unapologetic passion for the material and broad allegorical undertone of Civil and Gay rights, X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) had none of that. Crafted last minute to beat Singer’s Superman Returns (2006) to the screen, nothing about X3 made a whole lot of sense. There is some loose metaphor about the majority forcing the minority to “cure themselves” in clinics, similar to African-Americans who bleached their skin white in the mid-20th century or “Pray the Gay Away” camps, but it is lost in an equally contradictory subplot involving Rogue protecting her right of “choice” by getting the cure from a clinic that is later blown up by extremists. All the muddled subtext is clearly an afterthought for a film just caring about throwing as many $200 million explosions at the screen as possible. Journeyman filmmaker Brett Ratner was hired to just get anything to the screen and, sure enough, his third outing grossed a ton of money off the goodwill of the first two movies. Unfortunately, it is nigh impossible to maintain that level of audience affection when you kill off half your cast (Cyclops, Xavier, Jean Grey) and ruin the other half (Rogue, Wolverine, Magneto).
Fox made their quick cash by completely selling the series out, but paid the price with two underperforming movies nobody wanted, X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and X-Men: First Class (2011). The latter of which, directed by Matthew Vaughn, is actually a superb piece for popcorn cinema that captures even more of the characters’ comic book glory than Singer did. But the movie also did the worst at the box office. Vaughn returned a sense of dignity and quality to the series, but for many audiences and fans, the party was already over after Ratner’s rushed toy commercial. X3 also did more in two weeks than First Class’ entire run.
Of course, blockbusters are not the only ones guilty of this practice. Hell, it has been the M.O. for horror so long that this genre’s producers should be accused of necrophilia. Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Saw and Hellraiser all have that film where everyone knows the series has quit trying. Instead of listing them all, I want to focus on Halloween.
Halloween is a masterpiece of horror. Arguably the first true slasher, Halloween is the story of omnipotent evil existing in a loose approximation of a man. Michael Myers, an escaped convict who mysteriously slaughtered his sister on Halloween Eve when he was 8-years-old, is more an idea than a man. An entity of pure evil that personifies the pointlessness and inescapability of carnage walking among us all. He stalks Laurie Strode and her friends simply because he can. His ability to skip away from three or four bullets to the gut, compliments of a deranged Dr. Loomis and a tumble off a two-story house is more a metaphor for the indestructibility of senseless malevolence.
Scary stuff. But by Halloween VI: The Curse of Michael Myers (1996), it was kind of tired. Producers tried to make it soapier by turning Laurie into Michael’s long-lost baby sister and later giving Laurie a daughter to run from the William Shatner-masked killer. But once that got tired and the original concept birthed by the long-gone John Carpenter had been abandoned, someone had a bright idea…what if Michael Myers was the product of Pagan Druids? I KID YOU NOT. Halloween turned into a series about Michael Myers being a victim of occultists who are bent on world domination and forced Michael to murder family members. If the series had not been rebooted, it likely would have gone the way of so many other horror dead horses dolled up in mascara: straight to oblivion.
Too often producers and studios will not only beat their dead horse, they will slap a fresh coat of paint on it and wheel it out to multiplexes, hoping enough suckers will wander in. The brand may endure, but even the most diehard fans know at a certain point when the magic is gone.
Nuking the Fridge
That is not to say all bad or controversial sequels are the product of greed and a lack of ideas. Indeed, there are those rare occasions where there are perhaps TOO many ideas: a case of high ambitions resulting in a reach exceeding grasp. For many fans, it still means a bitter disappointment, but the distinction is worth noting.
Perhaps, the most monumental example of this is Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 (2007). The astronomically hyped sequel to the much-admired first two Spider-Man films, Spider-Man 3 promised it all. A story of revenge between estranged brothers! A love triangle that will try the passions of all involved! A return to the first film’s origin with a new villain who is responsible for killing Uncle Ben! AND VENOM! The only thing not in the marketing was the kitchen sink, but don’t worry…it made it into the final film.
