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Friday 20 November 2009

Some thoughts on movie sequels

'CoverCover of Richard III

There are many hasty remarks made about sequels both among the hordes of regular movie goers and the more professional echelons of critics. The hasty remark voiced by the average movie viewer is that vast majority of sequels are worse than the original. The hasty remark by critics, specifically those who write for mainstream movie magazines, is that decent sequels have only really started appearing in the 21st century. I consider both views to be gross generalizations at best.

The critics' generalization is disproved with 1935's The Bride of Frankenstein. This is often considered a vast improvement on James Whale's atmospheric original Frankenstein. Whale had the opportunity to really cut loose on Bride using black humour and a subtle play of hammy campiness not really appreciated until many decades later. The Godfather Part II won more awards and is also considered by many to be a better sequel than the original. And who can forget The Empire Strikes Back. Far from being cynical, the film took chances with a darker tone for a mainstream family movie way back 1980 and is perhaps the most incomplete part of the original trilogy. Yet critics and fans alike look upon it with extreme fondness, so much so that it is arguable that it is more responsible for the negativity the third film received off fans than the first film. Likewise the third instalment of the Star Wars prequels has received more acclaim than its two predecessors.

Still before the 21st century superhero revival and Batman Returns may have seen a decline in box office revenue from its original, but looking back it is perhaps a much better film. Into the 21st century and we see Christopher Nolan scoring with perhaps one of most all round successful sequels to date, 2008's The Dark Knight. This film would also be the sequel that would give the superhero genre their first Oscar for an acting role with Heath Ledger's Joker. Also in the superhero genre we find Spider-Man 2, which is an improvement, in many ways, over the original film.

Most professional drama has seen sequels. Yet we have come to see the movie sequel as little more than an attempt to cash-in on a successful or semi-successful original film. "The Fall of a Nation" was Thomas Dixon Jnr's attempt to cash-in on the first full length feature film "The Birth of a Nation", which was the feature film. Apparently Dixon didn't receive a penny for the first film, so decided to direct his own sequel the following year. It is now considered a lost film, but film critics look to it, in hindsight, as the blueprint for the first attempt to milk an original film with a follow on feature. However, if we look at the history of the novel, the play and even the epic poem we see that there was often a need to continue a story, which was justified in the form of a sequel. A similar argument could be made for remakes, but I will save that for another article.

Few professors of English literature would look favourably upon the view that Shakespeare's Henry VI parts II and III, and Richard III were cynical soulless cash-ins on Henry VI part I. Furthermore, and it is worth mentioning considering we are in a time of prequels and especially considering the bashing the Star Wars prequels have met, it worth considering that the prequels to VI, Richard II, Henry IV part I and II and Henry V are often viewed as superior plays to the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III. The popular view is that William Shakespeare was older when he wrote the first parts of history cycle and therefore more mature, intellectual and philosophical in his writing, whereas the latter part of the cycle were written with more melodrama and although still brilliant aimed for a broader audience in order to pay the bills.

One might argue the point that the aforementioned plays were the work of the same person whereas many movie sequels are the work of hacks employed by cynical production companies. This might be a valid point if we consider the second Godfather, Spider-Man 2, the Lord of the Rings' two sequels, X-Men 2, Evil Dead 2, Romero's first two Dead sequels, The Bride of Frankenstein and Superman II*. The Empire Strikes Back may have had a different director, but the writing and creative control were all in the hands of the same man who directed the first film. The argument might be taken further if we think of what happened to the franchise after the man behind the original left. The third X-Men film wasn't a bad superhero film to be fair, but stank by contrast to the first two. The Universal horror sequels that followed The Bride of Frankenstein are charming and fun, but they become exactly what sequels are often considered to be: blatant cash-ins.

However, this can all be considered confirmation bias or selective arguing. After all Sam Raimi made Spider-Man 3 as he did the first two, and most agree it is not a patch on the rest of the franchise. Romero's long time coming fourth and fifth Dead sequels fizzled rather than exploded. We have already George Lucas's work on Star Wars, but it is worth mentioning here to illustrate a point. After Empire, Return of the Jedi prompted the beginning of a phenomenon in fandom known as "Lucas bashing". This was far from assuaged when the auteur took the full helm again with the most eagerly awaited prequels in cinema history. Each successive prequel was hated a little less, but for all their huge financial success, there are many casual cinema goers and militant Star Wars fans alike that agree they were either badly executed or never should have been made in the first place. The big problem many had with the Star Wars prequels was the retconning. In the minds of many there was an established mythology and by adding to it the great auteur ruined the perceptions of many. What, of course, is often forgotten is that Lucas had messed around with Star Wars since the announcement of The Empire Strikes Back when he added "Episode IV: A New Hope" to the opening crawl of the re-released version of the original Star Wars. Even the original trilogy's plots are full of changes that makes Lucas's supposed grand plan dubious at best.

So what makes a good sequel? Essentially I think viewers are impressed by a feel that the sequel progresses naturally from the original. Going back to the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries - not to mention the epic works of antiquity - we can see that audiences were drawn to the ominous warnings, prophesies and dramatic irony that had been set up in the preceding work. If done correctly there is a particularly delicious soliloquy delivered by Richard Duke of Gloucester in Henry VI Part III as, towards the play's final acts, he suddenly reveals his Machiavellian intentions to seize the crown in the sequel, Richard III. Subsequently Richard III, which is mostly viewed, read and studied as a self-contained work, has a significant portion of its speeches and conversations centred on actions that have occurred in previous plays. In fact, the whole play is about the conclusion of the original sin committed in Richard II. In this respect, Richard III is perhaps an ideal representation of the sequel.

