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What makes a movie sequel successful

Captain america marvel avengers
Marvel Entertainment
Is the cinematic universe overrated?
  • Kira Bindrim
By Kira Bindrim

Executive editor

Published Last updated

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.

Quartz Obsession podcast host Kira Bindrim explores the ever-evolving world of movie sequels with media and entertainment reporter Adario Strange.

Listen on: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google | Stitcher

The interview is lightly edited for clarity and length. Read the full transcript here

What is your favorite sequel?

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.

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.

What is the first sequel that was ever made?

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.

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.

How do you determine whether a movie sequel is going to be good?

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.

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.

Do sequels improve a movie’s profitability?

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.

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?

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.

A movie that you wish never 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.

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