The Sequel Conundrum

A Problem with Change

Few groups of people can get as angry as a group of fans who feel betrayed. As a fan of many things, I have felt this way before. So many fans of science fiction and fantasy properties have a problem with change. The more popular it is, the more they will hate any changes made.

There are two types of change that I can think of, changes to the original material, or changes in subsequent material. The latter fosters much debate on staying true to the originals. I’m a Star Wars fan, and we have this problem all the time. In fact, one of my pet peeves involves people who say the prequels (or any other Star Wars material) are not Star Wars. They’re definitely Star Wars, they’re just not the original films. Additionally, fans don’t always appreciate the changes that George Lucas has made to the originals, even when he is absolutely in his rights to do so. J. R. R. Tolkien did the same thing to later editions of the Hobbit, in an attempt to fit better with The Lord of the Rings. People don’t criticize him for doing this. Why? Because the changes were better! But had we existed at the time of The Hobbit’s publications, we probably wouldn’t be so enthusiastic about him messing with our childhoods and changing the book.
I’m not sure I get it myself. Fans have a way of forming expectations in their minds, then get angry when those expectations are not exactly what happens. Expectations ruin many experiences. Even if the end result is very good, expecting something different can turn you off to that result.

Thankfully, there are a few franchises that are training us to embrace change. Star Wars is just starting to do this, but DC Comics, Marvel, and Doctor Who have done it for decades. The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones are also training us not to get attached to anything. They could probably teach Star Wars fans, Trekkies, and many others some lessons in expectation management.

Case Study: Doctor Who

Let’s look at Doctor Who for a second. This series started in 1963 with William Hartnell playing the Doctor. After a few years, William Hartnell began having trouble playing the part. Health problems interfered with his concentration, and it became clear that he would not be able to continue for much longer. Given the popularity of the show, the producers didn’t want to quit. So in 1966 Patrick Troughton was selected to replace Hartnell, and the concept of regeneration was written into the show.

To some people, especially these days, this would seen like nothing more than a cheap short-cut to making money. But think about it. Doctor Who could have ended after only three years running. Instead, it lasted for 26 straight years, then was rebooted in 2005 for an additional 9 years, and still continues to perform well. If they had canceled it, we would be short a whole lot of really awesome content. Sure, not all of the episodes are fantastic, but the ones that are make the whole thing worth it. Running for that long has allowed the show to really develop into something great. That decision to replace Hartnell was easily one of the best that BBC ever made.

Money Grabbing

That said, sometimes sequels are definitely not a good thing. Money grabbing can be a problem. It isn’t always. Remember that all good stories/art have been produced for money. Even if no monetary value was achieved with a piece of art, it was still produced with some kind of reward in mind.

However there are many cases, especially in Hollywood, where sequels/prequels have been produced for easy money. Hollywood assumes that the brand alone will sell the sequel, and they’re not wrong. They usually do much better than anything else produced with the same amount of effort. So it’s an understandable problem, but not an excusable one.

Sequel producers need to realize that putting in a lot of effort into a sequel will cause that sequel to be exponentially successful. Not only will it be successful because of the brand, it will be successful because of itself. Combined, those two factors make a very successful film.

Case Study: Disney Sequels and Land Before Time

I think the best examples of this problem come from many of the Disney sequels produced in the early 2000s. The Land Before Time films, though not Disney, are also a perfect example. Each of these sequels were given to people without the talent and experience needed to make a quality film. They were all produced quickly to make an easy buck. Did it work? I’m sure it did, at least in the short run. But had they stayed with the original people who did the original film (or others just as talented), things might have been so much better.

Sometimes Change is Better

Keeping everything the same can also cause problems, because then it becomes stagnated, and people don’t want to see those sequels either. It’s okay to give nods to the original source material, but it’s not okay to try and keep it all the same. A common pitfall in Hollywood is to assume that the first film worked so well, so the sequel shouldn’t change anything. They try to duplicate the success of the first film by essentially copying it. They forget that we’ve already seen the first film, and we don’t need to see a copy of it. We need to see something different, something that expands the universe/characters we love.

