The movie box offices are crowded with sequels and remakes this summer. If you make your way to a theater you’re likely to encounter a slew of unwieldy, colon-studded titles, including such films as Captain America: Civil War, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, Alice Through the Looking Glass, X-Men: Apocalypse, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows. The Conjuring 2 and Now You See Me 2 both come out this weekend, and a quick count shows at least five more major film releases before August are sequels or remakes of previous movies.
It’s no mystery why the film industry keeps churning these out. Having a built-in audience gives studios a certain degree of security when deciding which films to give the green light. Four of the five top-grossing films of 2016, and nearly 40 of the 50 top-grossing films of all time are sequels. They clearly make money, but what is it about sequels that audiences continue to find so appealing?
One important component that the filmmakers bank on is familiarity. There’s less work to do, on a storytelling level, to introduce characters or premises that the audience has already accepted and enjoyed on screen before. In a way, a sequel is a movie’s chance to be a little bit like TV. The story has the opportunity to respond to audience reactions, it can develop characters and relationships over a longer arc than a standalone movie can, and can potentially build on an already established framework to create more complex plots. It’s a thin line to walk, however, staying true to the spirit of the previous film while still infusing the story with new innovations and putting something real and character-driven at stake.
The quality of sequels in Hollywood varies wildly, from established classics like The Godfather: Part II and The Empire Strikes Back to poorly executed flops like Jurassic Park III. If a movie like Magic Mike: XXL, missing key original characters and with a significant tonal shift from its predecessor, can achieve that ultimate sequel film commendation of being “better than the original,” is there any rhyme or reason to which sequels will work and which won’t? Is it possible to isolate certain necessary components a sequel must have in order to be successful? I am tentative to list any absolutes here, but I believe there are a few important variables at work when determining whether a sequel can be considered a success:
Taking a character on a journey which causes them to grow and change in some way is an essential component of storytelling not only within the film medium, but across the creative spectrum. It’s a thornier stipulation for sequels however, because they don’t start with a blank slate. Their characters have already been on a journey, presumably, and that same familiarity with the character which urged audiences into the seats can also alienate them if they’re presented with a character they don’t recognize, who is in some way inauthentic or inconsistent with the original.
Spectacle as a Substitution for Story
This is a consistent problem with sequels and across Hollywood in general—explosions are easier to translate for foreign audiences than witty banter or philosophical contemplation, or maybe the art direction was stronger than the new screenplay. Either way sequel films, so often part of superhero franchises or other action-packed genres today, seem to suffer disproportionately from over- emphasis on CGI and action sequences rather than the story. I think of Alice Through the Looking Glass, released in theaters last month—it was a visually beautiful movie, with exciting sequences of Alice navigating torrid ocean waters and racing against a physical manifestation of time to save the Mad Hatter, but its prettiness failed to hold up a mostly bland and nonsensical time-travel plot.
It all comes back to story, I think. If there’s a compelling story to tell, one which is driven by character growth and internal conflict rather than relying on external trappings, then a sequel at least has a chance to stand on its own merits instead of clinging to the success of the original.