We find ourselves in the midst of another summer and with it, an endless brigade of sequels, prequels, reboots, requels, and the ongoing march of extended cinematic universes. A new Mummy. A fifth Transformers. A new Baywatch. A third installment in the third imagining of Planet of the Apes. A third actor playing Spider-Man in the last decade. A sequel to the Alien prequel. Another damn King Arthur. Another three Marvel shows on Netflix springing up for every new Marvel film, perpetual menaces likes heads of the hydra.
And while the tastemakers and critics bemoan this ongoing onslaught of tired ideas and bloated franchises, it’s worth pausing and reminding ourselves that there is nothing novel about this. This lack of new ideas is not new. Sure, 2017 is bloated with stories and characters lacking originality, but so was 2016, 2007, 1997, and 1597.
If you’re really looking for someone to blame for these endless reboots and expanding cinematic universes, it’s not Michael Bay or Vin Diesel. Blame the real culprits: William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and all the other writers throughout history who did the same thing we’re seeing today on the screen.
So, dear reader, it’s time for you to sit back, hold your rebuttal until the end, and consider the following list of explaining how the current “lack of originality” is neither original, nor a problem.
Sequels Upon Sequels Upon Prequels Upon Sequels are Nothing New
Surely you’re familiar with The Three Musketeers, the swashbuckling adventure novel by Alexandre Dumas. Perhaps you’ve read it, or perhaps you’re seen one of its screen adaptations, of which there have been many.
But here are a few things you might not know about The Three Musketeers and Dumas:
- The Three Musketeers has two sequels by Dumas, Twenty Years After and The Vicomte de Bragelonne.
- The Vicomte de Bragelonne is often published as three different books instead of one as it’s extremely long, meaning that The Three Musketeers effectively has four sequels.
- The third part of the third Three Musketeers book is the famous The Man in the Iron Mask.
- All of these novels were originally published in serialized form, being released in installments over time. The Three Musketeers took four months to be released, much like a television show is released today.
- The Count of Monte Cristo, another novel by Dumas, was originally serialized in 18 parts and ran for over two years.
- When each of these novels were released in English, they were also serialized, often seeing competing versions and abridgments being released at the same time.
Of course, Dumas invented neither the sequel nor the serial. The following authors also followed their novels with sequels that followed the same characters and cashed in on the popularity:
- Lewis Carroll, after releasing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, followed it up with a sequel, Through the Looking Glass, six years later. He then wrote The Hunting of the Snark, an epic poem published in 1876 that features a few characters and creatures from Through the Looking Glass.
- Leo Tolstoy might be famous of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but his first published novel was Childhood, which launched him into popularity. He wrote two sequels to the novel, called Boyhood and Youth.
- The famous novel we know today as Little Women by Louisa May Alcott was initially two different novels, called Little Women (1868) and its sequel, Good Wives (1869). Not stopping there, Alcott published another two sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys.
- Sherlock Holmes might be one of the most ubiquitously adapted characters today, which certainly wouldn’t be the case if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle hadn’t cranked out sixty sequels to his 1887 success A Study in Scarlet.
- Literary sequels to great works continued into the 20th century, including Joseph Heller writing a sequel to Catch-22 and Johns Cheever and Updike writing a few sequels of their own.
And of course, there is Mark Twain. But we are saving him for later in this list.
Has the point sunk in yet? Sequels are nothing new and nothing to complain about. They do not herald the end of creativity. Many of the most creative moments in the list above were sequels themselves.
2. Serial Novels: The Network Television of the 1800s
Serialization is not unique to the novels of Alexandre Dumas. Consider Charles Dickens, whose Pickwick Papers in 1836 is considered the first successful serial novel, a form he returned to many times. Dickens might not have cranked out any sequels, but his novels were themselves more like television shows than novels, at least in the way they were consumed and appreciated. As described by Nina Martyris in The Paris Review, “they were aimed at the middle and newly literate working classes on the lookout for entertaining fare.”
Of course, other authors got on the serialization bandwagon, including Henry James, Leo Tolstoy (again), and Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared in serial format in The National Era beginning in June of 1851).
Perhaps most striking about this is that this trend suggests Amazon and Netflix could be taking their peddled wares in the direction that the written word once went. Sure, Damon Lindoff recently declared that “never before in the history of the English language has “binge” been associated with something healthy or productive,” while calling himself “old school.”
But is this truly “old school,” to resist the lure of the binge? Or are we seeing television shows go through the same ebbs and flows experienced by novels in the 19th century?
Ultimately, there are only two ways to accurately consider the serialized novels of Dumas and Dickens: they are the literary equivalent of Lost (serialized, weekly entertainment for the masses), or the literary equivalent of Fast and the Furious (bloated, wildly entertaining, never-ending narratives.)
