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-

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

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.

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