Sequel Turkeys

November 23, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

Once question that has always aroused my curiosity is whether a bad sequel can damage an entire franchise. Or, to put it another way, can a single mediocre movie in a series of otherwise enjoyable films change a viewer's impression of the series as a whole? Obviously, the answer to this is personal, but I'll share my views. Some of you will agree; some will disagree. Let me state at the outset, however, that I will not be mentioning any of the Star Wars movies in this column. No needs to start a bloodbath.

My response to the question is a definitive "it depends." To elaborate, in general I don't think a bad sequel damages a franchise if it's a episodic franchise. However, if it's part of an extended arc, it can be devastating, if not completely destructive. Now, here are some high-profile examples.

The Superman movies are a good case study. In my view, Superman and Superman II (despite its production problems) are both very good movies. Superman III and Superman IV are almost unwatchable. Yet the existence of the latter two movies does not impinge upon my enjoyment of the first two. Why? Because they have little or nothing to do with their predecssors. Superman and Superman II represent an entire story. Superman III and Superman IV are self-contained episodes. They're easy to ignore and by ignoring them, nothing is lost.

The Star Trek movie series, at least those films involving the original crew, had its ups and downs. Within the seven movies in which '60s series stars appeared, there are four stand-alone stories and a single three-movie arc. Fortunately, all the movies within the arc (films II, III, and IV) are enjoyable. They were followed by the bloated disaster called Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, the worst of the Star Trek feature films until #10. But #5 is outside the arc. It is a standalone story, so forgetting about it doesn't damage the intergrity of the Trek series. It's a pothole, not a chasm.

The ultimate example is the Bond franchise, which has had its share of horrible movies over the years. Yet the tendency when one thinks of 007 is to remember the good movies, not the bad ones, and any taint lasts only as long as it takes to get the next movie out. Casino Royale is an excellent story; who cares about Die Another Day? Because Bond films don't connect to each other in anything more substantive than a rudimentary manner (a few recurring characters and maybe a throw-away reference to a past adventure), it's easy to forget a lackluster effort like Octopussy when recognizing something better isn't far away.

On the flip side, consider Halloween. Admittedly, this is a series that went into a direction where no self-respecting franchise should go but, for purposes of this discussion, let's consider only the first two movies. Halloween is a classic - one of the great horror films of all time. Had it ended there, this would have stood as one of the most remarkable motion pictures of all time, both in terms of artistic realization and box office muscle. Unfortunately, greed led to a Halloween II. Because the second movie is so intimately related to the first, they are inseparable - two halves of one story, and the deficiencies of the second leech into the first. Halloween II diminishes Halloween because it dismantles some of what made the first film worthwhile. I admire anyone who saw Halloween and possessed the willpower to resist the sequels. Theirs is the pure experience.

Scream made it to the third film before collapsing. The first two movies in that series are solid, but the finale of the trilogy is wasteful, repetitive, and anti-climactic. Yet, because the movies form a trilogy where each builds upon the previous one, the failure of Scream 3 reflects upon its predecessors. Scream and Scream 2 didn't seem as fresh or interesting once the third movie was released.

One of the saddest instances of this sort of thing occurred with another trilogy: The Matrix. When the first movie was made, it was designed as a one-off with a "hook" that could be used as a sequel. It turned out that there was no meat on the hook. The Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions were disappointing and caused a backlash that swamped the first movie. Die-hards still appreciate The Matrix but for many it has been lumped in with the other two lackluster performers and, as a result, is not kindly regarded in many quarters.

There are exceptions to this "rule" I have defined. One is The Godfather trilogy. The three films form a complete story, and #3 is inferior to the other two, yet it's possible to watch #1 and #2 and not feel the weight of #3 pulling them down. One explanation for this is that so much time passed between the release of #2 and the release of #3 that opinions of the first two movies were calcified before the final part of the trilogy reached screens. I know Godfather fans who had seen the first two movies several dozen times before the third began production. These people view the final chapter as an interesting epilogue, but not something to be concerned about.

Finally, a word about the Alien movies. Alien and Aliens are amazing motion pictures. Alien 3 is a disaster. Nevertheless, even though Alien 3 is a direct continuation of the story, its derivative, disappointing storyline doesn't impact my ability to watch and enjoy the first two pictures. I think the reason has to do with the way Alien 3 begins. The movie works so hard at the outset to destroy everything that went before (killing Newt and Hicks during the opening credits) that it hardly seems to be a continuation. In Aliens, we cared about the relationships between Mother Ripley, Father Hicks, and Daughter Newt. There lay the emotional core of the movie. Ripping it away before Alien 3 begins its main story creates a natural break between the first two (good) films and the other (bad) ones. Alien and Aliens pull us in; Alien 3 alienates us.

The longer a series lasts, the more likely it is to spin out a bad entry. Perhaps there's a law of averages at work. However, long-running series have a notorious disregard for the finer points of continuity, so unless bad episodes begin to dominate, individual rotten apples are easily forgotten and rarely impact the overall impression of a franchise. Because of its consistent badness, a long-running series like Friday the 13th doesn't come up for discussion in this column, although one might wonder whether another related question might apply: If a sequel is better than the majority of the entires into a franchise, can that single movie redeem the series?