Movie sequels are so consistently disappointing that one wonders why so many of them are made. An illuminating chart created by the website Box Office Quant explains why: although hardly any sequels surpass their originals, a surprising number do about as well.
Box Office Quant's "sequel map": click to enlarge.
Box Office Quant's ingenious "sequel map" uses info from the critical-aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes to compare originals with their progeny. Each bubble on the chart represents a movie sequel. The bubble's position on the X-axis shows how much critics liked the original; its position on the Y-axis shows how much critics liked the sequel. If a bubble is above the center line, it improved on the original; if it's below the line, the original was better. (The size of the bubble shows how much money each sequel made.)
The chart's most conspicuous feature has to be the surprisingly huge cluster of high-grossing movies that turned out to be as good as or even slightly better than their originals (Toy Story 2, for instance, or The Godfather: Part II). Yet diving into the details is also interesting. There are some amazing stories of success over adversity: Critics had been lukewarm about the portentously named Star Trek: The Motion Picture, for example, (it has a 47% on the "tomatometer"), but they positively raved about the sequel, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which has 90%. Far more common, unfortunately, are the tragic falls from grace: while critics loved the original Speed, for example (it has a 90%), they loathed its horrendous sequel, Speed 2: Cruise Control (it has a 2%). The Chicago Reader's suggestion: "Do yourself a favor and see a movie instead." Speed 2 keeps company with National Lampoon's Class Reunion and The Bad News Bears Go to Japan.
The chart puts some quantitative heft behind the sneaking suspicion you've always had. Occasionally it's possible for a sequel to be as good as the original; more often, the sequel is slightly worse, like cake the day after your birthday.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.