As opposed to delivering a cohesive story that incorporated all these elements, Sam Raimi performed one of the most convoluted juggling acts in blockbuster cinema. None of the elements of Spider-Man 3 necessarily worked together; they would simply bump into one another. While there are moments of great beauty and power similar to the first two films, including the birth of Sandman and just about any scene involving both Peter Parker and Harry Osborn on screen together, it also had disparate moments of broad comedy and weak storytelling. Dancing Spider-Man and exposition-spouting butler, I am looking at you. Most devastating for fans, the beloved Venom only showed up for about 15 minutes near the end. Granted, it is almost impossible to do Venom’s origin in one-film for the very nature of his annoyingly complicated mythology, but it could not help that Raimi had an obvious disdain for this character who producers shoehorned into his movie.
The result was a bloated three-ring circus with far too much going on and only half of Spider-Man 3 hitting the mark. Still, I admire Spider-Man 3’s ambition and think it has enough quality aspects to make it far more entertaining than more standard blockbuster adlibs, including the more fan-accepted Spider-Man remake we got last year. But there is no denying that Spider-Man 3 crashed the franchise into a ditch. One it still has not gotten out of.
But if Spider-Man 3 could not quite chew what it bit off, then the Matrix sequels must have choked to death. Ergo. Vis-vis. Concordantly.
When The Matrix (1999) was released, its inventive visuals and high-minded science fiction (coupled with a silly, but effective marketing strategy) created an action film that was universally loved. It had eye-popping sci-fi visuals that were complimented by Hong Kong-inspired wire-fu. It also featured a premise that made James Cameron’s Terminator films look like a romp in comparison. Best of all, it left itself wide open for a sequel.
A long four years later, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions tried to fulfill that expectation within the same calendar. Where once there was a perfect marriage between visuals and Philosophy 101 self-satisfaction, there was now only smug pretension wrapped in pretty CGI and wirework. I would add quality acting as well, thanks to Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith and Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus, but then I remember the series also starred Keanu Reeves. Rather than be an escalating story about Neo’s war with the machines, The Matrix Reloaded was ultimately only kung-fu, psychobabble pornography. Characters would appear and inexplicably begin kicking and chopping each other in slow motion before diverging down the path of a freshman seminar about the supposed existence of free-will. There is even a line in the movie where, God help me, one character says to another, “You never know someone until you fight them.”
By the time The Matrix Revolutions followed up the second film a short six months later, it made less than half at the domestic box office. Still, the Wachowski (then) brothers cannot be called lazy or pandering in their ambitions. Sometimes, you cannot catch lightning in a bottle twice. That can go for four times too.
There is almost another subgenre in this area about franchises being resurrected 15-20 years later in hopes of recapturing past glories. Live Free or Die Hard (2007), Rocky Balboa (2006) and Rambo (2008) are guilty of this. Yet, only one received a devastatingly hateful amount of criticism despite the best intentions. It even created the pop culture term, nuking the fridge.
Never have I seen such a whiplash-inducing fan turnaround on a franchise than as when Indiana Jones and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) hit theaters. The long, long awaited return of Indiana Jones to the big screen (19 years in total) was expected with much pomp and fanfare. But quicker than you can say, “Shia LaBeouf dresses like Marlon Brando,” the Internet went for blood. Indeed, a popular turn of phrase was borne by this film. Based on “jumping the shark’s” reference to a certain episode of Happy Days, “nuking the fridge” is a joke on Indy’s opening sequence, which concludes with Dr. Jones surviving a nuclear explosion by hiding inside a refrigerator.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is an obvious step down from the original trilogy. But it is honestly not that far removed from the original trio’s weak link, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Crystal Skull’s true weakness is not CGI or nuking fridges (does anyone stop to ponder how Indy can survive falling out of a plane simply by being in an inflatable raft?)…it is a terrible premise involving inner-space aliens. Thanks to George Lucas, the film became the new weak link of the series.
