Monday 30 May 2022

From Top Gun to Tron: The Best (and Worst) Legacy Sequels


Legacy sequels; they're the biggest and buzziest thing in Hollywood right bow, second only to interconnected cinematic universes. So in honour of the release of both Top Gun: Maverick and Jurassic World: Dominion, I'm taking a look at the best and the worst.

But what is a legacy sequel, I hear you ask. Great question. Thankfully, we can rely on the reliably meta Scream franchise to offer a concise explanation and deconstruction of the term.

About halfway through the new Scream movie (itself a legacy sequel, of course), one of the core cast – Mindy Meeks-Martin, played by Jasmin Savoy Brown – launches into a longwinded monologue about the nature of legacy sequels.

"See, you can't just reboot a franchise from scratch anymore. The fans won't stand for it. Black Christmas, Child's Play, Flatliners, that shit doesn't work. But you can't just do a straight sequel, either. You need to build something new. But not too new or the Internet goes bug-fucking-nuts."

Okay, we're off a good start – getting a good handle on what a legacy sequels is. But Mindy isn't done with her soliloquy. 

"It has to be part of an ongoing storyline, even if that story should never have been going on in the first place. New main characters, yes, but supported by, and related to, legacy characters. Not quite a reboot, not quite a sequel."

Ah okay, that explains a lot – and immediately some examples are swimming around in your mind's eye. After all, the past twelve months have been an abundance of riches when it comes to legacy sequels; some have been great, some not so much. But the trend goes back further than that – in fact, I'd pinpoint 2015 as the year that the legacy sequel concept started to really gather steam.

That year, five of the biggest blockbusters were all imbued with the same 'not quite a reboot, not quite a sequel' DNA. Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road, Terminator: Genisys, Creed and Star Wars: The Force Awakens were all evolutions of earlier films, with recurring characters who returned to familiar settings and dealt with familiar motifs or challenges.

Of course, Star Wars: The Force Awakens would go on to smash records – and set the standard for what audiences would expect from 'legacy sequels'. In The Force Awakens, we meet a cast of new characters (Rey, Finn, Poe), but the journey sees them cross paths with much-loved characters from before (Han Solo, Leia, Chewbacca, Artoo). 

The plot itself pertains to the concept of 'legacy'; Han and Leia's only son, Ben, has been seduced by the dark side, casting a shadow on their legacy as both parents and heroes. The evil that was supposedly vanquished at the end of Return of the Jedi is still a threat, calling into question the legacy of the Rebellion. And the film repackages a lot of iconography from the original Star Wars films; from vehicles (the Millennium Falcon, X-Wings) to settings (the deserts of Jakku substitute for Tatooine).

Arguably, The Force Awakens' sequel, The Last Jedi, doubles down on this thematic through-line, in its examination Luke Skywalker and the Jedi Order's legacy. Viewed back-to-back, they make an excellent continuation and coda to George Lucas' original trilogy.

Similarly, Ryan Coogler's Creed – a legacy sequel to Rocky – spars with both the legacy of Rocky Balboa and its titular character Adonis Creed, son of Apollo Creed. We see Adonis grappling with the weight of expectation and with trying to step out from his father's shadow. We see Rocky battling both cancer and the guilt he feels for the death of Adonis' father in Rocky IV.

The Force Awakens and Creed take a different approach to the legacy sequel, but the underlying theme is the same.  From there, the floodgates opened – legacy sequels were in vogue, and studios found themselves in an IP arms race to resurrect some decades-old film that audiences once had an attachment to.

Some were inspired; while others were insipid. Mike Flanagan's Doctor Sleep (a sequel to The Shining) and Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 (a sequel to Blade Runner, obviously) fall into the former, while the likes of Independence Day: Resurgence, Terminator: Genisys and to a lesser extent Terminator: Dark Fate, with the latter. 

Mary Poppins, Candyman, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Jumanji (twice) – no stone has been left unturned in Hollywood's insatiable pursuit of box-office dollar bills. 

Nostalgia and callbacks are central to the legacy sequel; but things start to unravel when that rose-tinted nostalgia trumps things like actual three-dimensional characters or themes. The Star Wars sequel trilogy skirts around this, but only just. The recent Ghostbusters sequel however, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, finds itself bathing in sentimentalism from beginning to end. 

In Afterlife, there's a deep-seated reverence and respect for the original film and its iconography that is literally metatextual in nature – the characters and the audience alike are supposed to feel awestruck by the the lore, the motifs, the legacy of it all. Paul Rudd's character exists solely to coo and gush over the Ghostbusters gadgets, gizmos and paraphernalia. "No way! That's a ghost trap!" or "Awesome, take a look at the proton pack!" etcetera etcetera.

Clearly, the key learning here is that the best legacy sequels don't just regurgitate things; they ruminate on that theme of legacy, ageing, generational trauma or making up for past misdeeds. 

We can see this in Doctor Sleep, David Gordon Green's recent Halloween films, the aforementioned Scream film from January of this year, and Lana Wachowski's return to the Matrix from last year, in The Matrix Resurrections

Wachowski's film is particularly blunt in its use of legacy sequel motifs. 

Other successes have actually made good on the promise of beloved films that somehow didn't fulfil their full potential; just ask Joesph Kosinski, who has proved this not once but twice with 2010's Tron: Legacy and this month's Top Gun: Maverick, both of which are legacy sequels to 80s classics that were either good but quickly dated (Tron) or cheesy crowdpleasers that didn't woo critics (Top Gun)

Top Gun: Maverick might be the crest of the legacy sequel wave; the right property with the right creative team at the right time, delivering something truly extraordinary. 

And arguably, Jurassic World: Dominion is the realisation of the promise that Jurassic World had, in that it pairs its new cast (Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard) with the original cast (Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum, Laura Dern), for a film that is bigger, scarier and has more teeth. 

The legacy sequel trend shows no signs of slowing down – next year, Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones returns to cinemas, while Andy Muschietti's The Flash film will revive Michael Keaton's beloved Batman for more than a mere cameo. Meanwhile, David Gordon Green will hop from Halloween to The Exorcist and Reese Witherspoon will step back into Elle Woods' trademark pink stilettos for Legally Blonde 3. 

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