Entertainment Geekly is a weekly column that examines contemporary pop culture through a geek lens and simultaneously examines contemporary geek culture through a pop lens. So many lenses!
In decades past, the movie sequel was a frowned-upon concept, something that implied unoriginality or laziness. There were exceptions (The Godfather Part II), and if you were a genre head in the ’80s, then you witnessed the birth of the Sequel-As-Perfected-Original (Wrath of Khan and Road Warrior and Empire Strikes Back and maybe Aliens), although that in turn led to the birth of the Threequel-As-Bloated-Mess (Search for Spock and Beyond Thunderdome and Return of the Jedi and Alien 3). Sequels as a cultural idea belonged to beefcake action heroes and cut-rate horror franchises.
At this point, though, complaining about sequels feels a bit archaic — the equivalent of the parents in Bye Bye Birdie complaining about rock and roll. Sequels are essentially the business of the mainstream Hollywood studios. The five top-grossing movies of 2013 are sequels that outperformed their predecessors, and there’s every reason to think Thor: The Dark World and Catching Fire will join that list soon.
Sequels have never been more successful; at the same time, the art of actually making a sequel has never seemed less interesting. Those four ’80s films I mentioned above represented significant departures from the films that preceded them, in tone or location or visual style or supporting cast. (Empire Strikes Back is currently the only Star Wars movie where nobody ever goes to Tatooine.) Major sequels today feel more like visual remakes with new dialogue and different villains.
It used to be an insult to say that a movie felt like television — but the sequel today feels like the pre-Sopranos idea of television, with individual episodes built on roughly equivalent situations, with the occasional guest star. To understand how radical of a shift this is, consider that the most popular show on television now is The Walking Dead. A lead-character death on a TV show used to be a rarity, an event so unlikely that the few times it did happen could become epoch-defining hallmark moments. But more lead characters died in the third season of Walking Dead than have died in eight Marvel Studios films — and unlike in the Marvel films, Walking Dead characters only come back from the dead long enough to get killed again.
There are a host of factors that explain how we reached this point, and all of them converge in one of the most beloved franchises of all time. Now, there were eight Harry Potter movies in 10 years, and at least half of them were good. That’s an accomplishment by itself. There are franchises with far less movies and far more travesties. And the Harry Potter films ran the spectrum, quality-wise. Prisoner of Azkban and Deathly Hallows Part 1 were great. Half-Blood Prince was a decent horror thriller. Goblet of Fire makes a weirdly perfect Christmas movie, all bright colors and boarding-school cliquery and generous pep. Chamber of Secrets had the funny scene with the polyjuice potion and Kenneth Branagh having the kind of breezy fun that Kenneth Branagh never lets Kenneth Branagh have.
In the demerits column: Order of the Phoenix turned the weirdest book into a boring slog; Sorcerer’s Stone has aged badly in every way a movie can age badly, a movie filled with untrained actors struggling to express nonstop awe at effects that looked primordial three months later; and franchise finale Deathly Hallows Part 2 is a frantic exercise in nonstop climax that closes with the two worst scenes in the franchise, the rough cinematic equivalent of watching a championship-game montage from every sports movie overlaid with the sound from the D-Day sequence of Saving Private Ryan.
Your opinions may vary. Some people don’t like Azkaban‘s loose adaptation. Plenty of people remember DH1 as an endless campfire interlude. And lots of people love DH2, possibly because lots of people love lengthy explanations about the provenance of the Elder Wand. Pretty much everyone agrees that there were good Harry Potters and less-good Harry Potters, and everyone agrees on this because everyone saw all of the movies.
When you actually look back at the series, though, what’s striking about them is less their differences than their similarities. The setting, with the notable exception of the on-the-run HP1, is always the same. The lead cast doesn’t change, although they do get older. If one colorful British actor dies, a new guest star comes in to take their place. People often talk about how the series got darker as it went along, but I suspect that’s because we all tend to conflate the books and the films, the way that lots of people still think Goldeneye was a good movie because they’re confusing it with their memories of the near-perfect Goldeneye videogame.
