Should we really fear movie sequels?

James argues that instant dread may not be the best initial reaction to a sequel announcement...

There’s a new Pitch Perfect movie coming out next week. I knew that they were making Pitch Perfect 2 but I didn’t realise it was coming around for general release so soon. I became aware when I saw a poster for the film in the lobby of my local multiplex last week.

My first thought was “Oh, Pitch Perfect 2 is coming out”. My second thought, sadly, was “Hurm. Do we really need a Pitch Perfect sequel?” (This is the crucial thought so remember this). My third thought was “Ah, it’s coming out on the same week as Mad Max: Fury Road.” I then had fantastical visions of Max singing a capella mash-ups in the haze of the post-apocalyptic outback, bustin’ rhymes and bustin’ feral thug-brains in perfect harmony. There’s your sequel pitch – ‘Mad Max: The Rockatansky Rock-Off’.

The third thought and its subsequent fantastical tangent quickly dissipated and I let the bad idea vanish into the aether. The second thought, however, boomeranged back to the forefront of my consciousness and I scrutinised it and, indeed myself. “Do we really need a Pitch Perfect sequel?” I asked again, my internal monologue quoting my own past internal monologue and thus making things a bit confusing.

My internal monologue then got really angry at myself. “Whoa now! What’s this attitude, man?” Right there and then, in the lobby of the cinema complex, I dressed myself down and checked myself for something that I don’t like to see. That something is a mindset moving along the lines of pessimism, cynicism, jadedness and general negativity. (Disclaimer: I didn’t literally dress myself down. Nudity is not encouraged in cinemas and normally requires an 18 certificate from the BBFC.)

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What I seek to challenge – in myself and on others – is automatic antipathy to sequels, because I reckon that in spite of it all there’s still stigma attached to them. If you’ll indulge me for a moment, I’ll start with myself and say that normally I’m generally a pro-sequel person and that’s why my multiplex lobby lapse shocked me. Still, it pulled me into beneficial rumination on a wider problem that I perceive as I move through movie scene happenings and look ahead to the future with other film enthusiasts. (Who sometimes, I find, are lacking in enthusiasm.)

I like Pitch Perfect and it made me laugh a lot but college comedies aren’t what I’d identify as my favourite type of movie, so it’s probably helpful to look around elsewhere. What’s my jam, most of the time? Well, erm, action vigilante flicks and fantastical sci-fi films. Naturally, when I see that they’re greenlighting The Equalizer 2 and John Wick 2, for instance, I smile and get excited about more of something that I enjoy a lot.

A few weeks ago I read an update on Universal Pictures’ future release dates and clocked that Pacific Rim 2 had moved to August 4th 2017. Just the words – or two words and a number – ‘Pacific Rim 2’ make my face crack into a crazy-eyed Guillermo del Toro grin. Straight away I went to my calendar and put a big red ring around the date August 4th 2017. I don’t know where I’ll be, what I’ll be doing or whether I’ll even be alive or still human on August 4th 2017, but I can guarantee that I’ll be watching Pacific Rim 2.

(For the record, I don’t actually have a physical calendar for 2017 yet but the hypothetical calendar has genuinely been marked and my internal monologue has it memorised and keeps talking about it. My internal monologue is very concerned about the future and spends a lot of time shouting about massive alien monsters and giant robots.)

Isn’t it nice to feel enthusiasm and anticipatory excitement? Isn’t it nice to have things to look forward to? I think so, which is why I’m dismayed when I catch sight of contrariwise attitudes. Focusing on movie series, I’m jarred when news of a sequel, threequel or umpteenquel is greeted with indifference or, worse, hostility. As I say, I’m not immune to this, and that’s why I’m writing this and launching massive alien monsters and giant robots on my internal monologue for its sins.

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The long-delayed Bill & Ted 3 makes for a good sample case study. Every time someone involved emerges briefly from the eternal furnaces of development hell and splurts out a few scanty details I shout “Excellent!” and will the project to actually happen and proceed apace. My hopes are raised, but then I scroll down to scrutinise the comments section or I survey message boards and I find the exact opposite.

