Jason Bourne’s back punching dudes and unraveling conspiracies. The aliens resurged for another bout of Independence Day fireworks. In a galaxy far, far away, past becomes present as the new generation follows in the exact footsteps of the old while Jurassic World fulfilled John Hammond’s dream only to predictably go belly-up by the credits.
Hollywood has been trying to synthesize creative success down to a science since, well, ever and the latest step in that journey is the “requel,” a portmanteau of “remake-sequel” or “reboot-sequel” popular enough to have its own The Hollywood Reporter story.
A requel (usually) takes place in the same timeline as the original or preceding film, using the familiarity of the setting and returning creatives to anchor what amounts to a story reset, thus reinvigorating a dormant brand. Requels are popular because they have the potential to become a four-quadrant hit. Mad Max: Fury Road, Jurassic World, Creed, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Independence Day: Resurgence and last weekend’s Jason Bourne are all recent films that fit this new category.
The studio and producers can get the best of both worlds; the older crowd on the nostalgia train and the younger crowd with youthful additions (Chris Pratt! Daisy Ridley! Liam Hemsworth?) and timely updates (The park is open! There’s a bigger Death Star! Matt Damon needed to get in shape!). It’s buffet-style filmmaking. Here’s what box office analyst Jeff Bock told THR.
“At least with a reboot that is also a sequel, the lineage of events stays intact. Bridging the old and the new is an easy way for studios to link generations of fans together and continue to grow an audience, all without having to market and sell a whole new world to ticket buyers. In other words, it’s easy money.”
But it’s a tight-wire act as well. Filmmakers are constantly threading a needle between reinventing the wheel and just spinning the old one. It’s like living with a thermometer you can’t read until opening weekend. Only then does the production know if they balanced every contradictory element and sanded every edge.
The downside of is can render what was unique antiseptic. Take last weekend’s box office champ Jason Bourne for instance. As I wrote in my review, it was “mainlined fan service” with everything you could expect or want from a Bourne film, except, in my opinion, something new. Vox‘s Todd VanDerWerff called it a “greatest hits cover album” of the original trilogy.
Thanks day-to-day Hollywood machinations like that, few are the franchises that follow any sort of predetermined path or causation other than “follow the money.” As a film reporter and storyteller, my interest goes even further, with a fascination in the production process and story choices behind a franchise. I love wondering what-could-have-been with Edgar Wright before he left Ant-Man, what Darren Aronofsky would have done with The Wolverine or how Alien: Engineers became Prometheus.
Franchises are living, breathing creatures and they change on a direction on a dime. The successful ones twist and expand in all directions like knotted branches while others die on the vine, with maybe a half-hearted sequel to show for the potential. New branches seem to grow by the year – sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots, spinoffs, two-parters, time travel etc. Now Marvel Studios broke ground on the shared universe conceit, driving studios’ into cinematic universe-developing cold wars (DCEU, Transformers, Godzilla/Kong, Universal monsters etc.) The methods of keeping franchises (aka brand names) alive in the idea space are numerous.
In some cases, franchises have come to define entire genres, such as the space opera (Star Wars) or the post-apocalyptic Western (Mad Max). Both offered quintessential requel offerings last year after 10 and 30 years from the cinema respectively.
Mad Max: Fury Road is about as exemplary a requel as could be made, the pinnacle to strive toward. It came thirty years after 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and while it didn’t step on the toes of the previous three films, it didn’t go out of its way to explain the continuity either. Director George Miller and his production team expertly use filmmaking to recreate the campfire tale, one with embellishment and flourish that dress a simple, satisfying chase film. Like oral stories passed down historically, the Mad Max films have a timeless quality to them, even if they occupy a rough chronology (check out Evan Saathoff’s excellent “Myth vs. Continuity In The Mad Max Series” over at Birth.Movies.Death for more on this).
A few weeks ago, I wrote an editorial on how, in the wake of Batman v Superman‘s divisiveness, Justice League could emulate Batman Begins and Casino Royale, both reboots that followed lackluster predecessors by taking apart their heroes – and then putting them back together. Basically, reconstructing them to ensure audiences, even subconsciously were reminded of the “why” of a character or scene, underneath the costumes, gadgets and superficiality. Why does this exist? Why is this happening? Why do we care?
It’s this principle Miller embodies. It’s why his filmic universe has both a flaming guitarist with a detailed (and completely unmentioned) backstory and a plot that can be summed up as: they run away and then they run back.
On the other hand, when Hollywood finally took the Star Wars universe beyond Return of the Jedi, screenwriters J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan lifted the skeleton of A New Hope, the familiar beats and symbols we all loved, draped it in new garments and called it The Force Awakens. Presto! One of the most successful films of all time. While I wasn’t over-the-moon for it, like Jason Bourne, I liked it fine and recognize the film as a well-made and successful nostalgia trip.
As you can tell, these requel successes appropriate heavily from previous installments in the aim of giving audiences the ultimate experience: familiarity with thrills, simplicity with nuance, complexity with clarity. And in pursuit of these lofty goals, a lot of films, ironically, forget the foundation: the “why.”
