A history of Hollywood sequels in 10 influential films

Hugely popular with audiences (if not critics), sequels have been around nearly as long as the history of cinema itself. Some are good, some are terrible, while the following films tell a changing story of how Hollywood does business.

Stuart Henderson

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

A not-so-long time ago, in a not-so-far-away movie galaxy, the sequels produced by Hollywood were deemed the ultimate triumph of commerce over art, crass cash-ins which with few exceptions were worthy only of derision. Perhaps the catchiest of these well-crafted denouncements of the industry’s lack of imagination, denouncements which were particularly commonplace throughout the 80s and 90s, came from Village Voice critic J. Hoberman, whose review of Hollywood from 1975 to 1985 decried the bout of ‘sequelitis’ which had supposedly afflicted the industry in the latter half of that decade.

For those reared on the edgier, New Hollywood fare of the late 60s and early 70s, the sequel was understandably viewed as a sign of modern malaise – but had those critics looked back to the 30s and 40s, they would have had to admit that sequential storytelling in all its forms had always been a significant part of Hollywood’s history.

As I argue in my book, The Hollywood Sequel, in what is still referred to as the industry’s golden age, the studios produced almost as many sequels, series films and serials as they did in the 1990s and 2000s. What distinguishes today’s sequels from their golden-age antecedents is their prominence on studio balance sheets. Whereas many of the sequels and film series of the 1930s were produced at B-level and shown as part of a double bill, their modern counterparts are often big-budget behemoths. Unlike during the golden age, many of the highest grossing films of this past decade have been sequels, prequels or in some other way part of a series or franchise.

Needless to say such commercial dominance hasn’t entirely stemmed the tide of disdain from seasoned critics – or indeed the self-satire of films like 22 Jump Street (2014), whose end credit sequence consists of spoof posters for future sequels. Over the past decade, however, it seems there has been a growing willingness to take sequels on their own terms. Perhaps this is because the franchise model has become such an unavoidable fact of life that both audiences and critics have become more accustomed to it. Arguably, too, it seems that serialised storytelling in all its forms has become somewhat more respectable, a side effect of the HBO-ification of television but also the studio’s upfront investments in carefully crafted multi-part franchises like The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and auteur-driven sequels like The Dark Knight.

The sequel deserves to be taken seriously not in spite of but precisely because it is evidence of Hollywood’s longstanding tendencies to both tell multi-part stories and to exploit the popularity of prior hits. What follows is not a list of great films that happen to be sequels – let’s face it, we all know The Godfather Part II is a masterpiece – but instead a list of sequels which have either been influential on or are representative of the development of the sequel as Hollywood’s favourite cash cow.

Don Q Son of Zorro (1925)

Director Donald Crisp

Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925)

Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925)

Here is one of the earliest examples of an enduring trend in sequel production, whereby a star drives the return to a prior hit as a means to reaffirm their commercial and/or critical standing. Not that Douglas Fairbanks was on the skids when he made this energetic, charming sequel to The Mark of Zorro (1920). He was still one of the biggest stars around, big enough to join forces with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith in founding their own independent studio, United Artists. Ironically, it was precisely this independence (and direct profit participation) which made Fairbanks more inclined to return as the swashbuckling masked outlaw. His previous film, The Thief of Bagdad (1924), although not a flop, wasn’t quite the blockbuster success Fairbanks had presumably hoped for when he invested $2m of his (and United Artists’) money. For his next film he needed a sure-fire hit, hence his return to commercially-proven territory.

