Huh? Ways Movies Were Betrayed By Their Own Sequels
Some sequels suck because no one involved gives a damn, save for remodeling their patios. Some suck because the entire old cast is dead. But then you get some sequels that, honestly, really do succeed on their own terms. But even so, they totally forget what made the original work, so this perfectly satisfying movie is just another broken promise.
By Avengers: Endgame, Marvel Stopped Caring About Civilians
The following shot is almost universal in superhero movies. Our hero is fighting bad guys or handling a disaster and must act quickly to save some anonymous passersby. We briefly jump to a civilian's point of view, the camera dropping to their level or just focusing on their face. This is so common, you don't notice it -- it happens in the recent DC movies, the recent X-Men movies, and the Sony Spider-Man movies. It happened in early MCU movies like Thor, Iron Man 2, and The Avengers. But at some point, the MCU stopped doing it.
Partly, this was because each movie now juggles such a large main cast that they can just save one another instead of saving strangers. Partly, this was because the trope is most useful when showing off a new hero for the first time, rather than building on established characters. And if movies tire of the old superhero plots and want to try something different, that's fine. But superhero films still are usually about saving the public, so if the camera can't directly identify with members of that public, the movie suffers.
For max effectiveness, make the civilians' faces sympathetic and the hero's face epileptic.
The height of this would seem to be Infinity War, where for all the talk about saving everyone in the universe, the climax sees hundreds of out-of-focus Wakandans slaughtered to spare a hero (Vision, who dies anyway). But no -- the real height of it comes in Endgame.
In Infinity War, half of people everywhere vanish. Due to the movie's structure, we don't see this beyond what happens immediately around characters we were already watching. So given this premise, and given a nine-figure budget, many blockbuster filmmakers would use the sequel to jump back and show this monumental tragedy's scale as it unfolds. A montage of people vanishing, people from all walks of life around the globe, people from various species across the universe. You know Roland Emmerich would have done this. You know Zach Snyder would have done this. Instead, Endgame gives us just one new scene of the Snappening, and it's of Hawkeye.
Who needs a personal motive to save the world. The mark of a true hero.
The scene works, and I understand we're affected emotionally by watching one family we already know. But the missed opportunity here is immense. We miss seeing the shocked immediate reactions of ordinary people. In fact, the only time this film ever focuses on anyone other than the supers and their associates, it's someone doing a cameo (Stan Lee, the director, the directors' Community friends).
Would a montage of widespread death make the movie too bleak? No, because this montage would be the setup, and the payoff would come at the film's end, when we see all these people in different countries and different planets miraculously return. Incredibly, the film we got never actually shows us the return of all the people the Avengers saved, other than by showing those the heroes need personally.
Instead of reunions across the universe, we close on just the heroes happily reunited with their own families. And some of these aren't reunions at all. Ant-Man and The Wasp cuddle after being separated for mere days. Ant-Man and his daughter cuddle though neither was snapped, and they already reunited at the start of the movie. Peter Parker and Ned embrace like they've been apart for years, though both were snapped and so neither had a chance to miss anyone. We're only allowed to care about the heroes and their friends.
I'm not saying every movie has to be filled with fawning, grateful randos. I don't even really like those scenes I mentioned from Thor, Iron Man 2, and The Avengers, and my favorite climax in any MCU movie is Civil War, where the conflict is totally character-based and no one's trying to save anyone. But this film was set up to be about the loss and resurrection of trillions, and yet from watching the finale, it might as well have been about the heroes saving just their own loved ones. We don't get to ever see the ordinary people rejoice. We're left watching Avengers literally admire their own asses.
With Chapter Two, It Became A Comedy Where You Root For The Villain
The first installment of a horror franchise is usually serious. When the killer approaches, we root for the victim to escape. The movie already introduced us to the victim while the killer remains mysterious, and anyway, we want them to survive out of a general revulsion against murder. A few sequels in, however, and the killer is the only returning character, his victims are underdeveloped cannon fodder, and the murders are so formulaic that there's no suspense in wondering whether they'll happen, just entertainment once they do.
