A convincingly evolving relationship, furthermore, is the difference between a sequel and a “universe.” Even if the current mania for cinematic universes turns out to be a fad, it’s shone a bright light on the weaknesses of conventional sequels, which for far too long have gotten away with telling basically the same story again and again. That strategy doesn’t work very long in an ever-growing narrative milieu, although even Marvel Studios, which ushered in the universe craze, is testing the limits of repetition with its ever-growing stockpile of Infinity MacGuffins.
Speaking of Marvel: Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) enjoy exactly the kind of relationship Hollywood should embrace more. This is captured nowhere better than in an early scene in The Avengers, when Tony and Pepper are shown in their previously implied domestic life together, somehow flirting even as they bicker. This transformation from mere “couple” to long-haul “family” is no accident—the film’s director, Joss Whedon, knows the storytelling potential of the family, and fought to keep it in Avengers: Age of Ultron. As he scrambled to keep an overstuffed film grounded, Whedon said Marvel forced him to drastically trim one of two scenes: the farm interlude introducing Hawkeye’s wife and children, or Thor’s expositional vision quest in the cave. Whedon favored the farm scene—which, anchored by the tender banter between Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and his wife Laura (Linda Cardellini), was widely regarded as a highlight of the film.
Fortunately, a handful of non-“universe” sequels have also risen to the task of expanding rather than repeating their central relationships. Such movies offer a road map for tomorrow’s filmmakers, by employing the seemingly obvious tactic of exposing their characters to new circumstances. Richard Linklater’s charmingly unconventional rom-com Before Sunset fits this description, if only because the years that Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) have spent apart were a very real possibility at the end of Before Sunrise, rather than a hasty revision as in Zoolander 2, Anchorman 2, and their ilk.
Credit is also due to 2005’s The Legend of Zorro, sequel to 1998’s The Mask of Zorro. In that film, Zorro—aka Alejandro de la Vega, aka Antonio Banderas—has married Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and together they’ve raised a son who is inspired by Zorro’s heroism but disappointed by his aristocratic father, unaware that the two men are one and the same. All three are fearless and make for a powerful team by the end of the film, though they slog through a period of artificial estrangement before fully joining forces.
The Legend of Zorro, though, is really just borrowing from a template set by The Greatest Sequel Ever Made: 2001’s The Mummy Returns (yes, the one starring Brendan Fraser). The Mummy franchise, with its swashbuckling 1930s archaeologists, will probably always be remembered as a pale, CGI-heavy imitation of Indiana Jones, or, more generously, as a deliberately campy homage. While The Mummy Returns isn’t the greatest movie ever made, it’s quite plausibly the greatest sequel, qua sequel. The film could have driven a temporary wedge between Rick O’Connell (Fraser) and Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz), who were last seen riding off into the sunset together at the end of The Mummy, or swapped Evelyn out entirely for some new heroine. Instead, The Mummy Returns doubles down on Rick and Evelyn, who are reintroduced as the O’Connells—happily married, and the proud parents of precocious 8-year-old Alex.