There are some people out there who don’t want – or are just dismissive of – a third Bill & Ted flick. Likewise, the same is true for Beetlejuice 2, The Equalizer 2 or – Shock! Horror! Striker Eureka! – Pacific Rim 2. Honestly, I’ve been reading over reactions to news of Pacific Rim 2 and a possible Pacific Rim 3 and I’m hurting deep down inside. My internal monologue is urging me to hijack a Jaeger and go smash some sense into these misguided cynics.

A frequent thing that comes up in critical attitudes towards sequels is the issue of need – an issue I touched on when I was greeted with the imminent arrival of Pitch Perfect 2. Ultimately, in the grand cosmic scheme of things “Do we really need a sequel?” is an irrelevant question because we arguably don’t really need any films (which is an uncomfortable truth for us movie geeks).

Oxygen, water, food, shelter and loving relationships with fellow human beings are the things we really need. Pop cultural entertainments probably count as luxuries. (Though I’d maintain that the upcoming Star Wars sequels and more Pacific Rim pictures are absolutely essential to the survival of the human race and should be encoded into the bottom rung of Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ pyramid.)

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This is a capitalist society and a consumer culture that we’re living in, though, so our lives revolve around things that we don’t fundamentally need. (We’ll have the deep socioeconomic debate and subsequent revolution another time, when my internal monologue isn’t so distracted by Pacific Rim 2.) The film industry is an industry and studios, filmmakers and everyone working within the trade wants to make a profit. To do that, you have to produce films that people watch.

One type of film you can make are sequels and, commercially, they’re appealing propositions for a variety of easy-to-understand reasons. Cinemagoers are likely to turn up for something that they’re familiar with, already have a relationship with and are interested fans of. Sequels are less risky than original, untried material because the audience is already there and, from a production perspective, everyone knows what they’re working with.

Of course studios are exploiting established brands to reap rewards. There are definitely numerous cases where the industry is mainly chasing an easy buck (erm, an easy 500 million bucks), milking cash-cows for all they’re worth or performing the cinematic equivalent of re-using a teabag until all its essence is utterly drained and getting anything else out of it is impossible. (You may continue to get a warm sensation, but it only tasted good and true the first time.)

So far so showbusiness with an emphasis on ‘business’, but there’s more to this than just Hollywood greed and Dream Factory exploitation. Filmmaking is a creative industry and, though the ‘industry’ part loves sequelising, there’s still a ‘creative’ aspect here. Consider the array of an artistic reasons that directors, writers and actors might return to weave up a new instalment in what eventually becomes a film series – the narrative can continue; unsolved questions can be answered or new stories about compelling worlds and characters can be told; the established world and mythology can be expanded; character arcs can be completed or traced; filmmakers can improve upon their previous work and make an even better film of their vision.

As exemplary texts, think on the following classics and see how instant thoughts of ‘the sequel is never as good as the original’ ring pretty hollow. Here are just a few – The Empire Strikes Back; The Godfather Part II; The Dark Knight; Aliens; Evil Dead II; Terminator 2: Judgment Day; The Raid 2; The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock.

This time there's no more?

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All of those five-star masterpieces build upon their predecessors and stand as motion pictures that are entertaining, intellectually and emotionally stimulating and innovative in spite of the fact they’re born out of something familiar. Increased resources and greater confidence – secured thanks to the earlier movie’s success – probably have a lot to do with it.

The benefit of hindsight – heightened awareness of the prior film’s (or films’) flaws or failures – can also ultimately be wielded to make sequels that are stronger than earlier efforts. Compare the focused back-to-basics threequel Riddick to The Chronicles of Riddick (the overblown, baroque second entry in the Pitch Black/Riddick franchise) and you might see what I mean. Likewise, look at how Mad Max II: The Road Warrior and Evil Dead II managed to transcend the economic and artistic limits of their forebears.

