Have a conversation about the state of movies today, and you’ll soon hit the topic of sequels — right after the words “remakes” and “vampire movies.” The proliferation of sequels is often cited as one of the signs of the decay of the movie industry. It’s an example of the money-obsessed nature of movie studios, since sequels of already-successful movies are, after all, usually safer than new, original and untested projects.
Sequels are all over the place. The third installment of the Chronicles of Riddick series comes out this weekend, Insidious 2 follows next weekend and, this summer, we got Fast & Furious 6, The Hangover 3 and Iron Man 3. They are everywhere, and people are right, a primary driving force for this trend is their better chance at a good return in box office sales.
The decay in the integrity of moviemaking has pushed viewers largely toward television, a medium in the middle of a so-called “golden age.” Proponents of television will cite its ability, through the much longer run-time of a television season versus a two-hour movie, to develop characters further and experiment more inventively with variations on themes.
Television is really great in these regards: A writer and actor will always be able to develop characters and plotlines in more inventive and complex ways in a canvas of 13 47-minute episodes than in one two-hour space. These areas of strength that TV converts flaunt, however, are the same ones that adding sequels to a successful movie can augment. Sequels, building on source material that generally was popular or well-regarded — Grown-Ups 2 or Smurfs 2 notwithstanding — can further develop characters and explore themes that a single movie couldn’t.
Take Iron Man 3. The film was able to explore themes and character traits that would be hard to establish in a single film. Iron Man was a great movie, but it required an extended period of character establishment (just like the first few episodes of a TV show season) that was no longer required in the sequels. The time that was used in Iron Man to show us the creation of Iron Man, was used in 2 and 3 (and The Avengers) to show Tony Stark evolve as a person while simultaneously exploring old (Tony’s dangerous arrogance) and new (revenge, resurrection, and more.) themes in more depth.
Another flick that came out this year, Before Midnight, took the opportunities offered by this extra screen time to the next level, building from the beautiful Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, to provide a third window into the relationship and lives of its two main characters that could not have been done without the already-established storylines from the two previous films. It allows the movie to dive directly into the action, just as the tenth episode of a show allows itself to do so by virtue of being so far into the narrative at its onset. We know the characters and we know what’s happened to them — we are ready to see what happens next.
Of course, there are unnecessary sequels, prolonging a series of movies too far. There is only so long a story can be extended and remain engaging. This is perceived to happen, however, much more often than it actually does. A television show has the advantage of coming out with a new episode weekly; that short amount of time between episodes being released allows a viewer to remain engaged in a storyline and world (naturally, this effect is greatly augmented when binge-watching a show on Netflix).
The time between the releases of installments in a film series is in the scale of years. A movie universe that comes out in 2008 has been around for three years by the time the sequel comes out in 2011, despite only offering two hours of actual time inside of it. In the same period of time, a television show could offer more than 30 hours of story and developments and characters.
In this case, absence does not make the heart grow fonder. The longer waiting time for the next movie hurts its perception on two seemingly opposite fronts: First, by being gone a long time, a movie series cannot hold on to its audience’s attention as firmly as a show that comes out weekly, and then lets you wait less than a year for the new season. Second, the absence — despite taking the universe out of sight — does not take it out of mind (especially with the onslaught of merchandise). You feel the three years of age that the world has accrued, making it feel more familiar and, thus, less original than episodes in the equivalent place of a TV series. It is an uphill battle.
Sure, there are bad sequels. Just like there are plenty of bad original movies. Just like there are plenty of bad television episodes. The fact that a movie is a sequel should not evoke the sort of prejudice that it does. Bad movies come out all the time. Good movies are hard to make, and being a sequel should not totally discount a movie’s quality for its own sake.
Daniel Grzywacz is a senior majoring in neuroscience. His column “The Reel Deal” runs Fridays.
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