Once is not enough

The tradition of sequels continues with Spider-Man 2, slated to hit Indian screens on July 23.
Saibal Chatterjee goes behind the scenes to find out what makes take-two of hit flicks tick.

Spider-Man 2, Hollywood’s second take on Marvel Comics’ web-slinging crime fighter, has had the biggest opening day US-Canadian haul in the history of American movies, bettering the corresponding collection of the first Spider-Man by a whisker. Spider-Man 2 mopped up $ 40.5 million; the first Spider-Man had fallen short of the 40-mark by only half a million dollars.

It is just as well that the going has got better. As with all big budget sequels to Hollywood blockbusters, Spider-Man 2, released in the US on June 30, has been touted as a bigger, brighter, more entertaining film. The stakes are, therefore, understandably higher. Indian audiences will be able to test the veracity of all the claims being made by Sony Pictures when the film hits theaters across the country on July 23.

There is reason to believe that Spider-Man 2 might have a hard climb ahead of it, if the reception accorded to several much-hyped Hollywood sequels in the past few months is any indication. The two follow-ups to the 1999 super-smash The Matrix, the third episode of the Lord of the Rings saga, The Return of the King, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban have all managed to do above average business, but no more. The third Harry Potter movie, released in early June, is still running in the bigger Indian cities but the crowds have begun to dwindle in its fifth week.

What is it about sequels that Hollywood loves so much? Commercial considerations and the industry’s safety-first strategy have obviously been behind this scramble for repeat acts. For one, it is far easier to raise funds for a sequel of a successful film than for a whole new, untested film. And two, sequels have very high brand recall, coming as they do in the wake of a film that has already given audiences a good time.

The mounting of follow-ups to films that have clicked big time at the box office is, of course, not a new phenomenon in the world’s movie capital. George Lucas’ long-running Star Wars, the first instalment of which was unveiled way back in 1977, the multiple adventures of Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones, Francis Ford Coppola’s classic Godfather trilogy and the intelligently spaced-out Alien films have all found their way into Hollywood folklore as much for the whopping sums of money they grossed as for the delectability of their narratives.

The tradition continues unabated. In fact, what was once a gentle trickle has turned into a veritable torrent. The year 2002 was a watershed. Several money-spinning sequels had vied for eyeballs in the movie mart that year, notably The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The sequels to Men in Black and Austin Powers, too, had tasted phenomenal box office success that year.

The year 2003 witnessed a virtual invasion of sequels, with virtually every possible movie success story being milked for its commercial potential a second, even third, time around. Giving the 20th James Bond film, Die Another Day, company were the second Spy Kids, the second Analyze This, another Star Trek, two instalments of The Matrix (Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions) and the second coming of several other box office hits like Charlie’s Angels, Legally Blonde, The Terminator, Shrek, X-Men and The Fast and the Furious.

There seems to be no let-up this year. Besides the string of sequels that have already been released worldwide in 2004, a third episode of the Tom Cruise starrer, Mission Impossible is currently in the works. Also in development is the script of an intended sequel to Manoj Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense. That is perhaps a bit of a surprise. The concept of a sequel has so far largely been confined to action-oriented, crowd-pleasing Hollywood fare. No psychological thriller like The Sixth Sense, a film that demands discernment from the audience, has ever attracted a sequel.

But ordinariness appears to be afflicting many a sequel these days. The glut of movies that have numbers appended to them has led to a strong sense of d`E9j`E0 vu, resulting in rapidly diminishing returns for many wannabe hits. When The Matrix arrived in India in 1999, it went on to assume the proportions of an instant cult. Its two sequels released in a span of six months fours years later did therefore raise expectations in the Indian market, but they did not quite achieve the box office breakthroughs that they were expected to.

Pretty much the same happened with The Lord of the Rings follow-ups. The trilogy enamoured audiences around the globe but did not quite achieve the same results in the face of the complex diversity that the Indian box office represents. One reason why LOTR remained inaccessible to a majority of Indians was the widespread lack of understanding of Tolkien’s dark vision peopled by hobbits, elves, orcs, ents and other strange species. The fact that Jackson made no concessions to the uninitiated did not help matters.

So where does that leave Spider-Man 2? When the well-loved web-slinger battles the reprehensible Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) in Spider-Man 2 even as he struggles to win back his lady love Mary John (Kirsten Dunst), he might let off enough sparks to snare a sizeable section of Indian moviegoers. If he does, the sequelmania that is raging across Hollywood and its commercial outposts is unlikely to end anytime soon.