At the start of every summer, some pundit writes an article in Entertainment Weekly or Time complaining about the large number of movie sequels. At the beginning of each fall, some critic writes a column in Rolling Stone or USA Today complaining about the large number of retreads in the new television season. All year long, some blogger writes a post on Newsarama or Comic Book Resources complaining that the latest comic book series is a spin-off of an already successful superhero franchise.
The usual response is that sequels, spin-offs and revivals make money. They sell more tickets, draw more viewers, move more issues. They’re what the audience wants, even if they say they don’t. They vote with their wallets, their eyeballs and their time. And that’s what matters.
However, the other week, I read the best reply. John Lasseter, the head of Pixar and now Disney, was interviewed by Time magazine about Toy Story 3 and Pixar’s upcoming plans. The interviewer noted that Pixar had mostly eschewed sequels up to now but seemed to be embarking on quite a few in the near future. They asked Lasseter why do a sequel, why do another Toy Story? John Lasseter replied, “These characters are like family and friends. We want to see them again.” As creators, they wanted to explore new and deeper emotions for these characters.
The same is true for the audience. We like certain characters. They become part of our lives. Listen to a fan talk passionately about their favorite character and you’ll hear them talk about a friend. We want to see these friends again. We want to find out what they’re doing now. It’s the same impulse that brings us to family gatherings and college reunions. That’s a good thing. It keeps us connected. It fills us with joy.
For that reason, I never understood the recurring complaints about sequels, spin-offs and revivals. Admittedly, they’re not always done well. Lasseter acknowledged that some sequels are callous cash-grabs. But that doesn’t mean every sequel is a callous cash-grab. Sometimes the creator is as motivated to revisit these characters as the fans. That’s certainly the case with Toy Story 3.
The audience’s appetite for sequels can also be a bad thing when it excludes anything new. It’s like a curmudgeon who refuses to meet new people or make new friends. Yet that danger occurs more often in the critic’s imagination than it does in reality. The pundit looks at the upcoming season and writes about what’s recognizable, not knowing that The Hangover will become a breakout hit or that Glee will become the most buzz-worthy new show. The audience does find new things to enjoy- new friends to add to their list of familiar favorites.
This doesn’t happen quite as often in comics. Maybe it’s because a character’s exposure is determined by the audience’s appetite rather than an actor’s availability. If the audience has an appetite for five separate Spider-Man titles, the publisher will give it to them.
Yet, even in comics, the same principles apply. The reason why publishers produce so many spin-offs and revivals is because they make money. But the reason they make money is because we as an audience buy them. We’re not interested in the publisher’s profit margin. We’re interested in seeing our heroes and our friends again.
And yes, even in comics, the audience will find something new. The best-selling franchises in trade paperbacks right now aren’t Superman and Batman; they’re Scott Pilgrim and the Walking Dead.
Sequels and spin-offs aren’t a bad thing. They’re the familiarity of family, the comfort of close friends. They can catch us up. They can take the story further. They can go into deeper emotions. They can make us feel. They can be well done. And they will always be with us.