by Adam-Troy Castro
Everybody loves them; everybody hates them.
Everybody complains when they’re too much like their originals, everybody complains that they’re too little like their originals, everybody complains when characters grow and change, everybody complains when they don’t.
Everybody says they’re always worse.
Everybody points out those cases where pretty much everybody agrees that they’re better. (That list doesn’t begin with Aliens. It doesn’t even begin with Huckleberry Finn. You can argue that it doesn’t even begin with Henry V.)
About all that we agree about is that when they suck, they really really suck.
And it’s understandable why. For the most part, we don’t sequelize stories that didn’t work at all. We sequelize stories where it’s reasonable to believe that the audience wanted to know more. Or we sequelize stories that worked smashingly well the first time, and try to re-capture the same magic. If the original is beloved, it’s easy to disappoint, harder to match, almost impossible to exceed.
The long list of movie sequels that completely missed whatever people loved about the original product goes back to the dawn of Hollywood, which would include many years where the form was looked down upon, and generally avoided.
We should say, though, that even then, there was substantial cheating.
Charlie Chaplin was famed for a character known as the Little Tramp. If the name doesn’t ring of recognition, then we reach a point I often do in these columns, where I exhort you to put down those DVD sets of movies and TV series you’ve seen a million times, and write fan-fiction about, and immortalize in lists of ten-best-episodes and so on, and for the love of God, investigate something you should have known about long before now.
The character, born of Chaplin’s vaudeville roots and inspired by a few pieces of mismatched clothing that he donned and then reverse-engineered, was the quintessential homeless man, a harmless and kind-hearted being who was not incapable of angry aggression against those who wronged him. He was arguably the single greatest recurring character in the history of the movies, and if you want to disagree, we can cede enough ground to say that it’s impossible to conceive of an educated viewer not putting him somewhere in the all-time top ten. Chaplin played him for twenty-five years, in dozens of shorts and a bunch of features, between 1915 and 1940, stopping only when circumstances obliged one of the character’s many incarnations to speak out loud for the very first time.
But it’s impossible to think that these were all adventures of the same Little Tramp.
Some of the movies took place in what was then the current day. One, The Gold Rush, took place at the titular historical moment. A couple of the movies ended with the Little Tramp finding the love, or at least the warm welcome, of a good woman; a couple ended with him once again alone, and headed toward an uncertain. In some he was an immigrant new to the United States. In some he was apparently a disenfranchised citizen. In one (and people will argue over whether this character counts as a version of the Little Tramp), he was a traumatized Jewish war veteran in a country very much like Nazi Germany, released from a hospital after many many years to find himself swept up in events very much like those that preceded Hitler’s Final Solution.
There is absolutely no way to produce a concordance of the character’s appearances that put them on a single coherent timeline. Nor did anybody sane ever want to. It was understood, even by audiences who would have stumbled over the word, that he was an archetype, mutually exclusive versions of a character who might be encountered in multiple times and places, who was reborn for the purposes of every new story.
A similar dynamic applied to the partnered appearances of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy; they were almost always “Stan and Ollie,” but they weren’t always necessarily the same Stan and Ollie, not when they were sometimes poor and sometimes prosperous, sometimes bachelors and sometimes married, sometimes inseparable and on one occasion old war buddies reunited after many years. A few of their films take place in other historical moments and at least one was an outright fantasy. A devout fan, your humble essayist believes that they only made two films where one was specifically a sequel to the prior: 1934’s Them Thar Hills and 1935’s Tit For Tat, in which the first detailed their escalating battle against an unpleasant interloper and the second had them encounter the same guy, to even more resulting mayhem, a second time. (If you haven’t seen them, the latter in particular is wet-your-drawers hilarious.) But again, the audience didn’t waste any effort trying to make all these contradictory storylines match up. They were archetypes: two guys who could appear in similar guises at any point where there were mistakes to be made, hilarious consequences to be suffered.
Clint Eastwood made several westerns that were marketed as all being about The Man With No Name, a useful fiction reflecting the fact that these characters all had similar characteristics but contradicting internal evidence that they did have names and were in fact different human beings entirely. Similarly, a strong case can be made that Mad Max Rockatansky, the character played by Mel Gibson in three movies and by Tom Hardy in one, is somehow pretty much the same age for what amounts to entire generations of grim human history; the stories cannot be made to line up, not perfectly, and so we are led to the conclusion that he is another archetype, whose stories are all self-contained despite occasional efforts to pretend otherwise.
