4 Ways Sequels Get Watered Down

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by Gabriel Storment (@SeaStorm24)

It’s summertime, the unofficial season for sequels and reboots. And in sequels, everything gets amped up, or at least it should. The budget is bigger, the explosions are bigger, the cast typically gets an infusion of star power and, aside from superhero movies where the fate of the world is always on the line, the stakes get higher.

The Bellas moved on from nationals to win the a cappella World Championship in Pitch Perfect 2 (script for Pitch Perfect). Mike and his crew left the club, took their act on the road from Tampa to Myrtle Beach, and even needed a training montage to take over the stripper convention in Magic Mike XXL. Probably the best example of this is the Fast and Furious franchise (script). The characters and the tone/attitude of the last few movies in the series may still be familiar, but the scope, the locations, the action? Unrecognizable compared with the first film.

The flip side of that coin is that sequels tend to water down the previously established universe for the purpose of making the continuation of the story more consumable by a wider audience. The dilution process is accomplished in four ways:

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1. More Generic Protagonists

In order for the protagonist(s) to live on through a theoretically endless amount of sequels, they have to become a little safer, a little softer around the edges. Characters who once lived on the ragged edge are now just cranky.

In the original Lethal Weapon (script), Martin Riggs was a chain-smoking, suicidal burn-out who had a closer relationship to his gun than any human being. The lack of respect for authority, the disregard for his own or anyone else’s safety, incorporation of Three Stooges slapstick in the apprehension of drug dealers… everything about his character was extreme. By the fourth installment, though, about the only thing extreme about Riggs was the endless stream of lame one-liners. Not even the mullet remained. You could almost describe both Riggs and Murtaugh as bumbling detectives by the time Lethal Weapon 4 came out.

Similarly, Arnold’s T-800 in Terminator Genisys was a relative teddy bear compared to the efficient, ruthlessly violent version he played in the original (T1 and T2 scripts). Schwarzenegger only had 17 lines of dialogue in Terminator. Granted, the original was the only movie of the franchise in which Arnold played the villain, but the point stands. “Pops” is a wise-cracking, sentimental, even sympathetic character.

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2. Previous Villains are No Longer Threatening

In Jurassic Park, the velociraptors were conveyed to be the most intelligent and therefore sinister of the dinosaurs (scripts for Jurassic Park I, II, and III). We’re meant to know they should be feared even before we see them when Sam Neill ominously asks, “You bred raptors?” The T-Rex ultimately proves to be the badass of the park, but where she just roars and stomps and generally wrecks shit, the raptors are sneaky. They’re in cahoots with each other to sneak up on their prey before ripping its throat out.

In Jurassic World, the raptors are pets! Maybe not the kind to curl up at your feet at the end of the day, but they’re not meant to cause fear. By the end of the movie, there is even some kind of understanding between the raptors and the humans where they agree to go their separate ways. The raptor almost cocks his head at Chris Pratt as if to say, “You’re so charming and I loved Parks and Rec (scripts), so I won’t eat you. Go in peace.”

Similarly, In Terminator Genisys, with the exception of Arnold, T-800’s are dispatched with relative ease. Jai Courtney (Vanilla Kyle Reese) eludes and kills one without breaking a sweat. Whereas, in the original, the entire movie involves getting the hell away from one Terminator by any means necessary.

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3. Higher Stakes, Less Audience Investment

Bigger budgets mean fancier effects, more CGI, and bigger explosions. Sadly, this is often done at the cost of story. Instead of saving his family from some terrorists, the hero has to save the world from some terrorists. The stakes may be higher, but if the story isn’t good enough to make the audience care about what happens to the characters, the big explosions and CGI aren’t going to either.

When Arnold utters the tagline “I’ll be back” to satisfy the fanboys (Are there Terminator fanboys?) and dives out of a helicopter as a cyborg smart bomb, he successfully crashes it in a fiery explosion. Hooray! Then he shows up again a couple minutes later with maybe one extra scrape on his face.

Earlier in the film when the school bus flips over 17 times on the Golden Gate Bridge with vanilla Kyle Reese and Daeneyrs inside, they take two seconds to shake the cobwebs before continuing on with what they need to do.

Cool action scenes, I guess. It was neat seeing a school bus do gymnastics, and when I sit down in a theater I’m happy to engage my suspension of disbelief. But the action and effects have to exist within the context of the story. If nothing happens to the characters; if nothing is learned, gained or lost, there’s no point.  It’s John McClane Syndrome, where if you make enough movies in a franchise, your heroes will eventually be able to surf on jet planes and jump off buildings without serious injury.

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4. Added Comic Relief

The last, and one of the most sure-fire ways to water down a sequel and bring in a wider audience is to add some comedy to the script. Most often this means an A-list costar is added to the cast and the tone of the story is made considerably lighter.

Going back to the Lethal Weapon franchise, Joe Pesci was added for comic relief in the second installment. The drive-thru rant made his inclusion worth it, in my opinion. Because he was right. THEY DO. However, by Lethal Weapon 4, even Leo Getz wasn’t enough to lighten the mood, so Chris Rock was brought in. There’s even a scene where Pesci and Rock are arguing with Gibson and Glover looking on, shaking their heads. Riggs and Murtaugh weren’t even arguing about anything anymore, so they had to outsource it!

And of course we all remember Jar Jar Binks, although we wish we didn’t. Jar Jar is probably the best example of attempted comic relief that didn’t work. I like to think George Lucas desperately needed to distract the audience from how bad Jake Lloyd was, but really he wanted to present a more light-hearted world for the audience. The execution of that idea was obviously terrible, but so was the idea itself! He didn’t need to soften the edges or add comic relief. This was Star Wars! People were going to line up around the block to see it regardless.

At this point, movies are made with the idea that sequels will be green lit even before the premiere, which means we’re going to see more and more of the same kind of protagonists. A little bland, very sarcastic, and with a quip and a wink to the audience at the ready. Heroes won’t have any serious character flaws because those aren’t sustainable. Unfortunately, it means the characters and the movies won’t be as memorable.

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Gabriel Storment is an aspiring screenwriter, husband and father of two little hellraisers. He is based in Seattle and can be found on Stage 32, Twitter, and Facebook.

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