Updated: Mar 7, 2020
An interesting debate that is constantly occurring inside my head is where I stand on the concept of sequels. I suppose I'm talking mostly about films here, as this is arguably the industry where sequels are most prominent, but this extends to video games, TV shows, books and even board games.
Are sequels shameless cash-grabs, aimed at taking advantage of the audience's sense of familiarity and positive feelings of the original media, hurling creativity and originality out of the window for the sake of a quick buck? Or, are sequels vital pieces of a much larger narrative, weaving together the rich tapestry of said media's fictional world? Well, the answer is yes. Let's go on a journey and delve into why sequels are both excellent and awful.
Short Stories, and Framing
I am a big fan of the short story in literature. There is a certain eloquence and skill to whittling down a narrative to its absolutely minimum, giving the reader just the briefest glimpse into the window of another world. The works of Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver and Henry James all spring to mind as examples of authors who perfected this art in the 20th century with their works. A perfect example of this is Hemingway's Cat In The Rain, coming in at a minuscule two pages in length. Hemingway's Cat In The Rain is stripped back storytelling to its absolute core - the reader is given a brief glimpse into a few snippets of dialogue between a young American couple in a hotel, a few short lines of scene-setting and narration, and that's it. There are, however, morsels of information that can be extracted from the story that aren't actually explicitly stated within the text itself. Hemingway famously used short sentences and omitted details, but left just enough for the eagle-eyed reader to read between the lines and draw conclusions from his work without him ever explicitly making the point in the words themselves. This is known as the iceberg theory, or the theory of omission, and it is seen all throughout his work. The Wikipedia article on the topic sums it up excellently: "Hemingway believed the deeper meaning of a story should not be evident on the surface, but should shine through implicitly."
"But how does this tie into the debate surrounding sequels?" - I hear you ask. Well, I like to think that films and short stories have a lot in common. Through different forms of media, they both show the audience a fleeting glimpse into the narrative of another world, another life. They have a deliberate beginning and end, and this framing is crucial in providing meaning and purpose to the narrative. The opening scene of any film has been deliberately crafted to be such - if it had been extended to give more context, the audience may lose focus and we'd be subject to too much context without narrative reasoning. And extending a film past its conclusion could be even more damaging to the narrative - the framing of an ending is to give the audience closure, wrap up the tale being told, and end on a significant moment. Whether it's a "happily ever after" moment, a cryptic and thought-provoking clue that unravels the mystery, or a tense cliffhanger - these moments are deliberately framed so that they are cut off. As much as we'd like to see the fate of the thieves in The Italian Job, prolonging the ending and witnessing them succeeding, or failing, to get off the edge of the cliff with the gold would ruin the artistry and magnificence of the ending.
There simply doesn't need to be an Italian Job 2: Michael Caine is Back, Baby. Sometimes; a story is just a story. It has a clear beginning, middle and end, and that's okay. If it works, why go back for more and threaten to ruin what was great to begin with?
One of the strongest arguments against the idea of sequels is how saturated the market is with them. Of all of the top movies released between 2005 and 2014, just 39% of them were truly 'original' - ie. not an adaptation, sequel, prequel or spin-off. It's no surprise that sequels generally perform well at the box office, with series like Star Wars, Fast & Furious and The Marvel Cinematic Universe practically being a license to print money at this point. It's clear that audiences enjoy seeing familiar characters and settings on screen, and they want to know what happens next in their favourite series. They tend to be a safe bet for production companies, as you can be sure that a sequel, prequel or a spin off will already have some level of interest before the film is even out, because they know that fans of the original are likely to be interested.
However, this does create an environment where the box office is constantly dominated by the same handful of series, which can become pretty tiresome. Disney's unrelenting devotion to dominate cinemas 24/7 is arguably the worst offender, with Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar and Disney's own remakes being churned out each year to a resounding success with each iteration. There's nothing inherently wrong with any of these films individually, and I myself am a big fan of many entries in those aforementioned series, but it often feels that big name releases take up so much of the limelight that smaller, genuinely original stories, are sidelined and drowned out.
I suppose a larger argument here is artistic integrity and expression vs. profit and commercial success. Studios obviously want their films to perform well commercially, which is why sequels are relied on so heavily. An unknown original title with no source material or existing fanbase is often a risk, and there are countless films that end up bombing commercially and remain unknown to all but those who seek it out specifically, and I think that is really quite sad.
Undermining The Events of the Previous Instalments
A big problem that I have with the model of endless sequel-churning is that later entries in film series tend to feel the need to adopt a "bigger and better" mantra with every single entry, in an attempt to continue to excite the audience and give reason enough for people to keep coming back. And whilst this sounds great on paper, it does do a certain disservice to previous entries in the series by undermining them and making them feel... well... a bit pointless in comparison.
One example of this is in the recent Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The movie itself is a beautiful mess, and I may well write about that in more detail at a later date, but in essence, the big crime that this film commits is that it brought back Emperor Palpatine, the "big bad" of Star Wars who was defeated in The Return of the Jedi back in 1983. Anakin Skywalker was prophesised to be the "Chosen One", who would bring balance to the force, and defeat Palpatine at the climax of the original trilogy - which he did. Or at least, we thought he did. Turns out Palpatine is back from the dead, or never died at all, or Anakin killed a clone of him? It's not made very clear in the movie, but hah, the jokes on you - you already bought a ticket to see the film because you wanted to see more of the characters you already know and have a connection to! It's a clumsy method of attracting attention to a new film, but it does damage to the previous films by belittling and undermining the events that took place.
My Hypocrisy on Sequels
Boy, it sure sounds like I hate sequels, huh? Bloody film studios, trying to make money and ruin everything for everyone. Well, not entirely. I do understand that we live in a world where things cost money, and to entirely ignore the commercial side of film production is to deny reality. And as it happens, many of my favourite films are sequels, or have sequels that I very much enjoyed. Some examples are:
- The Back to the Future trilogy, all of which are excellent
- Star Wars, which again, I think I might write more about at some point.
- Indiana Jones, which I will defend every entry of until I die (yes, even Crystal Skull)
- Blade Runner, which has an absolutely stunning sequel in 2017
- Toy Story, which is the greatest animated trilogy of all time. Yep. It's just a trilogy, and they definitely didn't release a fourth one.
Nope. I refuse to watch Toy Story 4. I don't know why, but for me, it's too far. I'll happily watch endless Star Wars sequels but for reasons I can't quite explain, I drew a line in the sand at Toy Story 4. I think I was so satisfied by the ending of the third entry that I didn't feel the need to watch any more of Woody and Buzz's adventures after that. It's almost like the fourth film would be extending the framing of the narrative, just like I was talking about earlier...
There's actually going to be a second part to this entry, if only because I can then say I wrote a sequel about writing sequels. Stay tuned for part two.