Why long-awaited sequels are never that good: The long-awaited followup

A long time ago (or at least it feels like it) I made my first attempt at stirring up drama on the Agony Booth by posting an article asserting that long-awaited film sequels are never (or rarely, at least) that good. I wrote this article because in 2015 and 2016, we saw a slew of sequels to long-dormant franchises being released. Hell, there was even a Mad Max sequel coming out. And of course, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, perhaps the most anticipated sequel of all time, came out at the tail end of 2015.

Naturally, I viewed these developments with suspicion. Suspicion can be healthy, and I felt mine was. After all, I have a hard time believing that Hollywood has made it its mission to recapture the glories of filmmaking past. It seemed like yet another chapter in Hollywood’s attempt to cannibalize itself by limiting its releases to familiar properties and milking the internet age’s bottomless appetite for nostalgia. I stand by all of that.

But I can be wrong from time to time. Just ask my wife. Anyway, I decided to look into the claims I made, seeing as how the decades-later revival is now spreading to television, with the resurrections of Full House, Gilmore Girls, and even a new Star Trek, apparently. So I’ve re-watched the four major sequels that were released in 2015 and 2016 to see if I was right about the nature of releasing a sequel to a property that’s been inactive for almost a decade.

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In order to maintain some order to the proceedings, I decided to break down each entry into three separate categories. The first two will discuss what the films did right or wrong as sequels, since I know somebody is already rushing to the comments to condemn me for not getting that these movies are for “the fans”, as if that excuses a lack of quality. So I’ll look at each of these films as sequels first, to see what they did right and wrong in that regard. The third section will feature me deciding whether the film was any good as a movie on its own.

Quick note: I know that their were other major releases that were long-awaited sequels that came out in 2016, including Creed. However, I haven’t seen Creed. Also, I left out anything that qualifies as a reboot. A film would have to acknowledge the events of the previous films in some way, directly or indirectly, to be included on this list. So no Ghostbusters, because, dear lord, that subject deserves a column of its own.

So here we go…

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Sequel to: Mad Max, The Road Warrior, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.

Years since last release: 20

What it did right as a sequel:

Hoo boy, where to start?

This movie was insanely popular, and that’s a bit surprising, becauyse it’s based on one of the most ’80s of ’80s film franchises. And yet, it was one of the year’s bigger hits, and was even nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. But it did almost everything right as a film and as a sequel.

The original creator, George Miller returned, and that’s for the best. Sometimes a series needs new blood, but Miller was the only man who could have brought this bad boy to the screen. Unlike, say, a George Lucas or a Gene Roddenberry, Miller clearly gets the appeal of his creation, and was determined to keep it that way. No attempts to modernize the material or Americanize it. Nope, it’s just as gritty and Australian as I remember it being from childhood. And the world is better for it.

The recasting of Max was also a good choice as far as sequels go. Mel Gibson would have been frankly too old for the role, and we don’t want to have a Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on our hands here. Tom Hardy was a good choice to bring some more modern energy to the role. He’s one of the few actors with that certain grit you need to fill a role like Max.

The film also kept up the format of the series since The Road Warrior. Max is bumming around, gets caught up in events that force him to be the good guy, and proceeds to kick some ass. I mentioned in an earlier piece that some film series just do better when they adhere to formula, and this is one of them.

What it did wrong:

Very little, but I’ll be fair.

One thing this film did that the new Ghostbusters also did (as far as I can tell) is that it left things fuzzy as to whether the previous films in the series happened or not. Max flashes back quite a bit, but the film never really is clear as to how long ago the events of Beyond Thunderdome were, or if they actually happened. In some ways, this is not a flaw. Mad Max as a series was always vague about the timeline of events in the series. Some series require world-building, like Star Wars. Others, like Alien and its sequel Aliens, get away with minimum world-building, if any at all. Mad Max is the rarity that kind of splits the difference. It clearly has built a world, but it refuses to fill in the details.

In an odd way, you can actually say this is something the filmmakers did both right and wrong. The lack of details give the filmmakers an extensive amount of freedom as to where the story can go, but in the end, they lack of details can be a bit frustrating to someone used to universal continuity. I assume the events of the previous three films happened, but it’s never made clear. I kind of wanted to know what Max was up to in however many years have passed since Thunderdome, but the film is vague about it. It’s not the worst flaw; more like a minor nitpick based on my preference.