Blockbusters that forget the why become exercises in brand promotion and computer pixels. Going back to Batman v Superman, The Nerdwriter has a fantastic YouTube video (embed below) detailing how, underneath the heated debate, that film’s real issue, like all of director Zack Snyder’s films, is its focus on moments over scenes. To be fair, BvS did get a short shrift, with Ultimate Edition proving far superior to the mangled theatrical cut. But these don’t obfuscate the flaw he talks about and it dovetails nicely with what we’re talking about.
As the Nerdwriter says, Batman v Superman was so obsessed with imagery and its own iconography that it bent over backwards to accommodate them, at the expense of story, pace and character. And this is a problem writ large with blockbusters, franchise filmmaking and especially requels. Perhaps the best example of this fault is Terminator Genisys, a failed requel which used its time travel conceit to literally recreate famous moments from previous Terminator films (with 100% more old Arnie!) as its “plot,” with no concern for continuity, logic or stakes. Nothing says an untethered franchise bereft of the “why” quite like that.
More and more, blockbusters are becoming set pieces strung together, essentially giant sizzle reels, to the point that the classical three-act structure has been virtually thrown aside. Rising and falling action have been replaced with ACTION! ACTION! ACTION! Vox made a similar argument recently with the piece “The biggest problem with modern blockbusters, explained by Independence Day: Resurgence.” That problem? No second acts! Movies nowadays have so overdosed on spectacle and “moments” that the three-act structure has been erased, replaced by an extensive set up followed by neverending climax.
The gritty, CGI-less Jason Bourne falls into this, with a interesting themes and characters given only a cursory glance which means there is little to differentiate this episode’s intrigue from the previous films. Even so, it came in first at the box office last weekend with $60 million, a healthy sum after nine years away, proving it had what ID4-Resurgence lacked: star power to put asses in seats.
While audiences have fallen in love with characters such as James Bond and Batman, who are famous for their longevity thanks to effective recasting, Jason Bourne proved audiences aren’t interested in any other Jason Bourne other than Matt Damon. Perhaps when Damon is 60 and he quits to embrace his dad bod, we’ll learn audiences are up for a recast but until then, they’ve spoken with their wallets.
With recent theater attendance near 20 year-lows, Hollywood’s been doing the same as studios try to top themselves with inflated budgets. That kind of bubble practically demands to be popped. It’s something Steven Spielberg himself predicted a year when blockbuster & sequel overload would force a change. Does this year herald that change?
Don’t get me wrong; there will be no shortage of or end to blockbusters and franchise extensions for the foreseeable future. There are plenty scheduled and countless more planned. AvP films bomb? Predators didn’t work? On with The Predator! Prometheus was pretty divisive so let’s change course and make Alien: Covenant. Didn’t like Alien 3 or Alien: Resurrection? Neill Blomkamp’s gonna make Aliens 2 for ya. Most recently Disney announced The Rocketeer would get “requelized” with a black woman taking over the role. (FWIW, I’m like/am looking forward to all of these films and hope they’re about more than the bottom line).
Even for the iconic, irreplaceable roles will, eventually, be replaced. Producer Frank Marshall may say there will be no Indiana Jones other than Harrison Ford (who’s really benefited from this requel kick, between Star Wars, Blade Runner and now Indy). Disney CEO Bob Iger sure seems to think differently. He confirmed to THR that they would continue to make Indiana Jones films and a whole Indy universe (yes, universe).
“Yes, I do [plan to make more Indiana Jones films after the fifth]. I don’t think it reaches the scale of the universe of Star Wars, but I see making more. It won’t be just a one-off.”
Someone see if Chris Pratt is available in 2025!
The point is, nothing is sacred and change is the only constant, not roles, not rules and not requels. Hollywood is a slow ship to steer and any lessons learned won’t be apparent for a year or two what reverberations these films’ successes and failures will bring. But it begs the question: where does this go? Does Disney adapt their way to the end of their catalog and loop back around like a snake eating its tale? Does king of the cinematic universe Marvel reboot its heroes (such as Robert Downey, Jr.’s iconic Tony Stark/Iron Man) or phase them out in favor of new ones (Squirrel Girl?)?
In my view, universe expansion works best if it flows steadily and purposefully. The Marvel Cinematic Universe was a great case study in (mostly) patient plotting and the company was rewarded for it with billions in profit and a dozen individual franchises. The DC universe’s roll-out, in contrast, has not been the smoothest; the Man of Steel/Batman v Superman/Justice League trilogy may be one of the most reactionary film trilogies yet.
It used to be that a big budget would “proof” a movie against failure, because audiences are drawn to spectacle. But now we’ve reached the point where spectacle is common and no longer gets the job done. What audiences are drawn to now is investment. Investment in characters like Jason Bourne and Matt Damon’s portrayal of him. Investment in expansive, interconnected worlds like the MCU. Investment in the stories of J.K. Rowling. And audiences, as customers, expect to see an emotional return.
To summarize: watch Mad Max: Fury Road.