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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Serials, series & sequels

As I noted last summer (actually I noted that Jay Leno noted it, in my write-up on Shrek 2), movie sequels seem to be better than they used to be. Is this really true? Do sequels deserve the bad rap they generally get from film snobs (like me)?

First of all, what exactly is a sequel? My dictionary says, at least in terms of literature, that it is “a literary piece that is in itself complete but further develops a story line previously narrated.” This distinguishes movies and their sequels from the movie serial, a term which refers to a group of films that tell a single story in sequential order. As Katz’s Film Encyclopedia tells us, this form was popular in the early days of cinema and was characterized by the proverbial cliffhanger at the end of each episode. The genre was pioneered by serials like The Perils of Pauline and blossomed with yarns based largely on heroes from comic books or the funny papers, i.e. Dick Tracy, Mandrake the Magician, The Green Hornet, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, etc.

At the same time, in the early 20th century, there were groups of films that were called series, which differed from serials in that each movie, while featuring the same characters, told a completely self-contained story. The pioneer in this genre seems to be the character of detective Nick Carter, but we can all name lots of other characters that have been featured in series: Andy Hardy, Blondie, the brassy showgirl Maisie (played by Ann Sothern), Ma & Pa Kettle (spun off from The Egg and I), Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan, Tarzan, James Bond. The list goes on and on. Needless to say, the early movie series were the forerunners of the television series, while the serials more or less begat soap operas. In television, the two have kind of merged, with every program (from police dramas to situation comedies) having elements of the serial (complete with season-ending cliffhangers) and the series.

Strictly speaking, individual episodes in a serial do not qualify as sequels since they are not meant to stand alone as stories. By the same token, all entries but the initial ones in a series would qualify, at least technically, as sequels. But for our purposes here, let us consider movie sequels those films that were not concretely planned or conceived until after its predecessor was completed. Usually, these sorts of sequels have been made to “cash in” on the success of a movie, by giving the money-paying audience more of what it apparently wants. In some cases, several sequels result, forming a virtual, if unplanned, series. Examples of this would include the various sequels made of successful Universal horror movies in the 1930s and 1940s, like Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy and The Wolf Man, usually with titles featuring phrases like “son of” or “versus.” Other such improvised series followed films like Lassie Come Home, The Thin Man and Hope and Crosby’s The Road to Singapore.

So, while the film title featuring a Roman numeral seems a relatively recent phenomenon (Superman II, Rambo III, Star Trek IV, Rocky V, Friday the 13th Part XXIII), the I’s and V’s are only a modern refinement to a longstanding cinematic tradition: the movie series, planned or otherwise. Somewhere along the way, however, sequels got a bad name with film critics and fastidious moviegoers. In fairness, such follow-ups as Death Wish II, Exorcist II: The Heretic, Rocky II, Jaws 2, The Karate Kid Part II, Porky’s II: The Next Day and Grease 2 seemed unnecessary at best or criminal at worst. In some cases (e.g. Rocky) the concept had pretty much been exhausted in the first film. In other cases (e.g. Jaws 2, Grease 2), the problem was mainly that the original talent was not involved in the sequel, and it showed. (Having the same talent was instrumental in the success of the two movies that sparked this conversation last summer: Shrek 2 and Spider-Man 2). But something interesting happened in 1974. Francis Ford Coppola made a sequel to his critical and commercial success, The Godfather. Not only was the talent behind the camera back, but so was most of the cast (with the notable exception of Marlon Brando, who would have been useful for a cameo at best). And the movie was as good or better than the original. In 1980, Superman II came out, and (again, in spite of or because of the absence of Marlon Brando?) it was better than the first Superman movie. It had a different director (Richard Lester) than its predecessor (Richard Donner), but it turned out that there was actually a fair amount of overlap between the shooting of the two movies and where one director’s work began and the other’s began was a bit murky. The trend of big-budget sequels to big-budget movies actually improving things was further strengthened by a couple of outer space franchises. Many Star Wars fans thought The Empire Strikes Back (directed by Irvin Kershner but still under the creative control of George Lucas) was better still. And most Star Trek fans conceded that Nicholas Meyer’s The Wrath of Kahn was better than Robert Wise’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Not every science fiction sequel has turned out as happily as those. In fact, many haven’t. And even the Star Trek and Star Wars movies have finally worn out their welcome with many fans, if not necessarily with the box office. And now the whole sequel thing has come full circle again now with Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings. Conceived and executed as a single three-film unit, this qualifies as a movie serial rather than a movie and two sequels. The difference is that the stakes were astronomically higher than with the old serials. It was a huge act of faith to commit to three big-budget movies in the contemporary marketplace rather than following the standard business model of making one movie first and then seeing how much money it made before committing to the second film. From the movie fan’s point of view, this way of doing things is infinitely preferable. Fortunately, for all concerned, in this case it turned out pretty well for the financial backers as well.

-S.L., 24 March 2005

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