Why Most Movie Sequels Aren’t As Good — The Final Battle

Well, if you’ve made it this far, you’re doing pretty good. I’ve prattled on and on about how movie sequels generally don’t measure up, and used the Terminator franchise as an illustration of why they don’t.

I chose them deliberately. For one thing, the movies got larger budgets, improved special effects, and grander scopes as they went along. I chose them in part because I wanted to demonstrate none of those things are what make a movie (or story) resonate with an audience.

I’m picking on movies specifically because book sequels are generally planned. They’re typically written as a part of a greater whole, and aren’t thrown together in response to the success of the original work. Sometimes that’s true, I suppose; but that brings me to what helps make a sequel successful.

The Terminator succeeded because of an interesting premise, a sympathetic central character, a good story, and one of the most basic of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs being met. Terminator 2: Judgment Day equaled or surpassed the original because the Maslow tier had not been traversed, the acting and writing were superior, the special effects were innovative and ground-breaking, the antagonist was new and different, and there was the twist of the former antagonist become a protagonistic force. (Yes, it was a twist at that point.)

But Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was a dismal failure because the Maslow need had been met in T2, the guardian robot was a rehashed idea, and the girl robot’s only new twist was being female. And sexy. So…meh. Throw in weak writing and mediocre acting, and you have a formula for the dust bin of movie history.

Terminator: Salvation has the same thing happening over again. An anti-hero central character cyborg (more advanced than the others, frankly, which is dichotomous to the story line), a John Connor who didn’t fulfill his future (for no apparent reason), and a departure from the story line firmly established for the last twenty years. Throw in the Christian Bale factor and even through there was the threat of death late in the movie, we knew it simply wouldn’t happen. So again…meh. Injecting a child character from the original movie didn’t help. Nothing could. It was simply too failed from the get-go.

What’s the Secret?

Okay, so how do you make a good sequel then?

A unique premise?

That certainly helps. But the fact it’s a sequel sort of indicates the premise is at least similar, if not the same. You need to be sure the premise can be continued. But continuing it ad nauseum isn’t a good idea either. The Terminator series shows us how, even though time travel appears to be a limitless-possibilities endeavor, you can run it into the ground. How many terminators can travel back through the lifetime of John Connor, or Sarah Connor, or any of the other characters, until at last they succeed in eliminating their target? It never ends, and we as an audience know that.

Why didn’t you send a robot back to a time when Sarah Connor was a child instead of trying to kill her as an adult? Once the failure of the plan became apparent (and how would you ever know in the future if the past has been altered?), would the logical thing be to move ahead, closer to when it’s too late, or move back, to when there’s still distance between the key events?

But the paradoxes of time travel become problematic too. So we have to be careful and not ask “Why?” too often, lest our premise unravel.

So, how do you make a good sequel?

A new premise might be one way. Or a new take on the same premise, such as with T2. Still a killer robot traveling back in time to kill someone, but this time it’s a new robot with cool new abilities, and there’s a new twist: The OLD robot is now the protector, not the terminator.

So if that worked once, it should work again, right? Wrong. See T3 for details. Same premise, and nearly the same execution, and the twist? Yeah, not so much. Didn’t help.

Setting a Good Example

So you say, because you’re all really good at this, “What about not dwelling so hard on the premise of the series and having each movie have a new focus, within the same premise?”

Good idea! You know…like the Toy Story series, for instance. Wood, Buzz, and the gang all face the same premise in every movie: They’re toys, trying to be loved and love the only way they know how (by being fun for their owner), trying not to become lost or cast offs or to move down the hierarchy (hey, there’s that word again!) of their universe. (Yes, the toys are moving along Maslow’s hierarchy, like any good characters should.)

But in the first movie, there’s a personal tension between Woody (the number one toy and sort of defacto leader) and Buzz Lightyear (the newest member of the group, a very cool toy who threatens to be the favorite and displace Woody on the hierarchy, knocking him back down the scale). They have to work together when they become lost toys and they have the time-sensitive moving day deadline and a psychotic toy killer neighbor to deal with along the way. The basic need to meet lies in the middle on Maslow’s hierarchy: Status and position. See my first post in this series for the illustration, or Google “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”.

In the second installment, Woody is the victim of a kidnapping, and the newfound friendship between Woody and Buzz is front and center rather than the competition between them. In this take, the toys have to work to recover Woody, and still face the world as toys. The premise – living toys in a human world doing things the best way they can – remains the same. But this movie doesn’t operate the same way as the first. The toys have moved up the hierarchy, so in this movie, a new basic need has to be met: Safety.

