Sequels: The Sequel
Updated: Mar 7, 2020
This is the second part of a discussion on sequels, prequels and spin-offs. Please read part one if you haven't already done so. Right - with that out of the way, let's get into it.
I was perhaps a little negative about the idea of sequels in media in the first half of this discussion - and I'd like to highlight some of the benefits and successes that can come with continuations of stories. For starters, the second (or third, fourth etc.) instalment in a series doesn't need to waste time introducing characters or setting the scene. Many sequels jump straight into the action within the first few minutes, allowing for the story to get moving without retreading old ground. 2015's Avengers: Age of Ultron from Marvel is an excellent example of this - it wastes no time into throwing the heroes back into the action within moments, and for a comic book movie, that's what most of the audience are there for.
Another example of this is in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. The film opens with the signature Star Wars title crawl, but it was the first in the saga to cut straight into a high-speed starfighter dogfight, led by Anakin and Obi-Wan. This works as an introduction because the audience know these characters, and we have been following their adventures in the previous films. We know their relationship, we know the backdrop of the battle being fought and, if we have seen the original trilogy, we know how this tale of friendship is going to end.
This brings me nicely onto a technique that can be used to great advantage when writing - not sequels, but - prequels. Dramatic irony. Irony that is in speeches or a situation of a drama and is understood by the audience but not grasped by the characters in the play. With a prequel, you are able to play with the audience's knowledge of the bigger picture and use that to your advantage. As the viewer, you have a greater overall knowledge of the story than any singular character in the story, and using this "meta-knowledge" can alter the viewer's perception of events. In Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, the audience know that Juliet isn't really dead in the final scene when Romeo finds her, as we've had her prior scenes play out before us. Romeo hasn't witnessed this, and comes across her seemingly lifeless body, distraught at her death. The climax of this scene, where Romeo takes his life to be with his beloved in death, is made all the more emotional and tragic by the audience knowing that she isn't really dead. The entire premise of Prometheus, the prequel to Alien, is essentially one big tale of dramatic irony, as we know how the story ends. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is in a similar boat, with clued-up audiences knowing exactly where the story is eventually headed (clue: it doesn't end well for the humans, in either Prometheus or Apes). This isn't a technique limited to prequels, but it is certainly easily achieved in a story set before the original piece.
Some sequels immediately get a free pass from me, as they were conceived to always be a certain number of volumes in length. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings series was originally planned to be released as just one volume, but then later decided to split the tale across six much shorter books, but discussions with his publisher proved that neither options seemed like good ideas to them. It was eventually decided that the series would be released as three volumes, with each volume split into two entries. It is clear with this series that there was a vision, and no amount of pressure from publishers, fans or sheer greed would convince Tolkien to release further entries in the series. The books serve as representations of the typical three-act structure of fiction, with Fellowship as the beginning, Two Towers as middle and Return of the King as the end. As such, although the 2nd and 3rd books are sequels, they don't detract from the original entry and they fit in perfectly as a natural continuation of the narrative.
Returning to a Beloved World
Some sequels are long-awaited opportunities for fans to simply indulge and enjoy their favourite characters, worlds and stories. Recent examples that both resonated with me were T2 Trainspotting and Blade Runner 2049. They were both sequels to standalone films from the '80s and '90s respectively, and I feel they were both handled in such a way that they didn't feel forced, and that they respected the source material. They relied on the audience's familiarity and fondness of the originals, sure, but I feel that they were far from soulless cash grabs. In the case of Blade Runner, I think I actually find myself enjoying 2049 more than the original nowadays, although both are excellent. Both T2 and 2049 feel substantial enough to stand on their own two feet and unique enough to justify their existence, but both still skirt around their respective originals enough for fans to feel familiarity and nostalgia.
At the end of the day, fiction exists for most people as a form of escapism. With a little imagination, you can whisk yourself away from what can often be a boring, upsetting and mundane world into a world of fantasy. We identify with fictional characters and their stories, we lose ourselves in these worlds and they can provide us with comfort, laughs, wisdom and memories. To many cinemagoers, that's what going to see a movie is all about. As I discussed in part one, it's clear that sequels are generally safer bets for production companies. And if going to see every single Fast & Furious movie that gets released (we're up to 10, by the way) offers you some much-needed respite from another shitty day at work - hey - you go and knock yourself out. I think it's important to accept that not everyone is a critic. Some people want to switch their brains off for a couple of hours and see characters they know and love because it's comforting to them. And that's cool with me.