The Terrible Threes – The Hard Road of Second Sequels

 

second sequels
The number 3 seems to be unlucky for film franchises.  That’s the thought that came to mind when I watched The Hangover Part III.  Short review; it sucked, and I’m beginning to see how it falls into a pattern.  Movie franchises seem to fizzle out around the point that a third entry is released.  Unless its a part of a pre-planned trilogy, like The Lord of the Rings, it is very rare to see a second sequel rise to the level of its predecessors.  So, why do so many filmmakers insist on moving forward with a series that has clearly lost steam after two films.  The simple fact is that sequels are easy to make and unfortunately the law of diminishing returns applies far too often.  In many cases, the first and second sequels just repeat the formula of the initial films, and that not only shows a loss in creativity, but it also defeats the purpose of building up the brand in the first place.  Audiences naturally want to see new things when they watch a movie, even when it comes from a sequel.  Some sequels do manage to breath new life into familiar stories; even deviate from the previous ones in wild and interesting ways.  But while you can sometimes catch lightning in a bottle in two tries, it almost rarely happens again.
There are many factors that go into making a great sequel.  A sequel has to know what made the first film a success and do exactly the same, only bigger.  In some cases, a sequel can even far exceed its predecessor.  Director James Cameron seems to take that principle to heart when making the sequels to his films.  In the case with Terminator 2 (1992), he not only continued the story of the first film, but made it bigger and more epic in the process.  For many people, it’s the movie they most think about when the hear the word “Terminator.” It’s no simple feat for a sequel to be the definitive entry in a series.  A more recent example of this would be Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), which became so popular, that it changed the way we market superhero movies today.  We no longer look at Nolan’s films as the Batman Begins trilogy.  Instead, it’s considered the Dark Knight trilogy, which is the direct result of the sequel overshadowing the first film.
Though the track record for a first sequel is good, there’s less success when it comes to the second sequel.  Once a series hits its third entry, that’s the point where it begins to show signs of exhaustion.  By this point, filmmakers are almost trapped by their own success; having to keep something fresh and interesting long after the good ideas have been used up.  Like I mentioned before, unless a series was planned long ahead of time as a trilogy or more, then most of the creativity will be spent by the time the third film comes along.  It’s very hard to be a sequel to a sequel, and audiences can only take so much of the same story before they lose interest.
The genre that seems to suffer the most from this 3rd film curse is the superhero genre.  Usually superhero films that carry a 3 next to it’s name have ended up being the most criticized by their fans.  We’ve seen this with films like Superman 3, Spiderman 3, X-Men: The Last Stand, and now it appears from this year as well, Iron Man 3.  Even Christopher Nolan’s critically lauded The Dark Knight Rises failed to deliver for some fans.  As is the case with most of these films, they are the follow-ups to very some very beloved sequels; ones that fans had hoped these trilogy cappers would’ve built upon.  There are a couple reasons that could explain why these films have fallen short: one, the audiences’ expectations were just too high for the filmmakers to deliver; two, the filmmakers decided to deviate too much from a proven formula as a means to spur on their creative juices; or three, the filmmakers had clearly lost interest and were just trying to fulfill their obligations. The worst case is when a series decides that it’s ready to be done, without the foresight of establishing a means of wrapping up the story.  This was the case with X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), which haphazardly crammed in a bunch of story points and characters in a film that didn’t need them in order to please the fans expectations as they cut the story off way too short.  The final result was jumbled mess that ended up pleasing no one and it hurt the brand for years to come.
Other franchises also suffer from this pattern, but out of some very different outcomes.  Sometimes, a series does plan ahead and creates a trilogy based off the original film’s popularity, leading to the production of two films at once.  This, however, is a huge risk because it puts the pressure on the middle film in the series to deliver; otherwise the third film will be left out to dry if it doesn’t work.  This has happened on several occasions, such as with the Back to the Future trilogy, the Matrix trilogy, and the Pirates of the Caribbean series.  The Pirates films in particular became so notoriously over-budgeted, that it actually led to the end of studios making simultaneous productions for sequels.  While the receptions of the films are mixed, there was no denying that these series lost steam the longer they went on.  The same happens with the opposite as well, when an unnecessary third film is made many years after the previous sequel.  The Godfather Part III (1990) is probably the most famous example, having come nearly 16 years after the last film, and which extended a story that people thought was perfectly resolved earlier, for no other reason other than to do it all over again.
That’s exactly what most 3rd films end up being: unnecessary.  That’s what I thought when I saw The Hangover Part III.  The series has long exhausted it’s potential and is now running on the fumes.  Could the series have sustained enough interest over three films is another question entirely.  It certainly had enough clout for one sequel.  But whether or not a film series makes it too a 3rd film should entirely be the result of the need to explore the possibilities of the story, and not just to repeat the same formula for the sake of making some quick cash.  These films must be able to stand on their own and not just be an extension of what came before.  The best trilogies are ones where each entry has its own identity, and can entertain well enough on their own without feeling like the extended part of a greater whole.  Films like Return of the Jedi, Indiana Jones and Last Crusade, Goldfinger and The Return of the King are beloved because they entertain while also being an essential part of their overall stories.  And most importantly, they didn’t waste their potential.  Something that the filmmakers behind the Hangover films should’ve considered.

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