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When Is a Sequel Not a Sequel and a Horrror Movie Not a Horror Movie?

Wonder Woman 1984 isn’t a sequel.

Except it is.

James Gunn’s Suicide Squad isn’t a sequel – it’s a reboot.

Except it plans on returning several cast members from the first film.

Us isn’t a horror movie – it’s “elevated horror.”

Except it is a horror movie.

Welcome to Hollywood’s new normal, where prequels, sequels, reboots, and requels have become so commonplace not even the filmmakers always know what the heck to call their movie anymore. To be clear, on the list of things in this world worth arguing about, how exactly we choose to categorize certain films ranks pretty damn low, somewhere in the same range as the latest meme of the moment and whether Pluto is still a planet.

It’s not…thanks a lot, Neil Degrasse Tyson.

However, this latest run of Hollywood headscratchers speaks to a larger identity crisis impacting the industry. This is an age where nothing actually ends anymore and franchises like Halloween and Terminator can just repeatedly pretend decades of sequels never happened. Plus, old, rigid definitions about genre are increasingly giving way to more ambitious storytelling models.

In the face of that, how do you market your product so that audiences can tell their Captain Marvel from their Shazam! – two properties that at different points in their history went by the name Captain Marvel – or their Blumhouse “what if Laurie is a traumatized, overprotective grandmother finally taking the fight back to Michael 40 years later” Halloween from their “what if Laurie is a traumatized, overprotective mother finally taking the fight back to Michael 20 years later” Halloween H20?

Moreover, how do the filmmakers stay engaged with franchises and maybe lie to themselves a little bit about the job they took?

Patty Jenkins’ self-imposed storytelling challenge

In Patty Jenkins’ case, the way she is energizing herself to make Wonder Woman 2 (official title: Wonder Woman 1984) is to pretend it’s not Wonder Woman 2.

Earlier this year, she admitted, “I never want to do more of anything for the wrong reason. I don’t even want to go to that place in my head of how you keep it going and cash in. I want to make great movies in my lifetime . . . we can make a whole new movie about something completely new, and as unique in its own right as the first one.”

Sure. You can do that. As long as that “whole new movie about something completely new” is the second installment in the Wonder Woman franchise. Otherwise, you’re talking about a passion project, the type of thing studios don’t fund anymore and the mini-majors try to if they’re not already going out of business. If you find some funding, you’ll kill yourself over it, make no money off of it, and then take a complete roll of the dice that it doesn’t get completely lost in the constant content bubble that is pop culture.

Jenkins did that with Monster. Then she didn’t make another movie for 14 years, biding her time working in TV and spending a hot minute as the Thor: The Dark World director.

Such a trajectory is, sadly, not unique. This past year, for example, saw multiple films from female directors – Lynne Ramsay (You Were Never Really Here), Debra Granik (Leave No Trace) – who hadn’t released anything since before Obama’s second term. Jenkins conquered that particular mountain by combining her indie sensibilities with mainstream pop and an unabashed love for the Richard Donner Superman movies. That gave us Wonder Woman, and the film’s immense success gave Jenkins a hefty pay raise to return for the sequel.

You either work in TV, live a life of constant uncertainty and economic hardship in the indie realm, or you find a major franchise and do just enough to make it your own. Ideally, you do more than one of those things at the same time. Jenkins, for example, executive produced and directed a bit of I Am the Night for TNT in-between Wonder Woman and WW84.

Now, her storytelling challenge to herself is to make WW84 live up to its title and feel less like Diana’s second major adventure and more like her 84th. (I know, I know….the 1984 title was actually picked for its Orwell connection and also because it’s the year the film will be set.)

It’s not exactly a crazy idea. There’s a major time jump between the two Wonder Woman films. Plus, Gal Gadot’s Diana has already been in another movie in the intervening years – Justice League, which, I swear, is a thing that actually happened even though it’s being erased from continuity so fast it now feels like a weird fever dream.

Why, then, should the next Wonder Woman just be a continuation of Diana’s first adventure? Why can’t this simply be her latest adventure in a line of many?

