Not even a year after Zoolander 2 belly flopped hard enough to make Anchorman 2 look like comedy gold, there’s talk of Wedding Crashers 2 potentially in the works, according to actress Isla Fisher.
David Dobkin, the film’s director, noted that the buddy comedy romp came out in 2005 when “people weren’t doing sequels.” To put that in 2016 perspective, if a film made $285 million on a $40 million budget, as Wedding Crashers did, and didn’t get a sequel, a studio exec would be fired ass backwards out of a cannon.
On one hand, it’s nonsensical to suggest sequels were out of style in the 2000s, but Dobkin’s statement was partially true, given that follow-ups to testosterone-fueled hits like Old School, Superbad, 40-Year Old Virgin, and Dodgeball never materialized, and it took more than a decade to to break stories for Zoolander 2 and Anchorman 2. The happy ending of Wedding Crashers made entry into a new story a challenge, but Dobkin says Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson came up with a “great take” involving Daniel Craig, a speedo, and the “terminator” of Wedding Crashers.
For whatever reason, Wedding Crashers 2 is finally moving along now, though we got a quasi-sequel when Vaughn and Wilson reunited for The Internship. Let’s hope Wilson learns from the mistakes of Zoolander 2.
It doesn’t take a graduate of the Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good to scan the box office numbers and see that Zoolander 2 underperformed. Hell, even a dropout could have read the writing on the wall. Mark Twain once said comedy is tragedy plus time, but the only tragedy here is the long lay off between Ben Stiller’s hit 2001 comedy and its half-baked, ridiculously less good looking follow-up. Allow me to amend Mr. Twain’s formula as it relates to comedy sequels. The more time added between an original film and its follow-up, the more it will drastically decrease in quality. Worse though for studios is that in some cases, there is a negative correlation between sequels’ elapsed time and the amount of money they earn. If political correctness is the quick trigger to kill a joke in 2016, then time can be a slow-wielding knife.
The irony is that films don’t become cult classics overnight, and the calls for sequels often come long after they leave the theater. Zoolander opened when America was still struggling to put on a brave face, let alone laugh, just two weeks after 9/11. Whether that affected Zoolander’s modest box office figures is up for debate, but the film did manage to stir up a number of small controversies regarding its post-9/11 release.
Though audiences didn’t flock to theaters, Zoolander certainly wasn’t a film you give just one look to. Derek Zoolander, the one-dimensional model, had at least two looks you couldn’t help but soak in, “Blue Steel” and “Magnum.” As Variety put it in the review of the sequel, Zoolander now gets widespread love, considering it “didn’t really hit its stride, culturally and commercially, until it entered the home-viewing market.”
As Zoolander became a cultural touchstone for the modeling industry throughout the 2000s, chatter of a follow-up grew louder. As far back as 2008, Stiller told the press a Zoolander sequel was gaining momentum. In an interview with Empire, he said he completed a script with Justin Theroux in 2011 that sounds roughly like the one that ultimately ended up on screen. Without getting too much into the plot of Zoolander 2 (you can read our review here), the film does well to catch audiences up, but fails to capitalize on its gratuitous celebrity cameos and gags that feel like a relic of a far better looking era. That’s nothing a sharply filtered Instagram photo can fix.
Creatively, Zoo 2 even falls short of its closest comparison, Anchorman 2. Director Adam McKay turned Will Ferrell, coming off classic supporting roles in Zoolander and Old School, into San Diego’s most successful news anchor in 2004’s Anchorman. It was another film that didn’t exactly set the ticket printers on fire when it opened. Like a lot of critics and moviegoers, I couldn’t warm up to the film when I saw it in theaters. It wasn’t until years later, perhaps through endless schoolyard repetition of the Ron Burgundy and Co.’s more quotable hijinks, that I considered it a seminal comedy of the decade.
Zoolander 2 would be a cautionary tale if it hadn’t already been foretold by Anchorman 2, a film so forgettable I can’t remember a single quote worthy line. By the time director Adam McKay’s follow-up hit theaters, nearly 10 years after the original, Ron Burgundy and his mustache were out of style. Still, Anchorman 2, on the strength of having three bankable stars in Ferrell, Steve Carrell, and Paul Rudd, obliterated Anchorman at the box office, earning $173 million worldwide on a $50 million budget.
