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Why do most movie sequels fail?

Keanu Reeves as Neo in The Matrix holding out his hand with magical spirals or something appearing to emanate from him.
Warner Bros. Pictures
Keanu Reeves as Neo in “The Matrix”
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This is a full transcript of the eighth episode of the Quartz Obsession podcast season two on sequels. Here’s a lightly edited transcript if you prefer.

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Kira Bindrim: If you want to get a debate going around the dinner table, there are a lot of topics available. Like, is there an afterlife? How do you define a sport? And exactly how big is Clifford the Big Red Dog? But if you really want to start an argument, you might ask the table which is better, Star Wars: A New Hope, or Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

Great debates about movie sequels are timeless. You’ll still find people today going toe-to-toe over Star Wars, Terminator, and Alien. But what’s also timeless is the concept of a sequel—following up a popular movie with another one, which might be better, but might also be worse. In today’s movie market dominated by blockbuster hits, it’s easy to see the push for sequels as a cynical cash grab, or just everyone trying to be Marvel.

But sequels aren’t bad, they’re just misunderstood. Making a follow-up film is a unique challenge with a very specific set of decisions. And that nuance helps explain why so many sequels are, well, not good. But it also offers a blueprint for making a really great one.

This is the Quartz Obsession, a podcast that explores the fascinating backstories behind everyday ideas, and what they tell us about the global economy. I’m your host, Kira Bindrim. Today: sequels, the quest to make lightning strike twice.

I am joined now by Adario Strange, who is here with me in the studio. Adario is Quartz’s media and entertainment reporter. And I feel like the first question I need to ask you, Adario, is: What is your favorite sequel?

Sequels, reboots, and movie franchises

Adario Strange: Oh, wow. Hmm. I guess just throughout the long history of sequels, it would be The Empire Strikes Back. But I love so many. But, yeah, that would be top, the top one. Actually, I think that it’s… yeah, that would be. Yeah.

Kira Bindrim: I feel like you’re gonna DM me in like three hours like, ‘Wait wait wait wait.’

Adario Strange: ‘Wait wait wait wait, no I meant to say… yeah.’

Kira Bindrim: It’s very tempting to just talk to you about movies right off the bat, like specific movies. But before we go any further, I actually want to start by defining some terms, or maybe even debating some terms. What would you say is the difference between a sequel, a reboot, and a franchise?

Adario Strange: Okay, so a good example of a sequel would be Blade Runner. Even though there was like a 35 -year gap, you have consistent characters, and it expands on the plot. Reboot would be Dune, where, again, another property from the 80s, but the latest version is essentially the same story but completely new actors, you know, somewhat different aesthetic. But it’s basically the same story, just completely rebooted. And franchise is, I think that kind of like gets more into the business side of things. It’s like, can we exploit this, as a studio, as producers, can we exploit this as merchandise, toys? Can we create spin-offs? So that would be kind of like franchise, cinematic-universe fare.

Kira Bindrim: So if we are taking the same characters in the same story and realizing it, maybe in a slightly different way years later, that’s a reboot. If we are carrying that story forward with the same characters, that’s probably a sequel. And if we are taking that plot and group of characters and expanding out beyond it, bringing in new people and new stories, that is a cinematic universe. Is that fair?

Adario Strange: Yeah, but I think it’s important to note that cinematic universe, it sounds like it’s about aesthetics, but I think it’s more about commerce, frankly.

Kira Bindrim: Creating more opportunities to sell stuff, basically.

Adario Strange: Yeah, to exploit the property. To exploit the IP.

Avengers: Endgame or Aliens

Kira Bindrim: Okay, it is time for a game, because I love a game. This game is called ‘Highs and Lows.’ And here’s how it works: You came prepared, I hope with a short list of two of the highest-grossing sequels of all time. You are going to describe the plot of each and I am going to hopefully successfully guess which sequel it is. And then in return, I have come with a list of two of the worst sequels of all time, and I will describe the plot to you and see if you can guess, and that will be our game. Are you ready?