In a Vulture interview, producer Charles Roven explained how Jenkins’s approach to all of that, ‘“She was just determined that this movie should be the next iteration of Wonder Woman but not a sequel. And she’s definitely delivering on that. It’s a completely different time frame and you’ll get a sense of what Diana-slash–Wonder Woman had been doing in the intervening years. But it’s a completely different story that we’re telling. Even though it’ll have a lot of the same emotional things, a lot of humor, a lot of brave action. Tugs at the heartstrings as well.”

Except, by definition, Wonder Woman 1984 is a sequel. Thor: Ragnarok, for example, is a completely different story with a completely different sensibility than Thor: The Dark World, but it’s still a sequel. James Bond movies, an example many have pointed to in defense of Jenkins, are technically sequels as well, although some of them – like Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale – are prequel/reboots and then the movies that come after are sequels to the reboot.

Feature film isn’t really set up for this kind of confusion. For the majority of the medium’s existence, sequels were rare and generally looked down upon and film serials were really just features cut into little episodes with periodic cliffhangers. Then came the age of the film trilogy and with it a set of expectations for how to map a hero’s journey through such a prolonged narrative. (Consensus: The third part of the trilogy is always the worst.) Not too long after that, we endured one seemingly endless horror franchise after another.

Still, we knew what was a sequel and what wasn’t.

That was before comic books took over movie theaters and brought with them forever expanding mythologies, increasingly confusing continuities, and a willingness to reboot and start all over every couple of years. In that kind of environment, to think of Wonder Woman 1984 as simply the next installment in a comic book line makes sense – to insist it’s not a film sequel, however, seems purposefully obtuse.

It feels a bit like when Marvel suddenly changed course between making Infinity War-Part 1 and Infinity War-Part 2 and insisted that actually they’d be two totally separate films with different titles…even though one directly leads into the other. There’s a storytelling reason to think of it that way, sure, but there’s also the marketing challenge of audiences no longer liking the idea of movies being split into different parts. So that thing audiences are tired of? – Do everything you can to make them believe you’ve done something totally different.

Have we lost the ability to know what “total reboot” even means anymore?

Still, at least this has been born out of a storytelling challenge Jenkins seemingly foisted upon herself. The James Gunn-Suicide Squad situation sounds more like the classic early stages of a studio and filmmaker not being on the same page yet.

Producer Peter Safran told Joblo, “First of all, we don’t call it Suicide Squad 2 ’cause it’s a total reboot, so it’s The Suicide Squad and I think people should be extremely excited about it.”

Except previous reports indicated several of the actors from the first film would be back. Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, for example, was at one point expected to make a cameo (not anymore), and Will Smith’s Deadshot plays such an integral role to the story they decided to recast rather than rewrite when Smith decided to back out.

What seems likely is Sarfran and co. intended for this to be a soft reboot – the type of thing that would nod toward the first film while mostly standing on its own with an entirely new group of characters – but now that the DC movies have embraced standalone storytelling over cinematic universe-building they’re just going full reboot.

That is if Peter Safran is the true authority here on what “total reboot” really means for the movie. Same goes for Charles Roven serving as Patty Jenkins’ translator.

Why does horror need to be “elevated”?

In those cases, two producers seem to be staking out early marketing positions for their movies. The “what exactly should we call Us?” example is more complicated. I first became aware of it when Blumhouse producer/Shock Waves podcaster Ryan Turek retweeted this from Horror Noire’s Tananarive Due:

Due is right- genre bias is real. As Bruce Campbell told The Pop Break, “[Horror] used to be one rung above porn, you weren’t really proud of it. It was looked down upon. You either started your career in horror or you were ending it in horror.”

Even with the recent mainstreaming of horror, the genre will always struggle to win over those who think they know what a horror movie is because they saw Halloween or Friday the 13th that one time. Part of Get Out’s successful Oscar campaign, remember, was down to Jordan Peele’s convincing voters to see it as a “social thriller” or a “documentary” instead of a horror movie.

In the wake of Get Out’s financial and ultimately Oscar-winning success, Peele continued on with his “social thriller” description, telling BusinessInsider (hat tip to OkayPlayer), “I have four other social thrillers that I want to unveil in the next decade…The best and scariest monsters in the world are human beings and what we are capable of especially when we get together. I’ve been working on these premises about these different social demons, these innately human monsters that are woven into the fabric of how we think and how we interact, and each one of my movies is going to be about a different one of these social demons.”

