How to ruin your sequel

And I’m back. The run of a play I was in and adjustment to a new work schedule have made posting difficult as of late. Real talk, society: 5:30 AM is no time to be awake. It’s unnatural. You know how I know? The sun isn’t up yet. If the sun isn’t up, it is not “early in the morning,” it is still night.

Anyway.

Last night, as a final Halloween celebration, I was at a horror movie marathon, the theme of which was “A Night at the Cabin,” horror films featuring cabins in the woods, ending of course with Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s excellent Cabin in the Woods. Cabin is a hilarious and thrilling deconstruction of horror films, whose ending always makes me a little conflicted, as it basically guarantees there will be no sequel ever (the box office helped assure that as well, but that’s neither here nor there). On the one hand, the premise of all the horror movie tropes being engineered by a mysterious organization in a bunker (personified hilariously by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) is so much fun that it’s a shame there can’t be more of it. On the other hand, I can’t imagine a sequel to this movie actually working on any level. It would surely end up a retread of all the popular jokes and scenes from its predecessors.

You know, like Austin Powers.

Sequels exist because giving audiences more of something they enjoyed is a relatively safe bet for movie executives. The problem is that “People liked that, let’s make another” isn’t the best way to begin a creative endeavor. There are good sequels, to be sure: Terminator 2, The Dark Knight, The Empire Strikes Back, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Sequels that build on what came before and manage to find new and great stories to tell with characters we’ve already come to love. Others… others screw up. Here’s some ways they do that.

“Let’s just do that again”

What might be the most common and laziest way to make a sequel: say “Hey, that worked, let’s just do it again.” And why not? Doesn’t that work for James Bond? That’s a franchise built around “And then James Bond foils another villain,” and Skyfall proved that after fifty years there’s still a surprising amount of gas in that tank, if you’re willing to try.

Sadly, not everyone is willing to make that kind of effort.

Witness Austin Powers. The first one was a delightful surprise, a breath of fresh air. The second one recycled all the popular jokes from the first movie and added some newer, less funny jokes. Goldmember did the same. And that’s why instead of being a trilogy of classic comedies with a best-selling special edition box set, they are instead our greatest case study of diminishing returns. See also the Hangover trilogy, which went from “surprise hit” to “surprise bomb” in just two movies.

The Ring 2 is another key example. The Ring was, in my opinion, an amazing horror film, replacing jump-scares with a remarkably consistent aura of dread and ending in a climax scary enough I hid in my coat rather than re-watch it on my second viewing. The Ring 2 was made by people trying to re-create the key beats of the movie based on a rough description, and was terrible.

Witness Batman and Robin, which began its many, many, many crimes against film making by kicking off the plot with Commissioner Gordon saying “There’s a new villain in town, please come stop him” and pretty much nothing else. More egregious? The Men in Black movies. Men in Black could have been a hell of a franchise, but instead of using the first movie to establish the world and then build on it in sequels and whatnot, they instead tried whatever they could to just re-do the basic story beats of the original. And they also bring us to my second sequel mis-step.

Frank the Pug Syndrome

If I accomplish one thing though blogging, let it be making “Frank the Pug Syndrome” a recognized trope. That or Infinite Respawn. You know, when the heroes have to fight a faceless horde of something, like zombies or henchmen or Chitauri, and they’re weak enough for the heroes to be able to stop while looking badass but since they never stop coming the heroes are gradually overwhelmed? Not my point. Right. Where was I.

Frank the Pug was a once-scene joke in the first Men in Black movie, and far from the best joke at that, but the makers of MIB2 thought that an alien disguised as a pug dog was intrinsically hilarious enough to make him a full-fledged member of the team in the sequel. He was not. All he did was serve as a piss-poor replacement for Linda Fiorentino (either not asked to return or not interested in doing so) and Patrick Warburton. Seriously, putting Patrick Warburton in your movie as Will Smith’s new partner and then ditching him after ten minutes in favour of a “wacky” talking dog? Bad writers. Zero points for you.

And so I came to coin “Frank the Pug Syndrome” as a term for any sequel who takes a minor character from the previous movie and inadvisably gives them a much bigger role in the sequel. Shrek 2 is another example, with bigger parts for previously one-joke characters like the Gingerbread Man, Pinocchio, and the Big Bad Wolf. I haven’t seen Shrek 2, maybe it worked okay, but I very much doubt anything the Gingerbread Man did was as funny as the Muffin Man bit from the first movie.

Or look at X-Men 3. That movie became immensely over-crowded, because they kept wanting to bring in new characters, but also wanted to give expanded roles to everyone from the first two (except Cyclops, who was killed off to punish James Marsden for following Bryan Singer to Superman Returns). It’s not that Iceman, Kitty Pryde and Colossus didn’t deserve bigger parts, it’s that there just wasn’t room to do that while introducing Beast, Angel, Juggernaut, and Jamie Madrox while giving Storm a more dominant role to appease Halle Berry and continuing to fetishize Wolverine because that’s what the X-Men empire appears to be built on.

Even just trying to bring back every single person of note from the previous movie can be a struggle. Looking at you, American Pie 2 and Ocean’s 12. But then, it is possible, very possible, to go too far in the other direction.

Throwing out too much

Sometimes people come along to make a sequel who seem to have no idea how or why the previous film worked. Now, sometimes a director will want to put his own stamp on a franchise, and good for him: Aliens was a worthy successor to Alien because James Cameron wasn’t trying to just re-do what Ridley Scott did in the first movie, he simply took the world it created and ran in his own direction. The Mission: Impossible movies, however, vary so wildly in tone and style that it’s hard to believe they actually take place in the same world.

