Asking Big Questions #009: “What Makes a Good Sequel?” — The Well-Red Mage

More is not better, bigger is not better, longer is not better. Better is better.

via Asking Big Questions #009: “What Makes a Good Sequel?” — The Well-Red Mage

This month’s Big Question from the Well-Red Mage comes from the Badly Backlogged Mage, who asks, “What makes a good sequel?”. He then provides what he considers to be the rules of sequels. This month, I’ve seen four film sequels. While I usually focus on gaming, film is also a love of mine, and since this is my blog, I can write about whatever I want. The rules listed have a universality to them that means they can be run against a sequel in any medium, with a bit of tweaking or generalising. That’s what I’m going to do with the four sequels I saw this month.

The first of these is Incredibles 2, the sequel to The Incredibles. The Incredibles is a domestic drama about former superheroes raising their super-powered children in a world in which supers are outlawed. But antagonist Syndrome wants to bring supers back, by selling his inventions in order to make everyone supers. The final scene shows the rise of the Underminer, as the Incredibles prepare to leap back into action. Incredibles 2 follows on directly from this moment, told from the point of view of supporting character Tony Rydinger, who suddenly becomes more important than previously. New villain Screenslaver operates in secret and want supers to return to the shadows. What follows is much more of an action movie than a domestic drama, but the Screenslaver is a neat inversion of Syndrome.

The second is Star Trek Into Darkness, the sequel to Star Trek (in contrast to previous Star Trek films, such as Star Trek II: The Wrath of KhanStar Trek Into Darkness ditches the instalment number and the subtitle to use the title of the franchise within one phrase). Star Trek introduced a rebooted version of the franchise and its characters. Antagonist Nero posed a minimal threat and was only needed in order to bring the new characters together in an origin story. That story was self-contained, because there was no way of knowing whether a Star Trek reboot film would be enough to revive the franchise. The main through-line is Kirk’s development into a responsible Starfleet captain. But as the introduction to the main cast of an intended series, everyone’s pretty safe so the tension is fake. As is common in action-based franchises, the sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, escalates things: new antagonist Khan takes centre stage in the story and is far more threatening than Nero. The Enterprise takes more damage and it even has consequences for the crew. But although Khan is defeated, he isn’t killed – merely frozen in suspended animation so that he can be used for future films, setting-up the plot for another sequel, should it ever be used (so far, it hasn’t been). But the problem is that, rather than continuing Kirk’s character development, his character development is reversed, as if he didn’t learn anything from his origin story. The first scene, in which Kirk is breaking the Prime Directive, only happens because of this rejection of any progress that had been made from the first film. And what that beginning signalled was followed-through by everything that followed, very much consistently. For dramatic purposes, Pike is killed-off, as is Kirk himself toward the end, though this is reversed with a conveniently and spontaneously discovered plot device.

The third is The Dark Knight, the sequel to Batman Begins. Contrary to expectation, Batman Begins didn’t follow the conventional formula of combining the hero’s and villain’s origin stories into one film. Instead, the Joker was only foreshadowed at the end. That way, by the time the main nemesis is introduced, the hero is fully established, meaning that more time can be given to the villain and the story, rather than everything being rushed. Batman Begins is essentially the story of two rival ninjas; one master taking down his rogue apprentice. The Dark Knight is more of a crime film about a one-man army using enhanced military technology to fight crime in a city in which lawlessness rules. The key thing about The Dark Knight is the feeling of events as having consequences: when Rachel Dawes is killed-off, she doesn’t come back.

The fourth is Mamma Mia! Here we go Again, the sequel to Mamma Mia!Mamma Mia! tells the story of Sophie inviting three men to her wedding in an attempt to discover which of them fathered her with her mother, Donna. Mamma Mia! Here we go Again reduces Donna’s role to one scene and uses flashbacks to work as a prequel at the same time, telling the story of how Sophie came to be born and the way in which the three possible fathers are involved. Eventually, these parallel story lines merge. The flashbacks do seem to take up the majority of screen time, so it’s only a sequel by using the characters in the present day as a framing device.