Adario Strange: Oh, wow. Okay, yeah. This is interesting.

Kira Bindrim: Okay, you go first.

Adario Strange: So describe the plot. Humanity has been wiped out. Our villain has had to go through an epic, Odyssey-like journey to reach his goal—his or her goal, no clues. And now, our few remaining heroes must travel to the ends of the universe to attempt to make things right.

Kira Bindrim: Is this Aliens?

Adario Strange: Oh, wow. I’m shocked. I’m shocked you didn’t get this. Oh, wow. Wow, really? Okay. All right. That’s Avengers: Endgame.

Kira Bindrim: Okay, that makes sense. I’m not a Marvel person. I was like ‘Jeez, Kira.’ Spoilers, dang.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens or The Empire Strikes Back

Adario Strange: Um, alright, so the other one. So, oh man, I’m trying to figure out how to say this without giving you a clue. A high-level practitioner of a particular art has gone missing and the key to reviving the resistance force—damn it, that’s a clue—the resistance force to fight against the evil powers that be hinges on finding this top-level general and practitioner of a certain art.

Kira Bindrim: Okay, this is Empire? No? What’s wrong with me?

Adario Strange: No. Oh my god. So, answer yes? Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Kira Bindrim: Oh, okay, it was a star war.

Adario Strange: Yeah. So you were close.

Kira Bindrim: I’ll give myself a B minus.

Adario Strange: Now I’m scared, I feel like you’re gonna make this one really hard for me.

Speed 2 or Passenger 51

Kira Bindrim: Well there’s probably some clues in mine. But okay, number one, bad sequel. Annie is looking forward to a Caribbean cruise with her cop boyfriend who purchased the tickets to make up for lying about working on the SWAT team. Rude. Their trip turns dangerous, however, when an explosion disables the ship’s communication system, and it becomes clear that the vessel is under someone else’s control. Alex and Annie must fight for survival as they discover that a crazed passenger is behind the chaos.

Adario Strange: Annie is the actual character’s name? Or you’re just…

Kira Bindrim: Character’s name.

Adario Strange: Okay, I don’t know, so I’m just gonna guess. Passenger 51?

Kira Bindrim: That’s good guess. Speed 2.

Adario Strange: Dang it. Yeah, okay.

Son of the Mask

Kira Bindrim: It’s because you expect her to be with Keanu but she’s not anymore because he didn’t do Speed 2. To be fair, Speed 2 grossed $48 million at the box office. It did pretty well, but it was, I think, universally considered quite bad. Okay, number two bad sequel. A cartoonist and family man lives a peaceful existence with his wife as well as their infant son and dog. When the curious canine finds a mask with mystical properties, both dog and baby create chaos with its powers. While they try to contain the damage, the sly Norse god Loki comes looking for the artifact, resulting in more mishaps that ultimately incur the wrath of the deity’s powerful father, Odin. Don’t you want to watch that now?

Adario Strange: There are so… I feel like you just gave me all these clues. And I have no idea. There’s a baby who found a mask? I have no idea. And Loki is involved.

Kira Bindrim: Loki is involved.

Adario: This is live action or animation?

Kira Bindrim: This live action with a good bit of CGI.

Adario Strange: A baby? I think I’m stumped.

Kira Bindrim: Okay. I didn’t know this movie existed until I was preparing for this game. It is Son of the Mask, the sequel to The Mask. 

Adario Strange: Oh, see, when you said that, I thought it was a Mask sequel.

Kira Bindrim: It came out in 2005, which is so much later than The Mask, and it only made $17 million at the box office.

Adario Strange: See, when you threw the Loki thing in, that threw me, that threw the scent off.

Kira Bindrim: I think that through the watchers off. Like, who knew Loki was part of The Mask?

Adario Strange: I’m interested now. I want to see that.