In passing on an immediate sequel or a potential franchise, Zoolander and Anchorman cemented their cult statuses, but it may have come at the cost of a lucrative and funny franchise. The most successful comedy sequels, in both quality and cash flow, of the last 30 years wasted no time setting the wheels in motion for a follow-up. I call it the Three Year Rule. Once a comedy reaches a certain level of financial or commercial success after its theatrical release, a studio has three years to produce a respectable sequel. Had Zoolander and Anchorman learned from the Golden Age of The Three Year Rule that was the 1990s, we wouldn’t be mourning their legacies today.
I’ll start my supporting argument with a ballclub from Cleveland that decided to test the limits of the Three Year Rule. In 1989, Major League became one of the most beloved sports films of all time. In 1994, Major League II hit theaters sans Wesley Snipes and with a neutered Charlie Sheen, and the results are a five percent fresh ratings on Rotten Tomatoes compared to an 82 percent rating from its predecessor. The film barely made its money back. Wild Thing Rick Vaughn returned with a tighter grip on his life and his fastball, yet it was the screenwriters who failed to control the goofball sprit of the baseball classic.
Of course, no one expected Major League II to ditch its “Wild Thing,” in pursuit of a fresh angle, just as the more recent sequels won’t drop “Blue Steel,” or “Stay Classy.” Major League II, while still an enjoyable baseball movie, ultimately felt like a watered down version of the original. Zoolander 2 and Anchorman 2 did the opposite; they trotted out an endless parade of celebrity cameos that only slightly detract from, in Zoolander’s case, a meandering, confusing plot, and for Ron Burgundy, the same news in a different town.
Action comedies tend to have things a bit easier. People hold their favorite cult classics to a higher standard than summer popcorn fare. But as long as action comedies stick to the Three Year Rule, the results range from passable to an improvement on the original work. And when it came to the Golden Age, there was no greater success story than Mike Myer’s Austin Powers trilogy.
From the first, “Yeah Baby,” Mike Myers’ Austin Powers was destined to become the grooviest film comedy icon of the decade. Coinciding with the Pierce Brosnan Bond years, films that at times felt like parodies, Austin Powers seemed to hit at the perfect moment in popular culture when offbeat heroes could shag alongside the classier ones. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery earned $67 million worldwide on a fairly low $16.5 million budget. The humble James Bond parody turned franchise when 1999’s The Spy Who Shagged Me elevated the original entry by introducing two character to that to this day are as polarizing as Myers’ Austin Powers and Dr. Evil: Mini-Me and Fat Bastard.
The scope of how Austin Powers and his adversaries took over the world is best told through an anecdote from a 2014 GQ profile. Myers recalled opening a letter sent to him on the day he was set to shoot the film within in a film scene for Austin Powers in Goldmember. It was from original Beatle George Harrison, and Myers opened the letter, in tears, on the day he died.
He says “…sitting here with my Dr. Evil doll…I just wanted to let you know I’ve been looking all over Europe for a mini-you doll.” And he says “Dr. Evil says frickin’ ” but any good Scouser dad will tell you it’s actually ’friggin’ as in a ’four of fish and finger pie’, if you get my drift.” He said, “thanks for the movies, so much fun.”
The late ‘90s had plenty of highly quotable goofball comedies, but few still hold up today as well as Austin’s second big screen adventure does. The Spy Who Shagged Me was a runaway success, cracking the $200 million mark domestically and pulling in more than $300 million worldwide. Austin Powers in Goldmember followed suit, earning just a tick under $300 million after its 2002 release.
Goldmember was the most ambitious, yet convoluted, film in the franchise, a star-studded affair that is slightly more gracious than most comedy sequels these days. Thankfully, they saved most of the cameos for the beginning and the end, including Danny DeVito’s unforgettable turn as Mini-Me. For a third comedy film, Goldmember surprisingly hits far more often than it misses, again on the strength of new faces that kept old gags fresh, including the titular Goldmember, Michael Caine’s perfect casting as Austin’s sweet talking “fasha,” and an increasingly more evil Seth Green as Scotty.