Bryan Singer's X-Men and X2 work as if they are two parts of the same film. The same thing happens in Superman and Superman II, which were filmed at the same time. In fact, the sequel is often better in these instances because of the events that set it up in the original. Similarly Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 is an excellent example of a much-loved middle sequel, a la The Empire Strikes Back, because it not only fulfils events set up by the first film, but then takes other matters and leaves them with tantalizing cliffhangers for the third part. Unfortunately this ball is well and truly dropped in X-Men: The Last Stand and even fumbled with in the overblown Spider-Man 3. In the former case a different director could be blamed, in the latter it could be argued that Raimi was under considerable pressure that compromised his position. The same could be said by the much belated "The Godfather Part III". Back in 1974 Francis Ford Coppola was pretty much given full creative control with his sequel to The Godfather Part II, even to the extent that he was able to change convention in having the first sequel to have name "Part II" added**. However, according to Coppola this was not the case with 1990's The Godfather Part III, a film he would have liked to have called "The Death of Michael Corleone". However, as we have already discussed, giving an auteur complete control of a franchise does not always guarantee critical success.

Nevertheless, The Lord of the Rings stands as a gleaming example of what happens when sequels are filmed and fully conceived as part of one whole continuous project by the same creative team. In this instance each film generally received more praise, acclaim and awards than its predecessor. There becomes less need for retconning and new characters appear more fluidly. Much like the first two Superman films, the second two parts of the Back to the Future and Matrix trilogy demonstrated the benefits of back-to-back filming. Like Lord of the Rings, the third instalment is generally considered by casual and professional critics alike to be better than the second, which is very rare in film land. *** One might speculate that viewers are more forgiving with a third instalment if it, at least, keeps a solid and fluid continuity with its predecessor even if it is somewhat disloyal to the original.

Then there are those sequels that break all the rules and still do a good job. "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted" differs considerably from all the sequels, I have mentioned, by not being a genre movie. Although it will always be overshadowed by the viscerally intensive and dramatically impressive first film, "Once Were Warriors", it is still an excellent sequel. What is most impressive is that the first film left no obvious doors open, which judging by the many examples I have given is pretty much a requisite for a sequel to have a chance. However, WBBH does have one advantage over other sequels; it is based on an original novel. It earns other good sequel marks by having most of the original cast. Where it works and shouldn't is by killing off a character from the first film at the beginning and creating a totally new angle to base the rest of the film on. This is normally a sign of desperation in the world of sequels, but with WBBH it results in creating the epilogue to the first film (and novel) that it seems we needed after all.

Likewise, when it comes to the world of bad movies or should I say "films that are so bad they are good" we find that only by being totally audacious with the rules can a film sometimes stand out for the right reasons. Such is the case with "Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives". The films were already illogical, far-fetched and, quite frankly, ridiculous, but never before had the main protagonist since Part II been officially considered supernatural. The sixth part completely threw caution to the wind by bringing the villain back in Universal horror style, with a bolt of lightening sent through his rotting corpse and so was born zombie Jason. By setting up the ludicrous the rest of the picture didn't miss a beat. Like the third A Nightmare on Elm Street, it used the humour wisely without turning the whole film into a complete parody. It was nowhere in the same league as the Nightmares, but it began to demonstrate signs of slasher self-awareness long before Wes Craven used it to good effect in "Scream" a decade later.

For me, sequels vary much as any original film does. You have good ones and you have bad ones. Some are complete insults to the original (American Psycho 2), others just don't measure up to the original but our essentially decent films in their own right (Meet the Fockers), some are respectable continuations (Psycho II), some equal the original (Blade II) and there are a fair few that surpass the original (Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me). I definitely feel they work best if they are carefully set-up and plotted plausibly in the first film and then follow a close continuation throughout the franchise, not discounting the events in any part of the chain. In this respect it is a momentous task and perhaps far more credit should be given to a production company who can deliver a critically and commercially well received sequel beyond the first one.

*Superman II was originally directed by the same man who directed the first film, Richard Donner. Donner filmed an estimated 75%, but was taken off the film due to - depending on who you believe - artistic differences with the studios or going over budget or both. Nevertheless, I have included in the list as it was shot at the same time as the original and with essentially the same creative team, at least until Richard Lester took over as director.

**The first commercial film to feature 2 or II in the title was 1957's "Quatermass 2", the sequel to 1955's "The Quatermass Xperiment". It was also based on a TV series entitled "Quatermass II". In the US the titles for both the original and the sequel were not used, which is perhaps why many American movie historians overlook this when discussing the history of the sequel. Movie geeks are quick to point out that "Jaws 2" is the first film to actually mention the whole title of the original movie followed by a number. Looking at the way many films have difficulty getting the numbering system right - think First Blood's sequels, Rambo First Blood Part II, Rambo III and Rambo - it is little surprising we find difficulties with continuity in their storylines.

***For sequel haters, the third instalment is regularly considered - to quote the third sequel of the Blackadder series - "The crowning turd in the waterpipe".

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