Picture this. A great movie is released and gains critical acclaim. It dominates the box office and leaves audiences clamoring for more. Giddy with their own success, creators comply, announcing that the next chapter is on its way! Yeah, baby! A sequel: more of what you loved—bigger, better, faster, and stronger.
But somewhere along the way, something goes horribly, horribly wrong.
The road to hell seems to be paved with sequels. These films have the tendency to fall short of the originals… or sometimes fall entirely off the map. The worst ones not only leave a sour taste in your mouth but can diminish their predecessors just by association.
The obvious motivator behind sequels is money, but even if we assume the worst, that every sequel ever made was concocted for purely mercenary reasons, it still can’t explain why so many are so God-awful. And it doesn’t explain why some sequels are good, rare as that may be.
So, what is it that successful sequels do, where the bad ones miss the mark? As an author (who recently wrote a sequel) I felt very vulnerable to falling victim to “the sequel trap.” By comparing some of the most successful sequels in film history and borrowing from a few other sources, some surprisingly consistent trends began to emerge. Not only did I start to see what made a good sequel good, but I began to understand where the bad ones went wrong.
To keep things orderly, I limited my materials to seven successful sequels (“successful” implying critical acclaim and/or fan favorites), and seven failed sequels (“failed” implying general disdain and/or just abysmal). And so, without further ado, it’s time to figure out what makes or breaks a Part II. Take note, Hollywood.
Success is bad. Okay, let me clarify this.
What I mean is that successful, well-balanced characters suck. They are boring.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with characters getting what they want, fulfilled, happy people tend to come off as one-dimensional, forgettable, and a little annoying. That seems to be the reason that in 5/7 of the successful sequels I looked at, characters were more troubled. One of the best examples of this can be found in an unlikely place: Toy Story 3 (2010).
The second installment of Toy Story is considered by many critics to be one of the most successful sequels ever made, but if you ask me, it’s the third chapter that is really remarkable. Toy Story 3 seems to do just about everything right, but where this movie really shines is in its character development. Pretty impressive, given that the characters are, well, toys. Without human lives, how much character development can we really get out of them?
As it turns out, a lot. This movie could have been a formulaic cash grab, but instead, it evokes emotion that’s hard to find even in live-action movies. With the toys’ owner Andy growing up and going to college, there’s a feeling of fearful uncertainty for the future. The toys struggle with issue of lost love, rejection, and abandonment. Woody is torn between his friends and what he feels is his duty, despite the changes he sees in Andy. The characters are certainly more troubled, and far from the carefree fun of childhood, the toys enter the unknown, are taken to the very depths of hopelessness—what mythologist Jospeh Campbell called “the belly of the whale”—confront the reality of death, and ultimately find atonement with Andy.
(As an aside, both Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 ares example of another factor of successful sequels: adding new co-stars. Only 1/7 failed sequels added new co-stars to the lineup, while 5/7 successful sequels did.)
Here’s a category that is near and dear to my heart. I just love to hate a good villain, but for some reason, many bad guys lose their luster in sequels.
One of the biggest problems seems to be that the temptation to resurrect the dead is just too overwhelming for some writers. (Think Agent Smith in the Matrix movies—just die already, man. “Mr. Anderson.” We get it…) Other writers rely too heavily on the redemption story, turning the first movie’s villain into a reluctant ally of heroes—or even a hero himself.
It turns out that both of these avenues, no matter how appealing they seem, are the sequel equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot. The dead should stay dead. Instead of resurrecting that old nemesis for another epic battle, one important element of a sequel—and utilized in all 7/7 successful studied sequels—is to add a new villain. Perhaps none does this better than the sequel to Batman Begins, 2008’s follow-up, The Dark Knight.
It must have been incredibly tempting to bring back Liam Neeson for a reprisal of his role as the villain from Batman Begins. (Especially considering that his character, Ra’s al Ghul, was actually immortal in the Batman comics.) Instead, Christopher Nolan and co. brought in the Clown Prince of Crime, a villain devoted not to money or world domination like his predecessor, but to disorder.
The Joker was so completely unlike what audiences had seen in the previous film—committing heinous crimes with childlike glee—that it was hard not to like him. But there’s an important distinction here; even though he was likable, there was nothing sympathetic about him, which leads me to my next point: bad guys are bad.
Putting aside the fact that Darth Vader eventually returned from the Dark Side in a well-executed redemption plotline, there’s nothing redeeming or remotely sympathetic about him in The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Vader is pure evil in this one. In Star Wars (1977), he was pretty much just an enforcer carrying out orders, doing what he was told. In Empire, he has become the one calling the shots. He leads an invasion against the Rebel heroes in hopes of wiping them out completely. He’s got a revolving door of new Imperial officers taking his orders—successors to the ones he keeps choking to death. He freezes Han Solo in a block of carbonite. Oh, but not before torturing the guy, first. He mutilates Luke by cutting his hand, then tries to convince Luke to join him in conspiring against his only ally, the Emperor. He is evil and villainous to the core, and it works. Another great example: the Russian in Rocky IV (1985).
Enticing as it might be for writers to revisit their past successes, the reality is this: Just because it worked the first time doesn’t mean anybody wants to see it again. The worst thing a sequel can do is retell the same old story. (I’m talking to you, every horror sequel ever made.)
It’s not enough to just reunite the old cast for another romp. And with all this talk of villains being villainous and characters becoming more troubled, it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that when it comes to sequels, you should always go darker. 5/7 successful sequels featured darker content than the originals, while only 2/7 failed sequels managed to follow this advice. For a lesson in darkness, look no further than Dr. Indiana Jones.
