We were thoroughly sequel-ized this summer; just about every movie that made any money in the past coughed up a remake or a sequel. And because the target audience apparently isn't old enough to know about any movies made before 2003, it's all as good as brand new. (You'll note that few, if any, of this summer's sequels had a number attached to it, as in Rush Hour 3. All the better to fool the young-uns in the audience.) Four such sequels have tumbled down into my humble less-than-400 screen territory, so I thought I'd take a moment to discuss some of the rules of good and bad sequels.
1. If you're starting up a superhero franchise, the "origin" part in the first movie is pretty dull and takes up a lot of screen time. The second in the franchise is always better, simply because we get to dive right in without a long setup. Even a movie as terrible as Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (187 screens) improves upon its even more terrible predecessor.
2. In making sequels to superhero movies, it's better if you concentrate on characters and problems that ordinary audience members can identify with. The X-Men movies and Spider-Man movies were filled with normal, human problems, ranging from money troubles to unrequited crushes, and just about anyone who has ever felt alone or alienated can identify with Batman or Superman. The problems in the Fantastic Four sequel range from getting bumped out of first class and worrying about how famous you are, to wondering what to do when you suddenly switch superpowers with one of your teammates. Sorry, but nobody cares.
3. If you have a character that works, give us more of the same. Don't try to make the stories, visual effects, or running time larger. The character of John McClane (Bruce Willis) works so well because he doesn't even want to come back for a sequel. Getting into adventures is a big hassle for him, and they usually happen at really bad times, like when he has a hangover. The previous three Die Hard films succeeded because they never tried to out-do one another. Made twelve years after the last film, the new Live Free or Die Hard (310 screens) probably shouldn't have worked, especially because it was entrusted to Len Wiseman, a barely experienced half-wit of a director with an unnatural predilection for shaky, hand-held cameras. And yet it turned out to be one of the most purely enjoyable films of the summer, if not the most surprising.
On the other hand, we have Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). In the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, he stole every scene with a brilliantly calculated performance, helped by rich, funny dialogue. Based on a carnival ride and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, that, too, was a movie that should have failed, but it has turned into an endearing adventure comedy classic that even holds up to repeat viewings. So for the 2006 sequel and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (327 screens), the producers took exactly the wrong route. Instead of giving us more Jack, the movies grew bigger and more bloated around him, with more of the bland Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and more Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), whose energy seemed used up after the first film. When William Powell and Myrna Loy showed great chemistry in Manhattan Melodrama (1934), the producers scrapped the rest of the cast (Clark Gable included) and gave them their own series of movies, starting with The Thin Man, later that same year. The Pirates films should have scrapped everything and narrowed it down to the Jack Sparrow show.
4. If you've made a terrible second film and you realize it, it helps if you apologize for it in your third film. Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Thirteen (218 screens) is a good deal more fun than its predecessor, which played like watching a great party from outside the window. The new movie doesn't make much logical sense, but at least it contains a very simple idea: The crew wreaks revenge on a callous and sneaky casino owner (Al Pacino) for wronging their buddy (Elliot Gould). Soderbergh is clearly making these movies for fun and profit so that he can finance his more serious films, but at the same time, he doesn't neglect them or put any less effort into them. In short, he cares.
5. Don't put a number in your title if it's not a sequel. Julie Delpy's new movie 2 Days in Paris (75) may confuse viewers who don't remember 1 Day in Paris ever coming out. The same goes for The Ten (36 screens), The 11th Hour (20 screens), Ten Canoes (5 screens), 7 Days (2 screens), 12:08 East of Bucharest (1 screen), and especially something like 1408 (72 screens). People may be wondering whatever happened to the 1407 movies that came before it.I'm just kidding on that last one, by the way.