The gang’s all here: when characters are shoehorned back into movie sequels

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Hollywood can’t resist bringing beloved characters back for sequels; even when there’s little or no good reason to do so. Guy takes a look at some of the more irksome examples.

This article contains mild spoilers for the Highlander, Kingsman, Fast & Furious, Men in Black and Blade series of films, as well as the sequel to the American remake of The Grudge.

Those poor Hollywood executives – so often the focus of our ire, our ridicule, our blame. It must be frustrating for them to see with such clarity and precision what it is that we – the audience – want, whilst time and time again witnessing punters failing to embrace the latest cinematic treat that they have concocted especially for us.

It’s our fault, not theirs. The science is inarguable. The execs examine box-office takings in much the same way an enlightened Neo surveys the Matrix: a complex code that they have complete mastery over.

So, they know that superheroes sell. The evidence is irrefutable. Anything featuring a comic book character in stylised body armour that isn’t a smash at the box-office is on us. Films based on beloved stage musicals? They hoover up ticket sales too – so the underperformance of Cats is again a failure of the general public to understand what it is it actually wants.

They know the scientific formula; success is 99% guaranteed. It’s just such a shame that studio executives’ experiments so frequently result in an outlier – that one-percentile fluke that nonetheless seems to occur at least 60% of the time (calculation courtesy of the Anchorman school of statistics).

Perhaps one of the most egregious examples of Hollywood giving us something we want, despite us petulantly demonstrating that what we really want is a decent movie, is a phenomenon exclusive to sequels that I like to call ‘The Gang’s all Here’.

The contrived return

The reasoning is sound. Whether through critical reviews or audience reaction, a studio cottons on to the fact that a particular supporting character – or several – went down really well with crowds.

‘I liked the little guy,’ a test screening survey might read. ‘He was funny. I liked seeing him get punched all the time.’

The antennae on the execs’ otherwise human-looking heads twitch. Is this opinion shared? Why yes, it is:

‘I liked the squeaky-voiced one who swore a lot about drive-thru restaurants.’

‘That guy was hilarious. Give him a gun next time. Ha ha. Genius.’

The suits are salivating; they think they might have something here. But they wait for the critics’ reviews to be sure. And sure enough, the esteemed Robert Ebert puts the hypothesis beyond all reasonable doubt:

‘The creation of the Getz character is the movie’s masterstroke; instead of recycling scenes in which the two partners fight with each other, Lethal Weapon 2 provides a third character who can exasperate both men.’

And lo it came to pass… Joe Pesci would be in Lethal Weapon 3. Hell, he’d even be on the poster.

Was his character’s arc not suitably and satisfactorily wrapped up in Lethal Weapon 2? “Yes, but that’s beside the point,” a studio exec would probably counter. “Audiences liked him. And we’re in the business of giving audiences more of what they liked.”

Was his inclusion in the plot not a complete contrivance?

“Well, he’s an estate agent now. Which is a perfectly reasonable explanation as to why he’s still hanging out with the police officers who were charged with his protection during a major court case and who bade him farewell at the end of the last film. We even peroxided his hair to draw a line under his cartel accountancy past.”

Were his appearances merely short skits in which he reminded the audience about the scrapes they all got into in the previous films?

“Well yes, but audiences like being reminded about things they liked in previous films. It makes the sequel better by association.”

Did they lose sight of the fine line between the joy of seeing a character irritate the two leads and making the character himself irritating?

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question. He’s going to be in the fourth one too, by the way. For… reasons.”

To be clear, I’m not talking about all examples of returning characters here – certainly if none of the original Avengers had made it back for Age Of Ultron, eyebrows would have been raised so high they would have floated above heads. It’s when a character’s re-appearance makes no sense whatsoever, is distractingly contrived or undermines all that went before that pains me so.

The Getz example is far from an isolated incident, but because they vary in intent and execution I have attempted to classify other occurrences by type. (You’re welcome)

The resurrection

Any major character still breathing at the end of the original movie might be reasonably expected to make an appearance in a sequel if it makes sense to the story being told. It’s when it makes no sense at all that it becomes irritating. Or, indeed, when they’re no longer breathing. We’re all thinking of exactly the same example here, aren’t we? Of course we are. Highlander 2.

