Why I'm Growing Disinterested in Generational Sequels
As we enter a new era of storytelling - where everything is getting a reboot or a sequel or a cinematic universe - a lot of properties from the 80s are returning via the same format: the generational sequel. In these stories, the original characters act as mentors or MacGuffins (or both), setting up a group of new, young heroes to take on their roles in the story. Sometimes these new protagonists are the direct children of the original heroes, but that's not required for a generational sequel. Heck, the Star Trek sequel series was literally called The Next Generation, and there were no family ties to the original Enterprise crew.
These types of sequels aren't new, by any means - The Odyssey has a lost sequel called the Telegony, focusing primarily on Odysseus' son by Circe. And they're not always bad - the Lord of the Rings is a generational sequel to The Hobbit, and I think we can agree that it's a pretty good story.
But these days, they're getting more prolific - Tron Legacy, Blade Runner 2049, The Legend of Korra, and of course the Star Wars sequel trilogy. And on its own, that's not necessarily a bad thing. But I think a lot of these new iterations forget what made the first story compelling, and don't always know how to use the original characters. As a result, they lean hard on nostalgia, sometimes at the cost of cohesion.
I’m not much of a fan-fiction guy, but I have a lot of friends in that space, so I’ve picked up some details about what makes for good fan-fiction versus bad fan-fiction.
Fan-fiction is the ultimate “what if” exercise, and anyone can tell you that results vary from story to story. I think most fan-fiction tells you a lot about the author, rather than the original property. Fan-fiction, by definition, focuses on what one particular fan wants to see highlighted in the franchise. This may mean a more overt romance between their favorite pairing, but it could just as easily focus on small details of the world that are relatively unexplored, or what everyday bystanders must think of the main characters as they go about their epic heroics.
Fan-fiction tells the reader what the fan enjoys about the property. If their primary focus is the mythology and the world-building, their fan-fiction will highlight and explore the possibilities of these aspects. But when their main interest is on the characters and their dynamics, they have the freedom to strip away all of the other artifice and focus exclusively on the main character interactions.
I think this is why the cliché fan-fiction format, the “coffee shop AU” where the characters from a given property are re-imagined as baristas and customers, is so common, and generally well-regarded by the community. By taking the characters from Avatar: The Last Airbender and putting them in a coffee shop, you’re stripping away the surface-level details of the show - no more bending fights, giant animal chases, or super-villains. But without those details, how do you make it feel like Avatar? You have to get to the heart of the characters, and examine what they want from each other, and from their own lives.
The Force Awakens, and especially The Rise of Skywalker, feel like fan-fiction that focuses on the wrong parts of the story. Instead of extrapolating what these characters would be like if put in an unfamiliar situation, these films focus a lot on the surface-level stuff.
“What if X-Wings fought in the atmosphere?”
“What if the Death Star was a planet?”
“What if stormtroopers could fly?”
Han Solo is a smuggler again, but also he’s Obi-Wan, so he has to teach our cast some lessons and then die at the end. Luke is Yoda, so he has to be sidelined for all of the first film, because that's what happened with Yoda. (If you think The Last Jedi was the movie that ruined Luke, I submit to you The Force Awakens, where we found out that he a mistake and bailed to live alone on another planet.) Why do these characters take on roles from the original trilogy? Because that's all familiar to the audience, and that's what's important to the filmmakers. The new villain doesn't just remind us of Darth Vader, he wants to remind us of Darth Vader. The First Order wants to be the Empire. Leia is the only one who seems like she progressed in a meaningful way, and she just feels like the exact same character with very few changes (until she starts actively using the Force in the sequels).
But because those films focused on replicating and modernizing surface-level details, it didn't seem to consider the consequences. If there is a new batch of bad guys who are exactly like the Empire, then what good did our heroes actually do? If the Emperor is back, then what meaning was there in Darth Vader's sacrifice? The writers don't have answers to these questions, because they approached these properties from the surface details, not from the characters' cores.
Blade Runner 2049
I don't think the Star Wars sequel trilogy knew how best to use the original characters, but at least they tried.
