The pitfalls of second movie syndrome

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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