A sci-fi, fantasy, or comic-book film comes out and does well. That means it will get a sequel. Now everyone involved tries to figure out which elements in the original are worth keeping, heightening, or exploring, and which are weaknesses to be left out. Some "second" films help launch long-lived franchises; others help kill them. Some illustrate what not to do if and when a third film gets made. Some are just complete misfires.
Today, I thought I'd look some sci-fi and fantasy sequels, which immediately followed their originator, to determine why some are good, some are bad, and some are ugly.
Why It Rocked: James Cameron's 1986 classics provides a perfect template for many sequels: Since the first film had a small crew, unarmed, against a single creature, the next film increased all those factors. Now we had a unit of gung-ho marines ready to kick some alien ass...and a whole colony of aliens waiting for them. Rather than try to recreate the horror tropes of the original, this film knew our expectations and played with them. It even shifted the genre -- Alien was a science-fiction horror film, but just about every critic adds the word "action" to the sequel's description. While the first movie was quiet and not focused on characterization, this movie gave us lots of combat and explosions, along with the spooky Newt, the traitorous Burke, "Seventeen hours" Hudson, and lots of clever quips among the marines.
Why It Sucked: Because it did virtually the opposite of what Aliens did. The original's villain, Zuul the Sumerian god, is replaced by a magical painting that wants to possess the body of a baby. The heroes go backwards, because they aren't even Ghostbusters anymore, sued out of existence despite saving New York in full view of the public. So they have to re-assemble, which means basically telling the story of the original movie all over again. Venkman and Dana even have to re-create their relationship, with many of the same beats as the first film. But the changes make no sense either: Dana inexplicably switches from a cellist to an art preservationist. Janine inexplicably switches her attraction from Egon to Louis. Slime inexplicably can react to emotions. Ugh, it's just all horrible.
Why It Rocked: The first films in a comic-book franchise have to spend time on the origin story, where the mild-mannered lead actually becomes a superhero, test his powers, and decides to use them to fight crime. Spider-Man was good (James Franco, upside-down rain kiss, etc.), but the sequel finally allows plenty of time for story, including the origins of the villain, Dr. Octopus. It also bravely confronts the dangling threads of the first film: Spider-Man's identity is revealed to Mary Jane, to Harry, and to people on the runaway train. Speaking of which, that train sequence is a thrilling and satisfying escalation to the original's Queensboro Bridge set-piece. Unlike Ghostbusters II, all the relationship beats advance the story, pitting Harry against Peter and bringing Peter and Mary Jane closer together. We even get to see Peter without his powers, to show some contrast. Everything worked, and the film was the second-highest-grossing movie of 2004, behind Shrek 2 -- a sequel I will not be discussing here.
Highlander II: The Quickening
Why It Sucked: This movie rejected or retconned just about everything cool from the original cult hit. It even abruptly changes genre: Instead of a fantasy taking place in the past and the present, the sequel is a science-fiction story taking place in the future. It reveals the Immortals are not gods but actually aliens. It rewrites the history of Connor and Ramirez, depicting them as friends on a distant planet before their exile, instead of meeting for the first time on Earth, which the first film showed. After everything Connor goes through to save Brenda in the first film, the sequel has her die in the opening minutes, apparently so Connor can have an entire love story with a new character. The result: A 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Roger Ebert calling it "a movie almost awesome in its badness," and a third film which basically ignores its existence so the franchise can survive.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Why It Rocked: What does a sequel do when the first film ain't that great? Star Trek offers an excellent answer: You ignore it. Wrath of Khan virtually reboots the franchise. The uniforms are different, the phasers are different, the the bridge is different (though it's the same set as The Motion Picture). Decker and Ilia, V'ger, the loss of Epsilon IX -- none of these characters or events are even mentioned. Khan, the villain, has no connection to the first film either, instead originating from an episode in the TV series. The film makes another mature move by commenting on the aging (and even mortality) of its characters, who were 15 years removed from the original series. This concept would be echoed by higher-number sequels in other franchises, such as James Bond and Pirates of the Caribbean. Despite advances in special effects technology, despite adding humor, despite time travel, despite the Borg, this film is still considered the best of the 13 installments in the series.
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
Why It Sucked: Sure, this franchise isn't as venerated as Star Trek or Spider-Man, but the first movie was fun. Its four leads are a happy medium between lone heroes (like Batman) and large groups (like the X-Men). Maybe this film series could crib from its own imitator, The Incredibles, and add some humor to its story of a super-powered family. Surfer killed that idea. It started in the right direction, bringing in the Silver Surfer, a complex and intriguing comic-book character. And it advances Reed and Sue's storyline by having them about to get married. Unfortunately, their actual relationship and dialogue is boring and free of romantic chemistry. Rather than leaving Dr. Doom, the first film's villain, behind, we get to see him fly around on the Surfer's stolen board. And then the film contradicts canon by making the surfboard the source of the Surfer's power. This film seems to have taken the worst of the original and combined it with new, bad choices, for an awful mishmash of dullness. No wonder the whole franchise got rebooted just eight years later.
Jason Ginsburg studied film and theatre at USC. He wrote the fantasy adventure film series The Age of Stone and Sky, whose first installment stars Corey Feldman and Jeffrey Combs, and comes out in 2021. Jason works in television and lives in New York City.