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The Sequels of 2016 Aren’t About Storytelling; They’re Just Brand Extensions

Photo: Lionsgate, Pixar, Twentieth Century Fox

Last weekend, seven of the ten highest-grossing movies in the country were sequels. Of course they were, you say. It’s summer. That’s what summer’s all about! But one of the most insidious things about how Hollywood sells its product is the ease with which it passes off a lowering of the bar as a maintenance of the status quo, so let’s do a reality check: No, it has not always been this way — not even during summer movie season. On the same weekend in 2008 and 2009, there were only two sequels in the top ten. In 2010, there were three. For each of the four years after that, there were four. And last year, there were five. Seven is new; seven, as the latest data point in a decade-long trendline, suggests that something fundamental has changed. It says that sequels have gone from being what summer movies mostly are not to what they mostly are.

Many noted this overkill early in the year, in the aftershock of Batman v Superman’s critical thud; the failure of some of these films relative to their expectations and budgets sparked buzz about sequel fatigue. But I think the news may be, instead, fatigued sequels. How could we not be a little tired of them? They’re now a year-round business, after all — sequels to movies that already felt like sequels (Ride Along 2), sequels to movies that didn’t need sequels (The Hunstman: Winter’s War), sequels the very titles of which suggest that the point has already been sufficiently made (God’s Not Dead 2). Summer sequels are just those movies with more money and noise behind them.

I don’t consider “sequel” a slur. But it’s notable how much the impetus behind them has changed, and with it, their very nature.

Sequels have always been a financially driven proposition, and it’s not a revelation that some of them are churned out like sausage (happy 24th anniversary, Meatballs 4). But for the 15 years or so of the post–Star Wars blockbuster era, the bottom-line pragmatism behind sequels did not erase another priority: narrative. Is there more left to tell? Can audiences be lured back with the promise that a story they thought was complete was merely a first chapter? Sometimes that could take filmmakers quite a while to figure out. Aliens did not appear until seven years after Alien; Terminator 2: Judgment Day arrived seven years after The Terminator. Neither movie was a mere reprise of the original or anything like it, which is one reason why each is now regarded as a genre classic in its own right.

This summer’s sequels are not, for the most part, story continuations but brand extensions. Some are good and some not; some have succeeded and some have flopped, but almost all of them are different beasts than the first generation of blockbuster genre sequels. Let’s look at the seven titles currently in the top ten. The period horror entry The Conjuring 2, title notwithstanding, is actually the third Conjuring movie in just 36 months (following 2013’s original and 2014’s spinoff Annabelle). Although the first film’s stars Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga have returned for this one, it’s not a sequel so much as a new product in a Conjuring horror-anthology line; the title is designed to sell you on the idea that this is not something new, that you know what’s coming — namely, the latest in a series of adventures experienced by a poltergeist-fighting pair of occultists. You know, like a TV series. A second spinoff called The Conjuring: The Nun, which sounds like a horror movie called The Nun with a selling point attached, was announced last week. Along the same lines, Now You See Me 2 is a maybe-we-can-turn-this-into-something-if-we-do-it-fast-enough sequel, a follow-up to a film reducible to the kind of pitch (“Ocean’s Eleven with magicians”) that you’d expect to hear at TNT or NBC. The first film, which opened in 2013, was a modest hit in the U.S. (it did better abroad) with a plot that left nobody saying, “OMG, what happens next?!” But that didn’t matter; it was essentially treated as a pilot, and more than a year before Now You See Me 2 was released, Now You See Me 3 was already in development, its inception marked, as all great movies are, by a conference call between a CEO and financial analysts.

How about the others? Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, the second movie in the second reboot of the durable, or at least nonbiodegradable, franchise, is a molded plastic toy sales-enabling system and not much more. Yes, it is technically a movie, but its sole function and raison d’être is to facilitate further somethings — maybe another movie, maybe a TV series, maybe Halloween costumes. The money-hemorrhaging Alice Through the Looking Glass exists (a) to prove the heartening axiom that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time, (b) to give Disney new ways to keep the Alice revenue stream flowing, and (c) to confirm that the cosmos decided Johnny Depp really had it coming this summer. But it certainly didn’t arrive onscreen because a single person involved — including moviegoers — felt it was necessary. (The first Alice was a massive global hit, and so what? The popularity of a movie is not the same as the demand for a sequel.)

