Did we need to go back to Jurassic Park, watch the Avengers duke it out again, or try once more to blow up the Death Star? Clearly studios and audiences agree that the answer is yes, yes, and again yes. At the end of 2015, seven of the ten top-grossing films were sequels, and one of the remaining three was just the latest iteration of a fairy tale (Cinderella). That means just two of the year’s most popular films were based on original ideas.
Inside Out was a new creation which built into a massive hit because of its engaging hook and strong word-of-mouth. But there is still little chance that it could have reached the heights it did without the imprimatur of Pixar. So we’re left with one film, The Martian, that had nothing to recommend it but the story, its cast, and director. Fortunately, Ridley Scott’s wildly fun and uniquely optimistic (an ever-rarer commodity in a creative industry where gloom often masquerades as seriousness) lost-astronaut adventure deserved every bit of its success. Even better, the closed-loop story leaves it relatively sequel-proof. But, never say never.
Critics have been complaining about the lack of originality in Hollywood pretty much ever since there was a Hollywood. Possibly the first feature film sequel was 1916’s now-lost The Fall of a Nation, eager to follow up on the success of the previous year’s Ku Klux Klan recruitment ad, The Birth of a Nation. The early business of cinema was founded in large part on cheaply produced variations on proven formulas, as well as the success of recurring characters like Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp and the Keystone Cops. It’s a logical business strategy.
Prestige pictures about historical figures and glossy romances with A-list stars were all well and good, especially for those studio bosses eager to show they weren’t mere crass entertainers. But each one was produced with a clenched concern that the rare cinematic alchemy needed to make a hit film could be generated. Whereas if Myrna Loy and William Powell were available, the studio could always knock out another Thin Man flick, guaranteeing a minimum level of return.
That penchant for recurring series dipped a little bit in the postwar years. But up through the ’70s there were still popular exceptions, from Bob Hope and Bing Crosby’s Road to… series, and a little later the Bond and Planet of the Apes films, or for kids, the further adventures of Benji, Herbie the Love Bug, and the Bad News Bears. But after the late ’70s, when hits like Star Wars, as well as lower-end hits like Halloween and Friday the 13th, proved able to spawn their own cottage industries, the sequel machine cranked up and hasn’t slowed down since.
In the new millennium, a combination of new factors pushed all this into overdrive: an Internet-fueled hype machine, larger media conglomerates able to leverage vast marketing muscle, greater mainstream penetration of fan culture, the weed-like sprawl of popular adaptation-ready book series, and an ever-smaller audience willing to plunk down 15 bucks (or is it 20 now?) for something new, unfamiliar, or (heaven forbid) challenging.
Last year, Birdman’s surrealist satire tweaked the currently dominant superhero movie aesthetic to highlight its essential pointlessness. This year, the loudest anti-blockbuster raspberry was heard in Clouds of Sils Maria, where a personal assistant (Kristen Stewart) is trying to convince her grand older actress of a boss (Juliette Binoche) of the deeper import of the superhero flick they just watched. The actress attempts to take the assistant’s argument seriously, but when she hears the word “superpowers,” the actress spits out her beer in a cackling laugh of disbelief.
It’s a spit-take that cogently expresses the mindset of today’s exhausted movie-goer at the multiplex. They’re just trying to find something to see that won’t try to pummel them into submission with whiz-bang nonsense (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), video-game war-making (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2), or nostalgic repetition (Jurassic World, Star Wars: The Force Awakens). It isn’t always easy.
But no matter how much the industry is tied up into pumping out blockbuster sequels, enough dedicated artists and savvy production companies are still finding ways to fund, film, and distribute the stories that matter. American theaters were gifted with plenty of those. There were crusading journalist potboilers like Spotlight, heart-rending stories of struggle and survival like Room and Mustang, jaw-dropping exposes like Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, and boundary-pushing science fiction like Ex Machina.
