8 Things Not To Do with Movie Sequels
Sequels get a bad rep and, in my opinion, the fact that movie gets a sequel is usually an indication that the movie, its characters or actors were beloved enough that people actually wanted more. Therefore, I can never really understand why some people get into a hissy-fit when some film gets a sequel approved (just look at all the ridiculous reactions to the fourth Toy Story film) when so many films that in my view would deserve a sequel never get one.
But don’t get me wrong… there ARE bad sequels. Movie sequels in general are a slippery slope since you’re automatically making a continuation to a story that is already known to most people. Therefore, it’s very easy to make a creative decision that comes back to bite you. The worst thing that can be done is having a studio half-ass the film. And even when done with the best of intentions, a movie sequel can go awry for other lesser reasons.
Here are eight things I think film makers should avoid if they hope to turn a film in to a succesful franchise. There’s a bunch of things I could mention here that probably apply more to specific films, so I wont go into that. Neither will I comment on prequels or remakes because that’s a whole different can of worms…
And finally, just to put aside the movie-hate, I think I’ll also post a list of my favourite movie sequels. But enough of that, let’s get on with the list…
#1 Don’t just repeat the first movie
Some studios are taken by surprise by a movie’s success. When an outcry for a sequel hits them, they get nervous and not wanting to leave people hanging, a sequel gets hacked together which more or less repeats the first movie beat-for-beat. This would seem very elementary, but you really have to put yourself in the position of the film-maker in order to understand why this sequel sin gets repeated so often… “people liked the original, so if we make the next one like the first one people ought to still like it right”.
People are prone to these simple thought problems especially when they are short on time and ideas – and the thing they forget to take into account is that audiences will get tired of the same thing being done repeatedly. The real reason people probably enjoyed the first movie is because they were getting to know the characters, were maybe taken by surprise a few times and went through an emotional arc by the end. When doing a sequel, you already have the added burden of working with characters everyone already knows. So if you just repeat the same actions, people will be less excited and be prone to thinking that the movie isn’t really worth the while if it’s just the same thing as the original.
Succesful movie sequels therefore go for a rapid change of pace, like Die Hard 2, Aliens and The Two Towers. Now, there’s no reason why repeating the same formula can’t work (i.e. Terminator 2) but this approach requires a lot of subtle steps towards giving the film its own unique character or at some point, inevitably, the audience is going to catch on (i.e. the finale of Riddick).
#2 Don’t make it straight-to-video
#3 Don’t make it too different from the first movie
This is another peril with movie sequels and seems ironic after I first chastised film-makers for repeating the first film. Callbacks and reminders of why you loved the characters from the first film are always okay. Running gags and even homages to previous scenes are also pretty good although some sequels can go a little overboard with them (i.e. Resident Evil: Retribution). Also, changing a film’s pace and style can definitely help the movie stand on its own two feet better and become something other than “just a sequel”.
However, going too far is also a problem. If the film bares practically no resemblance to the original stylistically, you really start to question why the movie is labelled as a sequel to begin with. The Burton-Schumacher Batman series is a good example of a film series that went all over the place. Starting off gritty but with a bit of twinkle in Jack Nicholson’s eye, the movies went borderline obscene with the violence, back to a more PG-13 appropriate action/comedy blend before devolving entirely into a self-parody with ex-governor of California as the villain. While I won’t deny that this colourful variety of styles was amusing, it admittedly created a shaky foundation which finally failed to support the series past the fourth instalment.
I feel this problem also hit the Iron Man series with the third movie having its tongue firmly on its cheek after two slightly comical but still mostly serious films. Similarly, the period piece antics of the first Captain America made it rather unique in the over-crowded super-hero film crowd, whereas the sequel just felt like Avengers 1.5. Similarly, I was disappointed in the change of time and story emphasis in Godfather Part II (although I recognise this was probably intentional).
Experimentation is always good, but film-makers should still have the sense to look at their works and think if they’ve crossed some line along the way.
#4 Don’t stop at 3 just because you want to say you “made a trilogy”
Just don’t. Trilogies are over-rated and there’s no creative decision that justifies this kind of thing. If you can’t make any more, hand it over to someone who can. This also the reason I don’t think film-series need to stop just because there was a bad instalment of something. Long-running film series are always going to have weak entries – it all comes down how you approach the film.
#5 Number your sequels!!
A disturbing phenomenon I’ve noticed recently is people not knowing how many instalments there are in certain, notably high-profile film-series. While some of this can maybe be put down to people not being familiar enough with said franchise, it’s completely beyond me how people can be so blissfully unaware that the up-coming Pirates of the Caribbean film will be the fifth to come out. Wikipedia is a thing, you know.
But I do think there’s also an underlying problem of movie sequels avoiding numbers. Granted, some film franchises have gone beyond ridiculous in their number of sequels (The Land Before Time) but if you are following a hugely popular film franchise, I don’t see any rational reason not to have a sequel number to help people put the films in the proper order. There is literally no good reason not to do this.
Film-makers seem to think it’s cute to just come up with clever subtitles because it sounds better than saying Pirates of the Caribbean 4, The Lord of the Rings 3 or James Bond 23. Yet, the success of a film series often tends to lead to a high number of sequels. I think this is a case where it’s okay to have your cake and eat it. Just have a number and a subtitle and stop making people confused!
#6 Don’t set a movie in a foreign country just to show off that country
It’s lazy writing and it’s stupid.
#7 Don’t write out characters, just because…
I only recently watched G.I. Joe: Retaliation. I quite liked the first movie despite not being a huge G.I. Joe fan (never grew up with the series), so you can imagine my disappointment when almost all the characters a I cheered for in the first movie were completely gone. Even Channing Tatum bites the dust 15 minutes in, then it’s a bunch of dudes who you don’t care about + Ray Park in a ninja mask.
This is admittedly an awkward situation that movie studios run in to constantly with sequels. Some actors don’t want to commit to playing the same character for more than one film, some will want a lot more money and studios are afraid of any potential backlash that inevitably comes with recasting a certain character. That said, recasting and actually having the character I cheered for in the previous film is infinitely more desirable than having characters written out of the film for no reason other than “just because”. It’ll probably take me a half-hour to get used to the new face but at least knowing that they’re supposed to be the same character helps with the assimilation of performances. Ironically, G.I. Joe 2 proved this on-screen with Cobra Commander getting recast, yet I never questioned the fact.
Incidental and bit players obviously tend to be the most expendable in situations like this, but I personally feel that in order to maintain a sense of continuity, you need to have at least the most important players of the first movie present. Unless the film is a spin-off or somehow intended to be different.