Hollywood loves a sequel. And it makes sense why. When a movie is a hit, it’s far easier to create another story set in a world what has connected with audiences and filled theaters instead of forging a completely new reality with unfamiliar characters. Whether that’s a good thing or not is up for interpretation, but the proliferation of sequels is here to stay.
There are countless film sequels every year, taking audiences back to familiar yet new stories starring characters that become more and more well known as they return for continued adventures. Unfortunately, there are as many bad sequels as there are good ones. Whether these are just another entry in a terrible franchise or a disappointing follow-up to a well-loved classic, bad sequels don’t help anyone. In fact, they can bring a promising franchise crashing into the ground or perpetuate a cycle of bad movies based on uncreative thinking. The more time and money that an audience has invested into a story and characters, the greater the payoff should be. These high stakes can easily result in both bad changes and a lack of creativity, neither of which bring critical or commercial success in the end.
So what is it that makes a great sequel? There have been plenty over the decades, but it still seems to remain an elusive equation for the writers, directors, producers, and actors involved in filmmaking.
Higher Stakes, Bigger Bang
Stories need to move forward or else they will die. Escalation prevents monotony and raises the stakes. When a story gets a sequel, the narrative needs to play out on a grander stage, so long as it fits the story.
Since we are returning to protagonists who have already overcome a previous challenge, the next opponent or obstacle they encounter needs to be greater. If the challenges seem weaker than the first go around, their victory should be obvious or, even worse, any difficulties they have in succeeding would seem arbitrary. Of course, this needs to be on a case-by-case basis. A huge superhero sequel like Captain America: The Winter Soldier properly ups the stakes by having the hero face a huge threat and a deeply personal challenge. An intimate and quiet sequel like Before Sunset succeeds by having the two leads return and face even greater emotional stakes than when they first met. Neither of these challenges could work in the opposite movie, but they share the same narrative goal.
Of course, in today’s movie world, one sequel simply isn’t enough. We’re talking franchises here. You can’t just blow everything apart and set the bar so high that nothing can ever reach it. That’s not to say creators should hold back on purpose, just that a general idea of where future films are heading should be in place. First films are easier to top because introductions and characters establishments have been gotten out of the way. Third films are even more difficult. But that’s a discussion for another day.
More Time with the People We Love
When a film is a success, it will quickly become clear what characters are fan favorites, and which are duds. Denying audiences time with the people they loved will quickly result in frustration and a less enjoyable experience overall. It’s why a film like Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade is such a fantastic romp and far more enjoyable than Temple of Doom. We not only get another Indy film that is much more like Raiders of the Lost Ark, but familiar faces Sallah and Marcus Brody return in expanded and more dynamic roles while being joined by fantastic new additions.
On the other hand, bringing back pre-established characters means that writers and actors have to work harder to continue them in convincing and satisfying ways. New story arcs and character progression are a must, while a balance between unexpected developments and actions that make sense in the context of the character has to be found. Protagonists must be different at the end of part two when compared to the end of part one, but not to the point of being unrecognizeable.
Once a character has become widely accepted, they no longer fully belong to the person of people that created them. They are owned in part by the audience and making poor choices with these loved characters can be a point of violating the trust of the audience.
Old vs New, Strong vs Weak
The reason why audiences make sequels successful is that they genuinely enjoyed the original film. So much so that they have an appetite for more. While audiences are never fully satisfied by a sequel that is an exact retread of the original, they have expectations that need to be fulfilled. This is possibly the biggest high wire act in all of sequel making. A sequel like Aliens takes the core concept, the main character, and the frightening nature of the monsters of the original, and then shoots it full of adrenaline. Alien is a horror film. Aliens is a sci-fi action movie. But they coexist perfectly in the series, with a sense of escalation and greater stakes making the nature of the sequel completely understandable. In addition, the two films are not easy to compare because they are both so strong and both have unique goals that they chase after.
No film is perfect, but mistakes can be forgiven when outweighed by the story’s strengths. But when stories continue through second, third, or fourth iterations, those weaknesses become magnified. The grating, childish humor of the Transformers franchise only made people more and more angry as the sequels came pouring in. Additionally, the franchise never learned how to shift focus away from unimportant human characters and toward the Transformers themselves, leading to even more frustrations. It’s easily one of the most obvious franchises that never learned from its mistakes and has only compounded them since the original with only small bits of reprieve.
Quitting While You’re Ahead
The best works of art are exactly the length they should be. Whether it is an epic or a tightly formed narrative with a small focus, the most memorable stories never outstay their welcome. This doesn’t just mean that a single movie should be edited to its most impactful length, but that a film series shouldn’t continue to the point of tedium and an outlandish game of one-upmanship. There are notable exceptions, of course. James Bond seems impervious to this, but it’s also a franchise that has lasted because of constant reinventions and new actors giving a fresh spin on Agent 007. But these examples are few and far between.
On the far end of the spectrum is the Die Hard series. If Bruce Willis’ series had ended with Die Hard With a Vengeance, it would be a rather unspoiled trilogy. While the first is still the best, With a Vengeance is a great climax that actually ties nicely into the first. But then came Live Free or Die Hard, a film that hardly felt like the rest. And while it was actually somewhat enjoyable, it paved the way for A Good Day to Die Hard, a putrid actioner that seemed hellbent on burning down and burying this once classic series for good.
One the other side is Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, which took a sharp and fast turn for the worse with The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan was intent on wrapping up the story of Bruce Wayne at three films, leading to some rather questionable decisions with the sole purpose of ending The Caped Crusader’s story for good. It left out a lot of potentially fantastic stories that could have been brought to life in this robust world if the series had been expanded to four or five films.
Whatever entry a film may be, what’s most important is a dedication to making something special and giving audiences a movie that will stick with them for years to come, but have them banging down the doors for more.