Sequel Season: The Name Game

Published on February 21st, 2012

James looks at the thought process behind the names of sequels.

With awards season upon us, we are surrounded by talk of high-class, artistic prestige pictures. These were passion projects, independent films, ideas people gambled on and took a chance with, and their dreams were finally realized. However, once the awards are given out, Hollywood can get back to doing what it does even more often than congratulating itself for its brave choices: leaning on franchises and pumping out sequels. While sequels have started to be released all year round, there is a strong trend of big blockbusters from established franchises coming out in the summer. Of course, I’m not going to argue when we get treated to such films earlier (and I’m glad the gods of cinema released Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance at the earliest possible time), but the amount of sequels being thrust upon moviegoing audiences is an interesting trend.

Considering how poorly people look back on the first entry in the Ghost Rider series (CGI abs!), it’s quite obvious that many big studios are eager to make sequels to pretty much anything that moviegoers are aware of. In fact, 2011 set a record for number of feature films released by Hollywood that were sequels. While some may argue that sequels are getting better (The Dark Knight, X2: X-Men United, Air Bud: Golden Receiver, etc.), there’s no arguing against the numbers. Last year set an all time high for sequels, with many second and third installments being released (and even a Part 2 of a seventh), and since those movies tended to make money more often than not, there is no forthcoming relief from this trend.

While there are definite exceptions, conventional belief is that there is usually a downward trend in the quality of sequels. Each movie is worse than the one before it and eventually they become so bad that they are no longer profitable, and the franchise is either rebooted or simply put out of its misery. 2011 gave us two exceptions to this general rule, with two franchises being revitalized with their fifth entry. The Fast and the Furious series and the Final Destination franchise both received a boost in their usual levels of critical reception and box office returns. The two franchises actually have more in common than is immediately obvious:

  • Both are comprised of repetitive genre films with unrealistic set pieces, both of which are elements that critics don’t tend to take particularly seriously.
  • Both franchises began near the start of the millennium and had their most recent installment released in 2011.
  • Both franchises have 5 installments.
  • The fourth installment in each series caused me to say “This would really be much better if The Rock were somehow involved,” but only one was smart enough to listen.
  • As mentioned above, the fifth installment had many people surprised by how much they liked it and each made more money than most predicted, although the difference in grosses was more pronounced with Fast Five.
  • Both franchises have had… interesting uses of the word ‘the’ for a sequel’s title.

Those last two points deserve a closer look. The first entry in the Final Destination series was called, well, Final Destination, with the second and third installments understandably being named Final Destination 2 and 3. Now things get tricky here as the filmmakers try to give a sense of finality to a series already called Final Destination, despite the series now having been repeating itself for three movies. The movies are about the inevitably and power of Death, and in seeing sequel after sequel released, the only thing Death seems to let live is the franchise itself. To make sure everyone knew that this one was the real deal (or perhaps to borrow some of the arrogance from Ohio State), the fourth installment in the series became The Final Destination. This isn’t just any final destination, this is THE final destination, and then we’re done! Except after that movie, there was another one added to the series, and now the fourth is known as the clunky The Final Destination 4. (Titles this franchise probably should be using: Final Destination 5: The Final The Final Destination, or perhaps finally making the Don Bluth collaboration that has been rumoured over the past few years, Fivel Goes Destination: An American Tail.)

Death: "You're mine, mouse!"

We find something similar in The Fast and the Furious franchise. The initial entry was titled The Fast and the Furious. Its sequel turned ‘the’ into a 2, dropped its ‘and’, and before you knew it you had a stellar title like 2 Fast 2 Furious, which was so to the max that studio heads realized the third film needed a more conventional title, going with The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. By the time we get to the fourth film, we have an even shorter title than we did with the second. What was left was simply Fast and Furious, the title of the original with two words cut out, because it’s 2009 and everyone’s texting, so we don’t have time for ‘the’ anymore. Plus, Vin Diesel’s back, so we can do whatever the fuck we want. After this, we’re down to a two-word title with 2011’s awesome-a-thon, simply called Fast Five. Why? Are there 5 main characters sort of like Ocean’s Eleven? Nope. Because it’s 2011 and people are texting even more and everything about this movie is quick, even the title, so two words maximum. Oh and now The Rock’s here so we can reeeeally do whatever the fuck we want, so the fifth The Fast and the Furious movie is called Fast Five, maybe even just F.F. if we feel like it. (Titles this franchise should probably be using: The Fast and the 4ious, The Fast and 5ious, FastNFurious, FastFur, The Rock is in This Movie so Nothing Else Matters.)