Over the past decade we have seen this same logic at work whenever a star of the 80s and 90s returns to one of their signature franchises, hence the reappearances over the past decade of John McClane, John Rambo, Ethan Hunt and the Terminator, characters played by male stars whose box-office fortunes have seen better days. And yet the huge success of Don Q had a much more immediate influence on Fairbanks’ contemporary Rudolph Valentino, inspiring the latter to sign-up for The Son of the Sheik (1926), a sequel to Valentino’s breakout hit, The Sheik (1921), in which, as per Fairbanks, he played not only the original character but also his equally dashing offspring.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Director James Whale

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Jumpstarting the richest phase of the monster movie cycle for which Universal became rightly famed, and regularly cited as one of the greatest horror movies ever made, James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein is relevant here as an early instance of another recurrent pattern in the history of the Hollywood sequel, whereby a studio is so desperate to get ‘the talent’ back for a follow-up that it will be unusually willing to acquiesce to said talent’s demands. According to Whale’s biographer, he had no immediate interest in returning for a sequel to Frankenstein (1931), feeling he had “squeezed the idea dry”. Universal boss Carl Laemmle, however, was so convinced that Whale was the only man who could pull off another monster hit, he agreed to first produce the director’s pet project, a romantic drama called One More River (1934).

When Bride of Frankenstein finally went into production, Laemmle turned a blind eye as it went way over schedule and over budget. What eventually emerged was a convention-defying oddity in which Whale’s camp sensibilities were in ample evidence. In this way, the film is a clear antecedent to Batman Returns (1992), which is evidently more of a Tim Burton film than its predecessor, and Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), for which Warners were so intent on bringing back Joe Dante that they granted him complete creative control and final cut, an opportunity so rare he felt unable to turn it down, resulting in a film which more than anything is an anarchic satire on the very notion of the Hollywood sequel.

Four Wives (1939)

Director Michael Curtiz

Four Wives (1939)

Four Wives (1939)

Like many sequels of the 1930s and 40s, Four Wives is now largely forgotten, but in its own modest way it marks a significant turning point in the history of the Hollywood sequel. It belongs to a largely forgotten 1930s cycle of domestic family dramas, typified by the hugely successful Andy Hardy films. It was the Hardy films Warner Bros were evidently hoping to emulate when they produced Four Daughters (1938), starring the Lane Sisters, a then-popular musical trio, as the titular siblings, alongside Claude Rains as their equally musical father and John Garfield as a love interest.

When Four Daughters turned into a hit, Warners naturally wanted to push ahead with a sequel, only to face a legal challenge from Fannie Hurst, author of the short story on which the film was based. One of Hollywood’s favourite sources of original story material, writer of Imitation of Life among others, Hurst was also, inconveniently for Warners, president of the Author’s Guild and so an appointed guardian of her fellow author’s rights. The studio’s lawyers had been working on the assumption that, having bought the rights to Hurst’s story, they were free to create as many sequels as they wanted, so long as said sequel included material which appeared within the original story. Hurst’s contract, however, had made no mention of sequels, and as such she was well-placed to argue that no sequels could be made without both her approval and further financial remuneration. The case was settled out of court in Hurst’s favour, enabling Warners to push ahead with both Four Wives and a subsequent sequel, Four Mothers (1941), but also establishing a clear industry precedent. From this point onwards, studios increasingly included sequel clauses in their story acquisitions agreements with authors, thereby formalising their hope that any single story might just be the beginning of something larger and more profitable.

The Trial of Billy Jack (1974)

Director Tom Laughlin

The Trial of Billy Jack (1974)

The Trial of Billy Jack (1974)

Released in the same year as both The French Connection and Dirty Harry, two other movies whose protagonists were men with vigilante urges, Billy Jack (1971) was very much a product of its time. When it came to its marketing, however, Tom Laughlin’s film (and as writer, director, producer and star, he has more claim to authorship than most filmmakers) was many years ahead of the curve, dedicating much of its budget to television advertising, a strategy cooked up by Laughlin himself, which ran counter to the major studio’s preference for print-centric ad campaigns.

For its sequel, The Trial of Billy Jack, Laughlin – once again in charge of the distribution – took things a step further, spending $3.5m on TV advertising ($1m more than the original) and opening the film simultaneously in 1,100 cinemas nationwide. Studios never went this wide on opening weekend, but the strategy paid off handsomely, with The Trial of Billy Jack delivering a then-huge gross of $10.5m in the first week, ultimately going on to become the fifth highest earner of the year. Universal’s release strategy for Jaws, six months after Trial, is often hailed as the inaugural moment for the modern Hollywood blockbuster, but in fact it opened on less than half as many screens, indicating just how trail-blazingly ballsy Laughlin had been.