X-Men: Apocalypse, the ninth film in a 17-year-old series, is certainly story-driven — assuming non-hardcore fans can even remember the whole story anymore, which, judging by the numbers, is debatable. The fact that it couldn’t drag itself past $150 million domestic in its first four weekends is somewhat ominous news for the long-term health of this aging franchise; for all the terrible press Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice weathered, that film will end up grossing a least $300 million more worldwide than this one will. If we consider these planned five-years-at-a-time superhero series as enterprises closer to TV shows than movies, then at this point, X-Men is NCIS: Los Angeles or Bones — reliable, unsurprising, and getting too expensive to continue at the very high price point it has reached. (It can’t be a good sign that Deadpool, a feature-length sneer at the whole X-Men franchise, is a bigger hit than any film in the series itself.)

As for Finding Dory, it’s a solid brand refresher that will make a mint — an effective way for Disney to remonetize a dormant franchise. But nothing will convince me that Pixar’s move from being arguably the finest producer of original content in Hollywood to a sequel manufactory (next up: The Incredibles 2, Cars 3, Toy Story 4) is anything but dispiriting news. (As for the box-office trackers who reportedly referred to Dory as a “five-quadrant sequel,” I guess people in Hollywood either do not know the definition of “quadrant” or truly are the only folks on earth who saw This Is Spinal Tap and didn’t get that “It goes to 11!” was a joke.)

Finally, there’s Captain America: Civil War, the newest installment in the Marvel Universe enterprise that is, in some ways, the reason all this is happening. Even though it may go down in history as the first movie ever to gross $400 million domestically and still slightly fall short of hopes, it’s certainly the only movie of the seven that used narrative urgency as a primary selling point — fans of this series, now nine years and 13 movies deep, are in it because they want to know where it’s going and how it will all turn out. (Spoiler that won’t be a spoiler for anybody who has ever read comic books: These things never quite get where they’re going, and it’s pretty clear that this spectacularly successful First Great Epoch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe will end in a few years with an all-star cosmos-altering timestream-warping “event” that will allow Marvel to claim that this “changes everything,” cast younger, cheaper actors, start all over again, and sell it as “It All Begins Here.”)

To my taste, the best reason to make a sequel is because the story demands it. But that is quaint. “This made you feel good once, so please come back for more” is a more MBA-friendly idea that has been an underpinning of Hollywood for a century; it used to be why movie stars were considered so valuable. But it’s a selling impulse, not a story impulse, and when that selling impulse is what defines almost everything on a schedule, something valuable is lost. For the middle-aged cinephile demographic in which I am deeply entrenched, it’s relatively easy to shrug off summer: We can just cherry-pick a few indies to see, indulge in a handful of satisfying blockbusters, and remind ourselves that after Labor Day, things will start to break our way a little more. But, to wax sentimental for a moment, I love summer movies. Seeing Jaws in a packed theater when I was 11 was formative for me, and for years to come, certain movies defined summer. 1978: Animal House. 1979: Alien. 1980: The Shining. 1981: Raiders. 1982: E.T. and Poltergeist — just a week apart! Want some slightly less ancient history? How about the summer of 1999, which brought The Sixth Sense (not to mention Eyes Wide Shut, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, and Election, all from studios)?

Summer should be a season of big swings — blockbusters that aren’t all presold, big filmmakers wielding big ambitions and, when necessary, big budgets to take you places and show you things you’ve never seen before.  That means betting on new ideas — you know, those things without which sequels couldn’t be generated; otherwise, summer will just feel like rerun season, but with marginally more billboards. Sometimes, rarely, a sequel can be an original, like last summer’s Mad Max: Fury Road. But Fury Road was a singular director’s R-rated, visionary resurrection of a decades-dormant franchise (a franchise that started as a low-fi Australian indie) and made few concessions to popular taste. This summer’s sequels are not Mad Max: Fury Road. Not one of them will make you say, I had no idea they’d go in that direction, or That was astonishing, or This is nothing like the last movie but I loved it. They will make you say, Oh, right, that again, and there’s not that vast a difference between saying it with a smile, a yawn, or a shrug.

These movies are not big swings. They are, for the most part, big, expensive bunts. And bunts will never be why people love the game.

The Definition of ‘Sequel’ Has Changed