The Secret to Sequels Is In the Details

By  · Published on June 27th, 2016

Why so many follow-ups are falling flat.

There’s been talk of sequel fatigue this summer, and the failure of Independence Day: Resurgence is the latest piece of evidence. But sequels are still in the majority of top-grossing releases in 2016, have been through every season, and there’s also the matter of another follow-up, Finding Dory, being the current box office champ. So what does the Pixar movie have that the alien-invasion tentpole doesn’t? Ironically, it’s something that, like those invading aliens, has tentacles. The secret to Finding Dory’s success is an octopus – or septopus since he’s missing a limb – named Hank (voiced by Ed O’Neill).

A lot of the appeal of Finding Dory is to revisit the main characters from Finding Nemo and go on another adventure with them. That’s the primary appeal for most sequels, in fact, the familiar faces. But it’s not enough. There needs to be at least one new sure-to-be-iconic character that fans look forward to meeting. Usually, as was the case of Hank, that character is marketed in a way that makes him popular with moviegoers before they even set foot in the theater. Now that people have seen Dory, they love Hank even more. He’s the “real star” of the show. And there’s demand for his back story to be the focus of the next installment.

Independence Day: Resurgence, on the other hand, put most of its sell on Jeff Goldblum’s return as David Levinson. The movie has plenty of new characters, including major roles for Liam Hemsworth and Charlotte Gainsbourg, but none are interesting enough to incorporate heavily into the movie’s promotion. That’s a clear indication that they’re not very remarkable in the film, and for them and every other newcomer that’s true. Resurgence does have one intriguing new character in “the Sphere,” which is just a shiny orb with consciousness, advanced intelligence, and a female voice (Jenna Purdy). She’s not quite a breakout figure, but she should have been. Even if she fulfilled her promise of being a mashup of Eve from WALL-E, Samantha from Her, and Leeloo from The Fifth Element, however, the studio wouldn’t have marketed her because she’s sort of a secret within the story, not that she needs to be.

Cute robots are a great kind of new addition to a movie series. Look at how we fell for BB-8 long before he arrived in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. That movie is a perfect example of something familiar to the point of seeming like a remake being balanced by strong new characters. A number of them, including Rey, Finn, and Poe Dameron make that sequel a success because it’s not just another trip through the galaxy with old friends. Yes, we want to see Han Solo and Chewbacca flying the Millennium Falcon again, but we also could just re-watch the old movies. Call this a passing of the torch, if you like. I consider it adding more lanes to the track.

But those lanes need to be filled right. X-Men: Apocalypse fails with its addition of a number of mutants, including some rebooted characters, and a new villain, none of whom make any sort of impression. Compare it to X-Men: Days of Future Past. What had everyone buzzing after seeing that installment? The introduction of the scene-stealing Quicksilver (Evan Peters). He also has the most popular scene in Apocalypse but we’ve also already been there, done that. A fun new character could have given fans something to hold on to even if everything else is trash. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a miserable movie, but even those of us who dislike it fell in love with Wonder Woman and could just barely recommend it for her alone.

Sequels can do the right thing and still be box office disappointments, but success can be measured in different ways. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows won over many critics and fans by tossing in the characters Bebop, Rocksteady, and Krang. All classic figures from the TMNT cartoon but that didn’t matter for a lot of people. It only mattered that they were an enjoyable bunch joining a series that hadn’t employed them previously. It’s not unlike the main excitement over Captain America: Civil War with its reintroduction of Spider-Man to audiences. Even though it’s a meal we’ve been served over and over, it’s a new recipe with fresh meat.

Other movies that disappointed at the box office this year include those that presumed we’d just want to watch new scenes with icons of the past, like Derek Zoolander and Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter. It could be argued that so many sequels are failing lately because they don’t take storytelling seriously and instead just provide us with brand extensions. But while it’s true that a good story is also key to a successful sequel, brand extension is actually where it’s at in 2016, whether in the addition of characters who fans would like to later see in spin-offs or in the form of genuine anthology type sequels and spiritual sequels like 10 Cloverfield Lane, Everybody Wants Some!!, and The Conjuring 2.

Looking to the future, there are sequels being set up for success better than others. Michael Bay recently revealed a new character for Transformers: The Last Knight, and by revealed we really mean started the marketing for. Of course it’s another cute-looking robot, based on a Vespa scooter. Star Trek Beyond has done a decent job putting a curious new alien character, Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), in all of its publicity materials. And of course Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is anticipated for the return of Darth Vader and possible cameos from other known characters, but it’s the central ensemble of almost entirely new faces we hope will become famous themselves that piques an extra level of interest. And for full spin-off/anthology stuff we’ve got Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Where does that leave action sequels like Jason Bourne and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, where the full draw still rests upon their titular heroes and the actors who play them, plus maybe some of the action teased in their advertising? We’ll see if it’s enough, both to get people in the seats and satisfy them once they’re there. But hopefully there’s more that we’re just not seeing yet. These aren’t movies that could add in cute robots or sidekicks but each features a new actress who presumably gets to kick some ass. If so, they ought to be marketed, because let’s not forget the most buzzed about elements of Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation and Mad Max: Fury Road were their powerful action heroines.

For a lot of sequels, adding characters audiences will latch onto should be a no-brainer for the studios. Often it’s a way to give kids a new toy to buy, and that’s surely Disney’s original thinking behind both Hank and BB-8, but to sell those toys the characters have to leave a mark on viewers, and that benefits audiences not concerned with such merchandise because great characters are still great characters. And we can never have enough of them. Original characters make unoriginal movies seem like brand new properties. And when we’re in an era where franchises dominate – and will continue to do so despite sequels seeming to be in trouble – that’s something.

Here are some more classic examples of memorable, non-villain new-blood additions to movie franchises:

The Ewoks in Return of the Jedi

Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Newt in Aliens

Henry Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Leo Getz in Lethal Weapon 2

Death in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey

Zeus in Die Hard With a Vengeance

Jessie in Toy Story 2

Hobbs in Fast Five

Benji in Mission: Impossible III

Can you think of others? Are you more interested in sequels if they have a good mix of old and new? Discuss below.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.