Recently, I saw both Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (funny how a sequel allows you the right to such a long title, eh?) and Iron Man. I was interested by how both dealt with the prospect of a sequel, and it got me thinking about how films announce a forthcoming sequel, and how sequels work. (NO SPOILERS YET, BUT I'LL WARN YOU LATER OF A COUPLE, IN CAPS).
To start, I'd argue that if sequels so often stink, or are at least very silly and fluffy, it's because many sequels aren't really about the hero who supposedly started the franchise.
More after the fold
When done right, the hero's becoming tale is by far one of the more intriguing tales that cinema can tell. After all, heroes are exceptional beings, and so there will always be interest in how they become exceptional, and in what factors led to them becoming who they are. Witness Unbreakable (or even Sixth Sense), an excellent film all about how a superhero realizes he's a superhero, and how he deals with it. Or Spiderman. Or Batman Begins, Casino Royale, Rambo: First Blood, Star Wars, Fellowship of the Ring, or Die Hard. Or even, to leave the comfy realm of good guy blockbuster heroes, Godfather. The first film has to establish the character's motivation, the world in which s/he lives, and the nature of his or her power.
By contrast, sequels often just coast. Though not a film, 24 and its successive seasons provide the iconic example here: Season One gave us "the worst day" of Jack Bauer's life, so every other season simply gives us another bad day in Jack's life. Die Hard 2, 3, and 4 see John McLean in the wrong place at the wrong time again. Rambo 2 and 3 give Rambo other reasons to get pissed off and go feral again.
To use the blockbuster action film as example, then, a really good one has not just spectacular fights that involve lots of special effects, stunts, and gadgets, and that make for thrill-ride viewing, but also a hero who intrigues us. But much of the hero's issues, motivation, and intrigue have often worn off by the end of the first film, precisely because the standard plot arc requires that s/he resolves his/her issues in a grand crescendo and/or battle scene. Thus, sequels are left with a rather cardboard figure, whose most interesting struggles are behind them.
Clearly this works better for some genres than for others. With horror films, for instance, it's quite common to have a whole string of sequels (think Halloween 53 or Aliens vs. Damien). Even here, successive films often suck something fierce, but they're sustainable because the horror of the bad guy's continued existence fits well with the horror genre, and really just extends what is already a requisite plot point, namely the need to kill the bad guy 50 times over. Compare this to a romance, though, and it's hard to imagine a film ending by leaving it questionable whether the couple really did live happily ever after, since this would violate the age-old romance formula. I think we're safe, in other words, from Pretty Woman 2: Back on the Streets, When Harry Ended His Two Month Separation from Sally, or Childless in Cleveland.
Studio heads often clearly think that blockbusters are like horror films, open to endless sequels. And many of them work as a cinema of spectacle. Spiderman 3, for instance, is fun, and the special effects team(s) did a wonderful job. But like Spiderman 3, sequels often lack much of a soul, since the hero's most interesting facets have usually already been explored. In Spiderman, Peter Parker learns that with great power comes great responsibility, and that he will need to stay estranged from MJ to keep her safe ... so the sequels don't have much more to do yet repeat the lessons.
I'm interested, then, in how many sequels try to solve this problem by being about someone else. The condition of making the sequel would seem to be that the audience enjoyed the hero, but the sequel focuses on those around him or her, and try to give us more myths of becoming for them. Take the Spidey and Batman series, where new villains or allies take center stage in the sequels.
What goes along with all this is the promise of the sequel scene at the end of films. A classic example here is the final scene of Batman Begins, where Gordon meets with Batman atop a Gotham building. Gordon thanks Batman, but expresses concern about escalation, with villains sure to follow Batman's lead by wearing masks themselves. To prove his point, he shows Batman a playing card, a joker, that a new criminal has been leaving at the scene of his crimes. Batman promises to look into it, and flies/glides off into the dark. The scene boldly promises a sequel, yet also sets the stage for The Joker to be at the center of this film (who is this guy who leaves this "calling card"?). True to form, then, all of the trailers for The Dark Knight have featured The Joker considerably more than Batman himself. Batman Begins offers, to my mind, a fantastic becoming myth, and I love the first 3/4 of the film. But even by the end, Batman's "riddle" seems to have been solved, making him rather boring, and the film's promise of a sequel therefore establishes The Joker as the character to watch in the future.
SMALL-ISH IRON MAN SPOILER WARNING, FOR THIS PARAGRAPH ONLY. Iron Man, should you stay to the end of the credits, does something similar, when Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury approaches Tony Stark about the "Avenger Initiative," thereby deflecting interest away from Stark (who, like Batman in Batman Begins, has been "solved" by this point) to the other members of the Avengers.
As much as the above scene has excited many Marvel fans, I must admit to not at all liking the promise of a sequel scene. After all, it's either a nasty act of stealing the hero's thunder right at the end of the film, or in its iconic horror film variety, where the bad guy's body twitches with signs of life, it's a rather garish and sad reminder of the commercial imperative; in such cases, the director might as well end with a title-card saying, "Please, we want more of your money later." SMALL-ISH INDY SPOILER WARNING, FOR THE REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH. With this in mind, I liked the closing of the recent Indy film. As Indy's Stetson blows towards Henry 3, I was rolling my eyes, thinking that this was a really lame ending, and a desperate ploy to set up sequels (which I guess it still is), but then Indy grabs the hat and puts it on, as if to declare boldly, "get your own film, kid. This one's still mine."
A final thought on sequels for now, though, is that the best ones are always those that find ways to renew, reenvision, or develop the myth of becoming, and that therefore hold onto their hero, unwilling to give the film up to sidekicks and villains-of-the-hour. Casino Royale, for instance, made the Bond films fresh by giving us a glimpse into what made Bond, and by taking us back to an early Bond. Batman Begins similarly turned its back on the horrific previous Batman outing and began again. And the best sequels ever, Godfather 2 and Empire Strikes Back, both succeed by delving into their respective hero's past. In an odd way, then, the best way to do a sequel is to do a prequel, and the best promise of a sequel would be a promise to find yet more that is interesting about the hero, not a promise to give up on him or her.