But what about the extended cinematic universe? The Avengers and the Justice League and whatever is happening to Star Wars? Surely, that’s a new problem, right?
3. You Can Thank William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Thomas Hardy for the “Extended Universe” Trend
The latest trend in blockbusters is that everything must tie together into some larger narrative, merchandised and optimized. There is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, anchored by Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man and pals. There is the DC Extended Universe, the hit-and-miss set of superhero movies including the praised Wonder Woman, mediocre Man of Steel, and disastrous Suicide Squad. Star Wars is going down this path as it abandons the Skywalker epic for cash grabs and spinoffs, while the new Tom Cruise Mummy film is, as The Verge so eloquently put it, “selling an extended universe nobody asked for.”
The extended universe is one where the main character from one film will show up in a walk-on role in another, where a Netflix show references the events from last year’s summer blockbuster, where you get suckered into seeing a movie you don’t care about because you heard you need to see it in order to understand the movie you do care about. (I still can’t believe I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron because I thought I wouldn’t understand Ant-Man otherwise.)
Naturally, you know where I’m going with this: these extended universes are nothing new. William Faulkner and James Joyce are two of the greatest novelists and writers in the English language, and both used extended universes in their writing. One might even argue that Faulkner invented the extended universe, using the technique a few decades before Superman and Batman ever teamed up. His Yoknapatawpha County is a fictional county that provides the setting for The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and the vast majority of his other fiction.
Faulkner even drew a map of Yoknapatawpha County for Absalom, Absalom! And it’s not just the geography that appears from one novel to another: Quentin Compson commits suicide midway through the 1929 novel The Sound and the Fury, but appears again in several stories, plus the 1936 novel Absalom, Absalom! Like Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man or Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, one cannot understand the depth and width of Quentin’s narrative without consuming several works, spread out over several years.
Then there is Stephen Dedalus, the protagonist of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, who shows up in Joyce’s Ulysses, confirming that these are two novels set within the same JJLU (James Joyce Literary Universe). Or Thomas Hardy’s Wessex County, which one could either call the Hardyverse or the Wessexverse.
It doesn’t end with these authors, of course. Literary universes are the norm for many of the best authors of the last hundred years, including Kurt Vonnegut, Roberto Bolano, and John Steinbeck.
Oh, but even Faulkner and Hardy can’t shoulder the blame for this trend. The extended universe – and its close companion, the cinematic reboot – owe much to a man who died 400 years ago: William Shakespeare.
4. Shakespeare: King of the Reboot
Pink Floyd once asked:
And did you exchange
A walk on part in the war
For a lead role in a cage?
Like much of the music created by Pink Floyd, these lyrics contain multitudes. They can also be seen to have a certain relevance to the shared universe, the sequel with the shifted focus, the television show starring a minor character from a favorite film.
In particular, these lyrics reflect a certain sort of character, those who appear in two distinct works while filling different roles. Think of Quentin Compton in Faulkner’s novels, Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s, Paul Rudd in the Marvel films, and, finally, Shakespeare’s depiction of Mark Antony in first Julius Caesar and then Antony and Cleopatra.
Antony gives the famous eulogy in Julius Caesar about praising and burying. He’s one of the several characters who move in and out of the spotlight in this play. Caesar himself has a small role in the play named for him, dying early, a la Stephen Seagal in Executive Decision. Antony survives Julius Caesar (both the man and the play) but, like many Shakespeare characters, he dies in the play named for him.
This is far from the only character to show up in more than one of Shakespeare’s plays. While one can’t quite argue that there is a Shakespeare Theatrical Extended Universe, many of his plays do overlap with one another. Consider the “histories,” his depiction of various events from England’s reality.
As Nick Hornby once titled a book, Shakespeare wrote for money. Not only that, but he wrote crowd-pleasing sequels for money. He adapted the real-life War of the Roses into four plays. First, Henry VI Parts 1, 2, and 3, and then Richard III. Next, he went earlier into England’s history to write Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V. An eight part narrative, with overlapping characters and shared settings. Should we refer to these as the HenryVerse? The Fast and Furious series just hit its eighth installment, the same place where Shakespeare ended the HenryVerse.
Finally, let’s consider that much of what Shakespeare wrote had been done before. We might tire of yet another Batman, yet another Spiderman, yet another Planet of the Apes, but nothing Shakespeare wrote was new. The aforementioned Antony and Cleopatra was lifted from Thomas North’s English translation of Plutarch’s works, which had only been published a few decades earlier. Almost everything Shakespeare ever wrote was a reimagining of some other piece of entertainment England had recently consumed.
