Tag Archives: sequels

Twisted Echoes

I’ve actually got a bunch of half-written posts I wanna post. Stuff on Birdman and the Oscars, or one on the Parks and Rec finale. However something came out, and, well, I can’t help myself.

I’m talking about the new Age of Ultron trailer.

There’s a lot to nerd out about. You’ve got the Vision teaser at the end, all the hints of the Avengers falling apart, Ultron being deliciously evil, and the glorious shot of the Avengers soaring into battle. I’m getting excited. Really excited.

There’s one moment in the trailer that’s particularly significant, and since I’m not above writing a rant essay on a small part of a trailer, we’re going to do so. About 1:36 into the trailer we have one of my favorite bits: Hulk and Iron Man’s Hulkbuster fighting against a building. Obviously, this is another geeky moment; the Hulkbuster has been a staple of the comics since the ‘90s, so seeing it on screen busting the Hulk is grand. But that’s not why it’s important.

Remember the end of The Avengers? After Iron Man has blown up the Chitauri ship he’s falling down to earth. Then Hulk bounds up and catches him, slowing their descent against a building. It’s the culmination of Bruce Banner’s arc, where the Hulk is usually a wild force of destruction now he’s saving someone. Furthermore he’s saving Tony Stark, the first one willing to befriend him not in spite of the Hulk but because of it too (see their first meeting and conversation in the lab).

Age of Ultron looks to be turning it on its head. Instead of going down a skyscraper, Iron Man and Hulk are going up one. Instead of Hulk catching Iron Man, Iron Man is propelling them upwards while Hulk attacks him. It’s visually reminiscent of the beat from The Avengers, only turned on its head into a twisted reflection.

Now, the reason for Iron Man and Hulk’s battle isn’t overly important (there’s a theory floating around that it’s a result of Scarlet Witch’s mind-altering powers). Rather, let’s focus on the visual significance. Beyond being a callback to the first film, we have two friends fighting. This, along with much of the rest of the trailer, brings up the idea of division among the team. It’s somewhat dialectical materialist in its approach; having been brought together by the first movie, now the opposite has to happen. Because a sequel can’t just rehash the first, it has to go deeper. We have a positive, let’s hit the negative of that now.

In a way, Age of Ultron is looking to deconstruct elements of the first movie. Joss Whedon’s said that one of the driving forces of the film is “the idea of heroes and whether or not that’s a useful concept.” So where the first film had Nick Fury straight up telling the World Security Council that, yes, we need heroes, Ultron turns this on it’s head and questions if they’re really necessary after all. The new film will probably take each stance (“We need heroes” / “we don’t need heroes”) and synthesize a new idea from the product. This bit of dialectical materialism, playing a defense against a rebuttal to come to a new consensus, serves to reconstruct the themes of the superhero films.

Back before the first Avengers was released, Whedon was asked how he’d try to top it with a sequel. He said he wouldn’t try to, rather he would by “being smaller. More personal, more painful. By being the next thing that should happen to these characters…” Now, he’s since admitted that Ultron’s gotten bigger than the first, but there remains the throughline he set forth three years ago. Age of Ultron is going deeper into these characters, figuring out what makes them tick, and pushing them to their breaking points. From a storytelling point of view, I am beyond pumped to see this movie.

That and, of course, this shot.

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Of Dragon Training Sequels

So I finally got around to see How To Train Your Dragon 2 this week. I’d enjoyed the first one well enough, but it didn’t stick out as something with a must see follow up. Figured, eh, it’s just another sequel.

I was wrong.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 is arguably one of the most important modern animated films. It deserves this title for the reasons you’d expect: beautiful animation and technical brilliance along with a great story; but there are aspects that allow it, like Up before it, to really elevate the animated film.

But let’s talk about the animation for a moment. Simply put, the film is freaking gorgeous. Without a doubt, Dreamworks has finally given Pixar a run for their money. Details. Details like wisps of cloud or individual scales on Toothless give the movie a sense of being larger than life and yet still realistic. It’s amazing, and the quality of that alone makes it worth watching.

Fortunately, the animation isn’t everything. Dragon 2, unlike many other sequels — animated or not — has grown up. To an extent, literally: Hiccup and the other characters are five years older. Stoick is showing gray hairs, Hiccup’s taller; time has passed. This time gap is important. It’s easy for something animated to keep its characters the same age (See Ash Ketchum, who’s been 10 since I was barely seven). After all, it gives it a timeless feel. Going back to Pokémon, it means the show could continue for sixteen years with kids who weren’t even born when it came out able to latch on as if it was theirs. This does mean that characters remain stagnant, which is what Dragon didn’t do. Instead, it went the route of The Empire Strikes Back.

Now Empire is one of the greatest sequels, and also probably the best Star Wars movie. It earns it through several ways. For once it, unlike many sequels that have come in its wake, does not repeat the events of the first movie. Instead, it serves as an addition to the saga, a second episode (or fifth). With it, it takes the characters past where they started: Han’s showing signs of warming to the Rebellion, Luke trains to be a Jedi. Dragon also pushes forward in its plotting: there’s a psychotic warlord to deal with and it’s time for them to learn more about dragons. The same things don’t happen again.