And now, to run each of these four film sequels by the Badly Backlogged Mage‘s criteria:

1. Sequels should only be made if it’s going to do something new

In other words, sequels shouldn’t just be more of the same. Otherwise, the series will become repetitive, leading the audience to eventually lose interest.

Incredibles 2 passes this straight away – beginning the story from the point of view of Tony Rydinger, who had until then only been a supporting love interest, was unexpected. It wasn’t the obvious way of doing a sequel. Therefore, Incredibles 2 begins with the stated intent of doing things differently to The Incredibles. The heavier focus on action sequences and use of a villain that isn’t just another Syndrome are consistent with this. Plus, directly following on from The Incredibles was something that can only be done in animation, with characters that don’t age. The wait for a sequel to The Incredibles being 14 years long is testament to this – creator Brad Bird didn’t want to make it until he felt as though he had enough ideas for it. It shows.

Star Trek Into Darkness does the opposite of this. General opinion within Star Trek fandom doesn’t put Star Trek Into Darkness in good favour, and the biggest reason for this is that it’s essentially a remix of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but without anything that made Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan so popular. The most iconic beats from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan are included in Star Trek Into Darkness but none of the emotion or themes are brought with them. Instead of Spock dying to save the Enterprise, it’s Kirk. But unlike Spock being given an emotional send-off, Kirk is revived within minutes by a sudden plot device that essentially cures death, thus eliminating any tension in future films. The iconic moment in which Kirk screams, “Khan!” is given to Spock, but for no other reason than it being cool. Star Trek Into Darkness is the definitive example of why sequels shouldn’t just repeat what worked before.

The Dark Knight had a lot to overcome in terms of originality. The Joker is the most iconic of Batman’s villains, and there had been a version of him for every version of Batman in live action. But the uniquness of Heath Ledger’s Joker can be measured in the level of controversy it initially created due to straying from the source material: rather than being the result of chemical burns, the Joker’s white face was due to him literally smearing it over himself due to his insanity (as well as references made to it being war paint). But the level of admiration that still exists for The Dark Knight 10 years later (this very month is its 10th anniversary), is proof of what can happen when established properties dare to differ from their original form.

Even Mamma Mia! Here we go Again does this. The sequel may only be the framing device for a prequel, but for a romantic comedy musical, that’s more ambitious than was required. Plus, the ways in which the two story lines reflect each other added an emotional depth by providing context for what certain moments either would lead to or were paying off. Using a sequel as a catalyst for introducing the original generation of characters is neither obvious nor conventional.

2. Sequels shouldn’t be afraid to challenge their franchise’s identity

Because doing so leads to resisting the kind of innovation that could make their franchise’s identity even more unique. This is a tricky one to judge because it’s not, per say, a rule, more a recommendation. None of the sequels I saw this month particularly enhanced their franchise by embracing uncharted territory, but neither do I feel that was a bad thing.

Incredibles 2 didn’t change our understanding of what the Incredibles franchise is. They’re still a family of superheroes, and Incredibles 2 was merely the next chapter of their lives. But that’s what I expected it to be.

Star Trek Into Darkness isn’t a bad sequel because it reused Khan. What makes Star Trek Into Darkness a bad sequel is that it used Khan as part of a story that gradually morphed into a remake of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. There was always the opportunity for Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan to be used legitimately, but the error was in not realising that and instead trying to force in something that didn’t fit. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan worked for what Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was trying to do, whereas Star Trek Into Darkness was afraid to do anything different. That’s why it’s the only one of these four sequels to actively reject this rule’s advice.

The Dark Knight is in a different scenario, in that it’s a sequel to one of many incarnations of something. The Dark Knight Trilogy definitely redefined Batman in culture, particularly after what previous films had done to it (Batman & Robin, etc.), but not in a way that’s specific to one instalment. The Dark Knight takes place in a world that was established by Batman Begins, and so didn’t do any franchise redefining on its own.

And the Mamma Mia! films are jukebox musicals based on the songs of ABBA. Those songs exist as they are, so all the films can do is feature them and structure a story around them. That’s about it.

