Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Trouble With Sequels - The Sequel

Yesterday, we looked at sequels which don't work as well as the film which started the franchise. But of course, there are more than a few examples of sequels which do work as well as (or sometimes even better than) the original film in the series.

So how do these films manage to succeed where others fail? And do they have certain elements in common?

First up, the (original) Star Wars Trilogy.

In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker goes on a very explicit Hero's Journey, moving from callow innocent to seasoned warrior with a special gift (The Force) and a destiny - resurrecting the Jedi.

In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke turns out not to be the perfect warrior yet- he's just begun mastering Jedi skills, and is sent to Yoda to complete his training. Impatient and headstrong, Luke is not a perfect student, and he rushes off to do battle with Darth Vader long before Yoda thinks he's ready for it. The result is a resounding defeat and the loss of his hand.
So in this sequel, we see the continuation of Luke's growing process - and this time, impatience and stubbornness, two facets of his character which weren't really important in the first film, provide the inner conflict in an organic and believable way.

In Return of the Jedi, Luke has become a full-fledged Jedi, and goes to face his enemies (Vader and the Emperor) on more-or-less equal footing. Seen over the course of the three films, this is the culmination of his apprenticeship; in the film itself, however, Luke has almost no arc left, and his story (except for the finale of the climax sequence) is mainly played out on the external level. Small wonder Return of the Jedi is the weakest of the original trilogy.

Still, what we have here is a transformational arc which takes three films to complete (as they forge one BIG story). This is why it's possible for Lucas, Kasdan and company to keep the audience interested in the way Luke's story is played out. Similarly, Frodo's inner journey in The Lord of the Rings takes the three books and movies to explore completely - and Harry Potter keeps maturing and learning different life lessons over the course of seven books and probably eight films.

Okay, that's trilogies, which tell one story over several instalments. But what about straight-up sequels to a first film which completely finishes its arc?

Let's take a look at Back To The Future. In the first film, Marty McFly faces two problems: stuck in the '50s on the day his parents met, he has to get them together even though his mom has the hots for him; and secondly, he has to return to the '80s.
He succeeds at both tasks, and in doing so transforms the people he's met, resulting in a totally different present when he returns to 1984. Marty himself, though, doesn't change much during the film - he's more of a catalyst protagonist than someone who goes through an arc.

In the second film of the series, Marty suddenly has an important flaw: whenever someone challenges him, he has to take up the challenge - even if it's really stupid or dangerous to do so - because he can't bear to be thought a coward. This button gets pushed several times in the film, and leads to disastrous results. And it's a flaw which doesn't get resolved in the film, either (and it's perfectly acceptable and believable that this is the case).

Now, this flaw fit the character of Marty McFly so well, that the first time I saw the sequel, I was convinced it had been present in the first film as well, and I was flabbergasted when I discovered it wasn't. So that's some really clever and well-done character development: adding a new aspect of the character which feels as if it's been there forever.

In the third film, Marty's flaw finally gets 'cured' back in the Wild West, when he finally realizes it's better to be alive and thought to be 'chicken' by folks who don't really matter, than to be a dead would-be hero. As the problem wasn't solved in part 2, having the arc close in part 3 works - though there is a certain amount of repetitiveness creeping into the whole endeavour.

And then there are the first three Rocky films: in part one Rocky triumphs over his own limitations, but doesn't win the championship; in part 2, he gets another shot at the championship against the same opponent, and this time he wins - the lessons learned in the first film leading him to (wish fulfillment) triumph. And in the third film, he's let success go to his head, which leads to him losing his fighting edge and the moral and psychological strength he had developed. After having everything taken away from him, he has to come back from the pits of despair and reclaim his abilities. Part 4 eschews any real arc and just has the best American boxer beating on the best Soviet boxer in a purely external conflict.

Finally, there's still another option: the movie series with the 'unchanging' hero. James Bond pre-Brosnan, Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan... The character is fully formed from the moment we meet him, has a number of quirks and flaws in place which will remain with him throughout the series. The character's attractive to the audience 'as is'. This method can work very well - in fact, all episodic television is based on it. If the lead character is exciting/intriguing/interesting enough, we want to see him go through his paces again time after time after time.

The trick here is to make the character seem rich enough psychologically so that internal transformations aren't necessary to keep us emotionally invested in the proceedings. And to be sure that the storytelling is so strong and inventive that the external storyline is entertaining and exciting enough to entrance the audience.

Quite often, this translates into a (very effective) formula which can be repeated ad inifitum, providing the same type of thrills for its target audience - and if you look at the success of series like House, M.D., getting the formula right is a recipe for long-lasting success. And this formulaic approach doesn't even necessarily mean you're producing an inferior product - House, M.D. is a very effective cross-fertilization of the whodunit story mechanic with the hospital series, for instance, with excellent performances and very effective humorous dialogue.

(As an aside, the reason the Brosnan Bonds don't do the transformational arc succesfully is because they just add random flaws to the character which don't really fit the Bond image.
In Goldeneye, he feels guilty for years because he couldn't rescue his friend/colleague from the Russians. Bond, feeling guilty without doing anything about it? Really?
In Tomorrow Never Dies, he meets an ex-girlfriend he ran away from because things got too serious. Bond the wimpy commitmentphobe, really?
In The World Is Not Enough, he falls in love with the villainess and has to choose between loving her and saving M. In Bond's world, that's not even close to a dilemma.
And in Die Another Day, he has to piece himself together again after having been captured and tortured by the North Koreans for months on end - a process which takes as long as getting a shave and a haircut. All these elements are either tacked on to the character or not really investigated in any depth, with the result that they weaken the quintessential nature of the Bond Archetype.)

So the solution to keeping your sequels as fresh and exciting as the original are:

- tell one larger story over several installments, which keeps your protagonist growing and transforming throughout

- add new but organic flaws to your protagonist and make sure this new internal plot matches your external plot (which might be somewhat more formulaic in nature)

- Have your main character evolve organically from film to film, so that the new adventure is caused by or influences his/her current state of being

- keep your protagonist unchanged but make him/her an emotionally rich character, and either tell only an external story or have him/her go through challenges time and again which fail to change them (the latter applies to comedies, primarily)

And above all - realize that sometimes a character is used up, and either has to be changed fundamentally or should be allowed to retire gracefully in the collective subconcious of global pop culture.
Good luck convincing the bean counters of this, though...

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