Part One: Ten Ways to Ruin a Sequel
It was after watching The Wizard of Oz 2: Return to Oz in 1985 when I realized that extending a movie past its natural life may be a bad thing. My vague recollection of heads in a jar, and the accompanying coloring book, filled with disturbing images, still makes me shudder.
By the time the movie was released, Judy Garland was almost twenty years deceased. The tone, the images, the general vibe of the story — basically everything about the movie, felt wrong. I left the theater, at eight years old, wondering why they couldn’t just leave well enough alone.
In the eighties, movie production became big business. As such, I cringed at titles like Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo and JAWS 2. The eighties saw franchises in unprecedented numbers, each installment progressively worse than the next, including The Karate Kid franchise, Alien, most of National Lampoon’s misadventures, and the seriously silly Naked Gun movies, which ended with, ironically, The Final Insult.
In some cases, like book franchises (i.e. Harry Potter, Hunger Games), movies in a series can work spectacularly. But in others, not so much.
Right now, in 2017, we reasonably expect a sequel. And I’m not upset about that. In fact, I’m looking forward to Pitch Perfect 3: Last Call Pitches in December. But let’s face it: Every film can’t be a trilogy.
I’d like to share a few things that, in my eyes, make sequels work, and a few things that don’t.
Here are the don’ts:
It’s understandable that people may want to jump into a franchise a few movies in. It’s also understood that creators want to give those people some background so they’re not completely lost. But it’s not okay to use precious screen time making the characters explain what everyone else missed. Let’s reasonably assume from now on that everyone has access to Netflix, ‘mmkay?
Don’t get me wrong: I love running jokes. They keep me on my toes, keep my mind stimulated. What I don’t love is the same joke. (“Honey, where are my pants….”) I’ve seen Captain Jack Sparrow sashay his way out of the brig so many times, it’s literally not funny.
Never, and I mean never, bring in a love interest to a story with characters who have already established bonds. It’s like when five guys hang out together throughout college, belching and scratching themselves, and then one starts inviting his girlfriend. Awkward.
Characters Aging Out
We understand the natural aging of characters. But in general, I prefer not to witness it. When I buy a movie ticket, I buy willing suspension of disbelief. Therefore, I choose to believe that John Connor is, and will always be, ten. I continue to believe that Gordy Lachance is twelve. And don’t tell me otherwise.
The worst thing to watch in a sequel is a character’s death, relocation, retirement, or otherwise aging out of his role. We understand having others take over that role (à la Bond and Batman), and we accept that (for the most part), but creating a movie where a main character ages and dies is just sad. I’m there for you. I‘m not paying to watch you pass the baton.
One thing that makes sequels hit the skids quickly is lousy villains. It may start with mannerisms and could work its way down to their weapons or costumes. Sometimes their personalities are too simple, sometimes they’re overly complex. Batman’s Bane comes to mind. Like it or not, villains are major players, and affect our viewing experience. Example of a well-created sequel villain: Evil Bratt from Despicable Me 3. A bad one? Suicide Squad’s Joker. And sometimes there’s no coming back from that.
One thing I positively do not watch are prequels. I want a nice story that starts in the present and ends in the future. I don’t like quantum leaping. It just breaks my brain. It can also make the story more difficult to follow. In my opinion, there’s no past scenario that cannot be explained with a flashback.
If you’re bringing people, money, and talent together to make a film, that film to should tell a story. If you’re building a film around the characters or franchise, creating an excuse to bring BigStar Jones back in and slip him another cool twelve mil to sell licensed water bottles, you’re making a movie for the wrong reasons. Call me crazy, but cinema is an art form. If a franchise sells, fine, but it shouldn’t be a conveyor belt for licensed merchandise.
There’s a sure way to tell whether or not a franchise has started its descent, and that’s cameos. If you need to bring in Hasselhoff, Shaq, or Martha Stewart to make your film work, just please, for Pete’s sake, end the franchise. Kathy Griffin’s great and all, but she would not add at all to my enjoyment of Alvin and the Chipmunks V.
Poor Comic Timing
Like its brother Stale Jokes, sequels often suffer from bad comic timing. It’s as though writers feel they need to make that guy say ‘the thing’ he said so successfully in the first movie. (Allllrightythen!!) Or give him a new, zippy tagline. And it can sour the mood. If it doesn’t help tell the story, it’s best to leave it out.
Knowing When to Fold ‘Em
Put simply, there can be too much of a good thing. My personal list of unnecessary sequels includes Cars 3, Dumb and Dumber To, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, and Austin Powers in Goldmember. And my feeling that Austin Powers is one of the most clever movies ever written makes Goldmember even harder to, well, swallow.
Some movies are meant to stand alone. Some take two installments to complete. And in the cases of book-to-film, we may need multiple editions to close the deal. Some, however, clearly do not. If you can’t discern the natural ending of a franchise, you shouldn’t be making film decisions. And if you need to know, ask. Moviegoers are more than willing to share their views on sites like Rotten Tomatoes or on Facebook or Twitter.
Franchises should take a tip from Jerry Seinfeld and go out on a high note. Ending Seinfeld before it became forced or irrelevant was probably one of the best media decisions ever made.