They fall into one of two categories:
“That was even better than the first movie!”
“Could that have been any worse?”
Okay, I lie. There are other categories, like “utterly forgettable” and “more of the same” and the like. But the two extremes are the ones listed above. And good and bad sequels are present in every genre and every budget. (Incidentally, when I’m talking sequels in this article, let’s assume that the first movie at least has redeeming qualities. There are plenty of sequels to movies that sucked, and of course they’re bad, because what else did you expect?) We all know what makes a bad sequel, I assume. But it’s fun to dissect it and pretend to be all academic-like anyway, so let’s go.
The first element is the plot. I believe they start teaching this in seventh grade English, although it might be earlier. Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Yes, folks, stories need ends. And sometimes, the ending wraps everything up nice and neat and there’s really no place to go from there. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Good sequels come from movies that left room for a sequel to begin with. Spider-Man caught the bad guy, but Harry Osborn found the Green Goblin mask. Wolverine and company rescued Professor X, but did Jean really die? Woody and Buzz became friends, but Andy got a puppy and is still growing up. The main plot arc wrapped up, but there are some threads left loose in a way that works if a sequel gets made, but doesn’t leave you hanging if it doesn’t.
Bad sequels, on the other hand, try to capitalize on a movie that should be left alone. When everyone’s dead at the end of Highlander, does it really take a genius to figure out a sequel is going to suck? When the Lambda Lambda Lambda fraternity gained acceptance, did we really need to find out what happened afterwards? When you have such an iconic ending as Charlton Heston pounding his fist on the sand by the ruined Statue of Liberty, do you think you can REALLY ever top it? Yeah, some movies are just over when the credits roll, and that’s the way it should be.
Of course, there’s another class of sequels, and that’s the set of movies that was never intended to be a single movie. I’m talking about series like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The Matrix, and the like. The rules for these are simple: Good sequels don’t suck. Bad sequels do. Seriously, you can’t really complain much about The Two Towers, The Empire Strikes Back, or The Godfather part II. And yes, even Return of the Jedi (get over the Ewoks already, okay?). And there isn’t much nice you can say about The Matrix Reloaded or The Matrix Revolutions. It’s just the way it is.
So, the story is worth telling a sequel to, or you’ve got a story that can justify a “more of the same” approach. (Say what I will about Saw – and believe me, I’ve got plenty to say on the topic – but from what I understand, people who liked the first movie will continue to like the franchise. This seems to be vaguely true about the slasher films and their sequels in general.) But even in the more of the same genre, a good sequel will branch out into new territory. The Muppets took on Hollywood in The Muppet Movie, London in The Great Muppet Caper, and Broadway in Muppets Take Manhattan. Marty McFly and Dr. Emmett Brown found plenty of new times in history to play with. “More of the same” can be extremely effective.
A bad sequel, on the other hand, takes that too literally. We didn’t need “celebrity X is an alien” jokes in both Men in Black movies. And do I even have to comment about Dumb and Dumberer? Seriously, that one’s like shooting fish in a barrel.
Next, the main characters. They’re the ones who hooked you in. I’d say that good sequels can get the actors back, bad sequels can’t, but that’s not always true. For one, there’s always that sequel that doesn’t focus on the main characters that ends up being good. It’s a villain origin story, a what happened to the kids story, or a what happened to the minor character/Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are dead approach. And we can all site sequels that did get some of the main actors back that sucked. (Speed 2, the odd numbered Star Treks, Legally Blonde 2: Red, White, and Blonde.) So what’s the difference?
Good sequels allow their main characters to grow. It doesn’t have to be a lot, mind you, but the plot of a movie shouldn’t pass by without your main character being affected. For example, in The Mummy Returns, Evelyn and Rick have actually settled into a happy marriage. They’re more mature, they clearly know each other better, and there’s a teamwork between them that was appropriately absent in the first movie. Frankly, that growth they allowed the main characters made the movie for me. Shrek occasionally thinks before he speaks, which is a pretty big accomplishment. Luke doesn’t whine nearly as much in Return of the Jedi as he does in A New Hope. Even sequels like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull allow that Harrison Ford (and thus Indy) has aged. It is possible that the characters don’t really need to demonstrate maturity or any sort of change. Jay never seems to mature, but that doesn’t bother me in any of the View Askew productions. (Well, as much as Jay can not bother me.) Ash doesn’t really grow, but it fits the character and I would argue that Army of Darkness is the best of the Evil Dead movies. But these movies are exceptions, rather than rules.