Like I said, most horror franchises go through this. But I'm going to pick on It because its switch comes so quickly, in a follow-up that isn't a distant sequel with new characters but a single story's conclusion.
In It: Chapter One, Pennywise attacks each kid (he scares them instead of killing them, but this otherwise plays out much like a slasher movie). We're frightened for the kids and are relieved each time they escape. By Chapter Two, however, the formula is firmly established. All suspense is replaced with something else.
Each time, the character finds themselves in a creepy situation. Pennywise appears in one of his forms. He rushes at the character, who flees. We pause for a second. Then Pennywise rushes at the character again. If we were truly invested in their safety, this would be the tensest point of all. But no: We know the character will escape. The tension was in wondering when the attack would come, and seeing it happen is catharsis, not suspense. We enjoy the attack. So even if we want the Losers to win in the end, during these scenes, we're on the side of Pennywise.
That's clearest in a scene where adult Eddie fights a melty leper. As the leper pukes on him, "Angel of the Morning" plays then cuts out. The song doesn't play in-universe to taunt Eddie. It plays for only us, the audience, to get us to laugh while he is tortured. If they ever want us scared on the character's behalf again, this is even worse than just laughing at the victim's suffering, which actually involves some level of sympathy (when we say "haha, that's gotta hurt," we acknowledge pain is bad). Here, the events don't matter -- we laugh at the incongruous song choice. We laugh for laughter's sake, because the writers decided they wanted us to laugh now.
They want us to laugh a lot watching this film. Comedy's great, even the most serious film can have some, but writers need to expand their joke arsenal beyond humor that undercuts the drama -- as happens when, say, characters keep quipping, even when terrified. It: Chapter One has quips too, but they almost all come from one character, the comedian, and we aren't necessarily always supposed to find his jokes funny, just find it funny that he jokes at all and in ways others find inappropriate. In Chapter Two, everyone quips. Eddie quips about a villain's mullet right after being stabbed in the face, and Eddie is the group's scaredy-cat.
It doesn't help that, with the exception of knife-wielding mulletman, the characters seem to only ever be chased by giant CGI cartoons. Germophobe Eddie would be terrified to be manhandled by an actual person with leprosy. Is it scarier for him to be felt up by a morphing leper cartoon? Maybe not, but it sure is wackier for us! Bev has an unnerving scene with an old woman serving tea, and if that exact elderly host suddenly ran at her naked and attacked, we'd wet our pants (just watch The Shining). Instead, the naked geriatric who appears and chases Bev is an animated 2003 video game boss.
This movie opens with a gang throwing a gay guy to his death in a river and a husband beating his fleeing wife. After those scenes of real horror, they had to know goofy CGI ghouls would leave us shrieking only in startled glee.
Neighbors Went From Existential Crisis To Feel-Good Enabling
If you haven't seen Neighbors, and I tell you I have very strong feelings about the themes in a 2014 Seth Rogen/Zac Efron frat movie, you'd assume I'm joking. I'm not. Because yes, the film is a nutty comedy most of the time, with all the dick and boob gags you could ask for, but here's what happens when the characters hit their Act 2 low point. Frat president Zac Efron has been spending the whole movie defending his house's glory, then VP Dave Franco says, "Who cares? We're about to be adults. In two weeks, none of this is going to matter. You do realize all this stuff is bullshit, right, it's all made up?"
Then there's some arguing about rhyming, which is funnier in context.
The point here isn't that drinking and stuff is bad. Nor is it simply that Zac must grow up and be more responsible. Within the framework of the story and his own life, he has done the responsible thing. He obtained a leadership position, advanced his organization, and hit all the accomplishment benchmarks laid out for him. Yet it adds up to nothing. The wider world doesn't care. He must discard his views on identity and adapt. This is what it means to survive as an adult.
