“We’re doin’ a sequel! That’s what we do in Hollywood!
And everybody knows that the sequel’s never quite as good”
Here’s a challenge you have probably heard a million times – name a sequel better than the original. I think it’s safe to assume that if you’re generally interested in film, you have probably had more than one conversation on that topic, which usually spins out of a casual talk about movies in general, preferably over a pint of beer with a bunch of friends… It’s such a cliché question that it even featured in the mildly received (but still enjoyable) “Scream 2” during a film class scene, so I’m not going to bother stating the obvious examples (they’re all in that scene, by the way). Despite some people’s best wishes, the history has always seemed to indicate that ‘the sequel’s never quite as good’, as it is exemplified by the lukewarm reviews of the new Muppets film, from which this line was directly pulled. But is it really?
The fact that it takes a miracle, a stunning technological achievement, or a brilliant source material to break the rule of sequel inferiority is considered to be general knowledge at this point. It’s in the nature of this industry to cash in on successful titles, produce more adventures of the beloved characters as long as the process makes money – it cannot be simpler than that. There’s nothing wrong about that and I actually enjoy the idea of going back to the characters and universes I enjoyed, though I never hope for the sequel to break new grounds and out-do the original, because up until recently they have never seemed to be able to pull it off successfully.
Back in the 80’s and 90’s nobody really knew how to adapt comic book superhero stories to the big screen in a compelling way and the results were divisive at best. For every single fan of Tim Burton’s “Batman” (and its sequel) you can just as easily find somebody who genuinely hated it. There was always something inherently wrong about the comic book adaptations: too cartoony, not cartoony enough, too wacky and out there, too stencilled… you get the gist. Pleasing an already established and powerful fan-base is not an easy task and up until the year 2000, nobody in Hollywood was skilled enough to successfully walk that fine line between adherence to the source material and entertaining originality. With the release of Bryan Singer’s “X-Men”, the landscape began to finally change and this film in my opinion paved the way for the golden age of comic book movies. All of a sudden, the studios started green-lighting all sorts of superhero-related projects, which escalated into a situation where we can’t have a summer without at least a handful of big-budget comic book adaptations.
The fans were cheering as – one by one – their favourite superheroes were being brought to the screens: Spider-Man, Batman, X-Men, Hulk, Thor, Iron-Man, Captain America, The Avengers, Green Lantern (though this one was not received very well), Spider-Man again… and there’s still more to come. And this is where the idea of a sequel being something to look forward to comes into play. All of those superheroes had to have had their origin stories told (or re-told) on the big screen, so that everybody knew where they’re from, who they are, what their powers are, their weaknesses and so on – it’s quite logical to start from the beginning. The problem is, in the entirety of the comic book space there’s maybe a handful of archetype origin stories for superheroes, because how many different ways could you devise for an unsuspecting workaday person to become imbued with superhuman abilities? Every single new character needed to go through the chore of the origin story, which wouldn’t usually leave much space for the thing people would like to see the most – the adventures and the confrontation with the villains. And just like that, the stars would align for the sequel to step in and be awesome, because once the character is established and all that jazz is out of the way, we can throw some baddies at him in the very first shot and take it from there.
If it happens once – it’s an accident. Twice? Well, let’s keep an eye on it… three times in a row? All of a sudden, things start to look interesting… I think I won’t be too far off in pinpointing Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man 2” as the first comic book sequel to out-do the original. Some would throw in “X-Men 2”, but it’s been too long since I saw that film, so I’ll reserve judgment for now. Still, that would be two in a row. Add to that “The Dark Knight” (considered the best comic book movie in the history of everything ever) and even “The Dark Knight Rises” as much better films than their preceding “Batman Begins” and you might be looking at a trend.
Then there’s “Iron-Man 3” which I didn’t like at all, though – as if to mock me – it became one of the highest-grossing films of all time (probably partly thanks to the fame of “The Avengers”). By the way, “The Avengers” seems to be one of the only non-sequel comic book films in recent memory to really deliver, but I don’t know whether considering it an origin story is logical at all. Finally, once “Captain America – The Winter Soldier” joined the pile as – in my view – the best Marvel comic book movie and one of the best in general, I became fairly certain the cycle has been broken. It’s no longer acceptable to claim the sequels never live up to the original, because at least in the arena of comic book adaptations, things look completely different. And it’s not due to the fact those origin stories are boring in general, because they are all for the most part rather interesting, but only in the sequels the superheroes we all know and love are allowed to spread their wings and do some real damage.