Bad sequels, on the other hand, force the main character to stay in the idiosyncrasies that they began the first movie in. The most notable example of this one in my mind is Elle in the Legally Blonde movies. Legally Blonde worked because Elle matured. Forcing her back to a ditz who obsesses about inviting her dog’s mother to her wedding is just annoying. (And let’s not even discuss that horrid intern song and dance number.) So, growth is important. Let’s not forget that the first movie happened.
But what about your supporting cast? It’s a new story, and most sequels do benefit from new blood. People move in and out of lives all the time, and you probably don’t have the same exact friends and acquaintances as you did when you were in nursery school. Even if you married your childhood sweetheart, you probably didn’t know your boss, your landlord AND your obnoxious neighbor when you were four. (If you did, I imagine you live in a very, very small town.) But introducing new characters… it’s a headache.
First, there’s the love interest. My personal belief is that if a movie is sequel-worthy, the love interest is only a side plot anyway. A good sequel will either continue with the love interest from the first movie, will provide a satisfactory explanation for the change in love interest (this tends to be rare, excepting James Bond movies), or forgo a love interest all together. A bad sequel, on the other hand, will sandwich a love interest in just because there has to be a love interest (according to them). This practice appears to be most prevalent in action sequels. The previous movie ended with a declaration of eternal love and a passionate kiss, and then the next movie… the love interest from the first one is gone. There might be a single line explanation, usually about how “it didn’t work out” or “John moved to Alaska because there was a salmon gutting operation desperately in need of his expertise” or something, but it’s awkward and painful and amounts to “we couldn’t get the actor back because he/she wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole.”
Then there’s the sidekick or best friend or what have you. This is probably the easiest and most reliable method of introducing new secondary characters. It’s also the hardest for me to pin down, because it’s simple characterization in this case. A good sequel brings in an awesome character, like Puss in Boots or Nightcrawler. A bad sequel brings us characters like Jar Jar Binks. (Although the one kudos that George Lucas is getting in this article is that he recognized that Jar Jar was a mistake and drastically reduced his role in future films.)
Another popular method of introducing new blood is the child. I think we can all agree that this is almost never a good idea. I love kids, don’t get me wrong. But movie kids aren’t really kids. They’re usually smart-mouthed, obnoxious twits or these sickeningly sweet eight-going-on-forty… things. Occasionally, a movie will get it right. But when they do, the kid is almost inevitably in the first movie. If introducing kids are a must, there are ways to do it right. A good movie won’t make the introduction of a kid all about the kid; it will make it about the relationships between the characters from the first movie. Shrek 3 actually introduced mini-ogres, and although I was convinced they’d be cloying, they were actually anything but. Father of the Bride 2 walked a fine line (a mother and a daughter pregnant at the same time?), but managed to keep the material entertaining, especially with George’s fears based on age and income. It can work.
A bad sequel, on the other hand, usually brings a full grown kid out of nowhere, just for the “entertainment” value. The introduction of Buster in Blues Brothers 2000? Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? Anikan Skywalker in The Phantom Menace? Do I really need to continue? Oooh, but the mere mention of Phantom Menace brings up the opposite point.
What about those old characters from the previous movie? Can you keep them all? Well, that depends on your movie. A good sequel knows when you can and when you can’t. Personally, I find the cameo appearances by former View Askew characters to be very entertaining, myself. But the View Askew productions are pretty uniformly based in New Jersey, so it works. And when we do see those former characters, they’re in places that make sense. American Pie 2 reunites the same gang, but in a very organic way. Of course people who were good friends in high school get together the first summer after college. It works.
A bad sequel, however, will massively overuse characters that we know. It’s okay to have a connection or two here or there, but it can be taken to extremes. Sure, Darth Vader was Obi Wan’s apprentice and Luke and Leia’s father – that was canon. But he knew R2-D2, built CP30, raced in Jabba the Hutt’s pod races, and was already a degree of separation away from Bobba Fett, Chewie, and any number of characters I’m forgetting? Come on. Seriously, that’s ridiculous.
A sequel is always a quest for more money. Why shouldn’t it be? This is America, after all. Of course it’s nice if a movie is marketable. But what it really boils down to is this:
Good sequels don’t look like they’re just out there to make more money.
Bad sequels do.