Ramerez was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. Old Ramerez was as dead as a door-nail.

Isn’t that how Charles Dickens began his novel on which the Highlander sequels are based? Regardless, Sean Connery’s character was very much dearly departed by the time the credits rolled on the original Highlander – a film I suspect absolutely no one in the upper echelons of Hollywood had any idea might become a modest cult hit. That latter point may be one of the reasons a sequel to the first film wasn’t the most obvious choice; a more significant one, I’d argue, is that the entire plot of the original revolves around most of the significant characters battling each other to the death until only one remains.

“But it made money,” those studio execs began whispering to themselves. “Mainly internationally, but you can change Francs and Drachmas at the bank, can’t you? Seriously, there are dollars to be made here…”

What they needed to drill down to was the single most important reason that Highlander was an unexpectedly moderate success. Was it the mythology of the immortals? Nope, they can be aliens this time. Was it the swordplay? Possibly; a tiny bit of that, please, just in case. Was it… Sean Connery playing a Spanish Egyptian with a Scottish accent? BINGO!

Now to be fair, Sean Connery was big box office back then. If there was a way – any way – to crowbar his character back into proceedings, then the producers would surely be rewarded for their endeavours with an even bigger return on their investment.

But when the plot was contorted to accommodate his appearance to such an extent that it not only undid everything that made the original so popular but completely retconned its events, you have to question the wisdom of giving big Sean a second opportunity to get decapitated.

Modern examples of the ‘oh poo – we killed a beloved character in the original. Shall we bring them back anyway?’ school of thought include Kingsman: The Golden Circle (Colin Firth was shot in the head – but he got better), Fast & Furious 6 (Michelle Rodriguez’s car exploded in the original – but the camera missed her being thrown from the fast-moving vehicle, banging her head, losing her memory, and getting recruited by Jason Statham), and Blade 2 (Kris Kristofferson got attacked by vampires and shot himself in the head before he turned – again, he got better).

The legacy character

It’s tempting to co-file this one under ‘fan service’, but I think a more accurate sub-classification is ‘we’re really not too confident about going in a different direction with our beloved film series – shall we stick someone from the first film in there to lend it goodwill and validation?’. The file tab on that might be too lengthy, I grant you.

I’m loathe to place the most recent Star Wars films in this category as the latest trilogy is arguably a continuation of those original characters’ stories, but The Rise Of Skywalker has certainly raised a few hackles over its reliance on the influence of characters from previous films.

Perhaps a better example is Spock Prime from the rebooted Star Trek series. Regardless of how his appearance in this alternate timeline informs the plot – or indeed is indirectly responsible for the timeline splitting – it’s the desire to link past with present (or, technically, past with future) that feels to be the overwhelming incentive here. And a contrived meeting on a snow planet for Leonard Nimoy to deliver some ex-Spock-sition (I’m not going to apologise for that) doesn’t strengthen the case for his inclusion. It’s like the confidence wasn’t there to completely start afresh – a seal of approval from the old guard had to be awkwardly baked in.

Sometimes, the value of having a legacy character return late to a series has the powerful effect of rendering some or all of the previous sequels moot. Drastic retcons or a complete failure to acknowledge earlier films is not unheard of in order to get a big name back into old habits. See Jean-Claude Van Damme in Universal Solider: The Return, Jamie Lee Curtis in the most recent installment of Halloween and, of course, Linda Hamilton in Terminator: Dark Fate.

(We’ll let Arnie’s constant re-appearances as The Terminator slide, since production line fidelity is actually a pretty good, story-consistent rationalisation. Not too sold on the ‘ageing flesh wrapper’ explanation, though…)

The extended cameo

Now the word ‘extended’ is vitally important here. Because a genuine, quick cameo from a returning character can be delightful. And it’s essentially a gag – like it or not, it’s not going to have any great impact on the film’s plot. Clifton James’ sheriff in The Man With The Golden Gun is a great example of this.

A not-so-great example would be Bronson Pinchot as Serge in Beverley Hills Cop 3.