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Director Irvin Kershner

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

“The fact is,” wrote Judith Martin in her review of The Empire Strikes Back for The Washington Post, “that there is no beginning or end, just several middle-of-the-story chases.” Martin’s was one of many mixed reviews for the film upon its release in 1980, but it has grown in stature to become the critical darling of the series – a shift which surely has something to do with the film’s lack of a neatly rounded-off ending.

That the original Star Wars (1977) was created in the image of Saturday morning serials was no secret, but with The Empire Strikes Back George Lucas made that connection even more explicit by adding ‘Episode V’ to the iconic scrolling title sequence, subsequently retrofitting Star Wars as Episode IV by adding that label to the original film’s title sequence on prints created for its 1981 reissue, and announcing that this was the second in a series which would ultimately encompass nine films.

This was a pretty brave commitment to a multi-film series, but what remains truly impressive and influential about The Empire Strikes Back is Lucas’s willingness to leave so much unresolved, with Han Solo frozen in carbonite and Luke struggling with both the loss of his hand in a lightsaber battle with Darth Vader, not to mention the revelation of Luke’s fatherhood. Cliffhangers were of course a hallmark of film serials from the 1910s onwards, but their weekly instalments meant the audience weren’t waiting for long to find out what happened next. Ending The Empire Strikes Back on such an uncertain, downbeat note, all the while knowing that it would be three years until the next instalment, Lucas proved that the old serial template was still valid: you could leave an audience hanging and still make a lot of money. 

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)

Director George P. Cosmatos

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)

It’s easy to forget that the world’s first encounter with John Rambo, 1982’s First Blood, was a mournful, post-Vietnam tale whose tone and themes owed a debt to The Deer Hunter (1978) and which culminated in a standoff between Rambo and US law enforcement during which he contemplates suicide. Buoyed by their film’s solid if not spectacular success, indie studio Carolco and star Sylvester Stallone took the sequel in a rather different direction.

Rambo: First Blood Part II ditched the moral complexity and pensive tone of its predecessor in favour of an overtly flag-waving stance in which the principal adversaries were not the US authorities but instead a band of Vietnamese soldiers and the Soviet military; somewhat easier ideological scapegoats at that time. The film thus established the template for subsequent sequels, and a whole host of imitators, in which Rambo is called back in for ‘one last mission’ by a friendly American authority figure, as personified here by Colonel Trautman.

The commercial success of this sequel (which made three times as much as the original at the box office) combined with the recalibration of Rambo as a straightforward American hero, ensured that First Blood Part II was the film which truly cemented the character as an icon of the Reaganite zeitgeist. Reagan himself acknowledged as much towards the end of the 1985 Beirut hostage crisis, when he stated to the press: “Boy, after seeing Rambo [First Blood II] last night, I know what to do next time this happens.”

Aliens (1986)

Director James Cameron

Aliens (1986)

Aliens (1986)

In 1979, Sigourney Weaver was a relative unknown with only a couple of bit parts to her name when she won the role of Ripley in Alien, a role for which she was paid $33,000. Just as Ripley emerged as the unexpected hero at the end of Ridley Scott’s iconic space-horror, so Weaver emerged as a star. Eighteen years later, Weaver received a co-producer credit and $11m as part of her deal to play Ripley once more in Alien Resurrection (1997); commercial recognition of the extent to which she had become absolutely central to the series.

And yet, hard as it is now to conceive, Weaver was not automatically deemed an essential part of the sequel by studio executives, with Aliens writer-director James Cameron claiming that Fox wanted him to write a Ripley-free version of the script; something he flatly refused to do.