Visually speaking, the films took a tremendous leap in the Alfonso Cuaron-directed Prisoner of Azkaban, and all the films that followed feel like rough imitations of Cuaron’s style. Plot-wise, the pre-Deathly Hallows films hit similar beats (Quidditch, Defense Against the Dark Arts, a distant appearance by Voldemort, wands). By comparison, look at the James Bond films, the other ridiculously successful British franchise. All of the films tell a roughly similar story — Bond is a spy, sometimes he’s a spy on the run — but they purposefully set themselves apart by going to ever-more-exotic locations, with ever-more-outré villains. (For most of the Bond run, the supporting cast was basically limited to Moneypenny, Q, and M; compare that to the Potter films, where David Bradley was guaranteed at least 30 seconds per movie of angry-drunk Filchface.)
I’m not sure this repetition is a bad thing, per se, in part because the Harry Potter franchise represented the very expensive work of a ridiculously talented crew of behind-the-scenes personnel who only got better at their craft over the course of the decade. That’s also true of the actors in front of the camera: It’s always going to be difficult to capture, for future generations, just what it was like to watch Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint mature onscreen, as actors and as plain old human people. (Not to mention Neville.)
But if the Harry Potter film series was a once-in-a-lifetime event, it was also an insanely successful once-in-a-lifetime event, which means that all of Hollywood will spend at least the next decade and probably longer trying to repeat it. The Twilight movies imitated the Potter model — based on a hit book series, aggressive release strategy, rotating directors — but they were shot with a much smaller budget in what can charitably be referred to as the wilderness. The Twilight films as a whole are much worse and more interesting than the Potter films — they trend weird and sexy where the Potter films trend stern and chaste — but they made plenty of money without the benefit of good reviews or Maggie Smith.
And Twilight reflects another aspect of Potter‘s shadow legacy. When the filmmakers announced their intention to split Deathly Hallows into two films, it was possible to praise the decision on artistic grounds. And it helped that the two parts felt so radically different: DH1 with its wandering paranoia (and a cartoon interlude!), DH2 with its full-blown warfare. But from a financial perspective, Warner Bros. took $1 billion and made $2 billion. Why wouldn’t Twilight extend its last book? Why wouldn’t The Hobbit become three movies? Why, for that matter, should anyone attached to any successful franchise ever think ending that franchise is a good idea — and, in turn, why should they make a sequel different from the original movie, when any differences could potentially sink the ship?
So major Hollywood sequels are not bad, now, but they do feel smaller somehow. It’s a rare sequel that feels genuinely different — that seems to expand the possibilities of the franchise, rather than just explore the same ones. And because sequels are so overdetermined, running on formulas, it’s even rarer to find a scene that feels genuinely unique. Remember that scene in Deathly Hallows Part 1 when Harry and Hermione dance? It’s totally wordless and appears nowhere in the books, but it taps into the rampant emotions of the books more than the film’s exposition-heavy style ever could. It’s rife with emotion — sadness, unexpected joy, the weight of years, the dangerous and never-spoken idea that Harry and Hermione (heresy!) could’ve become more than just friends.
It’s worth remembering that there are some movies where every scene feels like that. You wonder how much different the Potter films — and all the major sequels — would feel if they exploded their formula instead of striving constantly to live up to it. (They probably would’ve been less successful — Prisoner of Azkaban is the lowest-grossing movie in the series.)
And in turn, you wonder how the great sequels would look if they were made today. Empire Strikes Back would’ve started on Tatooine and ended with yet another battle, with X-Wing fights strafing down trenches. Every character from the Mos Eisley Cantina would’ve returned, now with more lines. Chewbacca and R2-D2 would’ve had another one of their trademark games of monster chess. Han and Leia would flirt, but not kiss — that won’t happen for another four movies, at least. Obi-Wan Kenobi would still be alive — they won’t kill him off for another three movies, at least. Han might still get frozen in carbonite, but he’d return by the end of the movie, if only in a tender flashback where he tells Luke he’ll always be his friend. Instead of getting his hand chopped off, Luke would get a nasty scar, or maybe a tattoo. And Greedo would still be alive. Shooting first.