Paul Whitington: Are sequels killing cinema?

I see upwards of 300 films a year, and barely a week goes by without at least one of the releases I’m reviewing being a sequel. Last week it was John Wick 3, this week Secret Life of Pets 2, next week Godzilla 2. Since Christmas we’ve had How to Train Your Dragon 3, The Lego Movie 2, Happy Death Day 2, Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame. Still to come are franchise instalments of X-Men, Toy Story, Spider-Man, Frozen and Star Wars, as well as of such tier-two attractions as Kingsman, Shaun the Sheep, Angry Birds, Men in Black and Rambo.

A sequel mania which began in the 1980s has gathered pace in recent years as big studios use teams of writers and directors to create many-pronged franchises that divide and multiply like malign blood cells, and have no apparent end.

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Between sequels and remakes, in fact, the appearance of a major Hollywood film based on an original screenplay has become something of an event. If any genre film does well, the automatic response is to start organising a sequel to capitalise on audience recognition. The result? Repetition, ramped up special-effects, knowing references and coy in-jokes designed to appease carefully managed fan bases. But how did it all start, will it ever end, and why are sequels so annoyingly successful?

The concept is not new. In 1916, when DW Griffith had a hit with his brilliantly made but ethically suspect ‘historical’ drama Birth of a Nation, his studio rushed out a sequel, Fall of a Nation, to capitalise on its success. And after Al Jolson broke through with the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, a decade or so later, a sequel, The Singing Fool, made even more money.

As a general rule, however, it was not the natural impulse of big studios in Golden Age Hollywood to try to repeat the successes of quality films. There was no Gone with the Wind 2, no Casablanca 2, no All About Eve 2. In the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, sequels were looked down on somewhat, and became the domain of B-pictures and genre movies, like the Frankenstein, Dracula and Werewolf films pumped out with such great success by Universal in the ’30s.

In the ’50s, nuclear-age horrors like The Fly and Godzilla inspired multiple sequels but became associated with late-night screenings in fleapits.

It was, perhaps, Dr No that showed the grim way forward for mainstream movie franchises. The first Bond film was conceived as the beginning of a series, but more in expectation than hope. Its producers struggled to interest a big studio, the reviews were lukewarm at best, and few critics were keen on the casting of a large, taciturn, unknown Scotsman as Ian Fleming’s posh and dashing British spy. But the cinema-going public begged to differ, and 26 films later the Bond franchise is still going strong.

In the 1970s, though, the sequel initially seemed threatened by a rush of young blood and new ideas. As filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin and Martin Scorsese bobbed to the surface, dazzling originality rather than safe repetitions seemed to be the order of the day.

Ironically, it was Coppola who helped make the sequel respectable by producing one so damned good its success was impossible to ignore. With its complex story arc and Shakespearean undercurrents, Godfather Part II is considered by many to be even better than the original. Producers took note of the way the public enjoyed an ongoing saga involving now familiar characters.

And so when Spielberg scored an unlikely hit with an over-budget chiller about a giant shark, Universal grabbed the template and started pumping out ever more inferior copies. There were three Jaws sequels, three Superman follow-ups, eight Nightmare on Elm Street sequels, ten Halloweens. In the 1980s, things became ridiculous, as such flimsy concepts as Police Academy were flogged to death in increasingly tacky sequels.

Back then, studios employed the law of diminishing returns when making sequels, slashing budgets as a brand’s lustre began to fade until the franchise died a sorry public death. That even happened with big-money brands like the ’90s Batman films, but in recent times studios have learnt their lesson and become more and more protective of their intellectual properties.

Sequels grew in popularity once movies became almost prohibitively expensive to make. Give people story instalments featuring characters they know and love, and you reduce the risk of failure. A popular franchise can be a goldmine, and since the Marvel Cinematic Universe emerged in the mid-2000s, they and others have become very particular about how sequels and spin-offs are made. As a result, these days a sequel of a sequel can sometimes be better than the original on which it’s based.

The Fast & Furious films are a good example. This faintly idiotic franchise about a gang of LA street racers that branches out into crime began un-promisingly in 2001, but became energised by humour and brilliant driving sequences three or four sequels in, and has resulted in some very fine action films. People who go to see Fast & Furious films know what they’re going to get, and they like it: seven sequels in (and counting), the franchise has grossed $5billion.

The Harry Potter films and their Fantastic Beasts spin-offs were impeccably put together, and say what you like about the Marvel superhero films, they’re invariably made to a very high standard. And while there are exceptions (the Pirates of the Caribbean movies became increasingly ragged), the word sequel now more often implies excellence than shoddiness.

So what’s the problem, you might ask? In one sense, there’s none: franchise sequels are giant, frothy, harmless entertainments in the main, which seem to please audiences greatly.

The problem is that there’s only so much money and talent to go around. Because so many Marvels and DCs and Star Wars get made, an awful lot else doesn’t. Their existence and continuing popularity makes it nigh-on impossible for an original screenplay, however good, to make it to the market, unless it’s shepherded by an actor, director or producer with sufficient clout.

Sequels suck up some formidable talent. Watching Avengers: Endgame, I was struck by how many genuinely good actors were on display, decked out in rubber and lycra when they might be otherwise occupied. Bradley Cooper is an Oscar-nominated actor, writer and director, Brie Larson is an Oscar winner, while Robert Downey was once considered among the most talented actors of his generation. In another era, the ’70s perhaps, he might have gone in a De Niro/Pacino direction, but over the last eight years or so he’s been almost exclusively employed by Marvel.

It’s hard to blame him: it was recently revealed that Downey was paid $50million for his involvement in Marvel’s intensive six-film cycle, and he may make as much as $75m for appearing in Avengers: Endgame.

Sequels make economic sense in lots of ways, no question. The problem is that for all their short-term gains, they may in the long run be slowly killing cinema.


The ones that got away…  sequels they should have made

E.T. 2

Mostly it’s a good thing when a classic’s reputation isn’t tarnished by a sequel, but this one might have been special. Following the massive success of E.T. in 1982, Steven Spielberg and the late screenwriter Melissa Mathison wrote a treatment for a sequel, E.T. 2: Nocturnal Fears. In it, Elliot and the kids would be kidnapped by evil aliens, forcing you-know-who to effect a rescue. Eventually, Spielberg decided against it, and he usually knows what he’s doing.

Gone with the Wind 2

In which we find out what happened to wilful Scarlett O’Hara and her dashing beau Rhett Butler after the fall of the South. Intriguing, isn’t it, and after Gone with the Wind’s release Margaret Mitchell, author of the original novel, was inundated with requests to write a sequel, but resisted gamely until her death, in 1949. Plans were made to produce a movie sequel in the 1970s, but fell apart when MGM didn’t like the script. Maybe they were right: a 1990s Gone with the Wind TV mini-series well and truly stank.

Seven 2

Remember that awful denouement at the end of David Fincher’s 1995 noir thriller Seven? A hot-headed cop played by Brad Pitt fell into a trap set by demented serial killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey), whom he obligingly shot in the head. That was that, you would have thought, job done, but executives at New Line felt that a sequel would do very nicely thank you. What if Morgan Freeman’s character, the jaded cop Somerset, sprang Mills from mental hospital, or discovered he had psychic powers. Fincher let it be known that he’d rather have “cigarettes put out in my eyes”. Ok then.

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