American actor William Gilette once wrote to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, asking for permission to play the gifted sleuth on stage. The author’s response paved the way for the endless rehashing of the detective that continues to this day: “You may marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him.”
Is modern popular culture simply reproducing plot devices (Holmes included), doing ‘anything [they] like to’ well-known figures, and running out of fresh ideas? Ridley Scott is planning three more Alien sequels, the third reboot of the Spider Man franchise since 2002 is in the works, and we’re being treated (subjected?) to a reworking of the classic Jumanji. If that weren’t enough, no fewer than five Fantastic Beasts films have been promised, and the second in a long series of new Star Wars outings is about to be released. Are audiences suffering from a case of franchise fatigue?
On a very simple level, sequels make absolute commercial sense, capitalising on publicity that’s already there rather than investing in something new. Many Hollywood contracts now include clauses that tie actors down to potential sequels, conditional on the success of the first movie. Steven Spielberg once said that he’s only ever confident that an audience will turn up to see his work when he makes “the sequel to Jurassic Park or another Indiana Jones movie. […] Everything else that is striking out into new territory is a crap shoot.”
Sequels have a guaranteed audience, generated principally by online fandoms. In our shareable, soundbiteable culture of screenagers, reboots and prequels are obligatory viewing for any ‘true fan’ worth his or her salt, even if for no other reason than to tick that box – to claim to have watched/read them – and subsequently to opine in social circles that they pale in comparison to the ‘original’ film(s). As a result, franchises – especially Warner Bros and Marvel – know that even middling sequels are money-spinners, for they have viewers eating out of the palm of their hand.
Documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis has spoken eloquently of what he terms ‘static culture’, the notion that contemporary artists are too self-aware. Reluctant to push the boat out, they have stagnated into endless regurgitations. Maybe it’s the final fate of every groundbreaking work of art to be repeated, ad nauseam, until a fresh trailblazer takes its place.
And yet, I’m reminded that, despite copious offers, Nora Ephron never made a sequel to perhaps the finest romantic comedy ever written, When Harry Met Sally. Why? Because both she and her protagonists, Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, rightly deemed that the first film was matchless.
Likewise, Matt Damon initially refused to appear in The Bourne Supremacy, insisting that he would never act in a follow-up worse than the original. It’s up for debate whether Damon did achieve his goal (director Greengrass finally persuaded him with an improved script), but I do admire this desire for quality over quantity.
History shows us that there is nothing inherently wrong with a sequel. Toy Story 2 and 3 were fabulous (and a fourth is on the way), Shrek 2, Before Sunrise and The Godfather II were almost if not just as good as their respective ‘firsts’, and The Empire Strikes Back is almost universally considered a greater film than A New Hope. Indeed, to put it bluntly, sequels offer more chances to get it right, to refine the tried-and-tested formula.
When franchises wait before capitalising on instant success (as Disney Pixar have done with Finding Dory, for example, and the soon-to-be-released Incredibles sequel), it gives them more time to refine a plotline and work out where to take the story. Here’s hoping the upcoming Trainspotting and Jumanji sequels benefit from holding fire for a couple of decades, but unfortunately this does not seem to have been the case with this year’s Blair Witch.
Perhaps I’m just another clichéd Woody Allen fan (in a sense a franchise all by himself, directing one very familiar film a year for a number of decades). Just like Owen Wilson in that masterful scene in Midnight in Paris, I nostalgically yearn to revisit a golden era – in Allen’s case, the 70s and early 80s – despite knowing for certain that such heights will never be reached again.
These diminishing returns are partly due to the kind of directors who take on sequels, mechanically ticking boxes and spewing out stuff-that-worked-the-first-time-around. Sequels should be more adventurous: I’d forgive the stream of reworked disaster movies – a genre that has seen some of the worst remakes in recent years – if someone like Wes Andersen were to make one. Likewise the Harry Potter sequels helmed by Guillermo del Toro would have been infinitely superior to the films we got from Mr. Play-It-Safe David Yates.
The best art does not simply pitch its tent, pass the time, and take it easy. It jumps up and bites you. It gets under your skin. Sequels inevitably offer the pleasant sensation of having ‘seen all this before’ – after all, they are creatively dependent on, and to some degree shackled to, the original(s) – but the danger is that they become all too familiar, reduced to inwardly-imitating parodies of themselves. Taking a leaf out of your own book can be a dangerous exercise. Perhaps you can have too much of a good thing.
Image: Faye Chua