So none of these films actively redefined their franchise, but’s not a bad thing. Incredibles 2 and The Dark Knight could’ve redefined their franchise but are still good films nevertheless, Mamma Mia! Here we go Again couldn’t do anything new with its source material by its very nature, while Star Trek Into Darkness is the only sequel that actively resisted innovation when it would’ve been advantageous to do so.

3. Anything new has to serve a purpose

In other words, not be included just for the sake of it. This was mostly covered by rule 1.

Incredibles 2 was released 14 years after The Incredibles, therefore the entire films is “new”. In fact, its very release still feels like a novelty simply because of the length of time it’s taken. Writer/director Brad Bird had made perfectly clear during that time he wanted enough story ideas for it to be worth releasing. So while Incredibles 2 could be dismissed as “another one”, Bird decided that its purpose should include the condition of being worthwhile, and not just a cash grab. Ergo, being worthwhile is the purpose that Incredibles 2 serves.

Star Trek Into Darkness doesn’t seem to include anything that serves a purpose. I won’t stick on this subject for much longer because I’ve already ranted about it for long enough, but its only apparent purpose was… what? Being a remake of a previous Star Trek film? That already exists.

The Dark Knight is one part of one version of a constantly reinterpreted mythology. Justifying something as serving a purpose in that context is difficult. In the case of Christopher Nolan’s approach, the characters and concepts from the Batman mythology are being cherry-picked to tell what’s otherwise an original story. Everything is already there for a reason – like Two-Face. Some of The Dark Knight‘s critics would say that Two-Face is forced-in, just for there to be another villain and makes the stakes higher for a sequel. But the whole point of Two-Face is that he is Harvey Dent’s descent into villainy, ultimately proving that the Joker is correct about human nature after all – the core theme of the film.

Mamma Mia! Here we go Again is the sequel which has the most easily-identifiable purpose: another Mamma Mia! film using ABBA songs that weren’t used last time. That’s literally the only purpose it has. But that doesn’t matter because it’s a purpose that’s met.

4. Old elements must be eliminated if they hinder the new concept

In other words, don’t hold onto the past if it’s inconvenient to what’s new.

In the case of Incredibles 2, there doesn’t seem to be anything which needed to be excluded. As explained previously, everything has its place due to Brad Bird wanting everything to fit. Perhaps certain things should’ve been chucked out, but that would be a different film so it doesn’t matter. The only thing that is specifically swept-aside is the Underminer: the villain who appeared at the end of The Incredibles in order to create a sequel hook and is quickly defeated at the beginning. The Underminer is obviously a cheap way of bridging the two films, but his hasty elimination within minutes is a sign that Bird was able to resist making the sequel about the Underminer specifically, even without a workable story.

I don’t feel as though this applies to Star Trek Into Darkness because the problem is that there isn’t a new concept, instead there’s the reworking of an old concept that doesn’t work – mainly because it’s already been done.

As the sequel to a reinterpretation, The Dark Knight is already part of a new concept that has succeeded by literally rewriting the book. Because the original work completely redefined its source material, there’s less expectation upon the sequel. But the one good change that was specific was the Joker going from a typical chemical-induced super-villain to an implied special ops veteran who branded himself due to his own insanity. It made the character more in-line with Nolan’s realistic approach that depicted a version of the story in our own grounded reality.

Whereas Mamma Mia! Here we go Again is an inversion of this rule. The idea of introducing the younger version of the cast came about when star Meryl Streep was reluctant to return for a sequel (this was her first role reprisal). If anything, the result proves that the Mamma Mia! films are bigger than one person, which definitely redefined what they can be.

5. All rules have exceptions

Which is of course always the case.

 

This was a fun little exercise. Strangely enough, running these films by these rules confirmed what I already thought. Which means I’m either grasping at straws – these are, after all, adapted from rules written for video game sequels – or they truly do provide an objective measuring system. Either way, I wanted to do this if for no reason than not having talked about films I’ve recently seen for a while.

Published by Alexander Sigsworth

Writing about Herobrine in The Characters That Define Us at Normal Happenings. Profile photo chosen for Gamers Blog Party: Summer 2019 at Later Levels. Known as the Purple Prose Mage at the Well-Red Mage.

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