Kira Bindrim: So clearly this game means that you and I need to go home and watch Son of the Mask over this weekend, and we will consider that our homework. The other thing I think it makes clear is that sequels can be pretty hit-or-miss depending on a lot of things. And I think that’s part of what makes them really fun to debate. Because you form kind of an attachment to these characters, this universe. And now you kind of feel some type of way about how it’s developed, and then you can sort of go at that with other people. So I want to really wrap my head around how the sequel was born, both culturally and as a business model. When I think of the great sequel debates, I’m thinking of Terminator, Alien, Jurassic Park. But those are all happening in the last 30 years. So what would you argue is the first sequel that we know about?

The first movie sequel

Adario Strange: As far as I can find, it’s Fall of a Nation, which is the follow-up to Birth of a Nation. So 1915 for Birth of a Nation, and then they rushed out Fall of a Nation in 1916, I believe. And the idea in Fall of a Nation is that they’re, you know, protecting America from invading Europeans, I think led by Germany, perhaps.

Kira Bindrim: Of all of the movies you could have said for sequel, that is not the one that would have come to mind first. It’s interesting and makes me think that at the time, a sequel is about replicating a message, whereas now it’s about replicating financial success versus messaging.

Adario Strange: I’ve never seen Fall of a Nation, so I can’t get that deep into what it’s about per se, but both films seem to be about, you know, kind of America rising up for whatever reasons to fight for some particular cause.

Kira Bindrim: Yeah, no more sequels in that camp. I think that franchise can be done.

Adario Strange: One would hope.

Kira Bindrim: So let me ask you. If we had to invent like a framework or a checklist that’s maybe not foolproof, but it’s pretty good for determining whether a sequel is going to be good, or maybe even better than the original, what are the things that we should be looking for to say, ‘that one will probably pass muster?’

Adario Strange: Okay, so, first of all, it remains true to the original, but there’s a major twist. If it just tries to repeat what happened before, that’s kind of like the opposite. That’s kind of like on the list of like, what not to do. It doesn’t necessarily bring back the main character, but it almost always brings back the supporting character, or one of the fan favorites, you know, in terms of characters from the first. And then the look, the aesthetic, the cinematography, the costumes, just the aesthetic of the original. I’ve seen some decent sequels, where just the original director wasn’t on board, the original effects crew, they weren’t on board. And it was a great effort as a sequel, but it just doesn’t look the same. It doesn’t look connected at all to the original.

Worst movie sequels

Kira Bindrim: What about the same question in reverse? What are the indicators that a sequel will not be good? Or is maybe being made for the wrong reasons?

Adario Strange: One of the worst things you can do is try to make the sequel too fast. The audiences can immediately grok that you are just being greedy and you try to do this really quick turnaround. Also, if none of the original cast returns. If you know the sequel is like a real sequel, a meaningful sequel, and no one, like not even minor [characters]… it’s just all new people, why didn’t you just make a new movie? Why aren’t we just watching a new film? Why is this a sequel? And then finally, I would say, if the plot is just a blatant rip-off, like, ‘Oh, this worked the first time, we made money from this, we’re just going to literally repeat this.’ Just the plot is like a beat-by-beat repeat of the original. There’s no twist, there’s no expansion on the narrative. It’s just like a complete copy, like carbon copy. It’s just a copy.

Kira Bindrim: So, good is a good number of people from the original coming back, and or someone specific, some big loved character coming back. Good is twists, or the promise of a twist, and good is keeping the aesthetic and sort of look and feel of the original. Bad is doing it too soon, sort of divorcing that aesthetic and look and feel a narrative from what’s happening, and no one coming back from the original, why didn’t you just make a different movie? That totally makes sense. What do you think is the perfect amount of time between original and sequel?

Adario Strange: Give us at least two and a half to three years, at least. And then, reverse question. I think we now we have proof that there’s pretty much no limit to how long you can go. Like, you know, the 35-year Blade Runner sequel. There’s pretty much no limit as long as you do it well. But if you just like really rush it the next year, that’s bad.