It’s always sad to see original sci-fi films, ‘world cinema’ works and fresh indie releases floundering at the box office while franchise pictures dominate, but sequels aren’t necessarily the destroyers of creativity. Successful blockbuster series can help bankroll smaller original properties and directors’ own private passion projects can benefit from work on franchise flicks. They’re an opportunity to hone filmmaking skills, get a greater reputation and credibility while connecting with actors and crew who may come to be invaluable when they return to wrestle with their own baby after production’s wrapped on the studio sequel. (Take Christopher Nolan and Guillermo Del Toro as two auteurs who’ve operated in this way.)

Furthermore, we’re forgetting a very important part of the big picture and that part is the audience. Cinemagoers love sequels and studios keep on making them because there’s a demand (sometimes manifesting itself as frenzied and desperate overzealous desire. I know this guy who’s a bit too excited about Pacific Rim 2). Though people groan and eyes may roll every time a new Taken film appears or another massive franchise gets a greenlight for yet another follow-up feature, the numbers don’t lie.

Box office takings wouldn’t be so astronomically large for movies like Avengers: Age of Ultron and Fast & Furious 7 if people didn’t actually want to see such sequels. There’s the comforting lure of the familiar, there’s hardcore fandom and I’d also argue that our brains are conditioned to want more. (That’s consumer capitalism for you.) Consequently, when we want more but don’t get more – as we’ve (not) seen with Dredd 2 and Hellboy 3 – we tend to get a bit upset and outraged.

Thus, sequels make sense in so many ways and when they are made a lot of people are very happy. That’s why I find the lingering stigma and the sceptical antipathy so odd as I step aside to try and get a handle on the strange phenomenon that is ‘sequelitis’.

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This affliction isn’t a fatal one and needn’t provoke pain, anguish, anger or antagonism. Sequels are an inevitable feature of the modern moviemaking landscape – real ‘can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em’ entities – so it makes sense to simply accept them with an inclination towards optimism. (Because optimism is more fun than pessimism.)

There will be good sequels and there will be bad sequels. There will be film series that go from strength to strength and film series that will forever be pushing ever-diminishing returns. And then there are film series that are perpetual institutions and that will never go away no matter how good or bad the endless sequels are. (“Good evening, Mr. Bond”.)

What’s important to remember, though, is that we can’t judge necessity or quality of these sequels until we’ve actually seen them on the big screen. In the build-up to them, then, I come back to the belief that it’s better to get excited and adopt a stance that’s willing to be open-minded and embrace the franchise follow-ups when they finally do materialise.

That goes for all sequels – whether they be Pitch Perfect 2 or Pacific Rim 2, The Equalizer 2 (a.k.a. ‘The Sequelizer’) or Rocky VII (a.k.a. Creed, or ‘We Can’t Have Rocky Fighting Any More So Let’s Do Something New With this Punchdrunk Franchise’). Only then will we be able to make our minds up. Once we have, we can cherish the excellent, worthy instalments sequels and – if we so desire – condemn, discard or just ignore those that aren’t up to snuff. (My internal monologue, for instance, gushes a lot about Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom but rarely raises the less-satisfying Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.)

Recently I saw a smash-hit sequel that forms part of a cinematic universe and arguably stands as a greater movie than its stellar predecessor. Towards the end of said movie, a much-loved supporting character – dragged back seemingly mainly for reasons of fan-service and to make some motivational speeches in front of the main heroes – talked about never really knowing what’s going to happen, in spite of your best efforts to arm yourself, prepare for the future and analyse situations in advance. “You hope for the best,” is how he sums it all up, and that’s how I feel we should approach upcoming sequels.

Altogether, it’s more fun getting excited about things rather than naysaying, pessimistically expecting the worst and troubling over pointless questions of necessity. There are a lot of sequels on the slate and I see reasons to smile and my internal monologue is making manic squee noises at the sight of some. One of them involves Guillermo del Toro, massive alien monsters and giant robots. I have high hopes and can’t wait to see more, more and more. (My internal monologue agrees.)

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