Note: More Spoilers, All Spoilers from Here on Out
And we’re back for five more sequels that brazenly contradicted the thematic and narrative legacies of the previous films! If you missed Part One, check it out here!
I should preface this conclusion by admitting that, as an older brother to much younger sisters, I very well could have but opted against including any direct-to-video Disney animated sequels because if I did, virtually all of them would colonize this top ten list. I also decided against any entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (though I was very tempted to include Avengers: Infinity War) because its existence as the pioneer of this specific never-ending continuous multimedia narrative that has dominated the past decade requires a… different… evaluation of its narrative goals that are best left for a future article.
With that, here we go:
Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde
Despite being an Academy Award-winning actress and prolific producer, arguably the character Reese Witherspoon is still best known for is the bubbly, perpetually optimistic, indefatigable law student Elle Woods in Legally Blonde. The whole movie, while marketed as a mean-spirited “LOL Blondes” comedy, turns out to be a light-hearted but very uplifting feminist story about a woman who finds value in herself as she is and overcomes the negative stereotypes attached to her.
Even almost twenty years later, it’s incredibly rare to see two women positioned as romantic rivals for the affections of the hunky male lead at the beginning of the film, only to become friends in the end who both dump the hunk as a shallow nobody. It’s hard to find women in any modern stories who undergo an arc where they become powerful and accomplished without implying a sacrifice of their femininity as necessitating that change. Not to mention the major plot turn into Elle being objectified and hit on by her predatory professor over a decade before #MeToo took the country by storm. Being “girly” is not a sign of an unserious or dim-witted woman, and rather than tear each other down, women from all walks of life can find strength and motivation in solidarity. It’s not an all-time classic of American cinema, but it holds up.
So, what does Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde do? Be the exact mean-spirited, lazy “LOL Blondes” prat-fest that most people assumed the first one would be. Elle Woods is somehow more shrill, ignorant, and superficial than she ever was in the first movie, and the conflict this time centers around her obsession with her adowable widdle doggy and becoming an activist for ethical animal testing (that’s something silly girls care about, right?). Oh, and all that stuff about women finding unexpected strength by supporting each other? Not this time! It’s all about back-stabbing bitches one-upping each other. Except for Regina King near the end, who admits she only got cynical when her naïve outlook was crushed by the dog-eat-dog world of Congress. Because women are just too emotional and soft for politics, amirite?
Apparently, Witherspoon is trying to get a third Legally Blonde movie produced. Whatever idea she has for that, it can’t possibly be more insulting to the legacy of one of her most popular movies.
Mary Poppins Returns
I have no idea if she’s revealed or hinted at anything like this on Twitter, but if I had to guess what Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s favorite Disney movie was, I’d wager it would be Mary Poppins, a movie with political undertones that are almost radical in hindsight. Beyond the songs and colorful cartoon worlds and iconic Julie Andrews performance is a story about a man who’s always putting his family second to his job at a predatory bank that couldn’t care less about his own well-being, who learns to prioritize the people who should matter most to him over money in the end. The titular magical nanny may have answered the ad for little Jane and Michael, but the main arc of the story belongs to George Banks in a decidedly left-wing direction. For crying out loud, they justified a well-off couple hiring a nanny by making housewife Winifred a suffragette activist! No doubt the big-brained debate boys of the Intellectual Dark Web would have thrown a tantrum over that change to the source material if it had been adapted like that today.
But of course, that was before The Walt Disney Company had become a multi-billion-dollar worldwide entertainment and theme park conglomerate, so when it came time to produce a sequel in 2018, they injected it with a theme slightly more friendly to capitalism. Now Jane and Michael are all grown up and struggling through the Great Depression, and if they can’t pay back an overdue loan to Bad Capitalist William Wilkins, they’ll be evicted from their home! Good thing Mary Poppins comes back to teach them the value of… building wealth through gradually earning interest in a financial portfolio over a period of several years? Sure, okay. Seriously, that’s what saves their house; the tuppence that Michael begrudgingly deposited into Fidelity Fiduciary Bank as a child in the first film.
So, as it turns out, obsessing over money is actually a great thing that will solve all of your problems later in life. And if there’s someone with even more money trying to use the banking system to take everything you own, don’t worry, he’s just a Bad Capitalist who will be exposed and fired by a Good Capitalist! There’s no underlying systemic injustice or exploitation going on. The status quo isn’t the problem, it’s just bad people corrupting it.
And I mean… I can’t actually refute the idea that having more money makes life a lot easier. Money does solve a lot of problems! But man, the whiplash between two opposing lessons being taught to children about the value of money versus your loved ones sure is weird when compared back-to-back.
Rambo: First Blood Part II
I know it’s hard for Millennials and Zoomers (is that what we’re calling this generation of young people? I feel like we should have figured this out by now) to believe, but there once was a time when Sylvester Stallone was one of the most promising new stars of his generation – right up there with Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson! – and not a musclehead cartoon character. After his Oscar-winning smash hit Rocky, he starred in serious dramas directed by Norman Jewison and John Huston before shepherding into existence a Vietnam War drama called First Blood.
It’s a far more harrowing and thoughtful film than the uninitiated would expect from John Rambo’s first big-screen introduction. There are no rousing, fun moments in First Blood at all; it’s a bleak anti-thriller about a PTSD-suffering Vietnam veteran abused by sadistic cops and pursued by a callous government that used him as a killing machine but never bothered to help him return to normal life. I’m not saying it’s a masterpiece of the genre, but it has ideas worth considering, and a main character who, for a while, ranked as one of the most complex Stallone had ever portrayed.
