Monday, September 3, 2012

Sequels II: The Revenge



Same Characters. Different Stories

As the sequel tournament at Grantland.com continues, so too does the analysis of what makes a successful sequel. The tournament is down to the final four films, with The Empire Strikes Back facing The Godfather Part II on one side of the bracket and The Dark Knight squaring off against Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade on the other side. As previously discussed, both the Dark Knight and the Empire Strikes Back are of the sequels part of a larger narrative. The Last Crusade, however, falls into a different category.
The Last Crusade features a character in Indiana Jones that was popular with audiences. However, each Indiana Jones film has little to do with its predecessor or sequel. Instead, each film is essentially a stand-alone work with a self-contained story.

This type of sequel is often found as part of a franchise. Horror movies, such as Friday the 13th and Halloween, are notorious for this type of sequel. Other films that feature stand-alone sequels include the Star Trek film franchise and the Rocky films.

The stand-alone sequel works well for the aforementioned horror films and action films because the stories in those films are generally less important than the visuals. Additionally, those types of films often rarely extend into the kind of depth that the larger narrative sequels do.

Instead of relying on story, stand-alone sequels rely instead on the quality and likability of the characters. If the characters in these films lack depth or are unintentionally unlikable, viewers will not respond to film and a sequel will likely be unsuccessful.

The Rocky franchise is one the best examples of character and action over substance of story. The first Rocky film is probably the best of the six films, both with the story and the characters. However, it film that followed got increasingly wonky.

The first film told the tale of down-on-his-luck Philadelphia boxer who miraculously went the distance against the champ. Not only was the classic underdog story one that everyone could relate to, it featured a great cast of characters, including Carl Weathers as the boisterous champion Apollo Creed, Burgess Meredith as Rocky’s grizzled trainer Mick, Burt Young as the drunk Paulie and, of course, Sylvester Stallone as the titular figure. These were characters that the viewer cared about and were interested in watching.
Because of the characters found in the first film, the sequels, even with increasingly ridiculous premises such as Rocky ending the Cold War and somehow getting more and more intelligent in each subsequent film, continued to do well and find an audience.

Inversely, a film such as Batman and Robin essentially killed the brand of Batman for the better part of a decade. The film had a ridiculous premise, which has been excusable for superhero films in the past (for example, every superhero movie ever). However, the good-to-great superhero films, such as the Watchmen and Christopher Nolan’s Batman series featured characters with more than one dimension. Rorschach in Watchmen came had a terrible childhood, which led to him seeing things only in black and white, rather than shades of grey. In Nolan’s Batman, every character has a story that explains their behavior and motivation and the one that doesn’t (The Joker) makes that character even scarier.

However, the characters in Batman and Robin had no depth. No one had any reason for their actions and it was basically impossible for the audience to connect. As a result, that film is often considered not only one of the worst sequels all time but one of the worst films of all time.

When done right, sequels that stand-alone from the original story can be huge successes. The Indiana Jones franchise has made more than $2 billion dollars and the individual films are considered to be some of the finest made. Indiana Jones was someone the audience cared about. The same can be said for the Rocky movies. Starting in the first film, everyone in the audience could connect with at least one character in the franchise and wanted to see that person succeed. When the audience can connect with a character, the film can succeed. Otherwise, the film could turn out to be one of the worst things ever put on film.

Coming Soon: Sequels Episode III: The Failures

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