Why do sequels suck? Why does it drive us crazy? My study shows examples of what makes sequels bomb and asks why movie-makers become so lazy.
I am watching the sequel to a movie I adored three years ago. The sequel is so piss-poor that I feel violated and upset. How can a major studio spend squillions of dollars producing such trash?
Weeks later, it happens again. Another sequel, another cringe-making dose of drivel. Strangely, the two movies have much in common, including much of what makes them so unwatchable.
The movies are: Guardians of the Galaxy II (2017) and The Lego Batman Movie (2017).
Guardians of the Galaxy 2: decent trailer, execrable movie
The Lego Batman Movie: ditto
Why do I feel so personally aggrieved? First, because I wrote a preview of Guardians of the Galaxy 2 on this site in which I said “I know sequels are usually rubbish. But I can’t help hoping this movie will at least retain some of the greatness of the original”. I even noted my own, earlier blog of why we keep going to see film franchises despite overwhelming evidence that they’ll be piss-poor. Yet despite the near-certainty of the film being terrible, I still was looking forward to seeing it. Until I saw it, and had that overwhelming sensation of despair suffered by Star Wars fans watching the opening sequence of Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace.
We’ve all been there, right?
The second reason I was upset was that I liked both original movies (Guardians of the Galaxy and The Lego Movie) and had defended them against friends who argued they were slickly-marketed bundles of merchandising-linked tosh. Hence the let-down when both sequels are transparently slickly-marketed bundles of merchandising-linked tosh.
I’m not against marketing and merchandising – see my rave review of The Simpsons Series 25, Episode 20, “Brick Like Me“. So what makes these sequels suck? Here are five reasons:
(i) a good movie needs compelling heroes and villains. In Guardians 2, the baddies – a woman in gold make-up called Ayesha who somehow controls swarms of laughably ineffective fighting drones at vast distances, and a “living planet” called Ego – are both stupefyingly dull. It is impossible to fear, or indeed, care about them or any threat they could possibly pose;
(ii) both movies attempt to increase their appeal by pushing family values. You can imagine the plot committee sitting round a table: “how do we link Batman saving Gotham City again with family values?” Instead of doing the sensible thing (standing up en masse and screaming DON’T, FOR GOD’S SAKE!), they deliver a dreary sub-plot around Batman discovering that a “family” of Robin, Barbara the Police commissioner and Alfred the butler will make him a better person. Yes! Similarly, in Guardians 2, we have a twelve-and-a-half hour discussion (I may have nodded off for a while) between the hero, Star-Lord, and Ego (his father) about their relationship – to quote my review of the remarkably boring “Spectre”, “as if the characters… are so finely drawn that such subtleties could possibly matter”
(iii) cool music – what happened? The first Guardians movie revolved around a precious mix tape, Star-Lord’s only relic of an idyllic childhood, with some great music on it. The trailers of Guardians 2 also feature fine tracks – Blue Suede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” and “Fox on the Run” by The Sweet – neither of which is in the movie. Although Guardians 2 has a couple of decent songs, most of the key moments, including the twelve-and-a-half-hour discussion between Star-Lord and his dad, are accompanied by boilerplate orchestral incidental music.
(iv) balance: to create suspense, a story must feature a spine-chilling threat to the hero. But all the villains in in Guardians 2 have attended the Star Wars Stormtroopers’ School of Sharp-Shooting (cf this excellent BBC analysis of why a billion-strong army of Stormtroopers might not be much of a fighting force). By contrast, the Guardians are consistently able to vaporise any number of enemies with previously untrailed new weapons or powers. This also vaporises the dramatic tension and activates the dreaded yawn-o-matic;
(v) related to this, the body count is too high, and too graphic. I don’t want to seem prudish here. We don’t mind seeing those pitiful Star Wars stormtroopers cut down, or indeed, vaporised in their presumed millions when their planet-sized but comically vulnerable Death Star explodes in movie after movie, as it’s all pretty cartoonish. In Guardians 2, by contrast, the henchmen of the much-mocked Taserface are individually skewered by a magic arrow, helplessly, one after the other; and then depicted falling like rain from the sky. I felt sorry for them and mildly queasy, as in Kingsman’s much debated church massacre scene.
I put these sucking sequels down to what I call the Scott Turow effect. In 1988 I read one of the best thrillers ever, Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow. But his next book, The Burden of Proof, was a pale shadow of its predecessor. I could not finish the next one, Pleading Guilty.
Ever noticed how each J K Rowling’s Harry Potter book is longer, and less gripping, than its predecessor? Even one of my favourite authors, Lee Child, seems to struggle to recreate consistently the quality and tension which distinguishes his early Jack Reacher thrillers (although overall, as I argue in the post at the following link, Jack Reacher rocks).
The reason is that publishers traditionally invest immense resources in ensuring that the first book written by a new author is edited, revised and polished before it is published. If it is a success, the publishers know sequels will sell; so do not spend money to prepare them so well.
The same is true of movies, in spades. And we, the audiences – me especially – keep lapping it up.
In my own writing, I have tried to keep things fresh by varying the formula and providing fresh, compelling villains and plenty of conflict – see for example my short story collection, Seven Hotel Stories.