News Column

Summer Movies Steaming Into Town

May 23, 2013

Rich Heldenfels

The summer movie season has already brought moviegoers Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness, the 12th film in that series. Still to come are second installments of Grown Ups, Despicable Me, The Smurfs, RED, Kick-Ass, 300 and Percy Jackson. There's also Wolverine, a continuation of the Hugh Jackman X-Men/Wolverine movies; the animated prequel Monsters University and the art-film threepeat After Midnight. Then there are the reconsiderations of pop-culture icons in the latest Great Gatsby, Lone Ranger and Superman film Man of Steel.

The idea of movies following other movies is so considerable that this week finds two sequels going head to head: The Hangover Part III and Fast & Furious 6.

Now, the idea of a sequel goes a long way back, almost to the beginning of film. Many sources consider the first sequel to be Fall of a Nation, a 1916 successor to Birth of a Nation, the still-controversial classic directed by D.W. Griffith. Thomas Dixon, whose novel and play The Clansman inspired Birth, made Fall. It was not a success, and no copy exists, but it help set the path that the movies previously mentioned have followed.

But why so many sequels? In the big crowd of entertainment options, a brand name is essential; that's why you see movies with recognizable labels, whether of people, books, board games, Broadway shows, TV series -- or previous movies. Sequels can be especially effective because they reach an audience that has already paid to see one movie and might be nudged into doing so again.

When you look at Box Office Mojo's list of the biggest box-office draws of all time (unadjusted for inflation), you find sequels like Marvel's The Avengers (derived from several other movies about Marvel characters), The Dark Knight, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (which hit theaters after three other "episodes"), The Dark Knight Rises, Shrek 2 and the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie in the top 10.

And early returns this summer once again suggest audiences are more than happy to visit some old movie haunts, with Iron Man 3 having passed $1 billion in revenues worldwide, and Star Trek Into Darkness considered a disappointment because it made only about $82 million at the American box office in its first four full days in theaters.

Indeed, some movies, such as the Harry Potter, Twilight and Hunger Games book adaptations, are designed with the sequels assumed. Fast Five, the most recent previous Fast & Furious movie, included a closing scene teasing a sixth movie. While The Hangover Part III is being touted as the end of a trilogy, it opens a door to a fourth movie. Marvel's The Avengers was repeatedly set up by teaser scenes in preceding Marvel movies -- and in turn offered a hint of what would come in the movies to follow The Avengers.

Not that sequels always happen. The Golden Compass, inspired by a series of books, premiered in 2007 with a story line that set up a sequel; but even with good ticket sales around the world, the high cost and somewhat controversial content appear to have kept a second movie from being made.

One of the interesting things about this week's new offerings is that neither started out with a sequel in mind. The Hangover was meant to be a low-budget comedy making modest amounts of money and, as the Hollywood Reporter noted, did not even have the cast signed for a sequel. (When it proved a big hit, the four stars were able to get $10 million each for the second film and $15 million for the third, the Reporter said.) The original The Fast & The Furious was similarly short-sighted; Vin Diesel did not return for the second film, and Paul Walker skipped the third -- although both later came back, and brought audiences with them.

At the same time, if you are going to make a sequel, how do you keep the audience that liked the original -- but make it different enough to still be satisfying? You can make it bigger (the Fast & Furious movies have gone for increasingly big -- and crazy -- stunts). Or grimmer (The Dark Knight, or The Godfather Part II). Or introduce spectacular new characters, especially villains (see The Dark Knight, again, or Star Trek Into Darkness). You can make your characters show the effects of their lives and age (as Daniel Craig's James Bond did in Skyfall, Craig's third turn in the role).

Or you can be like the second Hangover and just make the same movie in a different location (Las Vegas the first time, Thailand the second).

While still a hit, The Hangover Part II was justly criticized for a degree of sameness.

Todd Phillips, director of all the Hangover movies, conceded to the Hollywood Reporter that the first two films were similar in structure. But he added: "It was intentional. It's not like we were unaware going into it. Some people had a problem with [the idea of], how could this happen to the same guys? But to me, that was part of the ridiculousness of it." Still, the third movie takes a different approach in its storytelling.

Meanwhile, more than one expert has predicted that Fast & Furious 6 will top The Hangover this weekend; Entertainment Weekly put 6 on its cover even as reporter Darren Franich called the series "the most unlikely franchise in Hollywood," and "a disreputable film series about cars that crash and the humans that crash them."

The article goes on at length about what makes the movies work (multicultural casts, the previously mentioned big stunts) but it all boils down to the simplest maxim for keeping a movie series going: Know what your audience wants. And through the first five movies, the Fast audience has shown that it wants Diesel, Walker and their supporting cast, cars shown off as lovingly and lustfully as the skimpily clad women, more movement than dialogue, the promise of big moments (Dwayne Johnson vs. Diesel!) and can-you-believe-it stunts. I am still shaking my head over the chase scene in Fast Five involving two cars not only eluding pursuers but doing so while hauling an entire bank vault through Brazilian streets. And thinking: Can 6 top that?

Put it this way: The seventh movie is already announced.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal.

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