Saturday, May 8, 2010

The inevitability of excess

I was all set to write a piece this Friday about how Iron Man 2 appeared to be following the dispiriting "bigger, more, but not better" trend of Hollywood sequels.

But sometimes in the blogging world, with all the reading we do, we come across the work of another blogger who has already taken that same perspective, and taken it more eloquently and succinctly than we would have ourselves. So I'd like to refer you to the work of my esteemed colleague Daddy Geek Boy on the topic. It's a good write-up, and you can find it here.

I'll still write about Iron Man 2, but I thought I'd take a slightly different approach, ask a slightly different question. Namely, is it possible for a sequel not to succumb to the sin of excess? Is it possible for a sequel not to have double the good guys, double the bad guys, double the explosions, and in some cases, double the babes?

It's easy to think of examples where they indulged themselves, and it's very easy to think of dozens, if not hundreds, of bad sequels. But this morning I want to consider the good sequels, and see if they were able to avoid this pitfall. Even The Dark Knight, which I won't write about again because I just wrote about yesterday (albeit in purely semantic terms), couldn't resist the urge to add a second villain, even with the first villain as dynamic and dominant as Heath Ledger's Joker.

So I'm examining five of my favorite sequels of all time, ones that I liked better than the original in some cases. For the purposes of this discussion, I'm leaving out series where the first film was always planned as part of a larger story, where future installments of the story were already written (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter) or envisioned by the creator (Star Wars).

Granted, most creative talents will tell you that they always envisioned their movies as multi-part stories, which is probably true to the extent that it makes sense to mentally blueprint a franchise if you think your movie is marketable. (Plus, most creative types are dreamers, and are overly optimistic/delusional about the quality of their own ideas.) But most sequels came into being because the first movie was good. If it hadn't been good, we simply wouldn't have cared about "the rest of the story" that existed purely in the writer's head.

So without any further ado, here are five excellent sequels, listed in no particular order. Let's hold them up to the light and see how they did.

1) Superman II (1980, Richard Lester). This is by far my favorite Superman movie, which has everything to do with relegating Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) to the role of comic relief, and replacing him with not one, not two, but three new villains. The plot itself is bigger as well. Although it could be argued that reversing the rotation of the earth to turn back time is a pretty big deal, I'd say that having the world taken over by the three Krypton refugees and willingly giving up his super powers qualify as more earth-shattering, as it were, for Superman.

Why it works: Three supervillains might ordinarily spin your head like a bad Joel Schumacher Batman movie, but since they essentially operate as one character in terms of their function in the narrative, the movie feels clean and focused. Plus, Terrence Stamp gives what I would argue is one of the great villain performances of all time as General Zod.

2) Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991, James Cameron). I don't mean to blaspheme, but this is another case of me liking the sequel better than the original. The T-1000 was like nothing I had ever seen before -- in fact, the rush of excitement I got from Cameron's digital innovations with this character was much greater than what I got watching Avatar. Still, when you break it down to its elements, the movie does have two terminators, and it adds a squeaky-voiced Edward Furlong as the young John Connor.

Why it works: Although there are two terminators, they are not both the hero or both the villain, so the mano-a-mano dynamics of the original are still in place, shifted from Arnold Schwarzenegger's terminator against Linda Hamilton to Robert Patrick's T-1000 against Schwarzenegger. And John Connor essentially replaces Kyle Reese from the original. The net gain is really only one character.

3) Toy Story 2 (1999, John Lasseter). Officially, I like Toy Story better than Toy Story 2, but it's so close that Toy Story 2 has to be considered, hands down, one of the best sequels of all time. True enough, though, there are both more heroes and more villains. Added to the characters we love are a second Buzz Lightyear and Jessie the Cowgirl (voiced by Joan Cusack), and there are three characters who share the villain role: the evil toy collector (voiced by Wayne Knight), the evil collectible prospector toy Stinky Pete (voiced by Kelsey Grammer), and, well, The Evil Emperor Zurg, come to life in toy form (voiced by future Pixar director Andrew Stanton, to the extent that the character has any real dialogue). The adventure is slightly bigger as well, as it involves more trips out of the house.