Case Study: Superman Returns

The perfect example of this problem is Superman Returns. This film was more than an homage to the original Christopher Reeve Superman films, it was practically a copy. The original Superman film involved Lex Luthor trying to create valuable real estate at the expense of many lives. Superman Returns has Lex Luthor doing the exact same thing. Brandon Routh was hired as a Christopher Reeve imitator (though he is a great actor in his own right), the music was the same, each character was portrayed the same, and even some of the lines were exactly the same. They even used old footage of Marlon Brando from the original films.

Now in theory, this sounds like a great thing. Superman Returns is obviously paying its respects to a great film, and they weren’t planning on changing any of it. But here’s the problem: the film was boring! It brought absolutely nothing new to the characters or the mythos of Superman. As a result, no one cares about it. Even Man of Steel which also had a few critical complaints, is considered a far better film than Superman Returns. This is a perfect example why we shouldn’t allow sequels to be exactly the same as their predecessors. Keeping the “spirit” of the original is not the same as copying the film.

Case Study: Star Trek

Another good case study for change in sequels is the recent Star Trek films by J. J. Abrams. Now I know a few Trek fans are going to disagree with me, but I consider the new films to be fantastic, and better than the majority of other Trek films.

Before the new films, the franchise was really starting to get old. In fact by 2004 it was basically dead. As someone who has seen every episode/film of Star Trek, I think I can explain why. By the late ’90s, the episodes were all becoming more of the same. Each one involved the discovery of some unknown entity, which caused a problem that needed solving. If that wasn’t the plot it was some conflict with Klingons, Romulans, or Borg. That pretty much sums up 98% percent of Trek episodes. Don’t get me wrong, it was great at first. The original series and The Next Generation were fantastic. But because they were so successful, that pattern was copied for further use in practically every show and film that followed.

Then Paramount made a great decision and asked J. J. Abrams to reboot the franchise. They told him to do something different. Thanks to that decision, Trek is still alive and well. Even better, there are more people who are fans of the franchise as a result. They’re very different in tone and story, but they’re also darn good movies. Whether you like them or not, you have to admit that Trek would still be dead without them.

If it Ain’t Broke…

Now on the other hand, sometimes you shouldn’t change a few things. There is something to be said about the “spirit” of a franchise. All of the original Star Wars films, for example, are quite different from each other, but they carry a similar tone the whole way.

So while stagnation is a genuine concern if you’re making a lot of sequels, you should also identify what is considered the “core” or the “spirit” of franchise and make that consistent. This is tricky. It’s not always clear what that core/spirit is. Make too much the same and you risk stagnation. You always need innovation, but you should also have consistency.

Case Study: The Marvel Cinematic Universe

Perhaps the best example of this is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel is currently the king of the shared universe, a concept that took sequels to a whole new level. Each film is usually quite different from the others. Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, is a completely different genre from Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

However there is definitely something consistent between all of the Marvel films, and I’m not talking about Stan Lee cameos. The tone is similar. There is a required feeling of adventure and inspiration to each film. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure how Marvel does it. Each film is different but similar, and they know where that fine line is.

Also remember that they are adapting these films from comics. A lot changes between the page of a comic and the big screen. A perfect example is Ultron in the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron. In the comics, Ultron is built by a guy named Hank Pym. In the films, he is built by Tony Stark. This is a change that makes total sense, given the world that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has created so far. It will enhance Tony’s character, and keep the plot from getting too confusing, since the MCU hasn’t introduced Hank Pym yet. And yet, there are many things consistent about Ultron. For example, his look is just a more detailed version of the comics. Not much has changed there. His purpose is also similar to the comics. So overall, Marvel is one of the best examples of knowing when to change something and when to leave it be.

