Sequel Shock: Why do so many films disappoint the second time around?
When it comes to sequels, two rules apply. First, as stories they are often inferior to their predecessors. Whether collapsing under the weight of their own seriousness (see: “The Matrix Reloaded”), or falling into laziness and excess (“Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”), sequels tend to lose track of the balance of elements that made the original fresh.
This is not always true. “Spider-Man 2,” “X-Men II,” “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Dark Knight” took great stories and characters and improved upon them. And other films call “sequels,” like “The Lord of the Rings” or “Star Wars,” are actually continuations of one long ongoing story. Different rules apply. But when it comes to your ordinary action pic/buddy comedy/horror film/superhero series, the second usually falls flat on its face.
At the same time, poorly reviewed sequels often break box-office records. Thus, the success of a sequel is related not to its reviews or buzz, but to the strength of our experience of the original. If we loved the original, we’ll be seeing the sequel no matter what A. O. Scott writes or Roger Ebert tweets. So while last year’s “Transformers” sequel was thrashed by reviewers, it now stands as the 10th highest domestic grossing film of all time.
Those are the general rules when it comes to major sequels. Yet we are in the early days of summer 2010, and our two preeminent sequels, Iron Man 2 and Sex and the City 2, are performing like wilted flowers. After four weeks “Iron Man 2”’s domestic grosses have reached $274 million--no small potatoes, but $40 million less than its predecessor achieved. And in its opening weekend, the sweet spot of Memorial Day weekend, "Sex and the City 2" yielded only $51 million, $6 million less than the original on the same weekend two years ago.
Ironically, in comparison with your typical sequel, neither of these films is all that bad. To be clear, neither has garnered the greatest reviews. The New York Times thought "Sex and the City 2" should be subtitled “The Sands of Time,” as “the party girls of yesteryear” appear to be morphing into “The Ladies who Lunch.” But both films retain more than a little bit of their sparkle. The generally uninventive action sequences in "Iron Man 2" found this reviewer pinching himself to stay awake (somewhat unsuccessfully); but once Robert Downey Jr. sheds his armor and is allowed to flirt and trade quips with his sterling ensemble cast (which includes Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlet Johansson, Don Cheadle, Sam Rockwell and director Jon Favreau), the picture soars. I love superheroes as much as the next comic-book nerd, but the only thing stopping this film from blowing away its predecessor was the forced supersuit, supervillain nonsense.
“Sex and the City 2,” for its part, struggles to do too much. A significant portion of the story takes place in Abu Dhabi (the new hot spot for those who have somehow missed the global financial crisis). That Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her friends do not arrive there until nearly an hour into the film gives some sense of how unfocused the film is.
At the same time, much like the series itself, “Sex and the City 2” reflects upon the issues of women today--the fears involved with being married once the relationship has grown domesticated; the difficulties of raising children; the attempt to maintain a sexual life in the face of menopause--with an honesty and maturity one cannot readily find elsewhere. On the basis of one extraordinary conversation between mothers Charlotte (Kristin Davis) and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), I would emphatically recommend this film to every mother grappling with young children. And the story’s underlying “message”--that the “right” way of being married is discovered by those involved, rather than in swallowing the conventions of others or society--offers wisdom both challenging and liberating for anyone in a committed relationship.
Did I need to see our girls chased by angry men in Abu Dhabi on account of their open sexuality? Or witness poor Liza Minelli trying to keep up with “All the Single Ladies” in the way, way, way-over-the-top opening wedding sequence? No, I didn’t. But I’d rather sit through that to get to the rich heart (and still interesting relationships) of this film than watch 90 percent of the films due out this summer. (“A-Team”? Really, Liam Neeson?)
A corollary of the sequel rules is this: if a sequel makes money, they’ll make a third one. And often, against all odds, that film is a better story. The team involved has been properly humbled by the critical reception of its predecessor, and so makes an effort to recapture the spark of what made the original great for their audience. (Unfortunately, the audience open to the product is usually much diminished. Fool me once…)
Robert Downey Jr. has already agreed to star not only in another sequel to “Iron Man,” but in the Avengers film which will follow. The possibility of “Sex and the City 3,” I would wager, is a longer shot. But I wish both franchises well. Despite critical reviews and their relatively weak box office performances so far, both these worlds seem to have a lot more story to share.