Why it works: Pixar has an instinct for narrative structure that is unmatched in the industry. The writers are smart enough to dole out enough lines to the minor characters so that they all feel involved, so that the extra new characters don't push them into irrelevance. I expect Toy Story 3 to be similarly successful with this narrative balancing act.

4) X2: X-Men United (2003, Bryan Singer). This one's going to be a bit more difficult for me, because although I know I like the X-Men sequel better than the original, I have a hard time quantifying why. I can tell you that there are more heroes and villains than the first. The heroic additions include Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), who walks the line between hero and villain, and the villains pile on with Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu) and William Stryker (Brian Cox), in addition to the usual stable featuring Magneto, Mystique, etc. This film also does what a lot of second movies gain the confidence to do: kill off one of the beloved stars of the first movie, if only temporarily, in Jean Gray (Famke Janssen).

Why it works: X2 is more like the typical superhero sequel than any other movie on this list, which makes sense since only one of the other movies is actually a superhero movie. But it works because the multiplicity of characters actually helped shove at least one character that I did not particularly like, James Marsden's Cyclops, into a corner. Thankfully, Cyclops has little more than a cameo in this movie.

5) Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982, Nicholas Meyer). And here's a sequel that is really, truly different. Star Trek II is a brilliant movie, but it doesn't feel like a sequel at all. Even though it deals with the Genesis device, which can create a whole planet from scratch, and the (temporary) death of Spock, who comes back to life in the next movie during a rapid re-growth on the new planet, Star Trek II feels intimate more than grandiose. There are a lot of quiet moments in which the characters discuss their mortality, and the hero and the villain never once see each other in the flesh.

Why it works: The impression created by Star Trek II has everything to do with the impression created -- or not created -- by Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The first Star Trek was a total dud -- I remember feeling a profound sense of disappointment and wondering if there was any hope for the series. If it weren't for Star Trek II, there surely wouldn't have been. We have Star Trek II to thank for all the other Star Trek movies, even the reboot we got last year -- which, if it weren't for Star Trek II, might have been attempted in the 1990s and starred someone like David Caruso. So Star Trek II is a lot more like a first movie than a second movie in that sense, though when you think about it, the whole Star Trek series has kind of assumed a serial quality, as traditionally defined -- each chapter doesn't really need to be bigger and better, it just needs to follow the characters to the next chapter in their lives. I think I'm starting to ramble here.

So is there anything we can take from all this to apply to Iron Man 2? I guess what I personally take from it is that I shouldn't perceive its "bigger, more" approach as creatively bankrupt -- not automatically, anyway. Even the best sequels have to provide more things to look at, more places to turn your attention, and in all likelihood, more minutes of celluloid. That in itself is not a guaranteed recipe for failure, and in fact, it maybe inevitable.

Obnoxious lines like Tony Stark yelling "You complete me!" to Pepper Potts after he jumps out of the plane to retrieve his helmet ... well, that may be cause for worry.


Don Handsome said...

Hi Vance. I enjoyed this piece immensely.

I've got a couple additional best sequels to add to the list (I've used the same rules that you set forth and therefore am not going to include The Empire Strikes Back).

But what about The Good, The Bad and The Ugly? Its just got so much more pop than the previous two films in that trilogy - and no less than three title characters. Its at least three times as good as the other two films that preceded it.

Also...Silence of the Lambs. An unconventional sequel choice for sure, but it WAS the second movie to take place in the Hannibal Lechter world, and it WAS far more menacing and engrossing and scary and bloody than the original (and pretty darn good) Manhunter/ Red Dragon.

Vancetastic said...

Thanks Don. Interesting choices ... I thought you might talk about how Linklater sold out with the huge cast and huge FX budget for Before Sunset. ;-)