The third movie is more emotional, but with another unique premise. They’re still toys; they still have the desire to be played with and bring joy to their owner. But their owner is on his way to college now, and the toys need to find a new home. They want to belong, they want to continue doing what toys do, but they can’t do that if they stay loyal to their current owner. The need? Self-actualization. Pretty high on the list, but also very noble. And thus the audience can root for them.

Now, toss in good acting and writing, CGI of legend, and clever use of the overall premise of the universe established by the original (are you listening, Terminator franchise?!), and you have a formula for successful sequels. And these were.

Want More Proof?

Okay, if you’re not convinced yet, I’ll give you another example. The universe and story arc remain the same across all the movies (and the books upon which they’re based), but the audience couldn’t wait for the sequels.

It’s Sorcery!

Harry Potter comes readily to mind here. That series of books and movies followed a single character with a single premise across a long, long arc which concluded, and within each of the installments the story was slightly different. The premise didn’t change, but what had to happen to fulfill the premise did (are you listening, Terminator franchise?!).

JK Rowling might be many things, but she knew how to hook and retain an audience, and when those books were optioned into movies, retaining as much adherence to the stories as possible ensured fan support, and therefore financial success. But the stories don’t get boring or tired because each one fit into the over-arching story of Harry’s time at Hogwarts and his growth into a powerful wizard. Or whatever.

It Rings True

Another way to handle the sequel dilemma is to have a really good story to start with, break it into parts and market each one as a sequel to the last. The Lord of the Rings, anyone?

Tolkien masterfully told a story over a long discourse and each one had a different focus while preserving the same premise. The premise, therefore, unfolds over the course of the series, just like with Harry Potter, but instead of telling a single story in each episode which contributes to the whole, the whole is chopped into individual episodes to play out over time. (Hey, Terminator franchise…)

A similar idea, but executed differently. And the audience loved it.

In The End

I might add here the above examples may not technically qualify as sequels. The same could be said about any series, I suppose. But to make a good sequel, you need to import and utilize Maslow’s hierarchy within the premise of the story line, or the audience will not care for long.

With successful sequels, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs shows the characters operating to either move up the hierarchy, or meet one of the base level needs, or not be pushed back down the tiers. In all cases, the audience embraces the story only to the degree the need being met is common to them. You’re not likely to see someone care whether Bill Gates retains his position as world’s richest man (he didn’t). But in the movie Arthur, the audience does care whether a man retains his money. Not because of the money (losing it moves Arthur down the hierarchy, remember), but because Arthur has fallen in love with someone (ah, a more base-level need!).

Keeping the characters moving up on the hierarchy gives them something to strive for. Obtaining or retaining their new positions gives the audience something to care about with them. If the audience can relate to that goal, they’ll embrace the story.

And it’s that simple.

Right?

Well…

Have a good weekend y’all.

-jdt-

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While I love taking credit for great achievements, I can’t take full credit for the information you’ll find here. Most of it comes from reading the works of David Baboulene, a great thinker of story theory and a clever guy. You can find him here.

Why Most Movie Sequels Aren’t as Good

 

You know it, I know it, we all know it – as soon as a “Part II” is appended to the title of your favorite movie and it hits theaters as the summer’s next blockbuster, the results will be disastrous. A movie which simply isn’t as good as the original and may even sully your view of that original no matter how you enjoyed it the first time.

You’ll forever say, “Yeah, it was a good one, but the sequel(s) sucked.” The sequels, even if the only thing they had in common was the title and some of the characters, simply won’t measure up to the experience the first movie gave, and you won’t be able to divorce them from each other.

There are times when the sequel does rival or surpass the original, of course. Examples include Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Die Hard with a Vengeance (and with the latter I don’t know how you couldn’t surpass the original). And, of course, when the series is long running, there are opportunities to have one or two of them equal or surpass the originals (think: Star Trek motion pictures, Friday the 13th, Final Destination, Harry Potter, etc.).

Just Google “movie sequels better than the original” and you’ll get a list (many of them sharing the same titles if not the order) of movies most would agree are equal to or better than the originals.

But in all, the sequels generally don’t measure up to the standards the original set, and leave us with a bad taste in our mouths.

Why?

What Matters to Us

First of all, to fully realize why stories resonate with us, we have to understand how we relate to protagonists or antagonists.

I give you – Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Mazlow

There are some pretty basic things we as humans need to happy, and as we achieve things along the lower levels of the hierarchy shown above, we get to shoot for the higher levels. How well we relate to characters in stories has to do with how well we can identify with the character’s movement up the hierarchy.

