When Movie-Sequel Relationships Fail

Viewers could do with more realistic portrayals of long-term love.

New Line Productions

Is it possible to make a sequel to a romantic comedy? Sure, there are a few examples—Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, Sex and the City 2—but the pickings are slim enough that a Quora thread on the subject includes the children’s movie Ice Age 2, for its relationship between ... a squirrel and an acorn. The reasons for this are simple enough: New love is inherently sexier than long familiarity, and the basic contours of boy-meets-girl stories make for easy writing. And by sheer attrition there will always be more moviegoers who can relate to the first year of a relationship than the 30th.

Into this relative void comes My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, the sequel to the 2002 sleeper hit, offering one more precious datum in Hollywood’s conspicuously limited study of romantic love beyond the heady days of meet-cutes and dramatic gestures. To its credit, Greek Wedding 2 does go far beyond the first date: Toula (Nia Vardalos, who wrote both this film and its predecessor, and oversaw the short-lived TV spinoff My Big Fat Greek Life) and Ian (John Corbett) have been married long enough to raise a daughter who’s about to graduate from high school. With the stress and boredom of middle age setting in, the couple is trying to rekindle the romance that brought them together, while Toula comes to terms with her daughter’s desire to move away for college.

Greek Wedding 2 is the rare romantic comedy that dares to stray from pure romance into the more complicated forms of love that can blossom in later life. This long view can be attributed at least in part to the fact that both films are largely inspired by Vardalos’s own life—the first by her marriage to the actor Ian Gomez, and the second by years spent raising their daughter.

But must viewers depend on a very slow drip of indie autobiographies to provide glimpses of a couple growing into a family? Define “family” however you like—strip away marriage and children, pick partners of any gender—and in every possible arrangement there remains the opportunity for lovers to commit to each other for the long haul rather than just for now. Without insisting that anyone ought to make that commitment, one can still observe that many do, and yet that transition is grossly underrepresented on the big screen, across all genres. For a society obsessed with love, American pop culture could stand to pay a little more attention to how all these courtships play out.

Each genre that celebrates romantic love—rom-coms hardly have a monopoly on it—has its own way of abandoning relationships just as they’re getting interesting. Among romantic comedies, the most common solution is to simply not make sequels—to bury Jerry Maguire under Yucca Mountain and let its fiery passion cool into domestic routine far from public view. Which, frankly, is as impressive as it is disappointing: In an industry where intellectual property is increasingly recycled and warmed over, it must take tremendous willpower (or tremendous deference to young audiences’ tastes) not to throw Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in a room together and call it Swipe Left in Seattle.

Far more egregious, however, is what happens when couples do return for a sequel, as they often do in action movies and nominally non-“romantic” comedies. On the rarest of occasions, these relationships are fleshed out and allowed to grow in entertaining ways—I’ll return to the few successes in a bit. Far more often, however, filmmakers simply reset a film’s central relationship so that one or both members of the couple can go through the motions of falling in love all over again. This can take two forms.

The first is introducing a new love interest: Call it the “When Harry Met Someone Else” approach. Sometimes an actor is unable or unwilling to return for a sequel; sometimes filmmakers just prefer new blood. In either case, the sequel ditches one lover in favor of the other, setting him or her—usually him—on the path to falling in love with a new character. A recent example of this is Zoolander 2, which kills off the title character’s wife Matilda Jeffries (Christine Taylor) in a tragicomic accident in the film’s first few minutes, clearing the way for a much less compelling postscript of a romance between Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) and Valentina Valencia (Penelope Cruz). In a classic, more extreme instance—Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me—Vanessa Kensington (Elizabeth Hurley) literally self-destructs to make room for Powers (Mike Myers) to fall in love again with Heather Graham’s Felicity Shagwell. For other serial monogamists, see: Bond, James; Jones, Indiana; Wayne, Bruce; the Ted movies, the Missions Impossible, and plenty of others.

The second method is artificial estrangement, or when couples who once attained marital or premarital bliss have suffered some falling out between movies—but who maintain enough grudging affection for each other that they spend their sequel falling back in love along more or less the same narrative lines as in the previous film. A relatively recent example is 2013’s Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, which pits Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) against his wife Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) in pursuit of a coveted promotion. In no time at all, they’re reenacting the bitter rivalry that was already exhaustively explored in the first film, and round two falls flat. Other movies to follow this pattern include Wayne’s World 2, Spider-Man 3, and my personal favorite, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, which features a characteristically chipper Nicolas Cage breaking and entering into the home of his ex-girlfriend Abigail (Diane Kruger) in order to steal her National Archives ID card—you know, just regular breakup stuff.

Relationship resets aren’t inherently bad, but they do carry several risks. First and foremost, mishandled sequels cheapen the better movies whose worlds they expand. This is a risk of all sequels and prequels (cough, midi-chlorians), but still worth noting. When Vanessa Kensington is revealed to be an evil fembot in The Spy Who Shagged Me, it doesn’t just undo the core relationship of the first film—it undoes the hero and his entire journey. At the end of the first film, Austin Powers was shown to be raunchy and self-obsessed but ultimately a good and capable man. In the first minutes of the sequel, he becomes a fool so pathetic that he could fall in love with—and marry! and alter his worldview for!—a weaponized sex doll.

Likewise for Wayne’s World 2. In the first film, Wayne Campbell (Mike Myers again) is scrappy and humble but so full of creative energy and love that Cassandra Wong (Tia Carrere) can’t help but fall in love with him. In the second film, he’s transformed into an inattentive and jealous boyfriend, an unappealing turn for fans.

On a related note, relationship resets unhealthily conflate early romantic courtship and last-ditch efforts to avoid a breakup. Wayne’s World is a good example of this, as is National Treasure: Book of Secrets. Does Hollywood produce unrealistic movie relationships because the movie-going public has unrealistic expectations for love, or do audiences have unrealistic expectations for love because they see unrealistic movie relationships? It’s a little chicken-and-egg, but popular entertainment reinforces social mores and affects the choices audiences make after they leave the theater. Diversifying the relationships in films beyond new lovers on first dates enriches audiences’ understanding of love. Plus, the possibilities for diversity in family arrangements are literally endless.

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.

While Anchorman 2 and National Treasure 2 waste time with bitter breakup fights, Rick and Evelyn hit the ground running, arguing over the best way to pry open the sarcophagus at hand. Meanwhile their son is clever, bold, and handy with a slingshot. These three family members are shuffled through all possible combinations—two working together, all three on their own—which livens up an otherwise straightforward rescue mission.

The first Mummy did well enough to warrant a sequel, but The Mummy Returns was a bona fide phenomenon. It briefly held the record for single-day box-office gross, and spawned the spinoff The Scorpion King, an animated series, and eventually another sequel. In every subsequent outing, its heroes return as a family. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that when Indiana Jones returned in 2008’s The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Indie himself was saddled with an adventurous wife and a precocious son.

As Hollywood relies more and more on sequels and spinoffs and reboots, the industry is needlessly throwing away endless narrative opportunities, insisting on running all of its characters through the same handful of romantic beats. It’s not hard to find moviegoers exhausted by the recent glut of comic book movies; linger in the theater lobby a while longer and you’ll find others similarly sick of uninspired sequels. Fortunately, there’s an easy solution: To paraphrase Tolstoy, all one-off movie couples are alike, but each couple allowed to become a family can be entertaining in its own way.