More Content, More Diversity Needed

Speaking of Marvel, the shared universe has become a huge hit thanks to them. Having that many films presents us with the stagnation problem again. So as a result, Marvel films are beginning to branch out into other genres. Although it’s too early to tell, it looks like DC will be doing the same with its universe. This is a very good thing. Stagnation is the worst thing that can happen to a franchise, especially a shared universe. The more content there is, the greater the need to branch out. This is why I’m in favor of DC having a different tone from Marvel. If they were both doing the same thing, we’d soon get tired of Superhero movies. Sales would start to decline, and we’d be left with no more superhero films.

Case Study: Star Wars

This is where my biggest fandom comes in. Star Wars has only had six films before now. However with Disney at the helm, and given the success of Disney’s other company (Marvel), it looks like we’ll be getting a lot more Star Wars content than we’re used to. Enter the changes. First, we’re starting to get 1 film a year. This means that the number of Star Wars films will double by the end of 2020. Second, to make way for all the new content, the expanded universe was set aside and re-branded as Legends. This did not sit well with many fans.

I’ve heard a few complaints, not many mind you, but a few that say we’re getting too much content. Stagnation is definitely a concern, but given the model that Lucasfilm is using (similar to Marvel’s), I don’t think we should worry about that. That said, in order for stagnation to be avoided we’re going to have to see some different Star Wars films than anything we’ve seen before. Out of necessity, Lucasfilm will have to branch out to different genres and conventions never used before in a Star Wars film.

So this begs the question, what is the “core” or “spirit” of Star Wars that should be consistent throughout the entire saga without causing stagnation. I’m not sure I have the answer to that question, but I’m sure Lucasfilm has a plan, just as Marvel obviously does. Regardless, Star Wars fans will need to prep themselves for more change. The Star Wars universe is about to become bigger and more diverse than we ever imagined, and that’s a very good thing.

Less is More?

Now there are many that will argue that less is more. They would rather end on a high note than continue the risk of producing bad content. In some cases I agree with them. The Dark Knight trilogy, for example, is a great standalone trilogy with a complete story/message to tell. We don’t need more of that, which is probably why they’re not keeping that continuity in the DC Cinematic Universe.

However, I remind everyone about Doctor Who. That could have ended as a very good three seasons. Instead it kept going. Not all of it was good, but as a whole it got better. That is the beauty of producing sequels or a shared universe. It allows storytellers to stand on the shoulders of giants and make something even better than the original. Again, Star Wars is a good example. It must have been hard to produce a film better than the original Star Wars, but then they made The Empire Strikes Back, largely considered the greatest film of all time.

So while less is sometimes better, I’m always willing to risk the chance that we could have something better. Even if there are a few bad sequels in the mix, they won’t “ruin” anything about the original material. Those will always be there, just as good as they ever were. In the end, the payoff can easily be worth the risk.

We Live in the Golden Age of “Sequels”

Given the large body of shared universes, reboots, and sequels being produced today, it’s statistically likely that many will not be that good. It’s simply going to happen. That said, with the right talent and the right approach, sequels and shared universes will make up for those few failures by producing something even better. Over time, people tend to forget about the bad stuff anyway, while the good stuff remains. People don’t care about Iron Man 2, they care about The Avengers. People don’t care about Pirates of the Caribbean 4, they care about the first one.

Also, let us not forget television. Each episode of a television show is essentially a mini-sequel. Not all of them are going to be good, but the amount of content produced in a show allows creators to delve deeper into characters/plots than is possible in a single episode or film. In fact, most shows start off lousy, but many end as masterpieces.

So if you’re worried about the amount of upcoming Star Wars films, or the DC Cinematic Universe, or any other shared universe/sequel, just remember the enormous volume of awesome sequels that would not be possible without taking the risk of change. The Avengers, Captain America: Winter Soldier, The Godfather II, Terminator 2, Return of the King, The Empire Strikes Back, Aliens, Toy Story 2&3, The Dark Knight, Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn, Star Trek: First Contact, Stark Trek (2009), Spider-man 2, Goldeneye, Casino Royale, Skyfall, X2, and many more would not be possible without taking that risk.

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