A few other examples:
- Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet was about as original, in terms of plot, as the 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It came on the heels of Arthur Brooke’s 1562 The Tragical History of Romeus & Juliet and William Painter’s The Palace of Pleasure.
- Painter’s Palace of Pleasure also inspired Timon of Athens and All’s Well That Ends Well.
- While telling an original story, A Midsummer Night’s Dream lifts characters, story, and themes from Ovid and Chaucer, much like the recent Batman v. Superman or the 2009 Star Trek.
- Many of Shakespeare’s plots, characters, and ideas come from Holinshed’s Chronicles, a collaborative work first published in 1577. It influenced Macbeth, King Lear, Cymbeline, and likely several others.
Is it really fair to look down one’s nose at another King Kong, when Shakespeare took inspiration from whatever he could get his inky hands on? Certainly not. And again, it’s not like he started this himself. Shakespeare stole from Ovid, but it’s not as if Ovid invented the tales he told.
And finally, as promised, let’s consider Mark Twain.
5. The Greatest Work of American Literature is a Sequel in a Franchise
Not all filmmakers today make sequels. Woody Allen has made over forty films, yet not one is a sequel. In an interview with Deadline, he declared:
They spend more money on the advertising budget of some of those films than all the profits of everything Bergman, Fellini and Bunuel made on all their films put together in their lifetimes. If you took everything that Bergman made in profit, everything Bunuel made and everything that Fellini made in their lifetimes and added it all together, you wouldn’t equal one weekend with the The Avengers and its $185 million to $200 million.
Allen does have a point: many films today seem less like narratives and more like pieces of advertising campaigns. Transformers 5 exists not to tell a story but to sell a toy.
What Allen does not acknowledge is that the arguably greatest work of American literature is itself a sequel: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. And it’s not as if Allen doesn’t recognize that Huckleberry Finn is a masterpiece. Consider this exchange in his 2011 film, Midnight in Paris:
Ernest Hemingway: You like Mark Twain?
Gil: I’m a huge Mark Twain fan. I think you can make the case that all modern American literature comes from Huckleberry Finn.
Ernest Hemingway: Do you box?
Gil: No. Well… Not really, no.
Of course, Allen’s Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is paraphrasing a Hemingway quote from The Green Hills of Africa, while speaking to Hemingway in this scene. Either way, the point stands: Huckleberry Finn is a masterpiece, a work of art, to which all of American literature is indebted.
And it’s a sequel. A meta-fictional sequel, in which Finn is the narrator and opens the book by telling the audience:
You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was by Mr. Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Who are we today, complaining about sequels, when Mark Twain wrote the greatest sequel of all time and referenced himself by name in its opening paragraph?
And not only this, but Twain subsequently wrote Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective.
You read that correctly. There is a fourth installment in the Tom Sawyer franchise, and it’s called Tom Sawyer, Detective. And there are nay-sayers who think Alien: Covenant was a bad idea? I wish we could have a fourth installment in every series in which the book is just the name of the main character and “Detective” appended to it. Imagine:
- Jay Gatsby, Detective
- Captain Ahab, Detective
- Julius Caesar, Detective
- Annie Hall, Detective
- Mrs. Dalloway, Detective
Again, who are we to complain about sequels? Huckleberry Finn might be a sequel, and it might be a sequel in a franchise that goes off the rails, but it’s still a masterpiece. It might be the greatest work of American literature. It might be true that all modern (and contemporary, and post-modern) literature comes from Huckleberry Finn.
6. Sequels Aren’t Good or Bad; What Matters is the Story
Of course, the lesson here is that a sequel is not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. Woody Allen can eschew them and Michael Bay can embrace them, but that does not demonstrate their merit in one way or another.
Consider Logan, the 2017 film that gave us Hugh Jackman’s ninth and ultimate performance as the superhero X-Man Wolverine. This film proved many things, but above all it proved that a good story is a good story is a good story. The filmmakers leaned into the darkness of Wolverine’s tale, giving us profanity and bloodshed and aging mutant heroes grappling with mortality.
It did not matter that Logan was a sequel. Perhaps it wasn’t even a sequel. Like Huckleberry Finn, this sequel chose what mattered and didn’t matter from its predecessors. It abandoned the canon of its extended universe, telling only the tale it chose to tell in its two hours. Like Huck Finn, it will surely be succeeded by weaker sequels, but it has also proven that a superhero film can transcend not only its genre (as we saw in The Dark Knight) but its own previous narratives.
We will never be rid of sequels or reboots, and extended universes are only growing in popularity. What we can do is remember that sequels are a key element of the American tradition. We will never escape them, but we can hold them to our highest standards.