OH MAN, we’re back for another opinion article about how to make things work in an industry I know nothing about! This is the third part of my Care Needed series. You can (and should) check out my pieces on Remakes and Reboots before diving into this, but it’s up to you (it’s not; go do it).
This one likely won’t be as long as the other pieces. When it comes to crafting a good story, the same three and a half magic rules apply that I use for my novels: make the audience care about the characters; keep the audiencd guessing, if only a little bit; if the outcome becomes obvious, make the journey worth it by amping up dread/suspense/anticipation; put in “Holy shit” moments.
Now there are a couple ways to go about doing a sequel. You can do them sequentially and build on the story you started in the previous film or you can go a different direction within the same universe.
Let me explain the latter by using the Predator series as an example. Predator, Predator 2 and Predators all take place in the same continuity but have almost nothing to do with each other. There is a nod here and there to the other films in the trilogy but the stories are self-contained with completely different protagonists (no-nonsense but more or less moral Dutch Schaefer, bad-ass police Lieutenant Mike Harrigan, generally scruple-free mercenary Royce).
This works because the writers realize that the story they have told with those main characters don’t need to go on further. They said what they needed to say with that protagonist but that mythos has more material to plumb, so they switched it up each time to keep the familar themes and iconic elements but maintain a freshness to it all.
Alternately, look at the Alien franchise. The first is my favorite just because it’s so different. A claustrophobic sci-fi horror film with a tight cast of well-developed and diverse characters. Aliens went bigger with it and expanded what we know. We get the Weyland-Yutani group, we get the xenomorph queen, and a few new memorable characters. The trash-talking, crumble-under-pressure Hudson, the collected and tough-as-nails Hicks, the ever-so-badass Vasquez, android Bishop, and the excellently slimy Carter Burke. It does a lot of the things a sequel should do, and while I prefer the survival horror of the first one over the action of the second, many feel Aliens was a better film.
Alien 3 was mediocre, but it again expanded on the universe. You’ve got a direct resolution for the survivors of the second film, Ripley’s tragedy and survivor’s guilt and, by the end of the film, a sacrifice that made for an excellent send-off to a top-notch heroine.
Then Alien: Resurrection fucked it all up. Ellen Ripley had a trio of excellent movies that took her for a complete and total story. It was all you needed to say for her. By ripping her back into the story (cloning, of course), you’re just treading water. There was a desire to go bigger and bolder, but it felt schlocky. It was gross to be gross, and while the film franchise has always had dark sexual undertones (due to late H.R. Giger’s uniquely deviant designs), Resurrection thrust it in your face in the most disgusting ways possible. They broke one of my six steps to creating a horror icon: know when to switch it up, start fresh or quit. Ripley should have died and stayed dead and a new trilogy could have taken off by going in a brand new direction.
See also: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which left Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner’s stories wrapped up and took fan-favorite traveling pirate Jack Sparrow on a solid stand-alone adventure.
This is an easy problem to address as long as you, as should also be the case with reboots and remakes, have respect for what has come before. But having respect for and building on what has come before doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go a lot bigger.
The Lethal Weapon series had high action from the get-go. Each film saw its new set-piece fights and its chases and its shoot-outs. There were always climactic final fights. It always felt grounded, though. It felt brutal. Riggs and Murtaugh got the shit kicked out of them and struggled back for a victory despite the fact that they were “too old for that shit”. Unlike the latter Die Hard films, they didn’t need to get crazier and crazier with their stunts and explosions (and I say this as a die-hard Die Hard fan). Their “holy shit” moments were with sudden twists or the anticipated confrontation between hero and foe. I’ve seen Lethal Weapon dozens of times and I still gape at Riggs’ bare knuckle brawl with Mr. Joshua. I still gasp every time John McClane runs across glass in Die Hard.
But Die Hard sacrificed meaningful character development for top notch action. Does he try to make amends with Lucy in Live Free or Die Hard and Jack in A Good Day to Die Hard? Sure, whatever. The plot is a paper man without any heart in it. The films are driven by the action. The first films had desperation. It had John trying to save his marriage, save his wife and save himself while constantly being out of his element. You felt he could lose in those films and it added a sense of suspense the latter two films forgot.
Lethal Weapon, meanwhile, weaves the lives of its characters through all four films. You see real advancement as ths characters and their families age. Riggs deals with depression and suicidal tendencies to redemption to the loss of a lover to an eventual re-marriage. Murtaugh deals with his age and his family, the fact that his kids are growing older and that eventually his baby girl isn’t a baby anymore. And these partners deal with it together. You see this relationship between them start with a borderline hatred and by the fight with Wah Sing Ku at the end of Lethal Weapon 4, they’re two old lions of the same pride, willing to put their lives ahead of each other and their families.
And I’m just going to throw this out there because it pisses me off, but the Spider-Man films have fucked this up twice in five movies.