For example, we can all side with a protagonist who’s trying to survive. That’s pretty low-level. Staying alive is a pretty basic need, wouldn’t you say? And we can see pretty easily why movies where someone’s trying to win the affections of another fits well and is popular with the masses. That one sits right smack in the middle of the hierarchy.

There’s a lot more to Maslow’s theory than this simple drawing can portray, and I’m not an expert in psychology, so I won’t expound on it. But you can do the work yourself, if you’d like. Find your favorite movie(s), and track what the overall goal of the protagonist is against the diagram above (or one of your own choosing – the ‘Net’s full of ‘em). I’m confident what you’ll find is the person in the film or book you’re rooting for is shooting for one of the basic needs on this list. The lower the need, the more we can relate to the character, and the better the adoption into the heart of the audience.

Get it? We want those same things too. No one wants to move back down the hierarchy. So, things which threaten to prevent us from moving up or threaten to move us down the hierarchy are things to which we can relate as a species, not just as a culture or a nation or whatever.

Examples?

Well, let’s look at Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

In The Terminator, a terrible robot from the future has come to the (then-)present to kill an innocent, naïve young woman who’s not having a great day. She’s unlucky in love, she’s got a lousy job which isn’t paying her enough, she has a roommate who loves her but seems to have it all, and she has a sweet personality and nature.

And we come to find out she’s the future mother of the leader of a rebellion which prevents the annihilation of the human race in the not-distant-enough future, when machines have arisen to eradicate mankind.

So, where does that fall on the list? Oh yeah…right along the bottom there. Survival. And not just her survival – the survival of humanity. (Whether we deserve to survive is another matter.)

So we can all relate to her pretty well. And we can all relate to the hero of the story – who is not the central character but what Dramatica theory calls the impact character – who is doing everything he can to ensure the survival of his species in his time and protect the woman he loves, all at the same time.

“Okay, okay,” you say and roll your eyes, “I get it. Survival, basic need, yada yada. What the heck does this have to do with why sequels suck?”

Okay, keep your shirt on (unless you’re a hot chick, then go ‘head and take it off, no objections here). I’m getting there.

In T2, the audience gets another dose of the same thing. But…how? Shouldn’t we be yawning our way through this when we already saw the machines be defeated, and we know the child of Sarah Connor does become the leader of the resistance?

Well, here’s where the open ending of The Terminator plays in. At the end of the first movie, we have a very pregnant Sarah Connor wondering about the future, but feeling positive overall as she heads for Mexico to leave the grid and raise her son.

T2 picks up much later. John, Sarah’s son, is a young boy with problems and no mother to raise him, because she’s locked up. His foster parents aren’t helping much, and he’s basically Johnny the Troubled Teen. Okay, fair enough – raised by a lunatic who now resides in an asylum will do that to a kid, I’d suppose. But we also have the return of a familiar and frightening figure – the Terminator cyborg.

Two of ‘em, matter of fact.

So the future, which isn’t set (something the original movie rammed home as part of its theme), hasn’t been changed enough yet. The cyborg antagonists, bent on victory, have attacked in a few places in history to achieve their goal – killing John Connor and preventing him from leading the resistance in the future.

Because the original movie didn’t close the loop, this basic need still hasn’t been met. And because we have a new protagonist to root for and a new impact character – the formerly “evil” cyborg turned good and guardian – there’s a whole new level of tension. We have the exact same scenario presented with a new twist. Add in the superior writing and acting, the bits of humor and good tension and sympathy, and voila! A sequel which surpasses the original.

Then What About T3/4?

“Okay, tough guy, you think you’re so smart,” you sneer, “what about the incredible flops of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Terminator: Salvation? Huh? What about those? Same basic need to meet, same characters to some degree, but both movies sucked rotten donkey–"

Okay, okay, stop, I get it. Let me address that.

…Next time. See ya then.

-jdt-

==============

While I love taking credit for great achievements, I can’t take full credit for the information you’ll find here. Most of it comes from reading the works of David Baboulene, a great thinker of story theory and a clever guy. You can find him here.

Bitten

On Friday I sat beside my seven year-old daughter and watched a movie some ten years older than she is. Maybe you’d seen it flop on its way to the cheap DVD bin in Walmart – it was called Bad Moon and starred Michael Pare and Mariel Hemingway. Remember them? Yeah, almost nobody does.

So, I perused the likes of Netflix and Vudu for movies to watch. I’ve been hankering for a good movie of the horror variety and decided I was willing to pay for it. So I went through and spent a lot of hours on both services to come out with a handful of movies. I chose this one because, well…I really like werewolves, and I really don’t like zombies or vampires anymore. That’s a post for a different day, but for now, zombies and vampires are tired and hackneyed.

