Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Anatomy of a Sequel: Part I

The sports and entertainment website Grantland.com is currently running a tournament-style competition for its readers to name the best sequel off all-time. The tournament consists of 32 sequels that were chosen by the writers of the website. The top seeds of the four “regions” are The Godfather Part II, The Dark Knight, The Empire Strikes Back, and Aliens. Other films in the tournament include multiple Rocky movies (III and IV), both Lord of the Rings sequels, two Indiana Jones sequels (mercifully not The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

The tournament, while clearly just for entertainment purposes, shines a light on the different types of sequels and what makes a sequel successful. Some sequels bring depth to the original film. Others tell a different, stand-alone story with basically the same characters. Finally, the third, and often least successful type of sequel is basically a retelling of the original story, sometimes going as far as to be basically the exact same movie as the original.


The most successful sequels would seem to be the films that expand on a larger narrative. Lately, the trend has been to make these films trilogies, although the forbearer of this method was the original Star Wars trilogy from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Other successful “larger narrative” sequels include The Lord of the Rings trilogies (which may or may not count since the films were based on a book series that some consider to be a quadrilogy, based on whether the reader views “The Hobbit” as essential to the story) and the recently concluded Batman trilogy. The Matrix trilogy also followed this path. However, the incoherence and techno-babble of the sequels, as well as the increasingly-blatant “Neo as Jesus” symbolism of the films made them far less successful, at least from an artistic standpoint.

The reason that this type of sequel is so often successful is the investment that the viewer has in the characters and the story. At the end of Batman Begins, every person in the audience, despite likely knowing the basic plot of Batman, wanted to see how Bruce Wayne/Batman handled his double life and if he could truly clean up Gotham. At the end of the Matrix, after the audience finds out that Neo truly is “The Chosen One,” there likely wasn’t a single person who wanted to see how he handled his newfound powers. By creating a strong narrative and compelling characters that viewers care about, writers/directors open the door for a successful sequel.

Interestingly, outside of the Batman trilogy, the vast majority of successful “larger narrative” sequels are not really necessary for the audience to get a complete story. For example, at the end of Star Wars: A New Hope, after Luke blew up the Death Star and Han, with the help of a clumsy TIE pilot, very nearly nipped any potential sequels in the bud by taking out Darth Vader, Leia gives those two and Han’s giant pet dog Chewbacca medals for their performance.

The story was pretty well wrapped up. The main antagonist was spiraling off in space somewhere and his planet-like space station was blown to pieces. There was really no need for a sequel, but the audience wanted it. Ditto for The Matrix. Neo went inside Agent Smith and blew him up. He managed essentially operate outside the matrix while still in it, basically “beating the game.”

However, audience interest and creative storytelling managed to allow those stories to expand and form a greater whole. The Empire Strikes Back brought a new, more diabolical antagonist into the fold. For The Matrix, Agent Smith gained powers similar to Neo, who also discovered that there were multiple versions and he was just the latest in the string of “Chosen Ones.”

Through the larger story, the audience was able to learn more about the characters and expand deeper into the realm of the film’s universe. By doing so, the viewer became even more invested in the film and more likely to follow the protagonist’s journey. When done properly, using a sequel to tell a larger narrative is often the most successful type of film sequel.

Part two: Same Characters, New Story coming soon  

--Tony Fioriglio


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