Pop culture essays, criticism, fistfights

Best Summer Ever: Best Harder

In Best Summer Ever, Jeff ranks the last 31 seasons of summer movies using a complex mathematical equation largely biased toward his personal opinion. You can read about his methods here.

Han Solo is held hostage by furry sequel soldiers.

I began this column back in May (wow does summer ever fly! I haven’t even gotten to my 2000 word essay on Waterworld and it's almost August) with a brief discussion of 2011 being the most sequel-laden year in history. The word sequel has become synonymous with Hollywood laziness, although it’s better paired with Hollywood greediness. The built-in brand recognition with sequels (and remakes, reimaginings, etc) makes sequels a safe financial bet – less marketing necessary, more ticket sales guaranteed. From critics to commoners, we lament the overabundance of sequels but, as I’ve demonstrated, Hollywood is only giving people what they pay for.

By the numbers, the 10 sequels in theaters this summer isn’t reason to panic over the guttering artistic fire of Hollywood. Yes, it’s only the 3rd time in history that sequels have reached double digits during the summer – this previously occurred in 2007 and 2003, it’s like the sequel Olympics every four years. The following years, however, each saw the sequel count cut in half. There’s no reason not to expect a return to normalcy next year.

In fact, summer sequel numbers have remained relatively stable over the last 30 years. On average:

80s – 4.3 sequels
90s – 2.8 sequels
00s – 5.9 sequels

If anything, the scant sequel years of the 90s are the anomaly and the current era of sequels is just a return to form for Hollywood. What’s wrong with being more like the 80s? Everyone loves the 80s, right?

With all that number crunching out of the way, let’s take a look at a few years where the sequel played an important role.

Better than Avatar.

(#29) 1983
Tickets Sold:   358.6 million (23 of 31)
#1 at the Box OfficeReturn of the Jedi – 252.6 million gross
Most Critically AcclaimedRisky Business (#7 at the box office)
Sequels: 7, 49% of tickets sold

1983’s seven sequels is the high mark for the 80s and, considering the year ranks at nearly the bottom of my list, makes for a convincing argument that an overabundance of sequels makes for a horrible season. In the case of ’83, the low ranking is caused by a combination of completely unnecessary sequels to well-regarded films like Psycho 2 (#12) and Staying Alive (#5) and, more importantly, the dreaded 2nd sequel.

Can the third film in a series ever break from formula to improve on its predecessors? Jaws 3-D (#10) tried to do it with silly visual effects, but exploded shark jaws (get it? it’s literal!) flying at the audience are no replacement for story. Jaws 3-D was originally pitched as a spoof, a path producers eventually decided not to take, but one that might have been more apt. Although, if we learn anything from Superman III (#9), it’s that ousting serious actors like Gene Hackman in favor of miscast comedic talent like Richard Pryor is a recipe for critical disaster.

The Jaws franchise adds 3-D, the Superman franchise adds Richard Pryor and, not to be outdone, George Lucas adds Ewoks to Star Wars.

Fucking Ewoks.

Return of the Jedi is, for me, the textbook definition of a horrible third film. Granted, there are certainly worse third films out there (I’ll get to one later), and it’s not even that Jedi is all bad – the opening is great, the Vader face-turn is cool – but it’s such an unsatisfying and bland conclusion to a groundbreaking franchise that I consider it one of the biggest letdowns in cinema history. See ya in the comments, Star Wars nerds.

Genius.

(#11) 1990
Tickets Sold:   338 million (25 of 31)
#1 at the Box OfficeGhost – 217.6 million gross
Most Critically AcclaimedPresumed Innocent (#6) at the box office
Sequels: 7, 31% of tickets sold

Unlike ’83, a year hamstrung by bad sequels without much else to offer, 1990, that decade’s most sequel heavy year, succeeds in spite of its sequels. Note that sequels only account for 31% of box office this year, whereas the same amount in ’83 accounted for almost half. A very diverse selection of films including surprising #1 Ghost (the only romance to ever win a summer), science fiction masterpiece Total Recall (#2), legal thriller Presumed Innocent, and family-friendly creepfest Arachnophobia (#12) make for an all around strong year, thus its nearly Top 10 worthiness.