That sounds an awful lot like he’s at least partially describing his early thoughts about Us, a film in which a well off black family is terrorized by their mysterious doppelgangers. Those who saw Us at SXSW last week, however, agree it is far closer to a traditional horror movie than Get Out. Peele is now among them:

Those calling Us a “social thriller” are following what Peele said in the past. Those, on the other hand, calling it “elevated horror” are following a recent film critic trend. Heck, I’ve done this too, falling in line with the definition of movies like A24’s Hereditary, The Witch, and They Come At Night as “elevated horror” since they reach much further back than John Carpenter – I saw that as a Carpenter devotee – for their cinematic influences.

Even Hereditary’s Ari Aster preferred not to use the word “horror” in relation to his movie, ““I never talked about the film as ‘horror’ when we were getting it made. That’s not because I didn’t consider it a horror film — it’s definitely that. I just wanted everybody to be on the same page as me, so I avoided these terms that I think have become very loaded.”

Except isn’t that also a giant fuck you to all other horror movies? Yes, but as A24’s marketing repeatedly sells people on mainstream horror and gives them pure, unadulterated art house instead there has to be a way for critics to warn moviegoers. Maybe “elevated horror” isn’t quite the right phrase for it, but assigning such a label is a natural response from those who saw Hereditary last year in theaters full of duped-by-the-marketing teenagers who openly laughed at the movie’s most dramatic moments. I tend to think of this new breed of horror movies as “A24 horror” (even in those cases where A24 isn’t actually the distributor) or “slow burn horror.”

In all of these cases, that’s what it comes down to – cutting through the clutter and helping audiences understand what kind of movie to expect. In order to do that, sometimes you prefer to believe your sequel isn’t really a sequel and that your horror movie is actually a “social thriller.”

This is simply years of film history catching up with filmmakers and producers who are running away from terms that have become loaded due to overuse. Tell someone, for example, Us is a horror movie, they might have an automatic yes/no response; tell them it’s a “social thriller” and they might be more open to the idea of it.

In the end, though, you’re still making a sequel, reboot, or horror movie. How you choose to define it is between you and the audience. If they show up and like what you’ve done, maybe we can drop all those other labels and use this one instead: a good movie.

Sources: JoBlo, Vulture , EW

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17 comments

  1. Ah, “elevated horror”. Kind of like when people say “I read graphic novels” because they’re too embarrassed to just say they read comic books. Annoying, but if it helps sell more tickets and therefore get more well-produced horrors made, I guess I can live with it.

    1. When I went to a local bookstore and asked where they kept their comics (their website listed a huge range of out of print trade paperbacks), they got snooty like that and said they only sold “graphic novels”. There’s no need for snootiness – just point me in the direction of the product so I can inspect and buy it. (I didn’t actually buy anything because what they had in stock was very small and their website listed what they thought they could try to order in but hadn’t updated in years.)

      1. Speaking as a former bookstore employee, sorry about that. My former brethren should have moved beyond snootiness at this point. Book stores and comic book shops are a dying breed anyway. They should be thankful just to have any customer, regardless if that customer wants actual comics and not just “graphic novels.”

      2. Sadly it’s a dying business. So much is going digital. Record Store Day is next weekend. I wonder what Cinema Day would be like if it existed. They’ve tried so many things.

  2. Firstly, I’ve got to say that it’s just really stupid to just stick the word “The” in front of “Suicide Squad” and think that there won’t be confusion for years to come. I would have thought that this was a lesson learnt from “The Predator”. They should do what they did with Thor 3: stick in a name when they replace the number. Also, remember when Microsoft stopped numbering Windows? How about “Suicide Squad XP”?

    Speaking of Bruce Campbell and (not) endless horror sequels, the very start of “Evil Dead II” confused a lot of people because it was meant to be a recap but they couldn’t use footage from the first film (if I recall correctly, or was tjat regarding the start of “Army of Darkness”?).

    Anyhow, I am split on whether all this is a case of semantics or selective deafness or both. For years, the collective masses have said they are “sick of sequels and want more originality in Hollywood” while seeing the 20th Transformers sequel. Now they can say they are fulfilling the first phrase of that problem.

