John Wick is the best franchise in terms of producing higher quality sequels. There, I said it — feel free to disagree, but know that you are wrong. The Keanu Reeves franchise has gotten better with each installment, which is a rare feat indeed. However, the franchise accomplishes this by understanding both what makes the franchise great and what makes a good sequel. Unfortunately, most sequels become too rooted in either trying to rehash the franchise’s greatness or trying too hard to be new and sequel-y. So, what makes a good sequel? How is making a great sequel accomplished? The answers lie below.
Every franchise has a niche. For The Fast and the Furious it’s butts, cars, and explosions. For Mission: Impossible it’s insane stunts and Tom Cruise running. These two franchises may not always be the best (@ The Fast and the Furious) but they are always themselves. The creators of these franchises have always had a bead on why people flock to see them, and they have always embraced that to the best of their ability.
These franchises have also changed much more than most, because they have honed in on what makes them great and cut loose everything that doesn’t. This is why the Fast and Furious has left behind underground street racing for car explosion races, and why Mission: Impossible is less about the IMF and more about Tom Cruise. It is a challenge for these franchises to deliver, but for the most part they continue to do so. I’d like to take this as an opportunity to toot Christopher McQuarrie’s horn a bit. The director, in addition to Brad Bird, helped pull the Mission: Impossible franchise from certain doom and make it one of the most complex yet entertaining franchises out there today.
So, step one in making a great sequel is to understand the core of why people see your movies. What makes franchise A different from franchise B? Find that X factor and you’re on your way to making the next great franchise. In the initial case of John Wick, it’s seamless hardcore gun violence.
Explore the Space
In addition to understanding its X factor, the John Wick franchise knows how to world build. John’s world isn’t immediately clear in John Wick, but it makes sense based on the rules we’re given in the first film. In John Wick: Chapter 2, the rules are expounded on a bit further. The idea of the Continental and the powers that be are made clear and take a heavier role in the overall story. John doesn’t shift worlds that much, in fact, the bulk of John’s story still takes place with the same characters in NYC. However, the film goes deeper with the locations and the returning characters, blowing the world inside of the franchise wide open.
In the second movie, we explore the power dynamics that we didn’t know were influencing John in the first film. We also get to explore the inner workings of the Continental, with the use of the marker and John’s “dinner party shopping“. Making a great sequel requires that the world become more elaborate, and John Wick: Chapter 2 delivers this elaboration on all fronts.
However, the world can sometimes become too large. When too many elements are added and too many differences are explored, the franchise can become clunky and lose sight of what makes it great. The Fantastic Beasts films suffer from this, among other things. The Crimes of Grindelwald, especially, spends too much of its runtime trying to explain every obscure detail of the wizarding world, losing sight of the ahem magic of the Harry Potter films.
Trim the Fat
“Captain, to build a better world, sometimes means tearing the old one down”- Alexander Pierce
You can’t effectively explore two worlds in the runtime of one movie. This means that if new territory is to be tread for our favorite characters, the franchise is going to have to let go of some characters, locations, and narrative staples. While it tickles our nostalgia bones to see our favorite characters back together again, making a great sequel requires that some of them move forward.
Take the Star Wars Sequels, for example. Luke, Han, and Leia never share the screen altogether. That’s right, the heroes of the original trilogy aren’t the main focus of the sequel trilogy. Why? Because they’ve already learned their lessons… well, at least Leia has. Han and Luke at least have much smaller lessons to learn in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi respectively. The point is that the franchise moves beyond them because it’s about Rey, Finn, Poe, and the different ways they can be challenged as characters.
The Star Wars sequels, especially The Last Jedi, work because they “let the past die”. In order to explore the depths of a galaxy far, far away, the franchise trims the fat. Your favorite characters still get to appear, but they are part of what made the franchise great, not what will continue to make it great. Also, Harrison Ford was really tired of playing Han Solo, so that factor’s in too.
Most characters can be explored greater than one movie allows. Especially when it comes to action, sci-fi, and fantasy, there are always new challenges to face. Take Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. In Spider-Man, Peter learns the age-old adage of “with great power, comes great responsibility”. For Spider-Man 2, Peter learns to balance Spider-Man’s responsibilities with his own. In Spider-Man 3, Peter learns the importance of vulnerability and that he doesn’t have to bear that responsibility all on his own.
The point is that Peter doesn’t ever re-learn the same lesson. Unfortunately, Hollywood likes to carbon copy most of its films. This results in movies that explore more of the world and trim some of the fat, but walk their characters in circles. This is where Iron Man 2 falls so short of Iron Man, because Tony learns to be responsible with his resources after already spending an entire movie learning how to be responsible with his resources.
