What makes a good sequel

Saturday January 08, 2011 @ 10:07 PM (UTC)

In the movie-watching spree that constitutes the Ryan & Felicity holiday tradition, I have recently watched partial or complete arcs of the following movie franchises: Back to the Future, Star Wars, Alien, and Terminator. (Small spoilers only — and if you’re not spoiled on this stuff, welcome to my blog!)

Early on in this decadent parade of wonders, Ryan remarked to me that Empire Strikes Back is one of the best movie sequels ever. We talked about that and what it does so well. Then, just now, after rewatching the somewhat lackluster Terminator 3, we watched Terminator Salvation. We had been told it was bad. We decided to try it anyway, out of an unusual completionist urge. (I haven’t watched Alien 3 and don’t plan to, okay?)

Terminator Salvation was great. Surprisingly tightly plotted. New Skynet tech and types were logical, part of a burgeoning machine ecosystem. It was well acted, full of ties to the original movie and winks at the entire Cameron oeuvre.

This has cemented my desire to think (and therefore ramble) about what makes a good sequel (and in part, what does NOT.)

1. A good sequel expands the universe of the original. This should be true of a straight sequel, not just the second act of three. Yes, the viewer loved the first one, but if you rehash the same material, some part of them will wonder why they didn’t just watch it again. Empire Strikes Back took us to new worlds, showed us a hint of the Emperor we’d only heard of, brought us inside the Imperial Fleet.

2. It stays true to the original. This is tricky, but to my English-major self that means it develops at least some of the most important themes of the original. Aliens is a different genre from Alien, and some might argue not a true sequel, but it’s still about the same things: conflict between corporate and human interests, the relationship between human and artificial intelligence, social class, et c. It also means you don’t add a bunch of extraneous new characters that detract from the ones we know and care about.

3. It deepens the characters. The feelings between Han and Leia, the risk-taking prompted by Marty’s insecurity, Ripley’s motherhood…these are things that didn’t exist in the first story, but don’t contradict it. They breathe new meaning retroactively into the first story while using the increased space granted by success (a necessary condition for sequels) to increase the emotional attachment of the audience.

4. It follows through. If we were promised post-apocalyptic guerilla warfare, give it to us. If you hung a craft full of alien eggs on the wall like Chekhov’s gun, take that sucker down and start firing facehuggers. Don’t promise “I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see….A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries.” and then ignore those people to have boring fisticuffs with infinite agents instead.

5. It rewards the audience’s fidelity. This is perhaps the riskiest part. See number 1 — don’t rehash. The peril of the sequel, especially in action movies, is doing the same thing over, but bigger and fancier. Catch phrases become atrophied, meaningless, a string of checkboxes or gotcha moments. Chases become an obligation, not a thrill. The script serves the formula rather than the story. We didn’t need to see the T-101 shoot up a bunch of cop cars and smugly calculate 0 human casualties in T3. It was something we’d already seen, but shorn of the context that made it relevant in T2. A good reference is something that makes sense in the new context to someone who hasn’t seen the referent. If we haven’t seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, we don’t scratch our heads in Last Crusade when Indy says “Fly? Yes. Land? No!” Obviously it matters whether he can fly a plane, and his incomplete knowledge creates tension and humor. T4 was full of shots, sets and moments that made devoted fans point and grin, but those things served this movie. Rhyme, don’t repeat.

6. It surprises us. Keeping your promises doesn’t mean being predictable. We have expectations now, and you can play with them. Having the T-101 be the good guy in T2 reversed our expectations. (In T3 it was just a bit tired.) It surprised us. It surprised John Connor. It surprised Sarah Connor into an iconic image of surprise (I know I mentally fall down and backpedal against a waxed floor from time to time.) Set up a love triangle, then knock it down with a relative revelation. Make us expect the repeat, then play against it: a formidable swordsman menaces Indy, he reaches for his gun — but it isn’t there.

Really, what this all boils down to is respecting the original but showing us something new. The Star Wars prequels contradict the originals and depart from their spirit. Star Trek V, among its other sins, takes us past a Galactic Barrier we crossed in the series and acts like that’s where no man has gone before. This is simple stuff, really, but I imagine that deep in Hollywood, making something complicated and expensive with hundreds of other people, it’s easy to forget what you’re really doing. You’re gathering the children by the fire to tell them a story. They say, “Tell us another!” They say, “What happens next?”