    If I actually cared about superhero/supervillain movies, I’d say that I’m okay with these franchise non-sequels. It might actually be good that they do episodic non-sequetial and non-consequential stories that viewers can drop in without having seem the others. The lowest common denominator audience member knows the gist of who Wonder Woman/Batman/Supes/Spidey are, they don’t need to see another origin story and they usually know the gist of who the Lex Luthors/Jokers are.

    1. I’m not ok with this. These half reboot things are a cop-out. A way to keep audiences new and old happy. To jump on previous hype and brand recognition. Oh you know that film Suicide Squad which we spend $xM dollar promoting? Well we know you didnt like it and dont want to spend that kind of money on marketing so here it is again but we corrected the mistakes. Oh wait some of you sat through it the first time and dont want to see that story play out again? Dont worry its a sequel too? Am I confusing you dont worry its yes to all of your quetions of assurance. Just live with some of the compromises. Hey here’s a new spiderman movie by the way. Oh and Batman is on the way but its ok he’s a detective and we added a the so its worth seeing this version. And why not. Afterall this sort of rebranding works on products we buy in the shops so why not do it in the cinema too. Call it course correction. Didnt they try that with the AVP seuel. too much CGI so we will make the second one a natural model and puppet version and more violent. Nah

      1. That’s why I was so conflicted when the new Halloween actually turned out to be pretty good and then made so much money. It’s like when your kid says something inappropirate, yet also genuinely funny enough to make you laugh. Inevitably, your spouse or someone else tells you, “Don’t encourage them.”

        That’s what Halloween, Bumblebee, and other half-reboot success stories are – us encouraging Hollywood to keep doing this thing where bad sequels can be ignored/erased, reboots can go halfway instead of all the way, and nostalgia can be perpetually monetized. In a larger sense, not a good thing; in a smaller sense, dammit, the new Halloween IS good and so is Bumblebee.

    2. ““The” in front of “Suicide Squad” and think that there won’t be confusion for years to come. I would have thought that this was a lesson learnt from “The Predator”.”

      You can add the upcoming “The Batman” to that as well. Yes, the definitive “The” clearly has no meaning anymore. Before long, they’ll add “real” ala “The Real Ghostbusters” – “The Real Terminator 3″…”The Real Alien 3″…”The Real Suicide Squad”…etc.

      “Speaking of Bruce Campbell and (not) endless horror sequels, the very start of “Evil Dead II” confused a lot of people because it was meant to be a recap but they couldn’t use footage from the first film (if I recall correctly, or was tjat regarding the start of “Army of Darkness”?).”

      I think you have it right re: usage of prior footage. Evil Dead II is in that weird subcategory of slightly bigger-budget horror sequels to micro-budget originals that ended up just remaking the original. It wasn’t even until Ash vs. Evil Dead that we got confirmation that Evil Dead is a canonical part of the franchise. For the longest time, many just assumed since Evil Dead II was a glorified remake it was the true new starting point for the story.

      “Anyhow, I am split on whether all this is a case of semantics or selective deafness or both. For years, the collective masses have said they are “sick of sequels and want more originality in Hollywood” while seeing the 20th Transformers sequel. Now they can say they are fulfilling the first phrase of that problem.”

      It’s an on-going problem – the chattering class demanding more from Hollywood but then failing to turn out in sufficient numbers when Hollywood actually complies. There are so many corporate and global economy reasons for the state of the multiplex, but that finger has to point back our way a little as well.

      “The lowest common denominator audience member knows the gist of who Wonder Woman/Batman/Supes/Spidey are, they don’t need to see another origin story and they usually know the gist of who the Lex Luthors/Jokers are.”

      It’s gotten to the point that it’s almost weird anymore to see a traditional superhero origin story movie, like Shazam!. Captain Marvel twists itselfs like a pretzel to get around telling a straight origin story entirely because Marvel is aware how played out that is, yet if we’re not talking about culturally understood entities like Batman/Supes/Spidey some origin story is still required, even if comes in the form of flashbacks ala Cap Marvel.

