Hollywood has become obsessed with the franchise. Sure, there were always sequels, and there have been plenty of series that went on for way more movies than anyone ever wanted, but lately it’s become a way of doing business. It’s impossible to get money for a big-budget spectacle unless the plan is to kickstart a potential series of money-making sequels. I’m tired of it. Sequels can be good, but this idea that every movie is nothing more than a product meant to set up the next movie that’s nothing more than a product to set up the next movie, etc, is extremely frustrating.
As evidenced by the ending of Prometheus—which I will not spoil except to say it purposely leaves things in such a way as to tie in with the Alien series and set up a sequel—all this process does is hamper the movie at hand. Prometheus has plenty of problems outside of the ending—the characters aren’t perfectly drawn, the dialogue is sometimes too oblique, the plot often moves purely for the sake of moving—but no problem is more frustrating than the final ten minutes in which the film is more focused on dealing out the cards for a sequel than creating a truly satisfying conclusion. That it happens at the very end of the movie leaves an unfortunate taste in my mouth, which does a disservice to all the things I enjoyed about the movie before its ending. The movie isn’t ruined by the ending, but it’s certainly brought down a peg or two. Sadly, this is the case with many films these days.
It seems a matter of common sense that if you want your movie to be good you need to focus on the movie at hand and not be too concerned with making sure the piece are in place for a sequel. If a sequel can be made it’ll be made anyway, so don’t worry about what’s to come. Unfortunately, the business side of things makes setting up sequels an attractive concept. Why create a standalone product when you can create the opening for a series of products? Filmmakers often buy into this as well. “You mean I can tell a story in long form over several films?” It’s like a gift. There are two problems with this, though. The first is that the filmmakers begin to consider every story decision they make for both its effect on the current film, but also the potential consequences for future films. The other problem is that those future films might never be made, so all decisions need to work in case a sequel never happens. It’s nearly paradoxical, write as though you’re sure to get a sequel, but hedge your bets in case you don’t. Hedging your bets has never been a good method for creative success.
Prometheus makes this mistake in spectacular fashion. Some will claim that the movie’s problem is asking questions it can’t or won’t answer. That’s not true. In fact, the movie is thematically strengthened by keeping certain points ambiguous. It’s by design that these characters are encountering workings that are way beyond the scope of sense or understanding and so as an audience we are also left only to speculate. But the ending does something different. It doesn’t leave questions open. It purposely leaves plot open. What’s more annoying is that I’m sure a similarly “open” ending could have been crafted that wouldn’t have felt as much like the movie slapping you in the face and saying “HEY, LOOK, YOU SHOULD COME BACK FOR THE SEQUEL!” The ending, instead of making the questions feel thematic and satisfying, plays them for plot and makes the movie feel incomplete.
A particularly sad case of this phenomenon happened earlier this year in John Carter. Stanton himself became enamoured with the idea of starting a new franchise, and it hurt the film hugely. The film’s storyline was overly complicated because Stanton attempted to put as much of the Barsoom world into the movie as possible but also leave all of it mysterious enough to make room for sequels. The result was a film with an extremely simple character arc, but a plot that was often too crazy to follow and locations and characters that felt woefully unexplored. If the film’s job was to make me yearn for a sequel, well, mission accomplished. The good things in the film, and the glimpses of Barsoom had me hoping a sequel could be made that wasn’t just set up. One that actually had a coherent plot and great characters. Sadly, the film we got was a mess of good intentions gone wrong and the box office receipts were so low we’ll never get to see if a sequel would’ve been an improvement.
There is one director out there who understands all this and who makes sure not to fall into these traps. Christopher Nolan’s two Batman films have been brilliantly crafted to allow for sequels without being hampered by that baggage. The reason? Well, pretty simply, Nolan doesn’t think about his current film as a stepping stone to future, bigger sequels. Batman Begins was pitched as a reboot, literally meant to begin a franchise. But the way the film is written, had no sequel ever been made, the film could easily stand on its own as a single story about the origin of Batman as a character. The ending, which hints at the Joker’s appearance in the sequel, is open, but it’s also thematically consistent. It’s open in the same way that the ending of The Godfather is open. The ending is suggestive of stories and themes to come without making those stories or themes necessary to satisfy the current one. In fact, by merely suggesting them Nolan satisfies his origin story.
The Dark Knight takes this principle even further. I’ve heard so many complaints over the years about how Nolan mishandled the Harvey Dent/Two-Face storyline. People had become so used to the idea of setting up sequels that they wanted Two-Face to be created at the end of the film in order for him to be the villain in the “inevitable” third film. That’s not what Nolan was after, though. In fact, on the press tour for The Dark Knight he repeatedly responded to questions about a third film by saying that another film might happen, but that for now he put everything he had into this one film. Sure, Two-Face could have been a cool villain for a whole other sequel, but instead of doing something as simple as that, Nolan crafted the entire film around the rise and fall of Harvey Dent and his transformation into Two-Face. It was necessary for Two-Face to died in order for the themes of the film to coalesce and create a satisfying whole. And once again, while the ending of the film is open-ended, it’s thematically closed. The film has an extremely strong ending, and if no sequel to it was ever made it would still stand as a great ending. That’s the way to approach franchise filmmaking.
There’s one exception to all of this, and that’s in the case of series where sequels are guaranteed and have a planned release. Examples of this include the end of Back to the Future II leading into Back to the Future III, the simultaneous shoot for the Lord of the Rings series, and the Harry Potter series, as well as the splitting of the final film. In each of these cases the audience went in and/or came out knowing for sure that a sequel was already in production with a release date set. There was an understanding. These were not standalone films. They were crafted, not with the hope that a sequel was coming, but with the knowledge that a sequel was already being made. This way the writing could stand to be more boldly long form and episodic, much like a season of TV. In these instances, whether they filmmakers were successful at it or not, the attempt to set up sequels was perfectly valid.
So unless you’re shooting two or three movies back to back, don’t try to set up sequels. Leave that alone. Focus on the film you’re making and worry about sequels if and when they are actually about to get made. Don’t do what Prometheus did. Don’t do what the post-Iron Man Marvel films did either, stopping the action to insert connections to lead up to another film. Definitely don’t get as carried away as Andrew Stanton did with John Carter. Take the Nolan approach. Make one great film, and then if you’re asked back try making another great film. Take it one at a time and try to tell complete stories. The odds of achieving greatness and actually earning sequels are only improved.