Film studios make sequels because, when an audience loved an original, they are more likely to cough up cash to watch a sequel to it. The studios’ actions make complete sense. But given how bad almost every sequel is, why do we, the audience, keep coming back for more. Is it simply the limited number of films that are out there? I doubt it. There are plenty of movies I don’t see. Often I’ll hear years later that they are good, and wonder why I never bothered to go see them.
If I had to offer a guess, I’d say that familiarity with the previous film overwhelms any amount of word of mouth, trailer titillation, or critical acclaim for a new film. It’s as if a sequel to a good film is given a boost of one or two stars in the expectations of its viewers. I have to force myself to get ruthless. And yet still, I fail, and go back to the well again and again.
Here are some great films (top grossing in their years) that had just OK or even bad sequels, all of which I dutifully watched:
- Back to the Future
- Home Alone
- Independence Day
- Jurassic Park
- Raiders of the Lost Ark
- The Exorcist
- 3 Men and a Baby
The list even includes a couple of mediocre sequels whose originals were so good that the poor sequel was top grossing movie in its year:
- Hunger Games: Catching Fire
- Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
- Shrek 2
- Spider-Man 3
One of the only films on the list which is a better sequel to its original is The Empire Strikes Back. Star Wars (A New Hope) is also on the list. In fact the Star Wars series is a great example of how great films support weaker sequels. Every Star Wars film except Attack of the Clones has been the top grossing film in its year.
The only other sequel in the list that is better than its original is the Dark Knight, a film made as part of a planned trilogy.
Interestingly, the Godfather (1972) is the earliest top grossing film that had a sequel that I’m aware of. Making sequels didn’t become common until the 1970’s.
Try to think of a sequel, other than The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight, that was actually better than the original film. They are rare:
- The Two Towers (arguably)
- Aliens (some would argue, though I don’t agree)
Why do we do this? We are creating these bad sequels by rewarding sequels over original stories. I suppose its for the same reason that people keep reading the same book series because they liked the early books, even after the series has become complete garbage. The solution is the Internet: We now have an early warning system for bad sequels with user ratings on sites like IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. The hard part is having the discipline to use it.