The Ups and Downs of Movie Sequels
“The ensuing narrative … [that] forms a continuation of a preceding [literary work]” -Oxford English Dictionary definition of “sequel”
Peruse the displays at your nearest cinema or do a quick Google search for upcoming movie releases. Chances are, you’ll feel like there’s an increasing number of sequels appearing on the big screen. Granted, most new releases are still original works, with only 5 of the 26 upcoming releases in Singapore (or around 19.2%) really being sequels, evidence that sequels are still a small portion of the film industry.
However, a lot of attention is placed on new material from multimillion dollar blockbuster franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) or Star Wars, including on the sequels they pump out. So, although sequels still make up a relatively small portion of the film industry, the amount of focus on them could lead one to think that sequels dominate cinema.
But the existence of sequels is a double-edged sword. Do they capture the essence of the original product or end up ruining it in the pursuit of money? Let’s take a closer look at this dichotomy and discuss the (un)necessity of movie sequels.
Why are sequels so popular?
Sequels come in many forms. Not only can they be a direct continuation of a previous story, a safe play that most studios make so that audiences can just pick up where they left off, sequels can even be “soft reboots” of a franchise.
For the uninitiated, a soft reboot is defined as a reboot of a series while still maintaining continuity with previously established material. Unlike a full-on reboot, a soft reboot serves as a way for writers and directors to shift the tone of a certain character or series while still keeping the core elements. It’s important to note that this is the same version of a character, albeit with some changes here and there. Soft reboots can be crucial to cleaning up huge messes in storytelling or streamlining overly complex plot points that make it hard for new viewers to jump on board.
The kind of sequels most people would be familiar with are those that stick with the main character and paint a new story that revolves around them, adding more depth to the character therein which lies the reason why sequels are so popular amongst viewers.
People want Part Two: Electric Boogaloo for the stories of movie characters they have become invested in.
When people grow attached to characters, they want to see more of and learn more about them. In short, people want more. Studios know this and so, inevitably, they capitalise on people’s desires by creating even more sequels. Moreover, studios put a lot of effort into promoting these sequels which makes them even more visible to the general public.
Naturally, just like any other work of fiction, movie sequels receive both positive and negative reception, with varying reasons for such reception. So why exactly do some sequels find success and some fail badly? Let’s find out.
Why do some sequels work?
When sequels are done well, not only do audiences get a new story with the characters they love, they also get to form a greater connection with them. There are many ways for sequels to achieve success, with different kinds of sequels going about it differently.
A very recent example is this year’s Top Gun: Maverick, which was released a whopping 36 years after the first Top Gun film. A lot of the times, when sequels are released many years after the original movie, audiences simply treat the sequel as a studio’s cash grab. However, Top Gun: Maverick has been widely praised, with many thinking that it’s even better than the first movie. So, why did it work?
Well, not only did it reintroduce old and new audiences alike to test pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, the movie’s dangerously charismatic main character (as portrayed by Tom Cruise), it also brought in fresh new characters that didn’t feel shoehorned in. This sequel may have had more characters, but it didn’t feel like Tom Cruise’s Maverick was shoved to the side in favour of focusing on new blood.
Instead, Top Gun: Maverick was still very much Maverick’s story and even expanded on that, respecting the film that came before. That’s why this film was met with such acclaim because it was able to tell a fresh new story while still honouring the legacy of the previous film. And you don’t just have to take my word for it, because Top Gun: Maverick is currently the 11th highest-grossing film of all time at over 1.45 billion USD worldwide (and climbing).
A successful sequel knows how to honour the past while bringing in new blood.
Another sequel, which did things slightly differently, is 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, an example of a “soft reboot”, which served to rejuvenate a character. While not unsuccessful films, 2011’s Thor and especially 2013’s Thor: The Dark World were often treated as bland and boring additions to the MCU. The god of thunder desperately needed some new life breathed into his stories, and Thor: Ragnarok accomplished that rather spectacularly.
Director Taika Waititi reinvented Thor’s story by making it fun and enjoyable, injecting the right dose of humour into a previously one-note character. This was a huge success because most critics consider this sequel to be the best film in the Thor series and the numbers check out too because with a worldwide gross of 854 million USD, Thor: Ragnarok is the highest-grossing movie in the series.