One of The Rock’s more recent/likely to be shitty movie sequels caused some confusion with its title, Journey 2. Many people scratched their heads and said ‘I don’t remember The Rock being in Journey 1, nor do I remember that film’s general existence,’ and they were right. The Rock wasn’t in a movie called Journey 1, and that movie doesn’t exist. Journey 2 is really called Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, but it has been advertised mostly as Journey 2. It is actually the the sequel to Journey to the Centre of the Earth, a 2008 film that starred Brendan Fraser, meaning nobody remembers it fondly. Between the sequel’s odd title choice, then the sequel being advertised as just Journey 2 and having a much different cast, the whole mess was a bit confusing for most people. Luckily, it was a children’s movie and kids are never confused by anything and never have unreasonable tantrums as a result of that confusion. Like 2 Fast & 2 Furious and Journey 2, you can see that people take the chance to sneak a number into the title… I suspect this may even be the sole reason Michael Bay has returned to his supposedly done franchise for Trans4mers.

Alex: "YES! America! Cheeseburgers! Giant ninja robots! Cheerleaders!" *passes out*

I think there is some perception that having a number in your title usually means you’re bit lower in the pecking order. The mentality is likely that if all they did to the title was slap a slightly higher number on the end, how much time could they have spent on the script, and aren’t you surely about to watch a mostly recycled movie? Taking this notion to its extreme may have something to do with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight not sounding like a sequel to Batman Begins, and a rare superhero movie that doesn’t even have the hero’s most common name in the title. While sequels are already often seen as a crass way to milk the success of one movie, changing the title up makes it seem like less of a cash grab than a sequel with a simply numbered sequel. To see if there was any truth to this concept, I looked at the IMDB Top 250 films and counted how many were sequels, and how many of those were numbered sequels, meaning a number appears in the official title. Of 250, 16 are sequels (by my count) with only 6 of those being numbered sequels. Whether moviegoers take sequels without numbers less seriously, or serious/more talented filmmakers try to avoid numbering, there does seem to be a correlation.

On the entirely different end of the spectrum, there is another linguistic step you can take it naming your sequels to try and sell some tickets and that’s the adorable pun. This is the route that movies like Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties has taken, as well as both Alvin and the Chipmunks follow-ups, The Squeakuel and Chipwrecked, with the former term Squeakuel becoming oddly ubiquitous around the time of the movie’s release. People used it as a bit of punchline of how overly adorable and sweetly annoying that movie must be. If the ‘no press is bad press’ adage is true, than this was a clever title, as it at least caused more people to talk about the movie, even if it only had the same kind of ‘appeal’ that the Hamster Dance song had. It was too sweet by half, but the term Squeakuel was something of an earworm too, and it would get stuck in your head in a way. And even though everyone rolled their eyes when they talked about it, they were still talking about it and this level of cultural relevance, even if negative, must have contributed positively to how well it stayed around and how much money it made.

With things the way they are, just being memorable, for any reason, might be the most important thing. Movies have always been fighting for us to remember them more than others. Now on top of that, they are so many other forms of entertainment for cinema to compete with, and within the industry hundreds of movies and dozens of sequels are being released each year. This mean sequels have to do anything they can to earn some space on your mental to-see list, and if the wordplay that Alvin and the Chipmunks are using work, then strap yourself for The Rock and Jason Statham co-starring in 2013’s Fast and Furiquel.

For those interested, this link provides an interesting, film-by-film visualization for which franchises are profitable.


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