The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2 made $101 million this past weekend. That's a lot of money — multiple Breaking Bad storage units worth of moola. Those earnings made Mockingjay — Part 2 the fifth-highest opening of the year, but on the colossal scale on which a tentpole franchise like The Hunger Games operates, lumbering through multiplexes nationwide like a hungry giant, it was still a letdown, the lowest debut of the four movies in a series that's been a reliable global success.
Was the drop due to blockbuster fatigue? Was the film too grim, with its imagery of war and civilian slaughter and a little girl sobbing over the corpse of her parent? Are audiences less interested in the big finishes of franchises than their bright beginnings? Is the inclusion of a colon and an em dash too much punctuation for one title to bear? An argument can be made for all these points, but the final Hunger Games movie had a more fundamental problem — it just wasn't a very good sequel.
No one needs to be told that we are deep into an era in which sequels rule. Five of the top ten titles at both last year's and this year's current box office are follow-ups to existing movies, and that's not counting prequels like Minions or Marvel installments like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man that focus on new characters even as they service a larger arc. Mourning the movie based on an original idea feels at this point passé. Instead, we might as well celebrate that there's an art to how well a film can straddle the line between its existence as a standalone object and how it references some ongoing brand — because, though there's still some cynicism toward the idea of the sequel, there's more potential to it now, too.
If "sequel" used to connote money-grabbing retreads more often than it did something like The Godfather: Part II, these days no one would argue there isn't room for art in it, even if most sequels are still forgettable airplane-movie fodder. But it's an art in which a film should have to serve more than just loyalists, who, as with Mockingjay — Part 2, won't always reliably turn up for even a character as beloved as Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen.
Mockingjay — Part 2 can't be faulted for ambition in terms of scope, but it feels like precisely half a movie, picking up where Part 1 left off, with a brainwashed Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) having attempted to murder his former love Katniss. From there, it takes off at a gallop toward the Capitol, with its main characters darting through booby-trapped streets and enduring an goddamn terrifying encounter with maggot-white mutts in the sewer tunnels beneath the city. Characters die horribly, and there's little time for the impact to sink in before more running and a surprisingly anticlimactic end, with the love triangle serviced jarringly in the midst of the warfare.
Part 1 got all of the franchise's uneasy commentary on image and propaganda, and Part 2 got all of the action, and neither works particularly well as a standalone movie. Maybe that was the plan — and squeezing four films out of three hit books definitely had financial motivation — but in practice, both installments felt like they were lacking a center: one lead-up with no conclusion; the other, one long, turbulent last act. The second Hunger Games movie, Catching Fire, stood alone — compelling even if you hadn't seen the first film. But the third and fourth don't, dangling dependent on one another for context and meaning in a way that feels generally unmovielike, sandwiching characters in for one more look, including the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in his unsettling final role as Plutarch Heavensbee.
Mockingjay — Part 2 may not have been a triumphant finale, but it came out the week before the premiere of what may be 2015's platonic sequel ideal. Creed, the seventh film in the four-decade Rocky franchise, is a spin-off that puts Sylvester Stallone in the trainer role alongside newcomer Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), striking a fascinating balance between the familiar and the new. It hits the marks a Rocky movie demands — the museum steps, the theme song, and the run — but it's sparing and precise with its nostalgia.
It's also canny and thoughtful about its main character. Adonis isn't a mini-Rocky — for one thing, he's the son of Rocky's nemesis-turned-pal Apollo Creed — and his story doesn't just recycle his mentor's experiences. Creed engages with the ideas of what Rocky represents: the all-American underdog with something to prove, with a need to affirm his own worth in the ring. And it sometimes jostles gently against them while serving as a sincere homage to the original that updates the story as well as its treatment of race and class.
This year's sequels ran the gamut from Liam Neeson's halfhearted Taken 3 back in January, a film that played like a joke everyone's gotten over, to Furious 7 in April, a movie that steered (sorry) into the death of lead Paul Walker on a break during filming and was even more bombastically sentimental because of it, affirming again that it's a series fond of the individual parts of its family but not dependent on them. The Divergent Series: Insurgent and Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, would-be heirs to the dystopian Hunger Games throne, did fine while both feeling like they're racing against the waning interest in their lesser franchises. Pitch Perfect 2, while not as good as the first film, was still a major, female-directed hit, and Hot Tub Time Machine 2 was evidence of how hard it can be to make a comedy sequel.
There were the unasked-for sequels that flicked through theaters and vanished from memory (The Transporter Refueled, Hitman: Agent 47) and the ones that seemed to exist to wring money out of a series until no one shows up anymore (Insidious: Chapter 3, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension). There were the intriguing letdowns like Terminator: Genisys and Spectre, which felt like they ran out of space in their own universes (though James Bond is not in danger of going away). There was Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, which was simply very, very entertaining, and Avengers: Age of Ultron, which succeeded, despite its many overstuffed obligations to its shared universe. And there was Jurassic World, a massive hit but a blockbuster curiously shot through self-loathing, with its self-referential themes about jaded audiences always needing a bigger, flashier spectacle, self-aware in the fan service that bogged Mockingjay — Part 2 down.
The year's most interesting sequels have been the ones that, like Creed, push off their predecessors rather than follow too dutifully in their footsteps. Movies like Magic Mike XXL and Mad Max: Fury Road use the movies that came before them as texts to be commented on in addition to being continued. Magic Mike was a story of male strippers living large in the moment in a profession that was an enticing dead end, but Magic Mike XXL turned its attention away from its characters' futures to focus on their services and what they do to make their female customers feel desired and powerful. And Mad Max: Fury Road revitalized a long-dormant series by turning its title character into something like a sidekick in its rescue mission, referencing his past pain but, remarkably, never letting it take precedent over the more immediate trauma and experiences of the women he helps escape.
These movies are actually better for being sequels, for having histories that inform what's going on onscreen without being necessary in order to follow it. Creed, Magic Mike XXL, and Mad Max: Fury Road stand perfectly fine on their own, but become richer and deeper with a familiarity of what they're referencing. They're heartening evidence that an age of sequels isn't necessarily one of diminishing returns — which is good, because the biggest sequel of 2015 has yet to arrive. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the first installment of a new trilogy, is the film that will ramp up what Wired ominously referred to as "the forever franchise," sequels spiraling infinitely out into an unknown cinematic future.
Yes, the era of sequels is in full swing, but that doesn't have to be a bad thing.