Spider-Man 2 is thought of by most as the best film (and a huge chunk of it is because Alfred Molina is a scene-chewing, talented son of a gun) and one of the better comic book movies overall. It took what came before (Peter’s relationship with Mary Jane, graduating high school, Harry Osborne’s misguided hate for Spider-Man because he thinks Spidey killed his dad) and builds on it. It advances these plot threads naturally. It keeps one major villain as a focus and has it spin out of a science experiment to keep in line with Peter Parker’s absolute nerdiness. It had bigger fight scenes but it didn’t feel so much bigger so much as the next chapter in a story. It fleshed out more of this mythology with a clean and clear narrative.
Spider-Man 3 shoe-horned a revision to Uncle Ben’s murder so Sandman could be in it, you had Harry become the shittiest second version of the Green Goblin ever and then Venom was in there because….
BECAUSE?! You want an unexplained symbiote suit in there? Fine. You want it to bring the dark side of Peter out to fuck everything up? Great. You even want to introduce Gwen Stacy and Eddie Brock? Sure.
But have Eddie and Gwen be side characters. Have Pete lose the symbiote in the last third of the movie and have it disappear and find Eddie in an after-credits sequence. Take the good things, plant seeds and let them grow in a sequel. By forcing it all into one film, it turned out to be a rushed clusterfuck that I didn’t even like when I saw it in theaters and I would slap someone’s grandmother if she said she thought Spider-Man sucked.
So the franchise got rebooted, Amazing Spider-Man cast a perfect Gwen Stacy, got the science aspect of Peter Parker down pat, expanded on his parents, introduced some new villains. Good stuff.
Then the second film just felt so…disjointed. Electro was done pretty well. Introducing Harry was a smart move. But everything felt so rushed again! His transition from okay to psychotic, from healthy to dying, from normal to slavering Green Goblin came so fast! And here’s the thing: two more Spider-Man films and a Sinister Six spin-off have already been announced. There’s no fucking reason to rush it. These people are getting so excited about what’s ahead of them that they aren’t paying attention to where they’re at. They want BIGGER and BOLDER and EXCITINGER MORE MONEYER and not deeper and smarter and more natural, and the story suffers because of it.
So, and let me apologize really quick because this turned out longer than I thought it would, what steps do you need to take to do a sequel right? Here are my suggestions.
1. First off, decide if you really need one. Honestly. The Usual Suspects didn’t need another Keyser Soze adventure.
2. You do need a sequel? There is more story to tell. Does that story include any of the characters from the first film?
2a. If no, figure out what elements of the story should carry on. Avatar 2 will likely deal with characters from the first film, but you could have an entirely separate indigenous people in a different climate on Pandora and explore that. Taking the Predator out of the jungle and putting him in a city. The Purge sequel is dealing with the same concept of a night out of the year where all crime is legal but instead of one family in a house, they’re taking it to the streets.
2b. If yes, figure out which character has more story to tell. Consider how their arc went in the first film/book. Consider what they went through, what parts of their back story and habits and likes/dislikes were revealed. Consider where the ending left them. Consider their relationships with others. Once you do that, no matter where you take them or what situation you put them in, you have a solid foundation to help them evolve further. To expand their personality and their relationships.
3. Do different things while keeping the best ideas of the original. That sounds stupid or repetitive, but it isn’t really. Aliens worked by following Ripley’s story after leaving the Nostromo and keeping the memorable xenomorphs as an antagonist. The feeling was different, though. Alien had exploration and curiosity and horror and panicked, unprepared survival. Aliens had a group of mercenaries loaded up, ready to kill some “bugs”, and even though they got wiped the fuck out, they had training. Ripley gave them knowledge. But Aliens worked because it gave us a xenomorph we hadn’t seen before. It gave us combat situations. It gave us greedy corporate types (although Ash could be considered Alien’s more violent Carter Burke).
Finding new scenarios and settings to explore keeps things fresh without ignoring or retreading what came before.
4. Bigger is not always better. A tighter focus with real stakes and well-developed characters creates a gripping narrative. Your audience is watching a sequel. They are invested in the progression of either these characters or this world and they want you to guide them to more. If you can hook them with more than spectacle, they will feel something, and if they feel the story, they’ll remember it as more than just “Holy shit” moments.
5. For the love of God, do not cram every idea you have into one sequel. If you’re going a direction without characters from the first part, you have freedom to tell a self-contained story without a bunch of ancillary shit.
If you are continuing on with characters from the original, don’t ignore what came before. You have plot threads, always, that you can expand on or spin off from into something new. Hell, in Die Hard With a Vengeance, Simon Gruber used the man who killed his brother two movies previously, just because knowing who McClane was allowed him to use him as an effective pawn.
You can use existing relationships and story threads and charactet quirks to lead into brand new conflicts. You don’t need to pile that on and then this new thing and this character and then a dozen other things just because it’s all flashy and brand new. It stops being a story and starts being a bargain bin of somewhat related concepts.
To summarize: respect what came first. Have an idea for a natural progression of plot from movie/book one to movie/book two. Respect the characters, themes and details and recognize when that story has run its course. Keep the pacing in mind; if things are rushing from point A to point B, you either have too many things involved or you need to develop certain things more. Don’t do things just because they look or sound cool, do them because they make sense with the rest of the story.
Sequels allow the audience more time with characters and concepts they love, but they didn’t buy the car expecting their not to be an engine in it and they won’t be happy when they turn the ignition and nothing happens.