Is it any good?

Hell, yes. I suppose it’s only right to start with a case file that immediately proves me wrong. Mad Max: Fury Road was probably my favorite film released in 2015. It was a breath of fresh air that never stopped surprising me.

So, imaginary reader, you might be to ready castigate me for being so wrong, and thinking that I’ll have to admit that long-awaited sequels are grand, right? Hang on…

Jurassic World (2015)

Sequel to: Jurassic Park, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Jurassic Park III

Years since last release: 14

What it did right as a sequel:

Dinosaurs.

The movie gives you the dinosaurs. I can’t hold that against it. People came to this show to see the dinosaurs, and the movie does not hold back. The original movie didn’t have much in the way of dinosaurs, in keeping with the film’s sense of wonder. That was 25 years ago. Considering the movies that have come out since then, it would be foolish not to give the audience the dinosaurs they expect.

It ignored the lesser sequels. Some people may have a problem with that, but in the end, that wasn’t the worst idea. The two previous sequels to Jurassic Park were phoned-in knock-offs. There was nothing in either of them that needed to be carried over. So Jurassic World made the conscious decision to move along with the premise and beef it up with more modern set pieces.

What it did wrong:

When watching this movie, I had a flashback to a moment I had while watching King Kong (the 2005 Peter Jackson version). As the film lurched forward with ever more character development on the ship and scene after scene showing us the crew members reacting to this whole moving picture on Skull Island deal, I looked at my watch and thought, “At this point in the original King Kong, we’d already been introduced to Kong. In this one, we haven’t even left the boat yet.” I had a similar sensation while watching Jurassic World.

My point is that both the original King Kong and Jurassic Park were master classes in economy. King Kong avoided extemporaneous characters and established just enough about the three main ones (Denham likes to make movies and is a little crazy, Ann is desperately poor, Jack Driscoll is a an old salt of the sea and doesn’t have time for women-folk), and gave us a compelling hook (there’s an island with a mysterious creature on it and holy shit! It’s a giant gorilla and a bunch of dinosaurs!). The movie then wastes no time getting us into that story. It actually doesn’t waste time at all; despite being made in 1933, it’s one of the fastest moving films I’ve ever seen, and it remains one of my favorites to this day partially because of that.

Peter Jackson, however, apparently saw the original King Kong and said, “yeah, a giant ape and dinosaurs are pretty cool, but what about those salty sailors in the background? What are they like? What’s their motivations? What are their hopes and dreams?” Yes, you can say that this is an alternate take on the material, but it still makes the film feel overly long while expanding upon minor details that just don’t need expanding on. The new version feels like a slog as a result, and is a classic case of a filmmaker missing what made the original work in the first place.

That’s the same problem with Jurassic World. In Jurassic Park, we’re introduced to a few characters, each one is given just enough development to make them compelling and get us to care about them, and then on comes disaster and the dinosaurs. Steven Spielberg works his magic in working with actors, and his mastery of pacing and scope to deliver a tightly paced film that still engages the audience from start to finish.

Colin Trevorrow is not Steven Spielberg. I’ll save this for my conclusion, but the film doesn’t feel like a Jurassic Park film, despite hitting almost all the exact same story beats. In fact, that’s probably the film’s biggest flaw as a sequel. It hits almost all the same beats, but they feel jarringly out of place, or just plain not right.

Also, B.D Wong is back as Dr. Henry Wu, and he’s apparently the villain now. He appeared in one scene in the original, when the velociraptor eggs hatched. He was the main scientist on the island, but he seemed like a pretty nice guy for the most part. Here, he’s wearing a black turtleneck, and he’s apparently the guy behind the Indominus Rex, and he engineered it for military applications. Or something, it’s never made clear. In a clear attempt at leaving something for the sequel, he just gets on a helicopter and leaves the story before the climax. So I guess he’s a mad scientist.

I’m sure in the pre-internet days, there was a fan theory that had Dr. Wu pegged as the bad guy the whole time.

The point here is that Jurassic Park, like King Kong, didn’t really need a human villain. Humanity’s hubris and arrogance was villain enough. And taking a background character and making him the bad guy without going all the way was an odd choice.

