Looking at this summer’s movie lineup, it seems like the summer-of-sequels (or was that last summer, too?). Every big-name, big-budget blockbuster is just another part of some preexisting franchise. Even movie news focuses on sequels: Batman 3 teasers and Toy Story 4 rumors blow up my news feeds. Lurking beneath all this hype is the criticism that Hollywood is creatively bankrupt; that they cannot, or will not, make something “new.” This argument is myopic in its scope. Sequels have been an inherent piece of Western culture since its beginning. What is the Odyssey if nothing but the Illiad’s sequel? The New Testament to the Old? Shakespeare dabbled in sequels with his King Henry plays. To attribute the desire for sequels to some lack of creative spark is an error, because to do so damns many of our civilization’s best works right alongside today’s far less canonical blockbusters.
While this pop-critical structure collapses around itself, the underlying recognition of massive sequel density holds true. Sequels have expanded into a large part of the creative output of almost every art form. Most movies are, if not part of a series, then reboots or remakes of previously created properties. Multi-novel sagas like Twilight and Harry Potter, not standalone texts, dominate book sales. Video game companies churn out sequels like clockwork. Even music has its fair share of follow-ups. Both Lil Wayne and Jay-Z have album trilogies. But, tragically for all of us, this phenomenon doesn’t reflect the demands of corporate executives. It reflects the state of our own, sequel-obsessed culture.
The recurring, recognizable characters and setting of any franchise give the viewer a few hours of respite from our frantic postmodern world. Why worry about the Legislative and Executive Branches’ political maneuvering on budgetary policies, Euro-zone economic instability, the long-term effects of a troop draw-down in Afghanistan, Facebook privacy updates, or your own personal issues when you can watch Harry Potter’s cinematic saga come to an exciting and satisfying conclusion? Sequels offer the easiest escapism: a retreat to the familiar. The setting and the characters need no introduction, and so no anxious judgments of acceptability need to be made. The attraction and significance extend further, though, outside purely narrative confines. Many of these serial intellectual properties were birthed in our halcyon childhood, and some even stretch past our date of birth. Either way, this predisposes us to imbue these tried-and-true properties with meaning. At their worst, sequels draw upon this respect for a boost in relevance and revenue. At their best, successive installments update what is our modern mythology. Transformers 2 climaxed in the Middle East, presenting the easy dichotomy of Autobots and Decepticons as some simulacrum of Iraq and Afghanistan. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, in a horrifically meta move, has Harry and co. return to Hogwarts, to their childhood haunt, the same mental journey that so many members of the audience, now in their teens and twenties, undergo as they watch the film.
This desire for familiarity on the part of the consumer paradoxically contributes to the rage against sequels. The recently hinted at Toy Story 4 is a travesty because the story wrapped itself up so perfectly, giving closure to all the Millennials (and their parents) who grew up with the films. This sentiment is misplaced. The audience’s anticipation or discovery of an end is erroneous, as they are not the creator. Just because Toy Story works so well as a trilogy does not mean that the series deserves to end. The fact that the movie was such a big hit hints at just the opposite fact. This blind logic would necessitate that Toy Story 2 would have been a perfect place to stop as well, since its conclusion tied off all loose ends. The triumph of great sequels, such as the Odyssey, Dr. Dre’s 2001, and The Dark Knight, is that they build upon their seemingly complete predecessors, furthering the franchise’s already rich texture. If some sliver of artistic greatness comes from working within limits, then the confines of existing narratives demand that whatever follows them be imaginative and new.
Even big, “new” intellectual properties break down into sequels. Avatar best exemplifies this. It is the hyper-sequel: layering an intentional re-production of reality (with its CGI world and 3-D gimmicks) over a regurgitated synthesis of the themes and stories of previous, successful films. It is so effective at ingraining its utopian update of our own existence on viewers that some poor souls, cut off from Pandora and the Na’vi, suffered actual depression. Everything about the film was so perfectly archetypal that the messy, nonfictional, original world failed to live up to Cameron’s update.
So the derivative or unimaginative insult hurled at sequels is an invalid complaint, because even “new” IPs are equally derivative, just not blatantly so. Their derivation is merely not a part of the marketing strategy. The fault for the overabundance of sequels does not lie with Hollywood, but with the consumers: you and I. Everyone who goes and watches Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 or Toy Story 3, everyone who retweets or adds trending hashtags (even when you do it ironically) or posts recycled material on Tumblr, everyone who does any of those things is contributing to the culture of sequels that we live in today. When you want and drive the production of these half-new things, you can’t complain about the dearth of the “new.”