Today's Hollywood Reporter has a piece about the reversal of fortune when it comes to sequels. A number of high profile sequels this year - ranging from The Huntsman: Winter's War to Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: Out of the Shadows - have underperformed in relation to their original entries. The article has a whole rundown of thoughts about what's going on with the sequel landscape (although it doesn't mention that 2016 has been a dodgy year for original films, as shown by The Nice Guys and Popstar in recent weeks), but it doesn't come to the same conclusion that I have: people don't want sequels. They want sagas.
How else to explain the continuing success of the Marvel Studios films in an environment where sequels are floundering? Captain America: Civil War wasn't just a sequel to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it was a sequel to Iron Man Three and Avengers: Age of Ultron and a whole host of films. And yet it's killing it at the box office, coming in well over a billion dollars internationally and earning more than the first two Cap movies combined. What's the difference betwen that film and the new Ninja Turtles?
The answer, to me, is that Civil War feels like the next chapter in a story. Ninja Turtles feels like they just needed to make another movie because the first one hit certain metrics. That's exactly how The Huntsman feels, and it's a movie that is flailing about to explain why it even exists. I liked Neighbors 2 a lot, but from the outside it certainly looked like it stuck to the sequel formula: the same things happen again to the same people. "How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?" John McClane once asked himself, having a meta moment where he understood how Hollywood sequels work.
But Civil War is part of an ongoing saga that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The complaints that have been lodged against these movies - that without beginnings and endings they're just episodes in a longrunning TV series - explain exactly why they work with audiences. People want to come back to see what happens next. They believe that the story they're following has some structure to it, and the elements from this film will pay off in the next one, or the one after that. It's the exact same reason people come back to buy the comics upon which the movies are based - they want to know what happens next, and even if this one isn't that good they power through it because the next issue could be great.
There's a difference between longform storytelling and sequels. Sequels have been around forever - there are something like 30 Blondie movies, and forget about the Dead End Kids. But sequels were never taken particularly seriously in Hollywood, and they were always seen as a cash grab. Sequels often had reduced budgets and terrifyingly short production schedules (Son of Kong came out the same fucking year as King Kong. Think about that for a second). They were usually attempts to milk the last dimes out of a popular property. Among the first great modern sequels were the Planet of the Apes movies, which made a habit of ending on a note that left viewers wondering how the fuck they were going to top that craziness in the next film. While the Apes films were not planned (after blowing up the whole Earth in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, writer Paul Dehn got a telegram from the producers after the box office numbers came in: "Apes exist, sequel required"), they were wonderfully retrofitted to create a saga. There's a story being told across all five films, and none of them are simple rehashes of the last movie.
With The Godfather Part II sequels really hit the big time. But again, that film is less of a standard sequel - bringing back the cast and having them go through similar paces - and more of a longform storytelling feat. Francis Ford Coppola went back to unused elements from Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather and extrapolated both backwards and forwards in the timeline; again this didn't just feel like The Further Adventures of The Corleone or Still Taking The Canolli After All These Years but more like a complete, planned story that spanned decades. It has the sweep of a saga.
It was the Star Wars films that solidified the idea of sequels as saga; by giving the movies episode numbers (in rerelease), George Lucas assured viewers that they were watching a tale unfold, something grand in scope. By making the first film Episode IV, Lucas imitated what Coppola had done with Godfather Part II, allowing the scale of his story to expand backwards in time. The other thing Lucas invented by making his first movie Episode IV was the idea of a universe - here's more happening beyond the limits of the movie frame. Sagas set in expansive universes capture the imagination.
This is part of what has hurt X-Men: Apocalypse; the audience feels confused by these movies at this point, and it doesn't feel like a cohesive saga to them. The timeline is all over the place, and so the 'I have to keep up with the next chapter' buzz doesn't kick in. And by keeping Deadpool and X-Men separate Fox didn't give themselves a springboard to jump from that successful film to this one. That's why the biggest question mark in Marvel's Phase Three must be Doctor Strange, a movie that has zero connection with the rest of the MCU at first. And it's why Black Panther is now so much less of a question mark in the wake of his huge popularity in Civil War.
Of course there's another reason why these sequels maybe didn't do so well: audiences might not have been that wild about the first film. Snow White and the Hunstman was not exactly a major moment in recent pop culture. People saw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but did they particularly like it? I always think back to Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes - it actually made more money in 2001 than Rise of the Planet of the Apes made in 2011. But despite doing well Fox opted to not make a sequel. The reason: nobody liked the movie. They took what money they made and called it a day. At least for another decade.
As Hollywood studios chase guaranteed box office they need to understand that audiences recognize when a movie has been made as a shitty cash grab or, in the case of Neighbors 2, they're cynical when it looks like it might have been a shitty cash grab. Audiences want to feel like a sequel has a reason to exist. On the other hand understanding that too much leads to a peculiar phenomenon where the first movie is just a set up for a trilogy or something, leaving audiences unsatisfied. The key is to create a complete movie experience with one eye on the future. That's the lesson nobody's taking from Marvel.