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From Emperors to Crystal Skulls: The highs and lows of the sequel

Ben Holden explores why some movie sequels are great, while others are just the opposite.

In 2013 there came a film so monumentally great that it altered the very future of cinema itself. At its premiere, Martin Scorsese wept, wondering why he wasted his life directing drivel like Taxi Driver, while The Academy collectively decided to pack up shop, knowing full well nothing else could ever feasibly win best picture. The film would go on to gross 17.4 trillion dollars, as audiences across the globe sold all their earthly possessions to fund their insatiable appetite for tickets. I am, of course, talking about Grown Ups 2. Oh, hang on, my notes are mixed up. Sorry, I’ll start again. Grown Ups 2 is terrible. 

A lazy, plotless cash-grab, it’s no wonder that sequels have a, let’s say, less than stellar reputation when films like Grown Ups 2 exist. You’ve heard it a million times, the original is always best, and the second is usually bad. And yet, when we wander down those gilded halls of movie excellence, it becomes clear that some of the best films ever made are sequels. The Godfather Part 2. The Empire Strikes Back. The Dark Knight. Every Toy Story film after 1. Yes, even 4. No, I do not accept criticism of this opinion. The sequel hall of fame is filled with countless examples of films that, even the most die-hard of purists must concede, surpass the original. 

When a sequel works well, the stories we get can be far better than what is often possible in a single film. Sadly, getting them right can be quite tricky for various reasons. Often, there is a need to ‘one-up’ the original, and put things on a grander scale. This isn’t a bad idea in concept because audiences don’t want to see the same film twice, but sometimes it can go too far. Short history lesson: in season 5, episode 91, of the hit sitcom Happy Days, the main character Fonzie jumps over the top of a shark while water skiing. Since then, the term ‘jumping the shark’ has been used to describe that point in a series or franchise where things get too silly, even within the confines of the fictions’ fantasy logic, in an attempt to breathe new life, and new viewers, into the property. For a brilliant example, take the Indiana Jones films; they have never been particularly realistic, featuring supernatural powers and a definition of archaeology sure to make real-world researchers cringe, but the action has always been somewhat grounded and at least partly believable. Gun fights, fist fights, motorbike chases and whatnot. Wouldn’t it be ridiculous if another film in the series then had Harrison Ford survive a nuclear blast by hiding in a fridge? It would, wouldn’t it. Anyway, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull comes out in 2008, and that exact thing happens. Honestly, the flesh-melting ghost angels inside the Ark of the Covenant are actually more believable. It’s hard to get interested after this point, because we now know that our hero is indestructible, and there is no sense of danger. In trying to make things more exciting, a sequel can easily make things less so. 

Beyond this though, there is, in my opinion, one golden rule that all sequels should follow. To discuss it, I get to talk about a movie that I absolutely despise – Terminator: Dark Fate, a direct sequel to the incredible Terminator 2. A sequel, in all forms of media, should absolutely never make what came before it meaningless. In T2, there are two goals: ensure the survival of John Connor, who will go on to lead humanity to victory in the future war with the machines, and prevent the machine uprising from ever happening. Both of these goals are achieved by the climax, which is brilliant for the viewer as it leaves a sense that something important has happened. This is why I, as an audience member, find it genuinely offensive when the first five-minutes of the slow-motion car crash that is Dark Fate involves John Connor being immediately killed, and then a machine uprising happens anyway with little-to-no explanation. T2, in the universe of the Terminator franchise, may as well have never happened; it has no relevance, no impact, and none of its events mattered. This, to me, is unforgivable, and highlights the biggest sin a sequel can commit. Do not, ever, erase the past. Build on it instead.

And this is what the greatest sequels do so well. They not only respect the events of the last film, but show us why they mattered. Take the surprisingly fantastic Planet of the Apes reboot trilogy in the 2010s. The first film ends with an ominous mid-credit scene showing the spread of deadly virus across the world. The sequel, instead of pretending that this wasn’t important, then shows the dramatic effect this has had on the world; humans have almost gone extinct, and a small settlement of survivors are locked in a tense stand-off with the apes. The worlds we see in the first and second instalment are nearly unrecognizable, but we completely understand how things have gotten from A to B. This makes for truly engaging storytelling, and truly lets you know that everything has meaning – something a good story really should have.  

Naturally, a sequel also let’s us spend more time in our favourite movie-worlds, and this allows for these worlds to take on so much more nuance, depth and interest. Star Wars: A New Hope introduced cinema to Darth Vader, who would go on to become arguably its most iconic villain. So then, in the sequel Empire Strikes Back, it becomes all the more engaging when we see Vader kneeling before the hooded façade of Emperor Palpatine. Audiences are hit with the revelation that cinemas’ most enduring villain is only second in command, and there is someone more powerful and more frightening than him? This is fantastic world building, and it’s all the more effective given the time audiences have already spent with Vader up until this point. Introduce the emperor in A New Hope, and this dynamic is the status quo out the gate. It just isn’t the same. 

Of course, not every film needs a sequel, and that is certainly not what I’m arguing here. I doubt Citizen Kane 2 would have gone down as well as the first. But sequels get a bad rap, that while not entirely unearned, I think causes people to be too harsh on the very idea of them. What is often forgotten, especially among the Academy and the more pretentious members of the film community, is that some of the best stories ever told are told in sequels. That’s why it will be such a shame when Scorsese outlaws them, and the only films he allows to be made are three-hour long crime flicks starring Robert De Niro. I’ll be here, defending the sequel until I’m blue in the face, but who knows if that will be enough. The only thing I’m certain about is that my follow-up article, reviewing which fridges are best at shielding you from nuclear detonations, will be much better than this one.

Image Credit: Star Wars/Facebook

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