Finally, the film damns itself by being too self-aware. The movie’s references to the original are occasionally handled well. But more often, its self-reference borders on self-parody. Particularly the computer guy in the control room, who’s clearly based on Jurassic Park fanboys who were skeptical of any sequel attempts, and who keeps muttering how the the original park was so “legit”. Legit compared to what is never made clear, considering that the original park never opened, and at least three people died in the testing phase, and it must have been a huge disaster for the Ingen Corporation. Unless the first Jurassic Park was a documentary released in-universe, how would this one computer flunkie know it was legit? Unless he’s a satire of fanboy culture that reminds us we’re watching a movie. So what’s with movies hating on their own fans these days?

Is it any good?

Eh. Not really.

It’s not terrible. There are some satisfying set pieces. And Chris Pratt tends to make any movie he’s in automatically better. But all the clutter is probably the biggest thing holding it back from being good. I watch the movie and think to myself, “there’s a good movie in here, somewhere.” Unfortunately, it’s buried in extraneous subplots, themes, and unnecessary details. In the original Jurassic Park, the idea that humanity’s hubris would be its undoing and we are going to illustrate that with cloned dinosaurs attacking said people was enough. Jurassic World covers this ground again, as well as a kid struggling with his parents’ imminent divorce, brotherhood and its difficulties, Bryce Dallas Howard learning how to balance her work and personal life, the romance between Howard and Chris Pratt, Pratt training the Raptors, the military desiring to use the raptors as weapons, the Indominus Rex, and someone’s probably sinister designs on the Indominus…

The movie is trying too hard, is what I’m saying.

A lot of people seem to like this movie, but it seems to have less to do with affection for the movie itself, and more of a combination of nostalgia for the original and the hype of finally getting a sequel. Either way, it didn’t do much for me. Unlike Fury Road, which was the personal vision of George Miller who was returning to the series that made him famous, Jurassic World felt like a cash grab by Universal on the level of a Marvel movie. Speaking of nostalgia exploitation…

Terminator: Genisys (2015)

Sequel to: The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator Salvation.

Years since last installment: 6

What it did right as a sequel:

Umm…

Alright, I don’t know if I should include this one. Salvation wasn’t that long ago. But I felt I needed to include it, as it’s an unnecessary sequel if there ever was one.

However, I’ll try to be fair. Now, let’s see. Something the film did right…

Alright. The opening scene. The opening scene in the future. We get to see John Connor actually fighting the future war with a little help from the resistance. In Salvation, we didn’t really see John Connor’s tactical savvy. But in Genisys, we get a look at Connor and the resistance planning their shot at the Skynet mainframe and finding the time machine. These were always series lore, and it was actually kind of cool to see it play out.

And Arnold. Though he’s older and the magic of watching him deliver a one-liner and butcher the English language has long since faded, he’s still got some of it left. The movie picks up life whenever he’s on screen. He was never that great of an actor, but dammit, he tries, and he has a natural charm that can’t be denied.

That being said…

What it did wrong:

Oh, pretty much everything else.

This film is a Star Trek-style reboot, using time travel to hit the reset button on the series’ entire continuity in order to start fresh. To be clear, I hate this approach more than I hate the very concept of the unnecessary sequel. If you’re going to toss continuity out the window, you might as well just remake the damn thing. I don’t see why fans of any franchise would smile on essentially remaking the old stories while erasing all the moments from continuity that fans loved in the first place.

So, the timeline has been corrupted, again! So you get all the catchphrases, from “come with me if you want to live” and “I’ll be back”, though they have none of the charm because they’re little more than references to better cinematic moments that no longer exist in this timeline.

Also, the casting is just off. Emilia Clarke is fine in Game of Thrones, but despite her version of Sarah Connor being trained in commando tactics since the age of nine rather than 22, she can’t pull off a fraction of the grit that Linda Hamilton had in Judgment Day. Speaking of lacking grit, Jai Courtney is a lousy Kyle Reese who’s devoid of all the intensity of Michael Biehn, as well as looking way too well-fed to be an underground soldier of the post-apocalyptic future. The horrid casting undermines the film’s chances of ever getting the audience to come along on its new take on the material, and they never do get us back.

Yep, they definitely have been fighting wars since childhood. Totally believe it.