So, yeah, dating back to the beginning of the movies, not all sequels were really sequels. They were moments of useful resonance.
But there are other kinds of sequels.
One category would be Another Unrelated Adventure of the Same Guy. All the movies based on Raymond Chandler’s series of novels about private-detective Philip Marlowe stand alone; the character is pretty much a fellow with no social life but a consistent voice, whose travails sorting out one nest of corruption almost always start with him being pretty much the same person he was the last time he took on a case, and will be the next time he has to. (I am aware that there are exceptions.) Marlowe was played by a couple of dozen guys over the years, from Humphrey Bogart to James Garner and Robert Mitchum, with one weird and oddly inspired turn where he was played by Elliott Gould, and aside from the Gould that places him in an era not his own, it was never particularly difficult to recognize him as the same guy, living the same life, doing the same things, living by the same code.
In the original stories at least, and in those pastiches that respect their continuity, Sherlock Holmes was also always the same guy. He becomes more of an archetype when moved up to whatever the present day is, as was managed in various incarnations by Basil Rathbone, Jonny Lee Miller, and Benedict Cumberbatch — and these competing versions cannot be reconciled, even if you feel you must — but if he’s in Victorian London and not directly contradicting what came before, it’s usually not hard to nod and say that he’s the same guy Conan Doyle was writing about when he penned The Hound of The Baskervilles.
This is interestingly no longer quite true of Superman and Batman and James Bond. We have had several contradictory versions, in the comics and on-screen, of each of these, and audiences have had no problem recognizing that we’re seeing variations on a theme. It’s largely impossible, otherwise, to say that the Superman of Man of Steel, the Batman of The Dark Knight, and the James Bond of Skyfall are precisely the same people played by Christopher Reeve, Adam West, or Sean Connery; you just can’t make these leaps, not even if you have geekgasms at the sight of Craig hauling out a clearly much-praised Aston Martin. They are reinventions, of variable success and worth.
Another kind of sequel would be, Let’s Reverse What Happened Before and Start Over Again.
And usually, it sucks. It frequently requires a retreat from any character development accomplished in the original; to wit, the bickering couple that wind up in a clinch are bickering again for no persuasive reason and must fall back in love, usually via the same means. This is an attempt to sabotage prior closure, and it’s often so despicable that it is rejected outright.
For instance, another classic movie that many of you need to check out, if you haven’t already, is Mister Roberts (1955), all about a principled naval man on a cargo ship during World War Two. I need not give you the details except to note that Roberts is pretty much the same person, throughout; the character who changes is one Ensign Pulver, driven by his example to become a better man. It’s a great movie, with a terrifically heroic fade-out for Pulver But nine years later somebody had the bright idea of making another film, Ensign Pulver (1964), in which the titular young man is once again the cowardly, reticent, selfish being he was at the onset of the first film, all his character development lost. He changes and grows again, due to much dumber events, but this amounts to saying, “Hey, you know that great stuff that happened in the first movie? Forget that nonsense; this stuff we’re showing you now, this much dumber stuff, is the real story of Ensign Pulver.” Nobody bought it, which is why the first film is still considered a classic and the second is pretty much ignored today.
Another form of sequel with frequently disappointing results would be The Same Thing Happens Again, and You’re Willing To Pay For It. The Japanese have a series of romantic comedies about a poor lonely schlub who always meets a young woman, a different young woman, on vacation, always falls in love with her, and is always sadly abandoned by her at the end. They made almost twenty of them, all with the same actor, ending only when he was too old to continue. People loved the suffering of the poor schmuck he played, and boy, would they have complained had any of his romances ever stuck.
Another form would be It Happens Again, Only To A Cast We Could Pay Less.
Another would be As Long As There’s Money, We Will Not End This While A Drop of Air Remains In our Lungs. (Terminators. Definitely. Since the second, they’ve just been chewing the same gum.)
Really, there are many in that category.
But really, the best kind is: We Thought It Out, And Here Are The Implications.
Sometimes it means telling you that the happy ending didn’t work out all that well; sometimes somebody really looked at the finale of the prior film and said, you know what? Those guys would be in big trouble, another ten years down the road. Or: gee, the world would be real different, if this happened; we should explore the aftermath.
And that’s where we’ll go next time.
In The Magic Lantern, multiple Hugo and Nebula nominee Adam-Troy Castro reviews and reveals under-appreciated films worth talking about. This column will alternate with The Remake Chronicles, in which A-TC examines the stories that movies keep returning to.