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.



Have a good weekend y’all.



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 — Part Deux

So, where was I?

Oh, that’s right. I was about to address your concerns regarding why sometimes a movie sequel can be equal to, or in rare cases, better than, the original movie upon which it’s based.

I used for my example The Terminator and its sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day as a prime example of how a sequel can surpass the original (with a bigger budget and the right premise).

But you pointed out, helpfully, that the follow-ups on the success of T2 were horrid failures. And you’re right, they were. At least, from the standpoint of viewer satisfaction they were.

To their defense, both Terminator: Rise of the Machines and Terminator: Salvation seemed to succeed on some level. T3 made enough money to buy them time to produce T4, and with the bigger budget, special effects and yes, bigger stars, what could go wrong?

And yet, they did go wrong, didn’t they? They weren’t as good. Why?

Let’s check and make sure we have the ingredients the same as in T2:

  • A hero who has to survive to lead the resistance – check.
  • A set of characters we’re somewhat familiar with – check.
  • Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs base-level goal – check.
  • A terrifying, seemingly unstoppable cyborg from the future bent on humanity’s annihilation – check.

Um…okay, so whuhapp’n’d?

Missing Ingredient

Before we say “check” to everything, we’d better go back and see what’s what with the ingredient list.

It’s number three on the list which is the culprit here.

You blink at me. “But…we have exactly the same premise as in the first two movies. How can it not be the same here?”

I’ll tell you why – the producers and directors of the second movie didn’t do something new with that premise. They did the exact same thing as T2 did – a robot has been sent into the past to destroy John Connor before he can become the leader of the resistance.

So? What’s the problem?

In The Terminator, remember what I said – the ending was left open. The audience sees Sarah Connor riding off into the coming storm, uncertain where the future will go, how it will unfold, what will happen.

In T2, we see something much different. We have much better answers to the question “What will happen in the future?” Because the running theme is, “The future is not set,” nothing is definitive. Anything can happen. But let’s face it, and be very honest about facing it – that loop was basically closed off in T2 and inadequately reopened in subsequent movies.

This is the problem. The characters moved up the hierarchy in the first two movies. In the next two movies we see them trying to stay put on the hierarchy rather than trying to move up. (Getting up the hierarchy is what our lives are about, remember, at least in Maslow’s theory.)

So when Sarah and the gang moved up a rung on the hierarchy, that storyline is closed, fini, done. Time to move on. Time to leave well enough alone.

Ah, but Hollywood can’t do that, can they?

So T3’s approach was to reprise the role of the hero robot. You know, the one who killed John Connor in the future. Dun-dun-duuuuuuunnnn!

Doesn’t that put enough spin, enough uncertainty, enough newness into the plot? Huh? Doesn’t it? Huh? Huh?!

Suspension of Suspense

Nope, sorry. For one thing, we see that John Connor’s right here, right in front of us, going through the movie. We can see he’s okay, doing his thing, and he’s both the central character and the protagonist, so we know nothing’s likely to happen to him through the course of at least most of the film. Suspense killer number one: Check.

We also know his wife, the love interest in the movie, is the one who captures and reprograms the assassin robot to be a guardian, just like John Connor did in T2’s future. So we know the love interest will survive the film. Suspense killer number two: Check.

Because both of the suspense killers above are in place, we know the odds of success for the new girl robot (see here for the joke which NEVER ceases making my wife and me laugh) aren’t good. Suspense killer number three: Check.

So, why do we care about this movie? Oh, that’s right…we don’t.

We aren’t worried about our group of protagonists at all. We know the killer-turned-hero robot won’t survive the film – it’s basically the same movie as T2 after all, and he didn’t survive that one – so we don’t worry about him. The humor and nods to the earlier films didn’t work well. And there was no Sarah Connor to inject psychotic randomness into the movie, so we have a subplot with the love interest’s father, a computer virus destroying the Internet (*snicker*), and because things in the world really changed between 1991 and 2003 (when T2 and T3 were made, respectively), the shift had to be made from a hardware-based monster to a software-based one. Skynet, the evil, self-aware antagonist producing the killer robots, isn’t a robot after all. It’s a computer program.

Niiice. (No.)

We simply don’t have anything to care about. The special effects and the smokin’ hot blond “Terminatrix” are all we want to see. (She is running around in red leather, after all.) After that, the movie had nothin’.

But what about Terminator: Salvation? Didn’t it have The Dark Knight, Christian Bale, one of the hottest names in Hollywood, starring? Didn’t it have the biggest budget for special effects, the impact of Transformers driving the CGI, and a new premise?


Well, sure. Those things are all true, at least to some degree, for the franchise’s fourth, and God willing, final installment.

So, why didn’t it succeed?

Well, primarily because we violate the Maslow thing yet again, and we have a number of suspense killers in it. Again.

Killing the suspense is key to making a movie a failure. One of the reasons we go see a movie series, or read a book series, is because we like the characters, or we worry about the characters. Since we never really get to love John Connor in the long-term the way fans love Harry Potter and his friends or James Bond, there isn’t a continuity across the stories to endear the hero(es) to the audience in the Terminator series.

So, each film requires its own character building arc, making the character sympathetic to the audience. Somehow.

Did that happen in T4? What do you think?

Checklist? Again? Yep.

The suspense killers started with casting one of Hollywood’s biggest draws as the lead in the film. Think Christian Bale is going to be killed off, now that he’s firmly established as Batman, and one of the biggest action heroes in the biz? Suspense killer number one: Check.

What about the unset future thing? Isn’t that the premise the film takes on? Because the future’s not set, John Connor isn’t the leader of the resistance, isn’t saving humanity, and is facing a new set of machines and challenges he didn’t anticipate. “This is not the future my mother told me about,” the movie’s trailer says. So, why didn’t it work?

Because in addition to SK1 (Bale won’t die), we have an unsympathetic protagonist in John Connor. He’s already part of the resistance when the movie opens. We’re supposed to be disoriented by this because it shows it’s not the same future Sarah Connor prepared him for. But we also know the machines have already taken over by 2018 and are hard at work producing machines to eliminate their enemies. And because we’re not familiar with this universe, we have to have time to get into it. After all, we had three movies with something like the same universe before this one. So this is more like a reboot in a way.

Lack of story development. Suspense killer number two: Check.

Too much of a good thing is bad for you. And so, with a dystopian future getting more dystopian by the moment, we have a situation in which John Connor must find a way to kill Skynet. Sounds familiar. But he’s going to need help. And usually, that help comes from a robot turned good. So you know that convention is going to continue in this film, and sure enough, we have it. It’s Sam Worthington’s character in this movie.

Predictable. They didn’t even try to hide it. And that, my lovelies, is suspense killer number three: Check.

Three suspense killers, plus rehashing the same ol’ movement on the hierarchy? Yeah, a formula for failure despite big name actors, big special effects, and a sound byte of Christian Bale being one of the biggest a$$holes alive going viral.

Then What’s the Answer?

How do you fix it then? How do you write a movie sequel, or even a book sequel, and make it work?

Next time, m’pretties. Next time.



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.


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.


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.


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.



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.