The Death of the Sequel Hook?

By  · Published on October 26th, 2015

Sony Pictures Entertainment

Imagine this: a movie is made with a complete narrative arc and it makes a billion dollars but it features no tease of a sequel so the studio decides to leave it alone. No, that would never happen. But without leaving the audience with a sequel hook, will they know to come back for the follow-up? Will they know they want a sequel? And will any screenwriters know what to do for the encore, without being pointed in a certain direction by a post-credits promise of the next villain or adventure?

Look at Jurassic World for a good example of how to set up a sequel without falling into any traps. Although a sequel itself, the movie offers no assumption that the franchise will continue beyond its end credits. However, it does hint at possibilities here and there of how to move forward, one being the proposition of weaponized dinosaurs for military use. Another is an idea for an open source market on dinos, perhaps leading to pets. Or perhaps we’ll see ice age mammals introduced?

Because Jurassic World has made more than a billion and a half dollars, it’s obviously getting a sequel (one that’s more of a Jurassic World 2 than a Jurassic Park 5). And there’s a thrill in our not knowing what that movie will entail beyond the casting news that Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard will reprise their roles. There might be an issue for the producers, though, if even they don’t know what to do. That can either lead to a forced idea or a delay while a good one is developed.

At a time when we’re trained, mostly thanks to Marvel, to look for a post-credits stinger after every movie, the lack of a sequel hook in Jurassic World was a very bold, very appreciated move. Too many other movies lately have “ended” with an open ending or an actual set-up of what will come next. A lot of these are movies that have disappointed at the box office, including The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Terminator Genisys, Fantastic Four and, this past weekend, Jem and the Holograms. Now, if those teased sequels don’t happen, the embarrassment extends beyond the fact that they were flops. Unfulfilled sequel hooks can be a constant reminder of their movies’ failure forever.

As far as we know, Jem could still receive a sequel. It only opened with $1.3m but it also only cost $5m. It’s definitely not a loss for Universal (the studio currently swimming in cash thanks to Jurassic World). The movie’s overlong sequel hook involving the villainous girl group The Misfits may eventually be satisfied. The fans of the original Jem cartoon certainly won’t want that, unless somehow they can be convinced that the sequel will do the property justice, but with a Cinemascore grade of B+ from audiences who did go see it and the chance of it garnering more casual interest on home video and cable, a Jem 2 can’t be discounted completely.

Maybe this will even be the year when sequel hooks prove to be an asset rather than a mistake. While such a tease can be a means of selling an audience on a follow-up, it can also sell the studio on financing one as an easy product. Fox has indicated that they’re going ahead with a Fantastic Four sequel in spite of the weak performance of the superhero reboot last summer, while the same studio isn’t looking to give up on the Terminator series in spite of its latest misstep. If Jem 2 happens, that’s more encouragement that there’s a future for flops with franchise dreams. Sequels to initially unsuccessful movies can fuel retrospective interest in those original/prior installments.

Sequel hooks can be a burden for successful movies, too, of course. The follow-up to Batman Begins had to be about the Joker, which obviously worked out just fine and there wasn’t much doubt that it wouldn’t be given that fans will never tire of seeing that particular villain. Fans of The Incredibles are going to similarly expect the villain to be “The Underminer” in the now-actually-happening sequel. Occasionally, though, the tease is ignored or winds up being partly dismissed by the actual follow-up, as in the case of Toy Story 2 not being focused on Andy’s new dog being the next blow to Woody’s role as the kid’s favorite thing and in how X-Men: Days of Future Past wasn’t quite informed by the post-credits stinger teasing that storyline in The Wolverine.

At least Fantastic Four doesn’t have the problem of setting up anything too specific, like a new villain. Its promise of a sequel is more of a broad open ending merely indicating that the characters will continue as a team beyond the credits, whether we see them in further adventures or not. Whereas a Jem sequel will pretty much be required to significantly incorporate the Misfits, whether that’s the best idea or not (for fans who wanted something more faithful, it probably is the best idea). And eventually, finally, one day, the Marvel movies have to deal with Thanos, whether or not we’re all tired of the guy by then.

Given how much I dislike Jem and the Holograms and would rather it not receive a sequel, I continue to lean on the side against sequel hooks, at least in uncertain would-be franchise starters, and hope the movie’s failure leads Hollywood to given them up. But I could always change my mind if I see them done in ways that don’t instead set up for awkwardness in ultimately standalone efforts. Consider this discussion is to be continued…

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.