The film also drops the basic format of the first two Terminator films, that of a cyborg chasing down a target, and focuses on the timeline affecting elements prevalent in the climaxes of the second and third movies. As a result, the film gets bogged down in an overly complex plot that completely works against the series’ strengths, that feeling of running from something that can’t be killed or reasoned with.

Is it any good?

Nope.

While not the worst movie I’ve ever seen, it’s a new low for the Terminator franchise. With the exception of Arnold, the leads are boring and one-note, and the plot is so convoluted as to be incomprehensible. I’ve seen the movie twice, and I’m still not entirely certain what the heroes’ intentions were. This is clearly an attempt at at a cash grab, and the recreations of certain moments in the series shows that the studio and creative team had next to no good ideas to carry the series. And it also has one of the most blatant examples of a film just assuming it will get a sequel, as Old Arnold T-800’s origin is never explained, despite his mission being what sets the story in motion in the first place. It’s just a mess, and as far as unnecessary sequels go, it’s the most unnecessary of them all.

Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

Sequel to: You’re kidding, right?

Years since last installment: 10

What it does right as a sequel:

To my happy surprise, most things.

The film is a little safe for my tastes, but it manages to hit all the right notes. There’s a sense of adventure that was sorely lacking from the prequels. The film allows the universe to be implied rather than directly explored. The failure of the prequels is that they invested way too much time in telling the story through the universe rather than the characters. From the trade dispute in Episode I to the senatorial functions throughout, there was an odd need to show the nuts and bolts of the universe. The Force Awakens ditches all of this and tells the story through the characters’ perspectives.

This is what I think most people miss about Star Wars: it’s about the characters and what they do in the universe, not how the universe shapes the characters. And The Force Awakens got it exactly right. We get characters who get caught up in events bigger than themselves and then unite for a common cause. Just like in the original series.

The callbacks to the original are handled pretty well. It’s a part seven, and the original came out about 40 years ago. References are a huge cultural staple in the modern area, so you’re going to get some, like it or not. The ones we get are either done subtly or with care. None of them felt too forced, and that was welcome. Unlike Genisys, where references to the originals were about all they had, the references in Force Awakens are nice little throwaways that don’t distract you from the story.

What it did wrong:

It’s pretty damn close to being a remake of the original Star Wars. Disturbingly so.

The biggest sin committed by the creative team, in my honest opinion, was that they thought that the audience might be put off by a story that was too different. George Lucas said in an interview that Disney right from the get go wanted to make a movie solely for the fans, and that was why they didn’t try to come up with a storyline that was too original. I hate to say this, but I agree with George. Love them or hate them, all six previous Star Wars movies were very different. Even with intentional similarities present, the stories and stakes differed between each installment.

The Force Awakens, however, is a little too close to A New Hope, even having a damn near identical climax. It’s as if Disney thought that if this movie didn’t revolve around a doomsday weapon and the Hero’s Journey, no one would like it. Does this say something about the storytelling potential of this universe?

Is it any good?

Yes. It’s not perfect, I don’t think it’s a classic of cinema, and I doubt it will wind up in the National Film Registry like the originals, but it was a fun movie. One thing Disney has done right with Marvel and now with Star Wars is maintained a sense of fun. Some movie franchises act as if everything needs to be so damned serious. It’s good to see a franchise embrace what made Star Wars good in the first place: a sense of adventure and wonder.

I also really enjoyed Daisy Ridley. Like Mark Hamill before her, she took a character that didn’t have all that much to her, and filled it in well. It’s hard to play the hero in a Hero’s Journey, because it’s such an expected convention. She did just fine, and I look forward to her performances in the next two films.


So what have we learned?

Well, as I said before, I stand by my cynicism of unnecessary sequels, but I’m willing to allow for exceptions. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that Hollywood isn’t to blame for this lack of originality, at least, not entirely. With the exception of Terminator Genisys, the three movies covered above were big hits. If we really are sick of big budget remakes, we need to be choosier about which ones we decide to see and thus financially support. Occasionally, Hollywood will get it right. But when a big budget sequel makes money, regardless of quality, all Hollywood will see is the correlation between big box office numbers and rebooting decades-old properties.

So choose wisely, moviegoers. If you show up to every one of these big budget reboots, or most of them, you have no right to complain. If you’re okay with the deluge of “re-imaginings”, more power to you. I, on the other hand, will maintain a healthy cynicism while hoping for the occasional gem in the deluge.

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