However, nuking the fridge can be differentiated from jumping the shark for me thanks to several reasons. First, unlike the shark, nuking the fridge is a product of Internet fandom’s self-feeding frenzy in our increasingly on-demand culture. Second, it represents a standard of almost impossible-to-meet expectations that years of Internet hype can place on a movie. Often to the point where nothing can reach them…
Never Say Goodbye
Finally, there are the sequels that increasingly do the one thing fans never, ever want to see. They end it.
Much like nuking the fridge installments, there have been a number of films that attempted to decisively and permanently end their respective stories. These are movies that fail to give a true open ending that teases the imagination with endless possibilities. No, these flicks prefer to close it off from the audience for good with a firm, “That’s all, folks.” Suddenly, any flaw, whether it was prevalent in previous installments, becomes a glaring weakness that proves this film—this ENDING—was a mistake.
The best example of this is Return of the Jedi (1983). The third and final film in the original Star Wars trilogy left no thread loose or hanging. The Emperor is dead. The Empire is destroyed. Han and Leia are free to pursue a public romance. And Luke Skywalker has become a Jedi by laying his papa, Darth Vader, to his final rest.
I would dare not argue against Return of the Jedi being the weakest of the original Star Wars films. It is hard to deny when the first two are among the greatest blockbusters of all time. However, it is still a strong film that wraps up all the threads and themes from the first two movies in a satisfactory manner. And that is its biggest fault for many. By choosing to conclude the story, there is nothing left for audiences to do but dwell on what is there. Under that kind of scrutiny, flaws like a clearly merchandise-friendly teddy bear army grow from being a minor groan to a massive flaw that absolutely RUINS the film. ABSOLUTELY! So many geeks said that for so long, that with each subsequent prequel in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, fans were quick to deem them better than Return of the Jedi. To say the least, such curious angst has not withstood posterity.
If Return of the Jedi left fans unsatisfied in 1983, it makes one shiver to contemplate how it would have been received in the age of the Internet. This great achievement of the post-information age, which has reinvented communication, networking, commerce and social-mobilization, has also allowed for another cultural shift amongst the curiosity that is fan culture. If our iCloud world gives the opportunity for fans from San Francisco to New Guinea to share in their passions, it has, even more, allowed them to share their kvetching hatreds. Today, a minor criticism in fan culture can spread like a small flame until it consumes Internet forums like a wildfire of geek rage.
When The Dark Knight Rises (2012) dropped, it received mostly positive reviews, leaning towards ecstatic. It also had the fabulous Cinemascore of “A.” Yet, before the week was out, the fan community divided nearly in half over Christopher Nolan’s final curtain. There are legitimate concerns out there over it being possibly weaker than past installments or featuring more than a few conveniently inexplicable time jumps. However, the biggest problem seemed to be that it was over. Bruce Wayne gives up Batman at the end and retires. Gotham City is no longer a crime ridden Hellhole. Even Alfred is given a happy ending. Based on a property where there is absolutely no such thing as a definitive ending (even Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns has a sequel), Nolan closed the book.
In an online culture propagated upon the continual forward-looking anticipation for a new movie, Nolan denied his fans the ability to do that with his series ever again. All that is left is three films. With no new sequel to dream about, fans pour their energies into scrutinizing and criticizing what is left until even that is gone.
This month, Iron Man 3 is experiencing a similarly divisive reaction. The circumstances are somewhat different, considering Iron Man 3 features a villain who was not the one advertised for months in trailers, but it also seeks to give some sort of finality to Tony Stark’s story. Obviously, Marvel intends this to be a form of closure for this character, just in case Robert Downey Jr. does not come back. The Mandarin twist has added Iron Man 3, with a bullet, to the list of sequels where many fans turn on the franchise. Yet, I wonder if it was inevitable given the movie’s closing montage. While Iron Man will be back, likely as early as 2015’s The Avengers 2, Robert Downey Jr. may not be the man in the can.
And the one thing fans dislike most about any franchise is saying “goodbye.”
So there you have it. A fairly extensive list of sequels, prequels and mid-quels that earned the righteous anger of fans and (usually) general audiences. What do you think? Which of the many sequels did I leave out? Were any of these good or worse than I said?
Fire off about it in the comments section below! Until next time, true DoG believers.