The sequels, for the most part, follow the same pattern of mediocrity as ’83. There’s an unnecessary 48 HRS (#8) sequel, vapid continuations of Robocop (#13) and Young Guns (#15) and, perhaps most lamentably, a third Back to the Future (#5) film that makes the Old West its Ewoks.

They weren’t all bad. The most popular sequel at the box office that summer was Die Hard 2: Die Harder (#3) which, while obviously not as good as the action classic original, is at least a competent popcorn flick, carried by another swaggering performance by Bruce Willis. In addition, ’90 boasts the first sequel to realize how ridiculous making sequels is, Joe Dante’s subversively brilliant Gremlins 2: The New Batch (#16). Gremlins 2 stands as evidence of how great a sequel can be if a madman director is given triple the budget of the original and complete creative control.

Obviously, we’ll never see anything like it again.

Celebrating their victory over sequels.

(#21) 1996
Tickets Sold:   397.3 million (19 of 31)
#1 at the Box OfficeIndependence Day – 306.2 million gross
Most Critically AcclaimedCourage Under Fire (#11 at the box office)
Sequels:  0

We’ll also never see a year like ’96 again, the only summer in the last 31 years not to include a single sequel. Whenever a sequel disappoints, or an absurd trailer based on a board game releases, we’re quick to ask if Hollywood is out of original ideas. Well, with the exception of the Mission: Impossible (#2) and Nutty Professor (#5) film reboots, ’96 is a summer built entirely on new ideas.

And the ideas pretty much suck.

Helen Hunt running toward, and later away from, a progressively larger series of tornadoes? Sean Connery as the voice of a CGI dragon? Robin Williams with a rare aging disorder? A Demi Moore remake of Showgirls but with more political intrigue and classier boobies?

Would we really rather have these projects than sequels? I’m not sure. They can’t all be Inception, you know?

At least Hollywood has an active imagination when it comes to blowing stuff up. The presence of Independence Day, which I consider to be the quintessential summer blockbuster, and legal thrillers like Courage Under Fire and A Time to Kill (#6) prevent ’96 from falling too far down the rankings.

From on high, he comes.

(#23) 2007
Tickets Sold:   511.5 million (2 of 31)
#1 at the Box OfficeSpider-Man 3 – 336.5 million
Most Critically AcclaimedThe Bourne Ultimatum (#6)
Sequels: 11, 62% of tickets sold

Finally, we come to 2007, the last time the sequel cycle was at critical mass. Of the top six films that summer, five of them were sequels. The odd film out was the debut Transformers flick, a sinister portent of mind-numbing sequels to come. Notably, this sequel heavy season is also the 2nd most lucrative in Hollywood history.

The rule that 2nd sequels must be abysmal is in full effect here, although unlike the gimmicks added to 80s sequels, the new millennium approach is to just pound as much nonsensical bullshit into the 3rd entry as possible. Take Spider-Man 3’s overabundance of villains and musical numbers, or Ocean 13’s (#16) expanded cast of megastars phoning it in, or Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End ‘s (#4) bloated and nonsensical plot. Everything and the kitchen sink is the philosophy of present day Hollywood, although senseless use of 3D is certainly making a comeback.

But then, as if called down from the heavens, there’s The Bourne Ultimatum. The film has an incredibly high 93% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, an even higher 97% if you look at only top critics. It made a huge amount of money, thus satisfying the studios. And yet, it’s the 3rd in the Bourne series, thus giving it no right to be so good. It doesn’t resort to gimmicks or overcompensation. It doesn’t need to become self-referential or subversive. The Bourne Ultimatum just tells an exciting yet simple story about a character we’ve grown to like. If every sequel could follow that model, their existence would be celebrated rather than derided.

Really makes you wonder about next year's The Dark Knight Rises, doesn't it? I'm hopeful that Christopher Nolan creates a film that joins The Bourne Ultimatum in the small family of solid 3rd entries. On the other hand, I'm excited to see Christian Bale do this:

The list so far:
(31) 2006
(29) 1983
(23) 2007
(21) 1996
(19) 1988
(14) 1985
(13) 1993
(11) 1990
(10) 1997
(9) 1998

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