For example, Hiccup’s relationship with Astrid. A simple subplot would be to add tension to the relationship established in the first film. Shrek 2 did it to great effect, others less well like the second Pirates of the Caribbean and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the Princess Diaries sequel ditched the original love interest so there could be a new romantic subplot. It adds drama, so, y’know, why not? Instead, Astrid and Hiccup are untouched in Dragon; there’s no backsliding character development. They’re a couple, and it’s not big deal. Stoick calls Astrid his future daughter-in-law, the pair are seen cuddling and the occasional kiss on the cheek is seen as no big deal. It’s sweet, and it’s also refreshing to see a couple that’s simply understood as being a couple.

Refreshing too is the film’s treatment of its female characters. Astrid’s plot doesn’t revolve around Hiccup. Rather she plays Han Solo to Hiccup’s Luke (to continue the Empire comparison), embarking on her own quest in Hiccup’s absence. Ruffnut, meanwhile has several lingering ogling of a male character which, besides showing off Dreamworks’ impressive animation of rippling muscle, provides examples of the ever elusive female gaze. It’s played for laughs, of course, but that fact that it’s even there is worth mentioning. Valka too is a great character — period. She’s someone who’s spent twenty years out of contact with society. Now, it could be easy to make her a one-dimensional half-feral person, but instead the film takes aspects of that an wraps it into a more complete whole. She’s cool and wonderfully layered. Point is, female characters in this movie don’t get sidelined.

But what stood out the most to me was Dragon 2’s sense of scale. It went big, reaching settings and scenarios that were epic of The Lord of the Rings variety. Its sweeping moments give the film a grandeur just about never found in animation. The human drama is never lost within it, though. Whether it’s Hiccup’s bond with Toothless or a certain parental reunion, the movie keeps has emotion to spare. It also helps keep the fantastical and epic elements anchored.

There’s a gorgeous scene early on where Hiccup and Toothless are flying above their clouds as a Jónsi song plays. The animation and scale of it is breathtaking, but it, along with the dialogue and sound, everything mise en scène, all serves to establish first the relationship between rider and dragon, but also where and how they stand now. It’s beautiful, and one that sums up how well rounded the film is.

I know my reaction is late, but I say this wholeheartedly: How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a phenomenal movie, animated or not, and, once again, easily on the most important animated films of recent memory.

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Breaking Point

Let’s talk about Into Darkness. It’s a sequel to a reboot and also has some shades of a remake. Those are all things that seldom bode well for a movie, but, Into Darkness pulls it off magnificently. It simply does everything right. The main thing I want to address is Into Darkness’ existence as a sequel. There’s no getting around that. Amusingly, the main criticism I see in reviews is just that: Into Darkness doesn’t feel as fresh or new as 2009’s Star Trek. I’d like to counter that by saying: hello, it’s a sequel.

Now, a year ago, I wrote a post about what makes a good sequel. In that post I quoted Joss Whedon’s thoughts on how to make a sequel that would top The Avengers: “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.” This is exactly what Into Darkness does.

What was 2009’s Trek about? A vengeful threat from the future seeks to destroy Earth and it’s up to the crew of the Enterprise to band together to stop him. The stakes are massive (destruction of Earth) and it allows our characters to come into their own and form the crew their supposed to be. It firmly establishes the new universe, re-introduces the characters, and sets it up for their next adventure. Why don’t we make a chain of stars explode and rip apart several planets now?

Into Darkness’ stakes are less direct. The whole of Earth isn’t quite currently at risk, but we do know the sweeping consequences if they fail their mission. Rather, the villain John Harrison and his actions cause tension and conflict among the Enterprise’s crew (particularly Kirk and Spock) and forces them into a corner, forces them to face the thing they fear most. Kirk is faced with the most difficult no-win challenge of his life. Spock is forced to face a scenario absent of a logical solution. These characters are forced to their breaking point, situations which, as Kirk says, “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do”. What’s so important about this scenario? Well, as Kirk goes on to say: “I only know what I can do.” This desperation marks much of the film. Where once we had our protagonists scrambling around trying to save the world, Into Darkness sees them trying to save each other and, at their core, themselves. It’s personal, it’s painful, and it’s precisely where the story needed to go.

2009’s Star Trek saw the assembly of the crew, Into Darkness forces them into a stronger, more unified whole. We need to see the Enterprise’s trial by fire for them to become the crew from The Original Series. This is their moment to become who they are.

Another thing that Into Darkness succeeds at is its reconciliation of the ‘first’ film and any future films with the classics. This movie, more than the prior, looks at Gene Roddenberry’s idealistic view of the future and translates its core tensions to work in a modern setting. It’s worth noting that in modern science fiction interplanetary organizations tend to be militaristic: Halo’s UNSC for example, far from the exploratory nature of Starfleet. The idea of pure exploration isn’t as cool anymore, is it? Into Darkness, more so than its predecessor, takes apart our own expectations and Starfleet itself, rebuilding it and proving that, yes, Roddenberry was right. Into Darkness is Roddenberry’s vision rebuilt.

Into Darkness is a phenomenal film. It follows up 2009’s movie by not trying to go bigger, but instead to go deeper. It draws on ideas from prior movies and episodes to create a new adventure that really gets into the heart of the characters. It dares to push them to their breaking point and forces them to find a way out. This is what sequels should do. The end result is a fantastic film that effortlessly blends old ideas in a new world.

Go see this movie.

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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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