Kira Bindrim: I almost feel like we need a name for that. Like, it’s sort of the generational sequel, where you’re making a second movie but it’s been so long that the people who are seeing the second movie we’re not alive or old enough to see movies when the first one came out. So you kind of get this double whammy of nostalgia for people who loved the original and want to see a reboot, or a sequel. And then you get this other new group of people who are being introduced to those characters. Blade Runner is probably a really good example of this, where the sequel was made a lot later than the original.

Adario Strange: Absolutely, yeah.

Are sequels more profitable?

Kira Bindrim: That makes me think of what is possibly a dumb question. But if I am making a sequel, if I’m a studio, what are the motivations? Why would a studio be pursuing sequels?

Adario Strange: Always money, always money. It would be nice to think that Hollywood is somehow this altruistic, like really, like, ‘Oh, we need to send all these messages.’ And sometimes there’s a producer or a director involved that maybe has that intent. But yeah, at the end of the day, it’s all about money. And at that point, once we have agreed to a sequel, then it’s about, are we going to just do a money grab or are we going to try to craft like a real piece of art.

Kira Bindrim: So you don’t think there’s an artistic argument for making 27 Fast and Furious movies?

Adario Strange: No. I’m sorry. Vin Diesel, I apologize, from a fellow east coaster, but no, I’m sorry.

Kira Bindrim: Fair enough. Is that inherently bad? Like is that a bad incentive that the reason that most sequels are made is money, even if some of the sequels they produce are some of these all-time greats that even surpassed the original?

Adario Strange: No, no. We need to test and push and pull to see what works. Sometimes we’ll have a dud, sometimes we’ll have you know, a sequel that is clearly a money grab and the craftsmanship didn’t go into it. It takes a lot to successfully land like a really good sequel that resonates with fans. Also, you know, pays off at the box office, doesn’t diminish the original source material. But yeah, money. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. This country is, you know, about making money to a large extent, so why not?

Kira Bindrim: Yeah, and money in this case is a stand-in for people going to see a thing that you made. So, yeah.

Adario Strange: You’re serving the public

Kira Bindrim: After the break, the big business of franchises.

[ad break]

Rise of the cinematic universe: Marvel

Kira Bindrim: I want to come back to franchises and sort of this idea of the cinematic universe, and Marvel is the most iconic top-of-mind example when we think about a franchise. In other words, everyone wants to find a movie that can have multiple sequels now, and Marvel is the studio to beat. I think a lot of people would argue, and do argue, that this is ultimately a bad thing for culture, that we are afraid of new ideas and characters so we just keep doing this rinse-and-repeat on things that are already having big audiences. And I’m curious what you think of that argument?

Adario Strange: Well, I’m kind of in the camp of, I don’t want too many sequels and too many franchises. I do want one-offs. I do want films that just like live as one film forever and that’s it, and we don’t dive deeper. We need those. But I think franchises are actually good. And whether it’s a successful one or a bad one, we need those because, again, we’re exploring. Like when you’re sitting around talking about your favorite films, ‘what if’ is what you always say. What if this character had done that? What if she had gone off with him? What if they had managed to win that fight? What if they…you know. And sequels kind of satisfy that need. Sequels explore that ‘what if’ side of our brain. So from a fan and viewer audience side of the side of things, yeah, I think sequels kind of like, feed that kind of ‘what if,’ you know, kind of exploration that we have in the back of our mind. And then just for the health of Hollywood, for the health of, you know, films in general, if you’re serving audiences, giving them what they want, why not? I’m not a believer that you know that that’s a bad thing. I don’t think fan service is a bad thing.

Kira Bindrim: Yeah, I love that idea that sequels are the ‘what if,’ that not every sequel is going to be a success, but that every sequel is an opportunity, is kind of what I hear you saying.

Adario Strange: Yeah, absolutely.

