The Draw, and Inevitable Letdown, of Sequels

This weekend, I saw “Pirates of the Carribean: At World’s End,” the third, and reportedly final (but probably not final) installment in the Pirates of the Carribean franchise. Last weekend, I saw “Shrek the Third” and just weeks ago I saw “Spider-man 3.” I am also excited for The Bourne Ultimatim, another “part 3.” All of these movies were tremendously exciting events for me, but unfortunately, more than anything right now, I feel let down.

The concept of a sequel is genius: take a storyline people love, bring back the characters for another adventure, or feature a new group of characters in the same place or going through the same challenge. Whatever the case is, most sequels are, in essence, “the continuing adventures of…” Sometimes, like with Back to the Future II, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, or The Empire Strikes Back, the story becomes richer and more intricate. Your audience appreciates this. Sometimes, though, Hollywood thinks we need to be out-thrilled, or further amazed, or that they need to entertain us beyond a quality tale story. I like to say that too often, the story gets lost amongst “the killer phrase.”

The “killer phrase,” as I’ve dubbed it, is ‘bigger and badder.’ It’s a hollow promise. Because ‘bigger and badder’ is never what people want. They just want better. Period.

And nothing is more proof of that than Spider-Man 3. I was so excited for this movie. And, now that I’m a few weeks away from seeing it, I can tell you simply: it sucked. It was terrible. The effects were great, sure. The scene at the top of the building was amazing and my eyes believed everything they saw. As promised, the battles were ‘bigger’, and there were explosions, but the list of problems is endless: the mini-stories were too plentiful and way too short. Fantastic plot devices like the incredible black suit story were ruined because there was too little setup, too little emotional connection, in far too many cases, too little understanding, and universally, too little pay off. Great backstories like the sympathic Flint Marko were lost because of overcrowding. The whole Harry Osborn thing had me screaming, “Couldn’t this idiot butler have had this conversation with Harry like, say, TWO YEARS AGO?!” The entire thing was far too fast without my ever caring about anything or any character. Spidey 3 was everything about Hollywood blockbusters that I hate. And while it may have had the BIGGEST OPENING WEEKEND EVAR!!1!, let’s not forget that it is currently the most expensive movie ever made and it will almost certainly gross less than its two predecessors …and they’re already talking about Spidey 4.

Shrek the Third gave me a few chuckles and was generally a good story, for the most part. It just lost all of the edgy comedy that made Shrek 2 such a scream. So while it may stand better as a kid’s story, that was mostly what it was for me. I laughed a handful of times, but definitely less than 1/10 as much as I did for the second installment. The problem came from a swelling cast of all-stars, a cast that honestly had me unable to identify which character was which anymore after a certain point. Building to the ‘bigger and badder’ tagline made this film boil over.

And Pirates 3, while the best of the bunch, was just shy of 3 hours. There were entire volumes of the film that could have been cut, but inexpicably, weren’t. While it caps off the trilogy, I’d bet my hat it’s not the last we’ll see of Captain Jack. The ridiculousness of the swordfight on the wheel in “Dead Man’s Chest” wasn’t matched in Part 3, thank Science, although there was a very long, trippy sidebar sequence featuring the rescue of Jack Sparrow from the Land of the Dead, replete with hallucination Cap’n Jacks and a series of rocks/crabs that may or may not have been real. Whatever it was meant to be, clearly the goal was to amaze audience, but frankly, the whole of the last two films left me less with “Wow! That was amazing” and more of “Wow! That story could’ve been told in one 2-hour film.”

This is my usual feeling about Hollywood these days. I find films like “The Rise of the Silver Surfer” suck me in only to let me down. Even the Matrix fell to ‘bigger and badder.’ In fact, for me at least, it’s usually something out of the box that I enjoy: most recently Stranger Than Fiction or The Departed. More people left Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” and will leave Michael Moore’s upcoming “Sicko” feeling good about seeing the movie than left Spidey 3 thinking it was worth it.

As we approach Die Hard 4, Bourne 3, Rambo IV, Terminator 4, and zillions of other sequels, I hope they remember this advice: audiences want to be respected. They may see your crappy 100 million dollar movie, but big explosions don’t impress anyone anymore, and while your film may have a 70 million dollar bow, it will likely fall more than 50% in the second week, and even more in week 3. As Waitress, a little indy movie climbs steadily up the charts; LOST – a serialized drama with intellectual science fact as the basis of theories – sits high in the charts; and geeks log off of first person shooters and onto websites to discuss Ron Paul and Mike Gravel, the proof is clear: people want to be challenged and they want to be respected. When Hollywood stops pretending to offer quality and starts actually offering the moviegoing public real stories that make people feel happy, or sad, or connected, or just good about being alive – then people will respect the movies again.