One thing we didn’t see much of, even in the indie sphere, was romance. After all, love stories aren’t easy to turn into franchises; they’re kind of a one-of thing by definition. It’s a disturbing notion to consider that the only love-story that made much of a dent in the popular psyche was Fifty Shades of Grey, a consumerist S&M fantasy that began its life not just as a novel but as a fan-fiction variation on Twilight. It was in a way a sequel even before its own sequels start hitting theaters.
In any case, it remains to be seen whether even with all the great films still coming to theaters, audiences can be enticed to discover them without the benefit of a $100 million marketing budget. We live in a time when a raucous comedy like The Big Short, featuring a trio of Hollywood’s biggest male stars (Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling), and dramatically set during the most calamitous financial disaster in modern memory, will end up being seen by just a fraction of the people who mobbed theaters for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Because, you know, finance is boring. Or, as the film puts it: “The truth is like poetry. And people fucking hate poetry.”
So it makes a kind of sense that right now, one of the surest bets in Hollywood is the newest Fast and Furious entry — this year was number seven. That’s the one starring a pro wrestler turned actor and an actor who looks like a pro wrestler but still isn’t as good a performer as the wrestler. That, or something with dinosaurs, at least one of the Avengers, a scrappy young heroine in a postapocalyptic landscape who can’t decide between two romantic interests, or a black-cloaked villain with a voice-distorting mask and a red lightsaber.
Of course, a sure bet is a sure bet until you lose. That’s ever more the case in a year of not just highly expensive flops like Pan but situations like with this year’s newest 007 outing, Spectre. This is a film that all the smartest observers would pick as a surefire commercial and critical hit. But due to the tangled nature of the current blockbuster business — not to mention film’s $250 million price tag — it will apparently need to make $650 million just to break even. When one starts to see numbers like that, the certainty of the industrial film-sequel production line becomes a little more uncertain.
Thankfully, when you dig down a little further in the box-office charts, you come to some series films that actually brought something new to the table. After a painfully long time in development, George Miller’s fourth addition to the Mad Max series, Fury Road, could well have been just an attempt to cash in on a fondly remembered action series using new advances in special effects. But Miller delivered glorious widescreen cinematography, epic scale, perverse humor, a sincere feminist outlook that went beyond simply putting guns in the hands of female characters, and studiously old-fashioned dedication to real-life stunts instead of sloppy-looking CGI car crashes (see Furious 7 for that). It all stacked up into a rare return to form for a crafty director whose work feels almost as fresh now as it did with the original Mad Max back in 1979.
Like Fury Road, which played with the previous film’s timelines and characters, Ryan Coogler’s Creed falls more into the reboot category than straight sequel. Although Coogler and Aaron Covington’s script is faithful to the letter of the now-venerable Rocky series, it freely challenges many of the previous film’s assumptions about character and destiny. The film also returns the series to a kind of underdog honesty and even a semi-realistic approach to boxing that was sorely missing in many of the more comic-book sequels.
Coogler’s intent focus is on the grudging two-way mentoring dynamic between a battered but still chipper Rocky (Stallone, keeping it low-key and well within his capabilities) and Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), the eager young apprentice who just so happens to be the son of Rocky’s old rival-turned-comrade Apollo. The outcome of the big fight at the end matters, clearly, but it’ss hardly the sole reason for the film to exist. With its welcome upending of the old racial dichotomies and genuinely affectionate relationships Creed could have been nearly as enjoyable a film if Adonis never had that championship bout.
What does this all mean? We’re going to see theaters filled with ever-more sequels, reboots, and reimaginings anyway. By one estimation, there are at least 150 sequels in the works right now. If that’s the case, then at least let them be like Creed, Mad Max: Fury Road, or even the awesomely low-key vibe of something like Magic Mike XXL. Those films might be just adding new scaffolding onto pre-existing dramatic structures, but at least they can occasionally make us forget that. Also, they allow us to lose ourselves deeply enough in their sweep and spectacle that we can feel as though what we’re seeing is a brand new story.