The Wrath of the Sequels?

Chances are that if you went to the cinema last year, you didn’t see something original. You saw a sequel. Admittedly, it was hard to avoid the second installment of The Hobbit or The Hunger Games, Anchorman 2, Iron Man 3, Thor 2, Despicable Me 2 or Fast and Furious 6 (that’s right, 6) amongst many, many others.

However, as infuriating as this onslaught of sequels can be, to repeat the age-old cinema-purist’s lament against such a glut of films followed by number two or three or six now seems pointless. The lack of original films last year is entirely understandable in terms of the simple economics of sequels. Of the ten highest grossing films of 2013, six were sequels or prequels. Iron Man 3 already has, and Despicable Me 2 soon will, pass that magical one billion dollar mark at the worldwide box office. It’s simple: sequels mean easy money (though I doubt even Universal Pictures executives can believe quite how successful Despicable Me has become).

With critics forever decrying the state of modern cinema, the question I’d pose is what exactly is wrong with sequels? If audiences enjoy them, and clearly the finances reflect that they do, where is the problem? The argument goes that money invested in sequels means less funding available for new, interesting, diverse films that expand the creative vision of Hollywood. After all, where would we be if Citizen Kane had been canned in favour of Dumbo 2? Spending money on existing franchises, just to bag easy ticket sales, won’t necessarily push the boundary of what film can achieve.

But it is a fundamentally snobbish argument, an argument which says cinema is the territory of ‘artists’ and ‘critics’ instead of people who just want to watch a decent movie. Who decides what is creatively significant or not? Few would argue for the high cinematic merit of Monsters University but if people enjoyed it then why should it matter if it is a sequel? 

Furthermore, to say our cinemas have become solely occupied by sequels and franchises isn’t just pessimistic and snobbish, it’s also not true. 2013 saw a number of fantastic original big screen outings. Gravity, hotly-tipped for Oscar success, was not only unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, it was the seventh highest grossing film, a sure sign that audiences will lap up new ideas as long as they are done well. The Wolf of Wall Street, an original Scorsese production starring the ever-bankable Leonardo DiCaprio, is another example of a captivating film that broke the string of summer blockbuster sequels.

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What we should hope for now is that the success of original films like Gravity and The Wolf of Wall Street will give studios more confidence to move away from tried-and-tested formulas and venture into the creative unknown. While a reliance on sequels is nothing new in Hollywood, it is also evidently seen as a smart move a post-Credit Crunch mind-set of easy films for easy returns — bums in seats before novelty.

But the fact that the American box office enjoyed its most successful year ever last year, with revenues of £6.6 billion, surely now presents an ideal opportunity for something different to superhero sequels and animated follow-ups. 12 Years a Slave, a sure-fire Oscarwinner if ever there was one, and Christopher Nolan’s newest project Interstellar are hopeful hints that 2014 might be a year of genuine originality at your local Odeon.

But even if they’re the exception to the rule, even if it is a year dominated by franchises, and Captain America 2, The Expendables 3 and Paranormal Activity 5 are more representative of 2014’s film offering, so long as you enjoy them
then who cares? Despicable Me 2 was genuinely funny, Star Trek: Into Darkness was suitably shiny and even Fast and Furious 6 was… bright.

Ultimately, whether this year is a year of unbridled and unprecedented cinematic originality, or whether (more likely) it isn’t, sequels shouldn’t be derided as inherently destructive for Hollywood’s creativity; it’s just that seeing something a bit different a little more often would certainly not go amiss.