On Friday Taken 2 will hit theaters and bring to us another example of one of hollywood’s favorite sequel tropes, the “Not Again” sequel. We see at least one of these year, where characters who found themselves working through an unexpected scenario in the original film somehow find themselves faced with a similarly unexpected predicament again in the sequel. It is a reliable stand by for hollywood that will continue as long as we clamor to see another Die Hard on a … movie. Of course the “Not Again” sequel is not the only kind of sequels hollywood makes, there are seven different kinds of sequels. Along with the “Not Again” there is also the “This Is My Job”, the “Life Goes On”, the “I Wonder What They’ve Been Up To”, the “The Story’s Not Over”, the “Wait! There’s Mythology” and the “Give The Crowd What They Want”. Every sequel hollywood makes fits into one of these categories. Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes it is decidedly not. Here is a little closer look at what each of these categories really are.
“Not Again” or the Die Hard Category
Basic Idea: Cay you believe it? So we are at a Christmas party and terrorists have taken over the building, then, two years later, we are at an airport and terrorists have taken over the airport. What are the odds?
Why It Works: Because watching Bruce Willis frustrate terrorists through sheer force of will is entertaining. In other words, these kinds of sequels work if we are willing to suspend disbelief because we just like watching the improbable scenario unfold.
Best Examples: Die Hard 2, Die Hard 3, Die Hard 4
Why It Fails: Because it requires a massive suspension of disbelief. Sure, I can buy that Steven Segal is a former Navy seal who became a cook so he could get his full pension and was therefore in a position to thwart Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey’s attempt to steel some nukes off of an aircraft carrier, but then you want me to believe that a few years later he retires, decides to bring his niece (a young Katherine Heigel by the way) on a train ride through western Canada and that that train happens to become the base of operations for another crazy ex-CIA guy? No, that is no less believable than the Die Hard plot lines but as much as I like Casey Rybak he is no John McLean.
Worst Examples: Under Siege 2, Hangover 2
“This Is My Job” or the James Bond Category
Basic Idea: Our character has a job that is going to continue to put him or her in the middle of situations that will be complex and exciting enough to keep an audience riveted for two hours, like, you know, being a spy working for the British Government.
Why It Works: We like Ethan Hunt or James Bond or Martin Riggs or Danny Ocean or Batman and we like to watch them work.
Best Examples: MI4: Ghost Protocol, The Man With The Golden Gun, Oceans 13, Casino Royal, The Spy Who Loved Me, MI III, Goldeneye, Batman Returns, Magnum Force
Why It Fails: Filmmakers must walk a delicate balance between changing things enough to make the movies interesting while not changing them so much that they loose what we like in the first place. Also, sometimes they are forced to change the actor and things can go horribly wrong.
Worst Examples: Oceans 12, Moonraker, Octapussy, In Her Majesty’s Service, The Living Daylights, Batman & Robin, MI 2, Rush Hour 2 & 3
“I Wonder What Thy’ve Been Up To” or the Sex and the City Category
Why It Works: Because we are actually interested to see what the people are up to now. What’s changed, what’s stayed the same.
Best Examples: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, Sex and the City, Color of Money, Serenity
Why It Fails: We don’t really care or the story brings us nothing new.
Worst Examples: X Files: I Want To Believe, all the original crew Star Trek movies without Ricardo Montalban, Sex and the City 2
“Life Goes On” or the Toy Story Category
Basic Idea: As we get older life presents us with new challenges.
Why It Works: Mostly because the idea is true to life. Woody faces jealousy then he faces the idea of obsolesces then he faces separation. It resonates because it mirrors common emotions we all face at different points of our lives and because it is all underlined by the very human emotional of insecurity which makes transition difficult.
Best Examples: Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3
Why It Fails: When the new scenarios become exaggerated and don’t feel real. Steve Martin struggles with his daughter getting married and potentially selling his home in San Marino, fine. Then the next time we can’t just have him coming to grips with becoming a grandparent we have to add that he is becoming a father again too? Doesn’t work. Less is often more.
Worst Examples: Father of the Bride 2, Cheaper By The Dozen 2
“There’s More To The Story … Until There Isn’t” or the Star Wars Category
Why It Works: It works when each movie can stand on its own while still fitting neatly into the over-arching story.
Best Examples: The Empire Strikes Back, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Godfather Part II, The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2
Why It Fails: One of three reasons (or a combination of these three reasons); 1) the original movie irrevocably damaged the brand; 2) there is no stand alone story within the sequel (the entire film is nothing more than a prolonged segue to the next episode); 3) the new movie changed at a core level one or more of the main characters established in the original movie.
Worst Examples: The Twilight movies, Harry Potter 5 & 7, Star Wars Episode 1, 2 & 3, Godfather Part III, Spider-Man 3
Bonus – May Have Died On The Vine: I Am Number Four, Percy Jackson & The New Olympians: The Lightning Thief, Eragon
“Wait! There’s A Universe and Mythology” of the Alien Category
Basic Idea: Using a prequel or a sequel to expand on the world and/or ideas touched on in the original movie.
Why It Works: You can take some of the little parts barely touched upon in the original and explore them in interesting ways.
Best Examples: The Avengers, Aliens, Prometheus
Whit It Fails: There isn’t enough there. Either the universe or mythology become less interesting the further they are developed.
Worst Examples: The Matrix Revolution, The Matrix Reloaded, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2
“Give The Crowd What They Want” or the Friday the 13th Category
Basic Idea: Fans of genre movies, particularly horror, just want to see new ways of telling the same story. Ne ways of killing, new ways of scaring you, new ways of seeing a Vampire explode or a zombie get decapitated. Don’t reinvent the wheel, just make the wheel well.
Why It Works: The basic idea is exactly why it works. Fans of Saw don’t need anything more than a new Saw movie. Fans of Resident Evil don’t care if the critics find it repetitive. They simply want THAT movie, so give it to them.
Best Examples: Halloween 2, Friday the 13th Part 2, Resident Evil 2, Step Up 2, Saw 2 (you get the picture)
Why It Fails: You have to up the ante in some way. More gruesome deaths, crazier dance sequences, better special effects, something.
Worst Examples: Part 5 or so of most Horror franchises if not before
Actually, there is often one overriding reason why any given sequel fails. If it was made simply to cash in more often than not it won’t be good. There has to be a reason, a good story, something to make it worth revisiting that world again, and to make more money isn’t a good enough reason.
But hey, what do I know? I’m fat.