What Makes A Good Sequel

Sometimes, it feels like everything’s a sequel. Last year we got no less than twenty-eight sequels. In one year. Heck, all but one of 2011‘s top ten blockbusters (that one is Smurfs, but we won’t talk about that) were sequels. Well, this veritable deluge of sequels wouldn’t be that bad if it weren’t for the fact that so many sequels flat out suck.

The mentality behind so many sequels seems to be something like “hey, that worked so well the first time! Let’s do it again! Except more!” What people loved about Curse of the Black Pearl was Jack’s hijinks and Will and Elizabeth’s romance. So let’s put more of that in it and ratchet everything else up. More Matrix means more crazy action and philosophy. More Transporter means making all the action just… ridiculous. Yet it doesn’t work. It should though, right? That’s what a sequel is: what made the first one great, just taken up to eleven.

Well, not quite

A sequel cannot be the same movie as its predecessor. We’ve already seen that movie. The original Alien was an intensely suspenseful sci-fi horror movie. The horror thing wouldn’t work twice: after watching Alien we knew what the titular creature looks like. If James Cameron had tried to simply do the first one again in a different setting, it’d be the same as before except with less of a mystery as to the nature of the monster. Instead, he took the universe created by the original and told a completely different story. Aliens was more about action with some moments of sheer terror and suspense. We were still watching our protagonists try and survive against extraterrestrial monsters, but this time they were fighting back with the considerable firepower they had. It was the same but different. And it was good.

Predators wisely took a similar route in being a twenty-three year later sequel. They didn’t waste time maintaining the intense suspense that made the first so good because what the Predator looks like is practically common knowledge. So the new film was more of an action orientated suspense flick, filled with shout outs and nods to the original.

Another great examples is The Dark Knight which toned down the mystery and adventure of Batman Begins in favor of showing what would happen to Batman after being the Bat for several months. It’s a gritty crime thriller now, since that’s what Batman’s world has become.

On that note, a sequel should be the next logical step. The heroes beat the villain, now what? Dark Knight explored the ripples of having a vigilante watching the streets. Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 followed Woody and friends’ next adventure and, ultimately, ‘their kid’ getting too old for them. It was a progression of the story that it started with and it made sense. The adventures were escalated, but not without good reason: the stories’ progression necessitated it, not the other way round.

The Lord Of The Rings was written as one story in three (well, technically six) parts and adapted to film in the same format. As such, The Two Towers and The Return of the King are two of the best sequels made. The story was meant to be in three parts and, when done as well as this, it worked. We’re not talking sequel hooks or little plugs, we’re talking proper planned trilogies.

Sometimes the progression requires a shift in focus. The Empire Strikes Back kept the feeling of high adventure from the original Star Wars but focused it more on character drama and development. It was still a Star Wars movie in universe, shape, and feel, but rather than trying to make a bigger and better adventure than destroying the Death Star we were treated to a movie about what our heroes did after. Ultimately, Return of the Jedi blended both: the plot climax of defeating the Empire and Luke’s personal climax of facing Darth Vader. Jedi took the threads of both prior movies and wove them together into a satisfying conclusion.

During an interview Joss Whedon was asked how he’d try to top the original in a sequel to The Avengers (did you really think I wouldn’t mention either?). His reply: “By not trying to. By being smaller. More personal, more painful… By being the next thing that should happen to these characters, and not just a rehash of what seemed to work the first time.” That’s what a sequel should be. It doesn’t matter if it’s bigger or smaller: it has to be the next step. The progression, a continuation. A proper sequel.

Alternately, we could try and come up with something completely original. But hah.

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