What ultimately emerged, of course, was a sequel which proved not only that Ripley was integral to the success of a continuing storyline, but also that Weaver was as compelling an action star as her male contemporaries. She was too versatile an actress to be typecast as a gun-toting warrior, hence following Aliens with very different performances in Working Girl and Gorillas in the Mist (both 1988), but Weaver as Ripley remains a pioneering (and still all too rare) female hero in the action genre.

The Return of Jafar (1994)

Directors Toby Shelton, Tad Stones and Alan Zaslove

The Return of Jafar (1994)

The Return of Jafar (1994)

Independents like Cannon and New World had been in the straight-to-video game for several years, but the major studios remained standoffish until 1994, when Disney launched The Return of Jafar, a sequel to Aladdin (1992), straight to sell-through VHS, less than a month after copies of its predecessor had been withdrawn from retail and rental shelves as part of the company’s ‘moratorium’ strategy. Jafar sold more than 7m copies in its first month, and, in the process, instantly legitimised the commercial viability of the direct-to-video market for the other studios, and ultimately created a new business model for the entire industry.

Adopting the direct-to-video model meant adopting a more cut-price approach to the films themselves. Produced for around a fifth of the cost of Aladdin, the budget limitations on The Return of Jafar meant forgoing the computer-generated set-pieces which had elevated Aladdin, farming out the labour-intensive animation to their television animation production units in Japan and Australia, and replacing expensive talent with cheaper alternatives; hence Dan Castellaneta rather than Robin Williams as the voice of the genie, and an assortment of lesser-known composers in place of Alan Menken providing the musical numbers – including the aptly titled ‘You’re Only Second Rate’.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)

Director Wes Craven

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)

A decade after A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) became a surprise breakout success, Freddy Krueger was beginning to look a little tired, having spawned (at that point) five sequels and a short-lived TV series. Wes Craven, creator of the original film, had long since given up on the character, but Robert Shaye, founder and then still chairman of New Line, the indie studio for whom the first film had made a fortune, understandably felt otherwise. Shaye tempted Craven back by retroactively granting him a cut of royalties on the sequels, and also by granting him creative carte blanche.

Having watched all of the sequels, some of which he had never seen, Craven concluded that, in the absence of a coherent ongoing storyline, the best way forward would be to “look at things self-referentially”. What resulted is arguably still the most self-reflexive of all horror films, in which the principals involved in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, including Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, Shaye and Craven, are themselves stalked by Freddy Krueger, who has broken out of the fictional universe of the franchise and into the ‘real’ world. While New Nightmare failed to reignite the series’ box-office fortunes, it laid the groundwork for Craven’s next exercise in metafictional horror, the equally self-reflexive but far more successful Scream (1996), which begat not only sequels of its own but also a whole new cycle of ultra-knowing teen horror.

Quantum of Solace (2008)

Director Marc Forster

Quantum of Solace (2008)

Quantum of Solace (2008)

Quantum of Solace is far from being a good Bond film, but it is the first which can truly be described as a sequel. Previously, the Bond series had operated much like the movies series of the 30s and 40s, with little or no acknowledgment of specific narrative events from prior episodes, let alone any direct carry-over of storylines from one film to the next. As Umberto Eco once described the Superman comics, so we might say that in the Bond films prior to this one, “what has happened before and what has happened after appear extremely hazy”.

Quantum of Solace, however, picks up moments after the final scene of Casino Royale (2006), and revolves almost entirely around Bond’s attempts to avenge the death of Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), which we witnessed at the end of the earlier film. This switch to a more interlinked approach to storytelling is arguably indicative of the influence of the Bourne films on the Bond series, but also of a broader, entertainment industry-wide shift towards more closely interwoven storylines between episodes, not only in movie sequels but also in television, video games and comics. Of course this shift had been in progress long before Quantum of Solace appeared, but the fact that it had finally impacted upon the Bond series, as demonstrated by this film’s divergence from such a long-running and successful template, makes it a fascinating bellwether of contemporary storytelling trends.

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