Flattout Truth on Sequel Culture

By Cameron R. Flatt

Hollywood is constantly under fire for many of its practices and, often enough, for good reason.

Most large budgets movies pander to their audience. Recognizable stars can often be the only reason for a film’s existence. The same formulas have been run straight into the ground. Studios micromanage to the point that it is mystery why they even bother hiring filmmakers in the first place. They do a dreadful job of representing minorities.

Also, they continue to employ the “talents” of Rebel Wilson, which is an unforgivable sin worthy of 1000 life times trapped in a Waffle House bathroom writing English papers on the various uses of love as a plot device in Young Adult novels.

I have had multiple conversations recently with people complaining about movie endings that set up possible sequels (two of these conversations where about “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “10 Cloverfield Lane”).

I can definitely agree with this sentiment against what I am now going to call “sequel-setting”, and I do not advocate filmmakers bending over backward to set up a franchise when they do not even know what their current project is about (enter “Amazing Spider-Man 2”, stage right).

I, however, put forth that looking forward to follow-up stories is not inherently devoid of creative intent. I would like to further illustrate this point by exposing a double-standard between cinema and television on this topic.

Though I am not all that familiar with television history, it is common knowledge that the sit-com format has dominated the industry for a long time. These shows’ stories were told on an episode-by-episode basis with little to no carry-over between weekly installments.

As television has gained more artistic respect in recent years, the award winners have done the opposite. They begin their story in episode one, each successive episode contributes to the overarching plot or chips away at a big mystery, and the audience waits until the season finale for some (but definitely not complete) closure.

Then that finale has a cliff-hanger for the next season and the process starts all over again. Massively popular programs match this description (“Game of Thrones”, “Breaking Bad”, “The Walking Dead”, “The Blacklist”, “Bojack Horseman” surprisingly enough), and they sweep the awards every year (ok, maybe not Bojackbut he is definitely deserving).

Take the fantastic Netflix series “House of Cards” for example. The first season begins with acting god Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood being denied his promised role as Secretary of State for the newly elected president. This leads him on a warpath of deceit, dirty dealings, and murder as he seeks to gain power on his own terms.

The season ends with Underwood *spoiler alert* manipulating his way into the role of Vice President. The story, obviously, is not yet over as our anti-hero sets his sights on the presidency, but journalists that are hot on Underwood’s trail with evidence of his wrongdoings. Season one went on to earn three Primetime Emmy Awards and nine other Emmy nominations.

Here we find the aforementioned double standard: TV shows that do not completely finish up their plots and allow everything to be picked up next time are the favorites and movies that do the same are looked down upon.

I am completely aware that these two mediums have many differences, but there is a lot of crossover in how they convey a story. I think that if a screenplay calls for it, and if there are interesting places for the story to go, then leaving the ending open is not all that bad (if done correctly, of course).

Let’s look at one of films that began this discussion for me. “The Force Awakens” is a fantastic movie; it is not perfect or even the best “Star Wars” movie, but it is full of heartfelt moments, razor sharp humor, and star-making performances (if you need to be convinced, watch the video essays by Movies with Mikey and Chris Stuckmann).

I do agree that the strong similarities between “A New Hope” and “The Force Awakens” are a drawback, but I would say that “Episode VII” clearly trying to start a new trilogy is not. You have to understand that, before this film, there had not been a new “Star Wars” in ten years and, if you consider the prequels to be a cancer-inducing crime against humanity, like most fans, the saga has been dead since 1983 (at least as far as the movies go).

It is redundant to say this franchise is important to American, even international, cinema, and it would be illogical for this new movie to stray too far from what made the originals successful.

“Star Wars” helped define the term “trilogy” for mass audiences and, if there was not an episode eight and nine to follow seven, fans would probably tar and feather director J.J. Abrams. So why not allow the first part be just that, the beginning piece of a larger whole.

The writers have obviously crafted a bigger picture, and “The Force Awakens” does a great job of introducing it to us. We all want to know where Rey came from, we are intrigued by the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke, Kylo Ren is such a wild card that he could do anything at this point and Luke Skywalker has not even used a lightsaber yet, much less spoke a line of dialogue!

I did not conceive of this essay to be a defense of the newest “Force Awakens.” “Star Wars” is just an example most people have seen and have an opinion on. There are plenty of other examples that help prove that sequel-setting can be artistically valid.

“Evil Dead II” lead directly into “Army of Darkness,” and those movies are held among the best in horror. “Guardians of the Galaxy” has multiple hints towards its own sequel and the larger Marvel Universe, and that movie is pretty much beloved by everyone. “The Lego Movie’s” final few seconds have a fantastic set up for the next one, and, if you do not like “The Lego Movie,” you and I need to have word in private.

Almost all book series adaptations do this as well. And you cannot tell me you were not dying to know what happened next after the end of “The Hangover Part II” (that one is the joke example if you did not catch the joke).

I do not want you to think I want cinema to start emulating television. One of my major criticisms of TV as a medium is that producers mean for their shows to go on forever without a clear ending point and often end up lost after the initial premise has worn thin.

I don’t want movie series that just keep piling on sequel upon sequel without any actual direction (let’s be honest, that is what the “James Bond” movies have been for a long time, even if you like every single one of them). I just want to point out that just because sequels mostly exist simply to make money does not mean they cannot also have artist ambition attached to them as well.

Great filmmakers are able to work with what they have (ranging from a nonexistent budget to the high demands that come with millions of dollars) and tell the story they set out to tell. Some stories are too big for one part and have to be told over multiple installments. Then again, I could be just another critic that has been brainwashed by the Marvel movie machine and this is all just a defense for their massively successful collection of movies that build upon each other to form a coherent, fleshed out mythology.

Do you agree with what I said? Do you have any comments for me? Did this post give you cancer? Let me know in the comments below or on twitter @Cameron_Flatt. Tweet at me and win a free, personalized Star Wars prequel meme.

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