His role in the original was tiny but delightful – essentially a quick sketch where Eddie Murphy’s streetwise Detroit cop is stunned into uncharacteristic silence by an excitably camp Frenchman introducing him to the Beverly Hills conceptual art scene. He struggles with his pronunciation (Achwell Foley?), eulogises about his espresso-making skills (“I make it back there with a lil’ lemon twist, IT’S GOOD, you should try it”) and generally steals the limelight from one the 80s’ best on-screen comedians for all of sixty seconds.

In trying to decide what could have caused a reduction in box office receipts for Beverly Hills Cop 2, the creative brains behind the third installment realised something: the original had brief Serge. The sequel had zero Serge. Ergo, a second sequel could maximise profits by featuring extended Serge. Genius.

To make doubly sure that the Serge effect would pay dividends, EVERY funny line from the first film was repeated: Achwell Foley? Check. Lil’ lemon twist? Check. Get the f**k outta here? Big ol’ check. That it made no sense whatsoever, that it derailed the plot, that it tried to wring laughs from repetition rather than jokes, was all beside the point. People liked Serge. So, let’s give them more of him.

In many ways, it follows the template of Leo Getz – both had implausible new jobs to explain their presence, both turned initially amusing lines into irritating catchphrases, and both referenced plot details from previous films in order to tickle the ‘I remember that bit’ part of the audiences’ brain. The difference is that Serge is barely integrated into the plot of Beverly Hills Cop 3 – he just kind of appears, and then immediately outstays his welcome.

An extended cameo that crosses the stream of the ‘legacy character’ occurs in Ghostbusters: Answer The Call. Ignore the haters; this movie has a lot of good things going for it – but the extended Bill Murray cameo isn’t necessarily one of them. It’s distracting, it’s – dare I say – a little phoned in, and it seemed to have the effect of making people who needlessly took against that film even angrier (but maybe that’s a good thing?).

Possibly the most blatantly commercial use of the extended cameo is the utilisation of a famous/expensive actor from the first film who appears for five seconds at the beginning or end of a sequel to add legitimacy or to bolster threadbare continuity. Brian Dennehy’s benevolent alien patriarch is a major character in Cocoon, but in Cocoon: The Return he only shows up in the last five minutes to say hello to Steve Guttenberg and prove that his human skin suit is still capable of crying.

Horror flicks are especially guilty of this, sometimes going so far as to off a lead character from the original and hoping the shock will numb us to their continuing absence in the next chapter (see: A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 and the American remake of The Grudge).

The reversal

This final one is really a twist on the resurrected character, except rather than bringing someone back from the dead (or revealing them to be secretly alive) it takes a perfect denouement to their individual story from a previous film, and undoes it all in order to get them back in the fold. This one often stings the most.

Step forward Tommy Lee Jones’s Agent K in Men in Black 2. His whole arc in the first film was to train up a replacement so that he didn’t have to be an agent any more… because he was fed up with it all… becasue he wanted to go back home to be with the woman he loved… the woman he had to leave behind. But sod all that – we need him for the sequel, so… SURPRISE! You’re back in the suit, K!

Sometimes it’s not even the plot contrivances that sully the return of a character – it’s the fact that their continuing adventures lessen the impact of what should have been a perfect close to their story, undermining the message or ethos behind their previous appearance. John Rambo, I’m looking directly at you. Perhaps that unused alternative ending to First Blood would have been the better choice in hindsight, because as tragic as it would have been to see this damaged man put out of his misery, it would have prevented a thoughtful (whilst still action-packed) meditation on PTSD and the toll of war from mutating into a polemic ode to American military might in the sequels.

Indeed, American cinema is full of examples of reluctant anti-heroes learning at great cost the futility of violence and revenge, only to be asked in follow-ups to violently exact revenge. Again.

The end… Or is it?

What has preceded is but a small selection of examples that have stuck in my memory for reasons unknown. There are many more and I’d be delighted to be reminded of them in the comments below. What are the other prime examples of characters returning to franchises that might have been better off without them – or at least could have worked out a better way to have them re-appear?

As for me, this will be the last article I ever write. I have a thematically-rich reason for quitting that’s too complex to share here, but rest assured it’s perfectly fitting and emotionally-resonant. This feature is therefore incredibly apt and the perfect end to my writing career. Goodbye. And thanks…

(Simon, I have an idea for a follow-up article if you’re interested?)

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