Few sequels to blockbuster movies are really worth watching. Sure, sequels make money—gobs of money—which is why studios keep making them, but few people ever argue that the sequel was superior to the original, or even on par with it. For most, the original is best, and the sequel is an action-heavy but shallow imitation of the glory of the original.
There are notable exceptions, greatest among them being The Empire Strikes Back. Superior to the original Star Wars in almost every respect, it took the momentum of the original film and augmented it, and made a new, greater movie from the fabric of the first. Other exceptions (in my humble opinion) include the Lethal Weapon films (which noticeably improve as the series advances), Shanghai Knights (following Noon), The Mummy Returns, and The Karate Kid Part II. The Indiana Jones films, taking a bit of a dive with Temple of Doom, came back with one of the greatest franchise films of all time with The Last Crusade.
There is a common element in each of these sequels; where unmemorable sequels focus on action, these sequels have focused on character. The importance of this statement cannot be underscored enough. A focus on character as opposed to any other element is the essential ingredient which composes a sequel which surpasses the original.
This observation is notable to me because it seems to be a constantly overlooked fact. I can’t recall how many times (it’s a lot) that I’ve heard a director for a sequel say the words, “We wanted more in this—more action, more explosions, bigger car chases.” The plan of action, as I understand it, in these scenarios is that the directors/producers/studios attempt to “recreate the experience of the original by turning up the volume.” If we make it louder, they reason, people will leave their theatres more jazzed about the film and more excited about the franchise.
However, countless examples of failed and forgettable sequels testify to the fact that “action” is not the most important part of a sequel, nor innovation, nor technology, nor effects. It would be enough, perhaps, to consider the Star Wars “Pre-Trilogy,” which, while technically masterful and visually stunning films, were also soulless husks—beautiful vistas populated by people and characters for whom we care nothing at all. Indiana Jones 4 was a similar debacle, and in the maddening array of effects, I was left feeling that somehow the heart of Indiana Jones had been lost in the process. A franchise is not successful because of action or effects, but because of character. Other examples abound: X-Men 3, Transformers 2, a significant part of the James Bond franchise, U.S. Marshalls, any sequel involving Jean Claude Van Damme, and so forth and so on. And who didn’t feel, watching the Matrix sequels, that the maddening array of effects somehow destroyed what good the original had created?
Let’s consider the opposite case. I remember, watching the director’s commentary on The Empire Strikes Back (Greatest Sequel of All Time), how Irvin Kershner spoke about his emphasis for directing the film: character. (In fact, it was he who awoke me to this central fact about successful sequels.) He reasoned that people who come to watch a sequel care about the characters, and therefore the central element in his movie would be the relationships between the characters, developing the love story between Han and Leia and focusing on Luke’s growth toward maturity. The arc, and emotional draw, of the story is essentially this: characters about whom we care are in trouble. You are invested in the sequel because you care about the characters. You care about what happens to them. You enjoy watching them get into and out of trouble together. And the satisfaction of the film (and its re-watchability) is that spending time with the cast is like visiting with friends whose company you enjoy.
If you think about it, this is true of all our relationships. You can enjoy a one-off event with people you aren’t all that interested in. You might enjoy the event, whether or not you enjoy the people at the event. But if you didn’t click with your fellow participants, you’re not very likely to return for a future event (unless you’re really bored). Consider the opposite circumstance—you go to an event with some people, and while there, you really click with them. You enjoy their company and conversation. If, in the future, they invite you to another event, most likely you will accept the invitation—not because of the activity itself, but because you want to spend more time with those people. In fact, you will willingly do something which was less stimulating than your original experience for the sake of the people you get to spend time with. It is character, and not activity, that drives memorable relationships.
Look back at the list of great sequels (in my opinion) from earlier—Lethal Weapon, Shanghai Knights, The Mummy Returns, Karate Kid Part II, The Last Crusade —in each circumstance, the central enjoyment of the film is not, primarily, action (although each film has action aplenty), rather it is the characters within the film. The Lethal Weapon movies are character showcases, and one watches those films not because of their plot or story, but because one enjoys watching Riggs, Murtaugh and their (increasing!) gang get into and out of trouble together. Shanghai Knights builds on the great chemistry between Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson to create an extension of their story together. The Mummy Returns focuses on the marriage and relationship between Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, and we enjoy the movie (I believe) because of this relational foundation, and not the return of the Mummy. The Karate Kid II builds superbly on the characters of the original, because what people want in a Karate Kid sequel is not more karate, but more of Miyagi’s aphoristic wisdom instructing Daniel-san in how to be mature. Finally, The Last Crusade’s success and appeal stem from the on-screen relationship between Indiana and his father. Their relationship drives the story, renders it compelling, and gives it texture. In each circumstance, the heart of the original film is rarified, developed, and expanded in the sequels. Ultimately, you care about the characters.
My only wish, I suppose, is that directors of sequels would realize this dynamic, because, quite frankly, I’m sick of the soulless, action and effects-heavy sequels that plague our cinemas today. Instead of turning up the volume, I wish they would do the more difficult work of exploring character. The result would be better movies.