I didn't enjoy the film Blade Runner 2049. I think the first act sets up a lot of interesting story beats, and then the film pivots to be about an impossible baby (one of my least favorite tropes in sci-fi) and gets very generic. It's a film noir that gives us two-minute long establishing shots between each scene, which gives me plenty of time to figure out the fairly obvious twists. And the most interesting character is the hologram woman, which could've been really good social commentary if it had been handled by more skilled creators, but feels like an accident in the final film.
And then, in the second half of the film, we see Rick Deckard, the hero from the first film, played again by Harrison Ford. And for people who care about the original Blade Runner, they are excited to see him! And he gives us some exposition, and then he gets kidnapped and almost drowned. And then at the end he gets to see his impossible baby grown-up and get to know them. And that's nice. Makes me wish he'd had anything to do in the story up until that point.
Because the filmmakers knew they had to use Deckard in the film, but they clearly had no idea how to do it. He can't be the main character (even though I think he really could've been, but I'm sure the filmmakers were worried about replicating Indiana Jones 4). He can't just be a cameo, passing the torch to Ryan Gosling, because that's underusing the character. He can't be a mentor, because... well, we've got this magic baby idea, so he can't be around for that much of the story. So what else should we do?
I mean, maybe just don't do a magic baby story, and that way Deckard can either not be in it at all, or be in it as a supporting role. But that's just me.
Batman Beyond, Spider-Girl, and the Mask of Zorro
The problem with a generational sequel is that, if you're going to feature the original characters, you need to justify why they aren't the heroes anymore, but do it in such a way that doesn't damage the legacy of that original character. And there are actually a few solid examples.
In Batman Beyond, Bruce Wayne gets old enough that he can't perform as Batman without a super-suit to do the heavy lifting... and even then, he eventually gets so old that he can't fight common criminals. In a moment of desperation, he pulls a gun on a thug to scare him off. And that very night, he retires from being Batman. After all, if things have gotten so bad that he has to become what he most hates... then he can't continue.
Now, on its surface, this almost seems like a betrayal of the original character. "Batman doesn't use guns," as the internet is quick to point out. But of course, that's Batman's code. And the moment he's forced to break it, he resigns. That actually shows that Bruce Wayne still has integrity. He's forced to stop being Batman because his relationships are ultimately doomed - something that was already reinforced in the other Batman stories they had told, specifically with Robin becoming Nightwing, and in the film Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Given what we know about him, it makes sense that he would be forced to retire... and that there would be no one around to help him.
And then, once Terry McGinnis steals the batsuit and proves himself a worthy Batman, Bruce sees an opportunity to train him, to protect him, and to help Terry provide for his family. He's forced to become the mentor because he can't keep being the hero himself.
In the alternate future comic book series Spider-Girl, we find out that Peter Parker lost a leg in battle, and had to retire from being Spider-Man. But he didn't just withdraw from society - he became a police scientist. Because while he may not be able to use his spider-powers to fight crime, he still has his scientific knowledge, and he still feels a responsibility to help people. So it's only natural that he would continue to help with crime fighting however he could.
And then we get the Mask of Zorro, which is a lot like Batman Beyond, but for Zorro. And if you haven't seen the film in a while, check it out because it totally slaps. (It does cast non-Mexican actors in all the principle Mexican roles, including two white actors, and that's not great, but everybody in the film is extremely good so I feel like we can let it slide just this once, as long as we don't do it again.) The original Zorro suffers a tragedy and is imprisoned for years, but once he escapes, he begins a personal mission to get revenge. During he process, he begins training a new Zorro, and the two of them work together against their shared enemies.
Ultimately, Zorro is a less beloved character than Spider-Man, Batman or the Star Wars original trilogy trio of heroes, but the filmmakers don't let that sway them - they still treat the character with respect, he has his own agency outside of the Young Hero's arc, and even though he's older and wanted by the law, he still gets into the action a little bit, but not in an unbelievable way. (Because there is a middle ground between Indiana Jones 4 and Blade Runner 2049).
So, if your generational sequel isn't at least as respectful of the original character as The Mask of Zorro, a movie that could've taken shortcuts because nobody remembered the originals, then you need to look at how you're treating the old guard in your story. If they feel like they've become plot devices and don't have their own initiative or drive, then re-watch The Mask of Zorro as many times as you have to in order to get it right.