Follow-up Neighbors 2 needn't have taken the exact same route of course, but it did come with a message. In this movie, our new girl heroes are fed up with how houses operate, so they create their own sorority, where they can party their way. At their Act 2 low point, they discover to their horror that they've strayed and become like the sororities they hated. So, they go back to partying their way. Their beliefs at the start of the movie were correct. Also, another student asks if partying their way means she can't wear pretty dresses, and Chloe Grace Moretz clarifies no, it's fine, the important thing is that you Be Yourself.
"Don't sell out to act like the popular girls" is, I'm sure, an important message for 15-year-old girls everywhere. In fact, it's been a theme in nearly every single mainstream non-franchise movie aimed at teen girls for the past 30 years, usually explained directly to the audience in a voiceover or by someone looking into the camera. But Neighbors 2 is rated R. Its target audience are adults. Surely adults watching this movie don't need to be validated about their desired party style. So, are we supposed to gaze down at these characters and worry over them as we would our own children, while the original asked us to relate to the frat guys and to the homeowners equally?
Plainly, I'm bitter because a movie didn't tailor itself to me specifically, but never mind that. The writers made a frat movie, and they portrayed the disillusionment of adulthood and the crisis of realizing maturity means ditching your limited value system. Then they made a sorority sequel and figured, "Oh, girls. So they're kids then. Better trot out the same comforting message every girls' movie has." Because be yourself really only does work as a message for children, who, no matter their flaws, we fear will only get worse with peer pressure. For everyone other than children, we know self-improvement means change. So if you plan to respect someone and treat them like an adult, it's clear what advice you should give. "Don't be yourself, you little shit. Yourself sucks."
Incredibles Was A Satire About People. Incredibles 2 Is A Superhero Film About Superheroes.
The most common criticism I heard toward Incredibles 2 was it's too similar to its predecessor. Similar villain grudge, similar plot with a parent secretly hero'ing, similar lesson about family teamwork, similar resolution in the public embracing supers. It's the same movie! claimed some people. Which is kind of an amazing conclusion because based on traditional definitions, these movies belong to two entirely different genres.
Incredibles 2 is an action-comedy. But The Incredibles was a parody. It's easy to equate the two types of movie because blockbusters today are full of self-aware jokes (and at least two Marvel villains now come across as rip-offs of Syndrome), but Incredibles went further than any straight superhero film could.
For instance, do you remember why superheroes were outlawed in The Incredibles? I thought it was collateral damage, but it started with someone suing Mr. Incredible for stopping him from killing himself -- which is both surprisingly dark for a family movie and a daring joke beyond what any straight superhero movie could manage. The very idea of superheroes raising a family and using their powers for wrangling kids was an absurd premise in the original film. Mr. Incredible and Frozone have a buddy cop conversation where they mock villains for monologuing. Henchmen play a drinking game while watching security cams, doing a shot every time someone runs.
Those gags are gone by The Incredibles 2. We get comedy, sure, but it's sitcom-style stuff, very little of which plays with the genre. And I know, I was just saying with It that we need types of humor besides self-referential jokes, but that's because I don't want my drama watered down. I don't want my satire watered down either.
However, while Incredibles 2 doesn't play with the genre, it does comment on the genre, and the crazy part is it does this dead seriously. We get repeated serious discussions about the merits and shortcomings of superheroes and a serious villain speech about how people watch superheroes on screens rather than taking action. If you enjoy arguing about the societal implications of superheroes like I do, this is great stuff, but it also sort of ... doesn't really matter? Because superheroes are only a thing in movies, and there's deeper real stuff out there to look at?
That's the funny thing about satire. Even as it cracks jokes about a genre, it uses these jokes to humorously make real points about more universal ideas.
