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"Sequel." A word almost synonymous with "apprehension". In the case of beloved movies, a sequel is often highly-anticipated but also feared because the history of sequels is so mixed. Let's look at a few case studies.

The Godfather (1972) → The Godfather Part II (1974)

This is the most basic kind of good sequel: another great story, filmed solidly, to follow up a great original. It's actually a bookend to the original, with the scenes divided between Vito Corleone's back story and those chronicling Michael's downfall, but it qualifies as a sequel in the most basic sense that it continues the story begun in the original film.

While the first movie satisfyingly ended with Michael symbolically becoming his father despite his protestations to Kate in the first act, from the perspective of the combined saga (let's just do the right thing at the beginning and pretend Part III had never been made) it merely foreshadows his irreversible destruction of the Corleone family and the profound emptiness resulting from his supposed final triumph over his enemies.

It speaks to the power of the sequel that it's hard for me to watch the first movie now without thinking about the ultimate fates of the characters around Michael.

Alien (1979) → Aliens (1986)

This is probably the best example of two movies that are equally excellent in two very different genres. I find in cases like this that the sequel would have been an impressive movie on its own without any connection to the original film, which is a good sign that the sequel was worth doing: there are few things I find more tedious than a re-tread. The first film was basically horror wrapped in a sci-fi skin, while the second film was basically a pure balls-out action film. Whenever I discuss this with people, they start out with the position that "Alien was a much better film" because it introduced the xenomorph and was generally more artistic and "alien", if you will... but then I ask them to quote the film, a test they inevitably fail in favor of iconic quotes from Aliens (e.g., "Game over, man, game over!", "Nuke the whole site from orbit: it's the only way to be sure", etc.)

Both are equally great films for entirely different reasons.

The parallel example of Terminator (1984) → Terminator 2 (1991) isn't quite as impressive because the first film was hamstrung by poor special effects that make it difficult to immerse one's self in the experience. But the idea is the same: instead of writing a second Terminator thriller, Cameron instead moved the franchise to the action genre and created one of the greatest action films of all time.

Star Wars (1977) → The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

This is a great example of the rare sequel that is basically the same type of movie as the original but improved in every respect: storytelling, dialogue, character development, cinematography/visual effects, and overall immersion. For example, Han Solo's character in Star Wars was still new to viewers and a little wooden, but who didn't come out of Empire thinking they knew Han Solo, who through his relatable demeanor and humor became far more familiar to the audience than any other character in the series?

Remember that awful tie fighter battle sequence in Star Wars after the Falcon escapes the Death Star? I keep trying to forget it myself. By the time of Empire, the writers had figured out that objects can move quickly in three dimensions in space: I still get chills when Han says, "Well, we can still outmaneuver them", and then proceeds to do so in rather more impressive fashion than his "evasive maneuvers" from the first film. This was a believable space battle.

There is no question that Empire is the best film of the entire saga. I think Return of the Jedi gets a bad rap because of the Ewoks, but frankly Jedi is still far superior to Star Wars on all of the above criteria. Star Wars was a good beginning—a "new hope", if you will—with a lot of iconic moments, the binary sunset sequence probably the greatest of them, but the promise of that movie was not fully realized until the sequel.

Of course, the less said about the prequels, the better: the prequels are their own special brand of awful sequel. And I frankly couldn't care less about the Disney sequels and saga-related prequels (like Solo), all of which have been forgettable. It's notable and instructive that the best of Disney-era Star Wars have been one-off stories with very little connection to the Skywalker saga: Rogue One, Andor, and The Mandalorian. It turns out the Star Wars universe is large enough to accommodate many interesting and largely-unrelated stories in a setting that is familiar to and comfortable for fans.

The Matrix (1999) → The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

For me, this is the prime example of the sequel that didn't need to be made. The Matrix was such an excellent standalone movie, thermodynamics notwithstanding, that any sequel that attempted to further explore its philosophical or technological premise was bound to conflict with the edifice the viewer's imagination had constructed to fill in the blanks from the original movie.

Zion, for instance, was so much better as a Macguffin than as an actual place. The reality of Zion as a huge underground room with powered armor and a rave-in-a-cave was a letdown from the viewer's imagination of what Zion could be. It didn't need to be fleshed out: it was ideal as an ideal.


T.J. Swoboda said…
Great to see you back at this! I have to "well, ackshully" you on one thing, though: Michael Corleone's wife is Kay, not Kate. Well, it's short for Katherine, so I suppose she could be Kate...

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