Making a great sequel requires that the characters do something new. Watching characters fight the same demons isn’t interesting, because the audience already knows they’ve bested that enemy. Taking it back to John Wick: Chapter 2, John could have easily fought Abram Tarasov and the Tarasov family again. This would be a logical next step, having John fight the brother of the first film’s villain. However, it would have limited John Wick as a character. The decision to change antagonists presents the film with greater opportunities to go deeper into the man who is John Wick.
The Greatest Sequel Ever Made
Nope, the greatest sequel is not Blade: Trinity.
Making a great sequel requires four elements, franchise niche, exploration of the film’s world, trimming of the fat, and a deeper look at the returning characters. Great sequels do most of these well, but only one sequel has done all of them extremely well. What is that sequel you ask? Why, it’s none other than Shrek 2. Did you just dramatically spit your coffee onto your computer screen? That’s right, I said Shrek 2, and here’s why.
A Franchise of Two Shreks
The Shrek Franchise exists to be the antithesis of Disney. The first movie especially parodies the classic Disney narrative and style heavily. The second movie delves more into pop cultural satire, but the anti-Disney elements are still prevalent. The antithesis of Disney is Shrek (2001)’s legacy and Shrek 2 follows happily to establish the franchise niche. However, franchise niche is merely what makes these Shrek a noticeable franchise, not what makes Shrek 2 a great sequel.
It’s Shrek’s World, We’re All Just Living in It
The plot of Shrek takes place in a relatively small world. Shrek’s swamp is full of creatures from the forest, put there by the local Lord, Farquaad. While Shrek does venture to Fiona’s castle, the majority of the story takes place within the confines of Farquaad’s domain. In Shrek 2, however, the city-state of Duloc is dwarfed by the Kingdom of Far Far Away. In fact, Shrek’s swamp and Duloc are all but forgotten after the first scene.
Shrek 2 succeeds as a sequel because it gives us as many new locales and characters as the original did. It is still a part of Shrek’s world, but that world has become so much bigger. The vastness of that world and the potential of the Far Far Away allows the movie to lean further into pop cultural satire as well as Disney satire.
The locations of Shrek are forgotten within the story of Shrek 2. Why? Because we’ve already seen what Duloc has to offer. Without Farquaad to carry the city-state, it really doesn’t have much other than Shrek’s swamp. Far Far Away, on the other hand is the New York City of Shrek’s world. Dozens of stories can be told from this location because it has so much variety to offer. Shrek 2 is unburdened by having to reintroduce the audience to Duloc, and can instead revel in introducing the audience to Far Far Away.
In addition, Shrek 2 omits Farquaad, Thelonious, and Farquaad’s minions. It also greatly reduced the role of Dragon. While these were fun characters and the story could have easily included them, the film is better because of their omission. A mistake that many sequels make is believing that everyone has to be a part of every story. This isn’t the case and the inclusion of everyone often keeps sequels from reaching their full potential. Rather, Shrek 2 uses the empty space left by omitting these characters to introduce new ones.
The Man Behind the Ogre
Despite being the antithesis to Disney, Shrek tells a rather Disney-esque story. In the film, Shrek (an ogre) falls in love with Fiona (sometimes an ogre). Shrek learns that he can be loved despite his character defects and that everyone has defects of their own. In the sequel, Shrek attempts to become human to restore his relationship with Fiona and her parents. Shrek learns in Shrek 2 that his defects are what make him lovable not something he needs to suppress in order to expose his lovable qualities. While these lessons are similar, they are not the same.
Shrek is guided narratively by the framework of the quest and the hero’s journey. Shrek has to find the princess and deliver her to Farquaad to get what he wants. The plot moves Shrek forward through his character arc. Shrek 2 doesn’t have the quest or the hero’s journey to drive the story forward, it only has Shrek. As a result, Shrek 2 dives deeper into Shrek as a person, spending much more time on character than it does plot. This time around, the character arc drives the plot, leading to a rewarding climax at the Ball.
Shrek learns the importance of self love because he goes on a journey of self discovery, not one of self interest and reward. In this way, Shrek 2 uncovers the man behind the ogre far better than Shrek ever could.
It’s Not Ogre Yet
One more paragraph about Shrek 2, then you can go.
Shrek 2 fulfills all the rules of making a great sequel. In fact, it exceeds them on every account. The film adheres to the franchise niche established by Shrek and takes it a step further. Shrek 2 explores the world and characters of the Shrek Cinematic Universe beyond their exploration in the original. The fat of the original is trimmed for the sequel, allowing for greater exploration of said world. Finally, the film explores its characters and world on a deeper level without rehashing the events of the original film.
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