Shiny Shelf

Third Time Around

By Jim Smith on 11 May 2007

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

The release of ‘Spider-Man 3’ a film described by one of Shiny’s writers as ‘an argument against unlimited free speech as compelling as ‘shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre’, has provoked a lot of silly comments regarding film series from people who should, but clearly don’t, know better. That’s not to decry his, or anyone else’s, judgement on the film itself of course. It may very well be a disaster. The problem is the idea that the third film in a series must always be bad. This is an idea that is very, very silly.

Yes, most of these comments have revolved around that basic notion – ‘The third in a series of films is always not very good’. Now, this is both clearly an utterly fatuous notion with little conceptual merit or basis in actual evidence and a re-writing of the hoary old, utterly untrue cliché ‘The sequel is never as good as the original’. Presumably such cases as ‘The Return of Frank James’, ‘The Wrath of Khan’, ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’, ‘The Spy Who Shagged Me’, ‘From Russia With Love’, ‘X2’, , ‘French Connection 2’, ‘For a Few Dollars More’ etc have eventually permeated the sheep-brains of columnists who say such things after, in some cases, a mere seven decades of existence, necessitating this hasty, if belated, upgrading of the useless phrase.

I’ve not seen ‘Spider-Man 3’ myself so I’m not in a position to comment on it one way or the other (and I loved the first two and find it difficult to imagine the same team has driven the franchise off of a cliff to such an extraordinary extent) but the fatuous assumption that a disappointing (for some fans if not at the box office) third instalment of a particular film series indicates some kind of scientific universal law of filmmaking is palpably wrong.

The ludicrous holding up by some commentators of ‘The Return of the King’ (a horribly edited, self-indulgent and essentially unfinished film) as the ‘exception that proves the rule’ (a phrase which itself is self-defeating and utterly meaningless) is a clear demonstration of the mechanical nature of this new version of the tradition. Previously it was ‘The Godfather Part II’ which was the declared exception, that being the last sequel before ‘LOTR 3′ to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

Filmmaking isn’t a science. There are scientific processes involved, naturally, but it’s essentially an artform, albeit a collaborative one, and is such essentially a form of human expression. (Pretentious, ain’t I?) There aren’t universalising laws to cover that kind of thing. It’s not a chemical equation you can balance by removing the hydrogen from it.

There’s no earthly reason why a sequel can’t outdo an original, why a third film couldn’t outdo both of its predecessors or why the second, fourth and six films in a particular series couldn’t be the best ones (as they, of course, are in the ‘Star Trek’ franchise). A sequel is essentially just a film using pre-existing characters. There’s no arguable sense in which it is doomed to not be as effective as any other film made by the group of people responsible for that sequel might be. The same is true of third instalments. The idea of ‘returning to the well too many times’ as has been articulated by some critics, indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the ability of film to be successfully adapted to a serial format.

Out of date film theory notions that a motion picture should portray the key moments in lives of its protagonists have a lot to do with this misunderstanding. A sequel to ‘Once Upon A Time in America’ is as implausible as a sequel to ‘Hamlet’ because both deal with the key events of their protagonist’s lives and most of the characters in both end up dead. However, that doesn’t apply to all movies ever made and it particularly doesn’t apply to movies adapted from source material in other media. Spider-Man the character was created to be the lead in a monthly comic book. There had been literally thousands of stories about Peter Parker, the Amazing Spider-Man. Even if only 1% of them have ever worked, that’s more source material for motion pictures than could ever be used up. There are fifty six short stories and four novels about Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. The logic that the third film in a series is always bad demands that we should only ever adapt a maximum of two of them – probably the first two. This would leave ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ – the most filmed novel of all time – sadly untouched by celluloid. The same goes for ‘Star Trek’. Designed as a television series, its has the idea that multiple stories (up to 50 a year) can be told within it built into the format. The idea that ten movies is too many is just plain dumb. Okay, only six of them are any good, but that total includes the third one.

Other media don’t have issues with sequels. The ludicrous pretence that film is not an innately commercial medium, and that thusly a sequel, nevermind a second sequel, which is more obviously made for the money than another film might be, that contributes to this phantasmal idea of diminishing returns. Do we discount Shakespeare’s ‘Henry IV Part II’ or his ‘Richard III’ (which is a sequel to the three part ‘Henry VI’). Do we dismiss Marlowe’s second play about ‘Tamburlaine’ (written entirely because of the financial success of the first), pity John Webster’s ‘The Tamer Tamed’ or excise the second half on ‘Don Quixote’ for being written many years after the first. Do we mock ‘The Odyssey’ for being a sequel to ‘The Illiad’ or ‘The Aeniad’ for arguably being a spin off of both? Obviously not.

Of course there are bad sequels. This isn’t because sequels are inherently bad, it’s because a lot of films are bad. Sequels and third instalments (I refuse to use the word ‘threequel’ that Pauline Kael invented and which I’d thought died with her until it recently re-appeared in a similar manner to tuberculosis) can be bad in specific ways, of course (‘Die Harder’ is the archetypal bad sequel; any of the sins popularly associated with sequels are committed here. It features characters from the previous film for no reason other than they are in the previous. Its plot is a re-run of the original, etc etc) but all kinds of films, from romantic comedies to searing indictments of the corruption of the middle classes have very particular ways in which they can be bad. That doesn’t mean people should stop making them.

In a world where ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’, ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’, ‘Goldfinger’, ‘Son of Frankenstein’, ‘Die Hard: With A Vengeance’, ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’, ‘Army of Darkness’, ‘The Godfather Part III’ and ‘Infernal Affairs III’, can all be bought on DVD for the price of a luxury sandwich, the idea that the third in a series is inevitably dreadful shouldn’t even get off of the ground. But it will, because people like arbitrary patterns to things, even ones that can’t be sensibly argued. So how about we go for some more and see if they stick?

Are we now to declare that no painting set to canvas between the hours of six and nine will be good? That no one can sculpt in their forties? That no composer’s tenth symphony will be any good? That no songwriter’s ninth ditty will amuse? That your second relationship will always be boring? That the fifth pint is always the worst? That no one has ever written a good seventh novel? These declarations, obviously and immediately piteously bloody stupid, make exactly as much sense as ‘The sequel is never as good as the original’, ‘The third film in a series is always poor’ and, for that matter, the dullest lie ever told about our culture that ‘The film is never as good as the book’.

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