Conventional wisdom regarding most franchises is that the sequels are never quite as good as the original. With rare exceptions, each installment is sort of like a recording of a recording from the analog days – diminishing with each iteration. After seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier over the weekend, though, I couldn't help thinking that the geekier side of Hollywood might be the exception to the rule when it comes to sequels.
Even though my feelings about 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger don't align with many of my peers who consider it the best of Marvel's solo superhero debuts (I enjoyed both Iron Man and Thor more than The First Avenger), I'm the first to admit that even the most mediocre of Marvel's cinematic adventures is better than just about every other comic book movie made in the last decade. And that's why it came as a surprise that The Winter Soldier was so much better than its predecessor.
Where The First Avenger had left me wanting more, The Winter Soldier delivered – and rather than fast-forward through the most interesting elements (i.e., the Howling Commandos), the sequel generously spent time exploring Captain America's relationship with his teammates and the way they work as a team, with him as their leader. After all, if Captain America did have a superpower, it would be the ability to inspire the people around him and make the job look simple as long as everyone is working toward a common goal. The Winter Soldier also gave us an antagonist that was more fully realized, threatening and nuanced than most of the Marvel movie-verse villains so far (with the exception of Tom Hiddleston's Loki, of course).
Basically, I liked The First Avenger well enough, but I genuinely loved its sequel.
But the more I think about it, the more it dawns on me that I shouldn't be surprised by this. After all, geek-friendly movie franchises have a long history of getting better the second time around.
Both X-Men 2 and Spider-Man 2 are widely regarded as the most rewarding installments of their respective universes, and there's a strong case for ranking The Dark Knight as the best chapter of Christopher Nolan's revered Batman trilogy. Turning back the clock, it's not too difficult to justify placing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Wars: Episode V -- The Empire Strikes Back (the second film released but fifth in continuity) atop their respective franchises.
Toss in some lower tier franchises that produced second-chapter upgrades like Blade II and G.I. Joe: Retaliation, and it begins to look like the sequel curse has skipped over geeky movies entirely.
Of course, we all know that's not the case. While the jury is still out on recent sequels like Star Trek Into Darkness and Thor: The Dark World, you'd have a tough time making a case for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen or (to a lesser degree) Iron Man 2 as improvements on their predecessors. And let's face it: no one can or should have a definitive answer regarding the “best” of the first two Alien films. They're both equally fantastic. However, unlike in other genres, the wins seem to far outweigh the losses when it comes to the second film in geek-friendly franchises.
So, why have comic book and science fiction films managed to avoid the pitfall that so many other film series fall into? Well, part of it could come down one of the most fundamental elements of these particular kinds of adventures: the origin story.
Whether we're talking about Spider-Man or the Star Wars series, they're all superhero stories at heart. They're tales of people who tap into something greater than themselves – whether superhuman or otherwise – to fight evil in various forms, and they all have origin stories. And whether those origins are lifted from a book or simply inspired by the superheroes and stories that came before, they need to be told in order for audiences to understand and hopefully connect with the heroes on the screen.
And therein lies the issue with some franchises, especially those with well-worn origins. The story of the hero's evolution has to be told even if 90 percent of the audience already knows it (or the basic elements of it) by heart – because that's how all heroes' stories begin, after all.
Once that origin story is told, though, all bets are off.
Freed from the constraints of all that early hero building, the adventure can really take off in the second act – which may be the most obvious reason for geeky movies' success with sequels. Instead of being a Spider-Man in training, Peter Parker can finally be Spider-Man, and instead of watching Steve Rogers earn his “Captain America” nickname, we can watch him be Captain America. More often than not, the real fun happens once the hero is, well... a hero.
There's also a little more freedom on the other side of the camera once that initial, origin-story movie is in the rearview mirror, too. What worked and what didn't in the first installment is well documented at that point, and both the filmmakers and studio can work with that feedback – whether that means a subtle shift in tone or a character's arc, more freedom for the director to bring his vision to the film, or a wholesale change in creative team. And while that's true for any franchise, the wealth of archived material – whether comic book stories, television episodes or prior films – uniquely present in geek-friendly fare would seem to offer yet another layer of data to deliver something special to fans.
In many ways, the second film in geeky franchises is the best measure for the series' success. Absent the time-consuming but necessary origin story and the heavier studio and sponsor influence that tends to show up in later films (usually taking the form of product placement and licensing opportunities), the second film is the most “free” to explore the characters and their stories. Absent the need to explain where its hero came from or where he/she will end up, the film just needs to tell a good story.
And fortunately, that's something that Hollywood seems to have a knack for when it comes to the geekier side of cinema.
Question of the Week: What's your favorite second movie in a franchise?
Rick Marshall is an award-winning writer and editor whose work can be found at Movies.com, as well as MTV News, Fandango, Digital Trends, IFC.com, Newsarama, and various other online, print, and on-air news outlets. He's been called a “Professional Geek” by ABC News and Spike TV, and his personal blog can be found at MindPollution.org. You can find him on Twitter as @RickMarshall.
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