So I popped in a werewolf movie and watched my daughter’s face to make sure she wasn’t too frightened by it.

I find it intriguing that I reach for werewolf movies first. They’re my favorite horror/monster movies. And there’s no logical explanation for that on Earth. I shouldn’t like them at all.

As a boy, and I mean a small child now, I used to watch monster movies with my father. I spent countless Saturday afternoons with him watching corny Creature Feature movies on some independent or UHF-band TV station. (If you’re too young to know what those things mean, sorry; I’m not going into those explanations right now). He usually nodded off while I watched. But as a very small boy, I couldn’t get through one type of horror movie.

Werewolf movies.

Somehow, seeing Lon Chaney tiptoe around on canine feet with fur all over his face and those wiry-haired hands sent me into weeping terror. I cried, I cowered, I sought the solace of my parents to tuck myself beneath them. For some reason, the music seemed to trigger it for me. I could watch a movie if my mother held her hand over my ear while I laid in her lap. Maybe it was just laying in my mother’s lap with her hand over me that made me feel safe, I don’t know.

Once, I came home from school in horror and frightened, depressed. When my mom queried about it, I pulled up my sleeve to show her the newly-discovered arm hairs which surely meant I was bound to turn when the moon rose. She of course dispelled my fears with reminders of the length, weight and amount of hair on my father’s arms, and he wasn’t a wolfman, so I had nothing to fear. It worked. I was greatly relieved, and my mother still fondly tries to embarrass me with this story (even though I was only five or so at the time, and it’s really not embarrassing).

I had an aunt who’s only about 6 years older than me. She, of course, got me to sit in the dark and watch Rod Serling’s Night Gallery at my grandmother’s house. And then she’d sneak away while I was held in thrall by the show and would startle me or leave me calling into the long, terrible, dark hallway of my grandmother’s narrow, long house. Hiding behind either my grandmother’s recliner or behind one of the separating walls was a favorite tactic of hers. I remember shaking with butterflies flopping in my stomach, heart palpitating rabbit-quick in my chest, anticipating the start, but couldn’t stop from jumping and crying out when she did. Then the choruses of “Sissy!” and “Oh, don’t be such a baby!” would follow and I had to fight for a scrap of dignity.

But for werewolf movies, I couldn’t hold up. I just… couldn’t. I buckled under the weight of the adrenaline and horror, unable to rip my eyes away and yet covering my face with my hands to prevent myself from having to watch. Or I’d cover my ears to shut out the horrible sound effects and blood-chilling music. And then my aunt, seeing me that way, would slip away to startle me. Again.

I don’t know when that changed, but somewhere along the way, I began to have a real love affair with werewolves. By the time I saw classics (for my generation) like The Howling, An American Werewolf in London, and the misleading Wolfen, which I hated, I loved werewolves. Couldn’t get enough of ‘em. Still can’t. I sit in anticipation and tingle and get a giddy excitement when I think I’ve found a winner.

There were lots of them through the 90s, too, not the least of which is big-ticket Wolf, starring Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer. And, among those peeking through in the 90s, came Bad Moon. And of course, I saw it. Not in theaters, naturally – I’ve not been a fan of that experience because of the a$$holitude of people for many years – but when they rolled around on cable and On Demand services. Or I’d rent them at places like Blockbuster and those Mom-‘n’-Pop video rental shops. Remember those?

One of my favorite movies of the genre stars Christina Ricci and Jesse Eisenburg as siblings who turn. It’s called Cursed, from back in 2005. It started me on the road of respect for Christina Ricci as an actress, who showed me she’s much more than Wednesday Addams. And later, I saw Ginger Snaps 2 and Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning (though I still haven’t seen the original, which I’d not heard of even though it’s a cult favorite from 2000). I sat through jokes like Van Helsing with Hugh Jackman during his brief stint as an action hero, and of course beautiful Kate Beckinsdale’s Underworld. I waited with glee for Benicio del Toro’s The Wolfman, with Anthony Hopkins, which stank by the way, and have seen a few others as well. But nothing set my heart hammering and my adrenaline racing, which always puts a smile on my face.

I guess you really can’t go back.

In the end, I guess it might have been werewolf movies which made it possible for me to do away with the ability to suspend disbelief and sit captured by the imaginative world of a movie. I have people like my aunt to thank, who taught me how unwise it is to trust myself to a movie’s world and story too far. After all, it’s hard to slip fully back into reality and not jump when someone pounces from around a corner with a shout and hooked-claw fingers.

But I’ll always love werewolves, I think.

Maybe I’ll write a story of my own.

-jdt-