Create a sequel that makes a character far better than they were before.
But for all the success that many sequels enjoy, there are also those that end their theatrical runs with far less desirable returns.
Why do some sequels flop?
Good sequels gratify audiences by giving them stories that feel different while still connecting them to an existing character. However, when a sequel decides to pull the rug out from under the audience’s feet by trying too hard or pulling the old bait-and-switch, that’s when you’ll start to draw the ire of your viewers. In these cases, the sequel will either perform badly at the box office and make a loss, or it might still be able to make a profit but be less well-received.
Some sequels will try to one-up the previous film by bringing in too many plot elements that overshadows the original character, preventing them from having any actual growth. In their bid to become “bigger and better”, these sequels lose track of what made the first film so great: the main character. An example of this would be this year’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
A case where a sequel crumbles because it tries to do too much.
2016’s Doctor Strange was a great addition to the MCU at the time, introducing magic and mysticism into an otherwise science-based universe. Primarily focusing on the titular Sorcerer Supreme, the film showcased another side to these films that drew fans in and made them want to see more of this character. Unfortunately, we just didn’t get enough of that with the sequel.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness tried to do too much by introducing alternate universe concepts, swapping out good writing for “fan service” and focusing too much on characters besides our main. This resulted in a movie that felt muddled and had lost sight of what was important, a complaint that many viewers had. The sequel still did well financially (grossing over 955 million USD worldwide and counting) but it was definitely not as well-received by audiences.
Sometimes doing too much doesn’t end well.
Experimenting too much can be a bad thing but on the opposite end of the spectrum, when the sequel sticks too closely to what made the first movie successful, that isn’t good either. This can cause the sequel to come off as far too formulaic and unoriginal, a product that doesn’t offer more to the audience. In this case, audiences would feel like their time was wasted, as was the case with 2016’s Independence Day: Resurgence.
Yes, an actual shot from that movie saw Singapore being blown up.
You’ve probably heard of the Academy Award-winning sci-fi action blockbuster Independence Day, wherein Will Smith, Bill Pullman and Jeff Goldblum face off against aliens invading Earth. This film was a commercial success and was the highest-grossing film of 1996 as well as claiming the title of (then) 2nd highest-grossing film of all time. Independence Day had a huge impact on audiences and so when a sequel was announced 20 years after the original, people expected great things. Unfortunately, this would not come to pass.
Independence Day: Resurgence might have had far better visual effects and the characters in the sequel made use of more advanced technology, but overall, it didn’t feel much different from the first film. It followed practically the same plotline of the aliens invading Earth, with the aliens gaining the upper hand followed by the humans fighting back and ultimately succeeding. It made for a sequel that hid in the shadows of the original, providing nothing new to the audiences.
The numbers corroborate as well, because Independence Day: Resurgence was a box office bomb, grossing only 389.7 million USD (which was 53% less than the first film) against a budget of 165 million USD. Clearly, audiences didn’t much care for it.
Not even returning cast members like Goldblum or Pullman could help this sequel.
Do we need sequels?
Movie studios when they put out the next sequel to a film that came out a decade ago.
Of the top 10 highest-grossing films of all time, 5 of them are sequels (only 2 are originals and the other 3 are either remakes or part of an existing franchise) and going further down the list to the top 50, even more sequels populate the rankings. For the most part, putting out sequels to popular properties is a formula that works, and studios make full use of this knowledge.
At the end of the day, we know that some sequels simply aren’t as great as the originals but do they really always have to be better?
We can treat sequels as opportunities to get to know a character better, even if the product itself isn’t as great as it could or should be. Sequels can also be a way for a character’s story to be wrapped up, providing the audience with much-needed closure. Or maybe, we just want another story with the characters whose journeys we’ve become so invested in.
Whatever it is, it’s safe to say that most people out there are suckers for movie sequels. Are you?
Thor, Doctor Strange and all related characters, settings, and media are property of Marvel Worldwide, Inc.
Independence Day is the property of 20th Century Studios.
Top Gun is the property of Paramount Pictures.
Article was co-written by: Arnest and Ishita