Why do Sequels have to be BIGGER?

Sequels Week: Part One

The Lord of the Rings


By: Matthew J.R. Kohler

Ever since the 1970s, franchises have only become bigger.  Hollywood is not interested in independent stories. The studios want a trilogy, or increasingly a tetralogy. Do franchises always need to go on forever?  When watching sequels, I have accepted that every new installment in a franchise that I see will try to be bigger than the film that proceeded it.  The stakes will be higher, the action sequences longer, the tone hints at an even greater threat, etc. Does making a bigger sequel always work?  Most of the time it fails.

A good place to start examining this phenomenon is, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.   Most people considered this the best movie in the series, but if you look at the film, it just tries to be a bigger than The Two Towers, and attempts to carry more weight and darkness than its two predecessors.

In The Two Towers, our heroes venture to Rohan to save a corrupt king from destroying his own country.  After saving him, they make one last effort to stop the armies of Isengard at Helm’s Deep, where they wait for a miracle (Rohan’s horsemen) to save the day.  The Return of the King follows a similar path.  Our heroes journey to Gondor, where they attempt to save Gondor from a corrupt “king” (the Steward of Gondor) and make one last stand against Mordor.  Here, they wait for a miracle in the form of a ghost army.

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Just to point out, I love all three Lord of the Rings movies, and The Return of the King does a great job of finishing the narrative.  But I always thought it was a weird storytelling device to make The Return of the King like The Two Towers, but bigger.  I never understood why they had Legolas do “bigger” moves in the third film when it doesn’t make sense for the character.

In an earlier article about Police Story, I talked about how action sequences need to advance the story, and the characters need to be consistent in what they do.  In The Two Towers, Legolas slides down stairs on a shield while shooting Uruk-Hai.  This was an amazing scene, and is cool because it only lasts for five seconds.  Then, in The Return of the King Legolas takes down an Oliphaunt.

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This made no sense for the story, and I suspect the filmmakers only did this for reactions.  If Legolas could do this in the third movie, then why couldn’t he kill all the Uruk-Hai, save Boromir, and I don’t know, kill the cave troll.  This happens in The Hobbit movies as well.  They make Legolas better than everyone else, and in the context of the story, it makes no sense.

The pacing of the action sequences changes between The Two Towers and The Return of the King.  In The Two Towers, the action sequences slowly build up, and slowly end compared to its sequel.  In The Return of the King, when you think the big battle could be over, another big thing happens.  This repeats five or six times.  It gets numbing after a while because the battle just continues to get bigger.  The Two Towers was the first time audiences witness a battle to this scale.

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The  giant battle in The Return of the King is awesome to watch, and the filmmakers did do something that The Two Towers did not do, as they showed civilians being murdered left and right.  This definitely added a new layer to the battle.  The battle also feels like it could be the end for our heroes.  As The Lord of the Rings moves from one act to the next, the story becomes increasingly personal to the characters.  This is why I think the only way to make a sequel better is to get into the minds of the characters, continue to develop them, and make the story more personal to them. I think The Return of the King did that in certain scenes. Frodo and Sam face a lot of new obstacles together in the film, Pippin and Gandalf find themselves in a precarious position in Minas Tirith, Aragorn has to choose to follow the path to kingship that he has been avoiding, etc. In these ways The Return of the King succeeds as a sequel, despite rehashing a lot of familiar ground.

Come back tomorrow for part two on Robocop and Robocop 2.

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