A fourth installment has been kicked around for some time, but given Mike Myers’ recent filmography (well mostly just The Love Guru), and how far outside the Three Year Rule this one is, it might be best to keep this one a trilogy.
A far different international man of mystery is the exception to my rule in terms of profitability. With two successful sequels (Rush Hour 2 and Shanghai Knights) well within the Three Year Rule during the late ‘90s-early 2000s, Jackie Chan cemented his status as a bankable leading man. The odd couple of Chan and Chris Tucker had little to prove after Brett Ratner’s Rush Hour opened at No.1 and went to be the seventh-highest grossing film of 1998. Then they simply went out and made a funnier, flashier sequel. Like most buddy cop films, the premise turned stale when the critically panned Rush Hour 3 dropped six years later. While Rush Hour 2 took in $347 million worldwide, Rush Hour 3, despite that 18 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, still brought home over $250 million.
Chan himself knew Rush Hour had its place, telling the press that the Rush Hour films were his least favorite of his career, essentially a big fat paycheck, as he announced his retirement from martial arts films. Still, Ratner has openly discussed Chan potential to return for a fourth entry, while a television remake on CBS premieres in March. As for Chris Tucker, who made enough money on those films to essentially quit acting, well, we’ll always have his casino scene.
The goofier you go, the greener the money stays, so long as you’re well within the Three Year Rule. I’ll start my defense of Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls by linking a video of a nude man coming out of the asshole of a fake rhino. That’s really where the sanity ends. The Ace Ventura: Pet Detective sequel is less plot focused, more depraved, and almost solely relies on Jim Carrey running around making goofy faces. There’s nothing more you can ask for from a movie made for 12-year old boys. While Pet Detective is undoubtedly a better film, I’d argue When Nature Calls is more entertaining, if only for Ace wearing the human version of Mr. Monopoly like a mink coat.
Proving that timely sequels matter, When Nature Calls hit theaters in November 1995 for the second biggest opening weekend of the year, en route to $212 million worldwide. It topped Pet Detective, which took in $107 million worldwide in February 1994.
The list goes on well into the 2000s. Scary Movie, Scary Movie 2, and the underrated Scary Movie 3 took home massive profits on relatively tiny budgets over a four-year period from 2000-2003.
On the animated side, Mike Myers’ proved that longevity is overrated, coupling his Austin Powers windfall with the bonanza that was the Shrek franchise. Of course, I’d be remiss to offer the crown jewel of argument-busting exceptions to my rule: Toy Story.
Granted, animated films, especially for Pixar, take far longer to produce than live-action films. I could spin off another feature entirely based on animated sequels, but Toy Story feels the most relevant here because it kicked off a dominant era of Pixar films that are still getting sequel consideration today. Put aside the nearly $2 billion this franchise earned Disney/Pixar, and let’s focus on the quality of story the Toy Story production team put together not just four years after the original with 1999’s Toy Story 2, but ELEVEN years later with 2010’s Toy Story 3.
The Toy Story franchise proved how to successfully ride Hollywood’s now completely gushing wave of nostalgia. Animated characters, however, don’t age. Unfortunately male models, and the writers who create their stories, do. We quote old comedies not just because they’re funny, but also because remind us of a certain place in time. It’s natural to view the past in rose-colored glasses, and silly old jokes benefit from that as much as anything.
We as a culture call for sequels because we want creators to restore the magic that we’re foolishly assuming can be replicated. The Three Year Rule might not be perfect in every instance, but a series like Toy Story can get away with it by not selling nostalgia, but by building each story around the idea that the original audience has aged and with that a new audience can find their own meaning in the material. Zoolander 2 lost sight of that, thinking it could take the superficial route back into our hearts by using callbacks like cover-up to hide the wrinkles that time makes far too apparent.
Nick Harley contributed to this story. The original version of this story ran under the headline “Zoolander 2 and Comedy Sequels: A Cautionary Tale” on February 19th, 2016.