But then, when it came time to greenlight a sequel, the country had fully swung to the right and experienced a surge in Reagan-era socially conservative jingoism and machismo resentment lingering over a war that we would’ve won, dammit, if it weren’t for those pansy liberals scaring the politicians into cutting and running instead of finishing the job! The fact that such an attitude flew in the face of objective reality (no, we were not on the verge of military victory at any point in Vietnam and the entire invasion was morally and strategically unjustified, as well as unwinnable militarily, from the start) didn’t dissuade Hollywood producers from serving this new audience lusting for a cinematic validation of this popular chauvinist fantasy.
So, in comes Sylvester Stallone who remakes his psychologically scarred veteran into an avatar of ‘Murica righteously killing some brown folks real good for totally justified reasons. It’s such a jarring swerve in character motivation and thematic content that he’s essentially playing a completely different character, and this continues from the second one all the way up to an apparent final installment released just last year where he takes on – who else during the Trump Administration? – a Mexican drug cartel. Which, while desecrating the point of the first movie, weirdly, pretty accurately reflects the dramatic cultural shift the whole country went through in the 1980s.
Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker
Oh, poor Star Wars. Time has not been kind to you. Believe it or not, I actually struggled a lot with which Star Wars movie I should highlight in picking sequels that most desecrated the spirit of its predecessor(s). Do I go with Return of the Jedi, which also hit us with a dumb familial connection between two main characters that was the first time the whole mythology felt “smaller” in scope, implying that nothing in this big fantastical universe matters outside of what happens to a few select families? Or do I pick The Phantom Menace, which recast the Force as not a mystical energy that connects all of us, but instead the product of magic blood that only Special People have? I was tempted to challenge myself a little by perhaps citing The Force Awakens, a movie I still mostly enjoy but for the mean-spirited decision to split up Leia and Han and set their characters back to their starting positions from A New Hope (she as the feisty rebel leader, he as the cocksure scoundrel smuggler).
But in the end, I knew, in my heart of hearts, that only one movie in one of the most popular movie franchises of all time managed to retroactively ruin the themes, characters, consequences and emotional core of every single preceding installment in one fell swoop.
Mind-boggling is the only way I can adequately describe all the ways that the overarching nine-film saga is diminished by the decisions made by J.J. Abrams and Chris Terrio with their empty “Mystery Box” gimmicks: Darth Vader’s heroic sacrifice is now meaningless because the Emperor resurrected himself out of the blue because reasons; Rey’s realization that she’s nobody from nowhere ends up being retconned in favor of being a special descendant of a Special Person; Kylo Ren’s ascension to being the main antagonist after killing his master Snoke lasts for a few minutes before being bumped down to second-fiddle again; and Luke Skywalker unlearns the importance of letting go of outdated traditions so the next generation can shape the future because omigoshlookathimliftupthexwingthistimeIgetthatreference! Oh, and Chewbacca gets a medal this time for… some reason. It even manages to obliterate these developments and arcs while also failing to establish a clearly defined conflict that works solely in reference to itself.
I know corporate willpower can go a long way, and they’re pumping us full of prequels and spinoffs whether we wanted them or not, but even the almighty Disney is going to have a hard time keeping this golden goose alive after The Rise of Skywalker hacked it to pieces.
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
Terminator: Dark Fate bombing as badly as it did, combined with former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s advanced age, have almost certainly killed off any attempt to resurrect this moribund series for the foreseeable future. But to be honest, this franchise had been flailing ever since the conclusion of the knockout Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and it’s not even that hard to see why. Because in order for a sequel to even have a chance at not being a slap in the face to the entire mythology, it has to first justify continuing the story beyond this:
“The unknown future rolls toward us. I face it, for the first time, with a sense of hope. Because if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.”
If you want to know what the true heart of the Terminator series is, if you want to distill what it is that made audiences care so much about these characters being chased by an unstoppable murder robot, those two lines and that final image right there are it. No fate but what we make. Humanity has no unalterable destiny, we are not guaranteed to destroy ourselves, we are in control of our future if we take responsibility for it.
I’m not saying it’s impossible to build off that pretty definitive conclusion, but at a minimum, whoever makes the attempt needs to try a little harder than screenwriters Michael Ferris and John Brancato’s “solution,” which was to nullify everything we had learned from the last movie. Because as it turns out, nope! Humanity is preordained to destroy itself and the only thing John Connor can do is postpone it a little longer and ride out the initial wave of nuclear holocaust so he can Fulfill His Destiny™ as the future savior of mankind. All that newfound hope Sarah Connor gained made her a real sucker, huh? In fact, she’s not even in this one after Linda Hamilton told them to piss up a rope a tragic battle with leukemia. So, her arc really meant nothing to the overall story, which, I want to remind you, comes to the conclusion that there’s literally nothing that can be done to prevent our apocalypse.
And worst of all, no one who made a subsequent Terminator movie realized how self-defeating this concluding theme was! Terminator Salvation, Terminator: Genysis, The Sarah Connor Chronicles TV show, and Terminator: Dark Fate all copied the exact same fatalistic determinism as the most unpopular installment of the original trilogy, and then wondered why audiences rejected every single one of them.
And that’s it! Do you agree? Disagree? Think another Star Wars movie should have been included, instead? I’m sure there are plenty more sequels you all can name that dumped a giant can of nopesauce all over the previous movies you love, so consider the comments section below a chance to let it all out.