In The Incredibles, superheroes hiding their powers, particularly son Dash hiding his, is about real talent being stifled -- an idea so layered, fans still debate whether it's inspiring or fascist. Dash does not have this subplot in Incredibles 2, nor any subplot. Mr. Incredible's need to return to heroics critiques the insecurities that come with midlife crisis. Elastigirl's equivalent Incredibles 2 adventure is instead just guiltlessly cool, because Pixar took tips from Neighbors on how to gender-flip a story. (As a feminist point, it's clumsy; Helen had long proven herself equal to anyone and already rediscovered what hero-ing feels like in the previous movie.)
"I kick ass" isn't a lesson if you already knew it.
But even if Incredibles 2 took more guidance from the original, it may still have never measured up to it, thanks to something that affects sequels in general and a few sequels in particular:
The Secret Ingredient Of The Original Kingsman Was Impossible To Reproduce
Many original movies work so well thanks to escalation. When the show starts, you know nothing, the film must gradually introduce its characters and premise, and if the script is good, it does this masterfully. I'm not talking about the rightfully dreaded "origin story" that opens so many franchises by needlessly telling a tale we already know -- I'm talking about genuinely starting from scratch and building from there.
Take Incredibles again. It starts with us in the dark about the heroes we see, surprises us when they turn out to be crimefighting en route to their wedding, gets credit for the whole concept of heroes going into hiding, then jumps forward in time. Movies also escalate in stakes. At the start of Incredibles, they pursue muggers on foot, and by the end, they save the city from a giant robot (and tease some new villain who opposes all of humanity). In the sequel, they start by saving the city from another giant machine, and there's only so much things can intensify from there.
Franchises try introducing new characters with each sequel and somehow raising the stakes even beyond the original's finale. Sometimes, this loses track of everything that made the original work, like Die Hard, and other times, the movies get better each time, like Mission: Impossible. And sometimes, it's completely impossible.
That brings us to Kingsman: The Secret Service. The film succeeds so much not just because any one action scene is cool but because of how bizarre things get progressively compared with how they started out. At first, our hero Eggsy is recruited into a secret organization and must battle challengers in the traditional young adult competition format. It's fairly easy to guess where they'll go from here. Over the course of the movie, Eggsy will triumph over his snobbish rival, connect romantically with another recruit, and finally work with his agency to succeed at some mission.
It goes something like that, but soon, the premise of kids competing vanishes and the story continues over the course of several years. We're treated to the craziest action scene yet, and it doesn't feature Eggsy at all. When the climax approaches, Eggsy has acquired new fighting moves that break the laws of physics, no explanation given or required. Then he presses a button and kills every head of state worldwide, and we see this depicted as a cartoon. I'm not using "cartoon" to mock CGI again -- it's an actual cartoon, to formally transition us into the surreal.
The only way forward from here is a sequel performed entirely by puppets.
Off-screen, millions are implied to murder each other. Then after defeating the bad guys, Eggsy doesn't just hook up with some expectedly established love interest -- he rescues a literal princess, she suggests anal within seconds of their meeting, and her prison cell magically transforms into a luxurious, fully stocked sex pad. No rules are left in existence. How can you possibly continue the story from here, following the same trajectory?
You can't, any more than a theoretical Matrix sequel could leave bullet time the boring prologue to something even weirder. (The Matrix sequels did try to escalate, with a new world and all-out war, but the original's exponential curve was always unsustainable.) In fact, criticizing precisely how the Kingsman sequel fails to escalate -- it goes international, like any normal sequel might -- is almost beside the point. It was bound to fall short.
Kingsman: The Golden Circle actually walks back from Secret Service just to give itself something to work with. Billions of people didn't murder each other, it turns out. Nor is there any reference to Eggsy separately killing the members of every government. As for the butthole princess, she upgrades to full-fledged significant other, which I'm sure struck some writer as the respectful thing to do. But this retroactively makes the previous film's finale a genuine damsel-in-distress scenario instead of the bonkers parody it originally was.
The third Kingsman film is set to be a prequel. Who knows, that might actually work in the movie's favor. It's easier to escalate when you start from nothing.
Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for bits cut from this article and other stuff no one should see.