Kira Bindrim: Another thing the franchise makes me think about, and I think other people, is the parallel with television, both in terms of the quality of production, which has gone up over time and television, and kind of the time spent. Is there such a big difference between spending three hours a year watching the latest Marvel movie, and eight hours a year binge-watching the latest season of a series I love? Do you see those two mediums converging, coming together?

Adario Strange: So I think Hollywood does a pretty good job of blurring the lines, at least recently, between film and TV, particularly with regard to Marvel. But generally, what I found is the TV properties generally look nothing like the film properties. Like, for instance, if you take the Superman, Supergirl, Batwoman, or Batgirl, Hawkeye—all this stuff, it generally doesn’t look like the film versions of what we see.

Kira Bindrim: I think you could also argue that TV actually played a big role in the development of maybe a franchise or a cinematic universe. Angel spun off from Buffy; Xena: Warrior Princess was a spinoff of Hercules; Laverne and Shirley was a spin off of Happy Days; All in the Family spun off seven different shows, including The Jeffersons; Frasier was a spin off of Cheers. There’s all of these examples—don’t even get me started on the Law & Order cinematic universe, which is one of the great TV universes of our time.

Adario Strange: CSI.

Kira Bindrim: Yeah. So I think there is also, it’s not just a movie thing, the idea that a great character or a great story can then be sort of siphoned off into another great character, great story or franchise.

Adario Strange: Yes, yes, absolutely.

Movie fans and content creators

Kira Bindrim: To what degree do you think fan culture is informing sequels or maybe even just the franchise world? It seems to me now that there’s a lot more interplay between fans and content creators, you might say more expectation on the part of fans to have a voice in how a character or story develops. Are we seeing that in the final product?

Adario Strange: Absolutely. I think the best example of that, and this is kind of a way from film and back to TV, is The Book of Boba Fett. It is essentially a fan service vehicle. It’s all about fan service. It’s unearthing all of these little side tales that fans have always wanted to see realized on screen. It doesn’t matter what level of a director you are, you know, how talented you are. If you’re going into something that has deep canon, like a comic book series, graphic novel series, you must consider the fan. You must. They’re just part of it. Before, decades past, we didn’t have social media, so you had to kind of hunt and peck and try to figure out, what does the fan think? What do they want? And you do test screenings and kind of like surveys and that kind of stuff, field reports. That just gives you like a tiny sample. Now, it is unambiguous what fans want with regard to any franchise, any source material. You know not to do certain things to Luke Skywalker, you don’t abuse Baby Yoda. You don’t abuse Baby Yoda. Protect Baby Yoda.

Kira Bindrim: Let that be the lesson.

Adario Strange: Yes, this is the way.

Kira Bindrim: Okay, I have one more question for you: Is there any movie that you consider like singular canon, never make a sequel of this movie?

The Matrix should not have had any sequels

Adario Strange: Wow, that is a great, great question. Huh. I will say, and this is maybe not the answer you’re looking for: The Matrix. I wish The Matrix had never had any sequels. Now, this is coming from someone who, I like The Matrix Reloaded. But when I look at the arc of that entire story and the characters and how well it was developed by the Wachowskis, just leave it, The Matrix. And if you notice, when people criticize the sequels in The Matrix franchise, they always preface it by, ‘I like the first one, but..’ How often do you hear such universal praise for the first one in a series? Occasionally, I’ve heard people say they don’t like the first, but generally everyone acknowledges that the first one is brilliant.

Kira Bindrim: That’s our Obsession for the week. This episode was produced by Katie Jane Fernelius. Our sound engineer is George Drake and our executive producer is Alex Ossola. The theme music is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Suguira. Special thanks to Adario Strange in New York.

If you liked what you heard, please leave a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you’re listening. Tell your friends about us! Tell them our second season is the Terminator 2 of podcasts. Then head to qz.com/obsession to sign up for Quartz’s Weekly Obsession email and browse hundreds of interesting backstories.

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