The last post was about the women of the Bond franchise, and that came about because my wife and I decided to sit down and marathon them all from Dr. No to No Time to Die, one movie each night. Part of the discussion we have when doing marathons together is about general quality over time, and the usual commentary about which are our favourites and which we don’t like as much.
A topic that comes about often with a franchise, or even just a sequel, is whether something constitutes a good film. We hear qualifications all the time, and debates range in other broad areas of entertainment like the quality level of horror and comedy movies (which the major awards tend to ignore). When Marvel puts out a great movie, the discussion is about whether its a good film or just a good comic book movie.
My wife made an observation that I have thought about in greater detail over the years, finding more and more examples – a massive piece of the criteria when evaluating a sequel or part of a franchise is the ability of that individual piece to stand on its own.
This came about again recently as we watched No Time to Die, my wife for the first time. We both enjoyed the film and found ourselves discussing whether it was a good film or just a good Bond movie. I recalled her theory and wondered, “Is it even a good Bond movie?” The accurate statement was that it was an entertaining movie. The actors did wonderfully and the technical execution was brilliant. Does that alone make it a good movie?
The more I thought about it, the more I thought, “Not really.” In the entertainment sense, I loved it. As a sequel though, I have to say in a critical sense that I agree with Randy from the Scream series: “Be definition alone they’re inferior films.”
Why is that the case? Because if you remove the preceding films from the franchise, the current one collapses. Let’s look at the case of No Time to Die. Is it a fun, entertaining film? Loved it. It’s a nice capstone on the Daniel Craig era of Bond films that started with Casino Royale and one of my favourite characters, Vesper Lynd. As I start to analyse No Time to Die, it becomes clear that we’re leaning heavily on Spectre and the story with Madeleine. Spectre, and therefore by extension No Time to Die, is leaning heavily on the events of Casino Royale. Nothing that occurs within No Time to Die works as well if the viewer has not seen those films. The weight of Bond visiting Lynd’s grave and why that affected him so profoundly that he could walk away from Madeleine, the full extent of Bond’s sacrifice at the end – none of that works without the other films.
Now, if one is not yet convinced by this criteria, I would like to highlight three counterexamples: The Godfather, Part II; Aliens; and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
The Godfather, Part II is one of the films often cited as an example of a sequel surpassing the original. In the very Scream 2 scene referenced earlier, Timothy Olyphant plays Godfather Part II as his trump card in the “some sequels are better” argument with the entire class agreeing. Consider, however, that while this film chronologically follows the Godfather, Part I, and is all the better within the context of the trilogy, you don’t actually need to know anything about Godfather, Part I to enjoy it. It follows an entirely different dimension of the Michael Corleone story. They establish what one needs to know about Fredo, and the story is told in parallel with the rise of Vito Corleone (Robert DeNiro).
Aliens is debated as superior to the original. Again I pose the question: does one need to see Alien to enjoy it? Other than “Ripley returns and is aware of the alien presence,” which Aliens covers, does anything about Alien really impact what occurs in Aliens?
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a highlight of the entire MCU, and I don’t know that anyone considers the first Captain America movie superior. Same situation though – does anything occur in the MCU prior to this movie that one needs to see to enjoy this movie? The biggest callback is Rogers’ relationship with Bucky, but The Winter Soldier handles it well enough that the audience gets that connection without needing to see Captain America: The First Avenger to appreciate it. He finally sees Bucky without the mask and there’s a moment of pained recognition. Bucky reveals that he’s starting to remember Steve and HYDRA tries to erase his memory again. We get everything we need within the confines of The Winter Soldier.
Which brings us back to the theory – the ability of a sequel to stand independently is a major criteria in evaluating the critical quality of that story. The more a sequel leans on a prior story to tell it, the more necessarily inferior it is. Moments will occur in the sequel that essentially mean nothing without the audience’s ability to insert massive parts of the previous story to make it work, kind of like an algebraic formula. The sequel has a formula of its own: 3x^3 + (y * z) + 4, but what an inferior sequel does is treat the whole of previous story as x.
Another way to think of this is, if I tell a story that follows a nice narrative path and then add a sequel that cannot exist independently, I am either 1) actually continuing the first story and possibly muddling the theme or 2) introducing something that is a fragment rather than a complete story. If I’m leaning too heavily on the prior installment, then what I currently have is not a nice narrative path but a fragment of a path that needs an actual story to complete it. They tried that in Jurassic Park with frogs and it all went to shit.
This isn’t to say that stories should never have sequels or that they should never reference a preceding story. The point is that anything needed from the previous story should exist in some form within the current story. Even in the most treasured franchise, do not assume the audience is familiar with things from previous stories and re-introduce them in intelligent (i.e. not condescending) ways that are relevant to the current story. Tell a complete tale with a beginning, middle, and end that function independently (even if they are also serving an overarching story).
The end result of writers who do this well is a sequel that people love rather than a disappointing money-grab by publishers or producers.