Excellent work here, Felicity. They should hire you. (All those people trying to make sequels.)

Great post on a topic I’ve have many similar conversations about.

I AM the ultimate hater of sequels. My question is usually “Is there a sequel that is as good (or better) than the original?” Once we weed out the fan boys and take an objective look, ONLY Empire Strikes Back fulfills my desire.

Part of the issue for my conversations comes in defining the sequel. I don’t count the Star Trek Films as sequels, for example. There are more episodic (maybe 2, 3 and 4 are sequels – but I think my point is clear). Many films labeled as sequels are not really such. I haven’t seen the latest Terminator, but it sounds like it’s more “set in the same universe” or even a “semi-reboot” than a sequel. I’ll watch it sometime soon.

And, I think my hatred of the sequel comes because there are so SO many bad sequels. Back to the Future 2 and 3. Really? Could we not be satisfied with the wonder of the adventures that Marty and his (mysteriously changing) girlfriend will be having? Most sequels are not based on having more story to tell but having deep pockets to fill.

So, there are a few things that will immediately kill a sequel for me, a-la Jump the Shark style (in no particular order, feel free to elaborate as eloquently as you do if you feel the need):

1) Changing actors. It’s petty, but as soon as you’ve done this, you’ve lost me. Marty’s GF in Back to the Future. Saavk in Star Trek. Let’s imagine Empire where Tom Seleck plays Han Solo. See my point.

2) Going over the top. The Matrix is a really good movie. Pirates of the Caribbean is a really good movie. These are two great example of the sequels going WAY over the top. Just because I like something doesn’t mean I want to be choked with it.

3) Plot? What plot? Due to the focus on money and flashing Iron Man on the screen 206 times, who needs plot? The plot needs to be good. This is similar to several points you make.

Anyway, it’s still early and I’ll come up with more.

Thanks for a great post.

I’ve never thought about what makes a movie sequel good, not specifically, though I know if I enjoy one or not, and usually where something failed for me. Book sequels have many of the same requirements you listed, though, over all, I find that if the plot isn’t tight, the rest of the story experience suffers, regardless of media. That was my issue with Terminator Salvation, well … one of them at least.

Great post! (tucks this one into her ‘tools of the craft’ notebook)

Thanks, Jan! Don’t think I’m cut out for screenwriting, however. :P

Jared — Yes, when Ryan and I started this conversation after watching Empire, I objected to the Star Trek movies first coming into play. Those characters and universe have had plenty of time to get deep!

Changing actors does require a huge suspension of disbelief. But I can understand filmmakers going ahead when it’s not a protagonist and there’s no other choice (they would have had to suspend disbelief in an entirely different direction to retcon Jennifer out of the car, and you can’t force people to leave their cancer-patient moms and make movies against their will!)

There are very few movies that hit every do and don’t I’ve listed. Maybe, o ultimate sequel hater, they have to hit all of them to please you! Judging whether a sequel is good is partially subjective, and many of us would argue for a given sequel in spite of its broken commandments. (I like both Back to the Future 2 and Return of the Jedi, despite their repeat-y aspects, for example.) You sound like more of a purist!

Kath — Yes, I haven’t thought about the differences between book and movie sequels much. One difference that springs to mind is that most series books are originally envisioned as series. Movies, especially the iconic 80’s adventure and action movies that form my lexicon, were often made as stand-alones, then driven into sequels by their success (as Jared notes with distaste.)

In some ways, a stand-alone movie is like a short story or novella*: the threads need to tie off. Everything should be self-contained or tidy. When you make a sequel, you’re not just writing a follow-up, you’re expanding the original from short fiction to a novel.

*I’m using the John Gardner position on novellas here, which is one I find useful. I can’t put my hands on my copy of Art of Fiction at present, but basically, he says a novella should be self-contained and aspiring to a kind of gem-like perfection, whereas novels reflect the world and thus should include a certain amount of messiness and threads that don’t connect, just exist.

I recently watched Toy Story 3 and in all respects you name, it’s one of the best sequels ever.

The Dark Knight. Possibly even better than the original.

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