To be fair, the original movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), was far from a “romp.” I mean, a guy’s head did explode. Still, Raiders looked tame compared to its 1984 sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. With scenes of still-beating hearts ripped from the chests of human sacrifices, people being burned alive, nightmarish, drug-induced brainwashing, and child slaves being whipped by devotees of a death-worshipping cult, the stark contrast in subject matter between Raiders and Temple made this sequel unexpectedly fresh. Going darker is a great way to add peril and legitimacy to a story.
Remember all those funny one-liners from Pirates of the Caribbean (2003)? If not, you will by the end of its sequel, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006). That movie manages to imitate or flat-out repeat just about every pun, witty remark, and memorable moment from the original. And by the end, most of us are pretty much over it.
It feels petty to even mention this one. I mean, I’d feel like I was nitpicking, if the data didn’t support it. But the numbers don’t lie. 6/7 failed sequels featured an overabundance of references to the first film. For another example of this, see The Hangover sequels. Some movies take it a step further, jumping through hoops to try to invent new importance out of earlier events, instead of moving the story forward.
Overabundances of references and continuity overloads both tie in with another important sequel characteristic: making the story able to stand alone.
I’d probably already seen Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) about five times before I’d ever seen the original. The great thing about this film? You don’t need to see the original to enjoy the second. Terminator 2, like so many other great sequels, particularly those in the action genre, doesn’t depend on its successor. Its plot does not—like so many bad sequels—hinge entirely on the original. You could walk into this movie without ever having seen the first one, and have almost exactly the same experience, making it not only accessible to a wider audience, but less strenuous on the brain. The same is true of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which adheres to an almost James Bond-like isolation, as well as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, and The Dark Knight. If you tried that with either of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, or worse, the Matrix sequels, by the end, your head would hurt as badly as your stomach.
This category might not be as obvious as some of the others, but the evidence suggests that changes to genre and scenery play a fairly significant role in the success or failure of a sequel. Many sequels add a change of scenery to switch things up. Some manage to do this fairly successfully, like Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992). Others, not so much. Like Taken 2 (2012), which is supposed to be taking place on the opposite side of Europe, yet looks like it was filmed on the same soundstage as the original.
Sequels also tend to experiment with genre more than one might realize. 6/7 successful sequels add a new genre from the original while 6/7 failed sequels do not (an action movie sequel might add a horror twist; a straightforward action movie sequal might add a mystery or romance element).
Still, it isn’t foolproof. Playing with genre can be a dangerous game. Enter, Spider-Man 3 (2007).
Prior to the era when Marvel movies were consistently stellar, there was Spider-Man 3. What on earth happened with this movie? There’s plenty to complain about with this movie (remember the dance number?) but for the sake of time and space, we’ll focus on one, simple fact: There were just too many plot-lines, all getting tangled into one big, sticky… well, web.
In addition to the tried-and-true action/adventure genre, the original film, Spider-Man (2002), struck a pretty decent balance between telling a maturation plot (aka “coming-of-age” story) through Peter Parker/Spider-Man, and a punitive plot (punishment) through the fall from grace of his enemy, Norman Osborn/Green Goblin. Spider-Man 2 (2004) essentially did the same thing with a different villain. Kind of predictable, but, eh, it wasn’t horrible.
But by the time Spider-Man 3 rolls around, there are too many character arcs and genres for one film to handle. We’ve got the action/adventure genre, sure, but Peter Parker has also been exposed to the black “evil” suit and is going through a testing plot (temptation). Meanwhile, his friend Harry Osborn is falling through a punitive plot identical to his father’s. The villain Sandman is simultaneously slogging through a redemption plot, and I’m pretty sure there was also a love story crammed in there somewhere. The final story arc involving Eddie Brock as the fan-favorite Venom was so brief it’s hardly worth mentioning. All these stories no doubt looked epic and thrilling on paper, but in application, they led to an unfortunate lack of focus.
So, what have we learned?
- Make Characters More Troubled – characters make story, and internal struggles always add dimension and gravity
- Add New Co-Stars – a new supporting cast can influence character development across the board
- Add a New Villain – preferably one who could wipe the floor with the old villain
- Keep Bad Guys Bad – and dead, if applicable
- Go Darker – and show the audience that nothing will ever be the same
- Make it Stand Alone – move the story forward, and leave the past where it belongs
- Experiment With Genre – but be careful!
The majority of successful sequels utilized all of these techniques, while the majority of failed sequels ignored them. You can’t argue with the facts.
Conclusion: Sequels Don’t Have to Suck
We can see by the evidence that tangible elements of setting, story structure, and character development are consistent hallmarks of a successful Part II. Sequels are a double-edged sword, but they don’t have to suck.
When a story is so good that it leaves fans yearning for more, it’s only natural that creators answer the call. When hearing the news of an upcoming sequel, all we can really do is cross our fingers and hope it’ll be a precious gem and not a barf-tastic failure.
For your viewing pleasure/displeasure, check out the fourteen films examined for this post, and see for yourself what makes or breaks a sequel.
- The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn (1982)
- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
- Rocky IV (1985)
- Toy Story 3 (2010)
- Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)
- The Dark Knight (2008)
- Jurassic Park 3 (2001)
- The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
- Weekend at Bernie’s II (1993)
- Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)
- Spider-Man 3 (2007)
- The Hangover Part II (2011)
- Taken 2 (2012)
Special thanks to the great article here for inspiring this post.
Stay classy, internet.