      1. Erm The wolverine. Have to really follow film to not know its a different movie to wolverine. As for all the talk about big budget sequels like evil dead that tried to reinvent and be a sequel. How about the big buget exciting desperardo that followed shoe string buget film el marachi. A good film but different and cheap looking. Add that to the second sequel and it stands out even more from desperado and its sequel. Desperado tried to be its own film but couldnt avoid the nod of superimposing the bad guy from the first movie and sticking antonio banderas head on old footage to keep true to first movie.

      2. “The Real Ghostbusters” naming was due to naming disputes with “Ghost Busters”.
        Do you remember when the movie posters started using the director/author’s names? “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” to distinguish it from the B-grade B&W films. “John Carpenter’s The Thing”. It probably wouldn’t work well with DC films when they hire people we’ve never heard of.

        Yeah, “Ash vs Evil Dead” brought back some/all of the Ladies of Evil Dead… and Ted Raimi.

        Arg. Hellboy 2019 trailers seems like it is throwing everything in: kitchen sink, origin story, characters that should have been dead for 10 years, characters that should never have met due to corpse status…

      3. I really dont get the hellboy reboot. It looks the same as the previous two films. Why why why? Whst difference will it make. Will it get more viewers? Doubtful. If you didnt like hellboy before you wont like it now.

      4. The cynic in me says
        1) $$$ especially coming weeks after the 25th anniversary celebrations (Hellboy Day in participating comic book stores)
        2) get that cinematic universe rolling by featuring the BPRD and Lobster Johnson

        It looks more gorey. It might resolve the creator’s dislike of the characterization of HB as having a teenager mentality in the previous films and that’s why he’s saying it’s more faithful.

        It looks like it’ll be a clusterfunk. Queen Nimue is near the end of the Hellboy storyline but to reach there, judging by the comics, there’s a lot of heavy lifting. The audience has to be explained who Alice, Baba Yaga, Nimue and the Osiris Club are.

  3. Great post! All these discussions are crazy… is Night of the living dead a horror movie? Or is it elevated horror? There’s a clear social commentary in it, right? And the same can be said for a lot of horror movies out there!

    I think we should try to avoid this kind of talk as much as possible and concentrate on whether a movie is a good movie or not, rather than questioning the labels… which is the point of your post, if I got it correctly! :–)

    1. “which is the point of your post, if I got it correctly!”

      It is. My effort was to acknowledge the shifting definitions of genre and our increasing inability to update our language to keep up with it but also that, as you guessed, at the end of the day the only definition that should matter is whether a movie is good or worth seeing. I see the practical benefit in attaching labels, but also at the same time I also like to believe that some of those idiot teenagers duped into seeing A24’s slow-burn horror movies will have their minds blown and ultimately benefit from not being herded into simply seeing what they already know they like.

  4. Why are we not mentioning the mother of all sequel/remakes and remake and spin off sequels Night of the living dead. Its done horror, comedy then back to horror and still is going. If you watch australian youtuber Minty Comedic Arts he dissects the confusing franchise with various sequels spawing further squels to its 2nd or 3rd outings to remakes and spin offs. Children of the dead. Diary of the dead 1 and 2. Dawn of the dead remade 3 tines. Noght of the living dead 1 to 5. Italian version cakled zombie which has 7 sequels. Omg talk about milking a winning formula. Even the first noght of the living dead had two remakes. One 3d and one with candyman. Then there is the one where some kids get their drinks spiked and have to reenact the noght of living dead. Wow.

    1. Ah, yes, Night of the Living Dead, the ironically living embodiment of what happens when someone fails to complete the paperwork on a copyright application. My nitpicky nerd sense tingle though whenever I hear someone try to lump all the zombie movies together as belonging to that franchise. There’s only one true Night of the Living Dead franchise and that’s the one which Romero started and then continued with Dawn and Day of the Dead. Those continue the main storyline. Return of the Living Dead, Romero’s old partner’s offshoot, is a meta-comedy thing about a world in which the Night of the Living Dead movie exists but was based on real events and got the details wrong. I don’t really consider the various Italian knockoffs to be a part of the franchise and the remakes are just remakes.

      But, yeah, there are A LOT of them. It’s crazy.

      Potentially unpopular opinion: My favorites are the 1978 Dawn of the Dead and Return of the Living Dead Part 1. Night of the Living Dead is obviously an all-time classic, but it’s not my personal favorite.

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