More of the same can be a good thing, says Donald Clarke
The critical and popular success of The Dark Knight has kicked up more that a few eddies of controversy throughout the salons of cyberspace. Across the Irish Sea the tabloids have been giving the British censors a kicking for granting a film concerning KNIFE CRIME TERROR a supposedly lenient 12A certificate. Elsewhere, box-office boffins wonder why, after its astronomical success in the US, The Dark Knight was only a stratospheric smash in the rest of the world.
Interestingly, few people have bothered to remark on the fact that a sequel has been received with significantly greater enthusiasm than its already admired predecessor. For many years The Godfather Part II was put forward as the only follow-up to improve upon an already worthwhile original. While fans of 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein (the greatest film ever made) may have fumed at this glib untruth, it can’t be denied that, until quite recently, the movie sequel was one of the most unloved and undistinguished of artistic forms.
Bride of Frankenstein and Godfather II stood apart for the same reasons: both saw the original director returning to the material (James Whale and Francis Ford Coppola, respectively) and drawing heavily from the novels that inspired their breakthrough movies. One could, thus, view both pairs of films as halves of one reasonably coherent whole.
Until the mid-1980s, it was more common for sequels to be directed by some rising hack who, like as not, regarded the gig as no more than a convenient stepping stone. Steven Spielberg directed Jaws. The appalling Jaws 2 was directed by a Frenchman named Jeannot Szwarc who went on to helm such notorious calamities as Somewhere in Time and Santa Claus: The Movie. That’s right. Hard though it may be to believe, Jaws 2 is neither the worst nor the second worst film on Szwarc’s CV. That degree of underachievement should be rewarded with a hatful of medals.
Many Star Wars fans rate The Empire Strikes back as superior to (sigh) Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope, but, knowing that George Lucas had always planned to tell his story in a cycle of films, it is hard to view Empire as a traditional sequel. The Indiana Jones films were derived from the tradition of pulp film series, so they must, also, be regarded as a somewhat exceptional case.
The point at which the follow-up became properly respectable was, surely, in 1986, when James Cameron, then a promising rookie, confounded grim expectations of a delayed Alien sequel with the clamorous, thrilling Aliens. Four years later he revamped the core elements of his own Terminator and delivered the overpowering Terminator 2: Judgement Day.
Since then, aware that more need not mean less, gifted filmmakers have knocked together such markedly superior sequels as Spider-Man 2, Toy Story 2 and The Bourne Supremacy. Next week, Hellboy II: The Golden Army comes your lucky way. Suffice to say, it knocks Jaws 2 into a cocked hat.