A more obscure example: a 1990s Chinese kung-fu movie called the Heroic Trio, in which a vigilante named Wonder Woman (but not that Wonder Woman), a mercenary called Thief-Catcher and a thief called the Invisible Woman (not that Invisible Woman, but played by Michelle Yeoh!) eventually team up to fight evil. Eventually. Invisible Woman is on the wrong side for most of the movie and they don’t become a Heroic Trio until the climax of the movie. I had fun with it, so my friend the Video Vulture suggested watching the sequel. Which takes place decades later, in a post-apocalyptic society, years after the Heroic Trio have split up.

This was the second movie.

At one point one of the Trio says something along the lines of “Remember all those adventures we had as the Heroic Trio?” and I, as viewer, could only proclaim “WELL I SURE FUCKING DON’T!” Not only am I still baffled why they felt post-apocalyptic was a natural next step (there was no hint of the impending collapse of society in the first movie), they spent the entire first movie creating the Heroic Trio and then skipped over their entire existence as a unit. It would be like if Christopher Nolan had gone straight from Batman Begins to The Dark Knight Rises–no, to the second half of The Dark Knight Rises, when Bane already controls the city. The origin comes at the beginning, “years after retirement” comes at the end, but something is supposed to go in the middle.

That was a lot of time spent on an obscure Chinese film. Seem to be running out of room to also diss the Terminator franchise. Okay. Speed mode. The central premises of the first two Terminators were a) unstoppable robot assassins from the future trying to kill people in the present, aided by the heroes’ lack of access to futuristic weapons; and b) the idea that the War of the Machines can be won or even prevented through time travel. Sarah Connor clings to the belief that “There is no fate but what we make for ourselves,” while the entire time travel gambit was a hail-Mary desperation ploy by Skynet to avert its impending defeat at the hands of John Connor. Terminator 2 hammered this notion, and was the best of the franchise. Terminator 3 immediately threw it all out and declared the Judgement Day could not be prevented, only delayed.

Think about that for a moment. They’re not saying that man creating an AI is inevitable, or even that man and sentient machine going to war is inevitable; they’re saying that man creating a military AI named Skynet who nukes the planet and invents Terminators and time travel is inevitable. Is that not a weirdly specific turn of events to be unavoidable? And if Judgement Day can’t be prevented, than why can a successful human resistance be stopped by killing John Connor as a child? Either future events are set in stone or they’re not. If stopping Skynet’s inventor only means that someone else invents the exact same Skynet, then wouldn’t some other visionary warrior rise up in place of John Connor? If the future can’t be stopped, isn’t this entire time travel cold war between man and machine a gigantic waste of time? Like Terminator 3 turned out to be?

Sadly I’m out of time to talk about Terminator: Salvation, except to say that it threw out the franchise’s other premise by setting the movie post-Judgement Day and having regular, modern-day weapons work just fine against the previously bullet-proof Terminators. Bad writers, no cookie.

Sequels ruined horror movies

As a final note on sequels, here’s how I think they’ve mutated the slasher movie horror sub-genre into something I have a harder time enjoying than I used to. See, in order to have a franchise, you normally need a strong recurring character or characters to hang it off. James Bond, Indiana Jones, Michael Corleone, Ripley, etc. Someone we’re happy to root for time and time again. But for slasher flicks, your central, recurring character is your monster: Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees, Chucky, etc. They’re the ones who keep coming back to kill a fresh crop of victims, one of whom is a determined yet tormented heroine (or Tommy Jarvis) who despite losing friends, family, and/or potential lovers, is finally able to dispatch the fiend. Who inevitably comes back because they want to make another one.

The problem is that since the killers are typically the only or at least primary recurring characters, they eventually become the most interesting ones in order to keep the audience’s attention through fresh, new ways to kill teenagers for having premarital sex. The kills are, after all, the only variety the franchise is getting other than finding different locales for the carnage, be it Manhattan or, when they’re really desperate, space. This means that the struggle to stop the monster becomes depressingly futile. Jason had the decency to stalk a fresh new batch of teenagers each time (except for the above mentioned Tommy Jarvis, who killed Jason twice but went a little crazy in between), but Freddy Krueger usually kicked off his latest movie by finishing off the survivors from the last one. So their big triumph over Freddy lasted about a year, tops.

And that has become ingrained into contemporary slasher movies to the point where the villain’s inevitable return isn’t just hinted at any more. Now Freddy, Jason, and Victor Crowley‘s defeat at the hands of the Final Girl doesn’t even last until the end of the movie, as they’re back from the dead and killing again right as the credits start to roll. I’d call that an unsatisfying ending, but it isn’t even an ending! A four-minute lull in Jason trying to kill Jared Padalecki doesn’t mean the story is over if he’s just going to leap up and start again afterwards. Also, that’s Sam goddamn Winchester, Vorhees. Just stay down.

But to a certain audience, maybe that works. The audience that is down with rooting for the killer, not the victims. But that mentality leads to House of 1,000 Corpses, which from what I could tell was about glorifying the killers to the point that the victims make no effort to fight back, as they only exist to be creatively dispatched, and I honestly cannot think of a movie I’ve loathed more than that. I haven’t seen all of it, and I don’t intend to.

There are probably other ways to botch a sequel. Maybe you can name some. In fact, I encourage you to do so in the comments. But I’ve taken up enough of your time for now. Thanks for your time, I’ll try not to let day jobs keep me from posting for so long again.

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