How Movie Sequels Succeed or Fail at Character Arcs

Nate Mancini Featured, Film & Video Leave a Comment

Everybody loves sequels.

We all love the idea that a story we enjoyed is continuing, that we get to see “what happens next” to characters we care about, and that maybe we’ll get the same feeling back that we had when we watched the original — perhaps in an even deeper and better way.

But everybody hates sequels.

Because so often our hopes are dashed. Instead of walking away with that same feeling of wonder we had with the original, we walk away feeling disappointed and disillusioned. Why?

Movie sequels are often helmed by the same writer/directors who made the original, so it’s not typically a problem of unfamiliarity with the characters or disconnectedness from the story. And sequels often have bigger budgets — there’s not a lack of money to realize a vision. So what’s the problem?

I believe the problem boils down to this: the writer/directors often don’t know what to do with the main character(s). In certain cases, perhaps, the main characters simply have nowhere to go after the original film. In other cases, the writer/directors are under pressure from the studio to rush to production before they have a final script. But whatever the reason for its occurrence, the problem is still the same: a lack of a strong vision for the main characters’ arcs.

A character arc, by the way, is a character’s personal journey over the course of a story. Sometimes a character arc involves transformational change, and sometimes it involves merely a strengthening of existing skills or resolve, but a character arc always involves growth of some kind.

A strong character arc for the main character(s) is a linchpin for the success of any story, but movie sequels have a particular propensity for poorly developed arcs. So let’s examine two common ways sequels fail at character arcs, and then consider what a great character arc would look like by studying some of the best sequels of all time.

In my examples I’m going to focus primarily on “blockbuster” sequels, because those are the ones we’re all familiar with — and blockbusters are typically the films that get sequels (perhaps unfortunately). But these same principles apply to indie or small-budget sequels.

Bad arc #1: Character reverts to old self for no good reason

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For this example we’ll turn to the Jason Bourne movies. The first three Bourne movies are among the best action films ever made, and they comprise one of my favorite trilogies. But the filmmakers couldn’t stop there, even with The Bourne Ultimatum’s perfect ending — they had to make more. In 2012 we got the lackluster and largely unrelated spinoff The Bourne Legacy, and last year we got the unnecessary sequel with the apt but unimaginative title, “Jason Bourne.” It is this film that has the problematic character arc.

Before looking at Jason’s (David’s?) arc in Jason Bourne, let’s look at his arc in the first three films.

The Bourne Identity: Jason must learn who he used to be but ultimately let go of the past to pursue a new life and love

The Bourne Supremacy: When his past won’t leave him alone, Jason must confront it, learning to show mercy to his enemies and repent of his sins

The Bourne Ultimatum: Jason must own the fact that all of his biggest problems are a result of choices he made, so he can finally let go of his anger at others, purge his old self, and become a new man

Each film has its own distinct arc, but together they form a beautiful, complete arc for the character of Jason Bourne.

Thankfully, the creators knew they’d finished the story and didn’t need to keep rehashing it. “We have ridden that horse as far as we can,” said Matt Damon in 2007. “For me, I kind of feel the story that we set out to tell has now been told.” I think Matt was spot on.

But the resolve didn’t last.

Not long after, Matt was telling director Paul Greengrass, “You know, the world’s changed, and maybe we should think about doing [another] one.” Greengrass agreed that “maybe the changed world opens up possibilities for a new adventure.” So the 2016 sequel Jason Bourne was, well, born.

It’s not that there was nowhere the character of Jason Bourne could have gone after The Bourne Ultimatum. But the place he could have gone was somewhere new. Greengrass and Damon took him back to the same place.

The plots of all three Bourne trilogy films involve Jason remembering something about his past, investigating it, and confronting the people responsible. In the new sequel Jason Bourne, guess what happens! Jason remembers something about his past, investigates it, and confronts the people responsible. Even though the entire Bourne trilogy was about Jason learning to put his past behind him (and finally succeeding in Ultimatum), the creators couldn’t help rehashing the exact same formula.

This is devastating for Jason’s character arc because he’s forced to re-confront the same types of challenges he confronted in the original trilogy, and he acts like he hasn’t learned any of the lessons he ostensibly already learned. It’s a tragic backtracking of the character. Time has gone forward, but the character has inexplicably gone backward.

One of the worst effects of this is on Jason’s willingness to show mercy. Back in The Bourne Supremacy, there’s a beautiful moment in the climax of the film when Bourne has his girlfriend’s killer at gunpoint, but decides not to fire — he’s choosing to show mercy, to be a better man. But in the climax of Jason Bourne, Jason has a similar confrontation with a similar killer, and instead of showing mercy he literally breaks the guy’s neck in a dark tunnel and walks away. And we’re supposed to be happy about it because he “won.” The film portrays as victory what we as the audience know is defeat. Jason has backtracked and become like his past self again — for no good reason. It’s sad and confusing, leaving us to wonder if the character’s satisfying closure in the original Bourne trilogy was all a ruse.

Now, it’s worth mentioning that real people do backslide — sometimes we need to “learn a lesson” more than once. For example, this is what C.S. Lewis says about his character Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: “It would be nice and fairly nearly true, to say that ‘from that time forth, Eustace was a different boy.’ To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But most of those I shall not notice. The cure had begun.” So there’s a kind of backsliding that’s realistic. In the case of the character of Jason Bourne, I could believe that he would have relapses of brutality. But when he did, he would realize he was doing something wrong — he wouldn’t inexplicably turn back into the same person he used to be. That’s not realistic.

So, if you’re making a movie sequel, don’t make your characters revert to their past self for no good reason. Take them somewhere new.

Bad arc #2: Character becomes an entirely different person

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For this example we’ll turn to a character who’s not exactly a main character, but is still a character of some significance who could have had a good sequel arc: James Norrington in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.

Before examining what happens to Norrington in Dead Man’s Chest, let’s first take a step back to recall his character arc in the first (and best) Pirates of the Caribbean film, The Curse of the Black Pearl. Norrington is an officer in the British Royal Navy (achieving the rank of Commodore early in the film) dedicated to hunting down pirates and bringing them to justice. He is respectable, honorable, and prideful. His presence in the film leads to some great moral questions. In the world of the film there are both “good” pirates and “bad” pirates, so having a character who wants the wholesale destruction of pirates makes us as the audience question whether to root for or against Norrington (he’s not just a simple “good guy” or “bad guy”). Everything Norrington does is by-the-book — England is a country based on laws, and the law says pirates must die, so he’s going to hang the pirates. That’s his job, and he’s committed to doing it.

But as with any well-written character, what happens in the film challenges Norrington’s worldview. The person who ends up defeating the evil undead pirates and saving the day is none other than Captain Jack Sparrow — a pirate. And when Norrington still proceeds to try to hang said pirate, decent blacksmith Will Turner and Norrington’s crush Elizabeth Swann step in, siding with Jack. At this point Norrington must make a crucial decision: follow his legalism to its logical conclusion, condemning Jack and everyone who sides with him, or show mercy, acknowledging that the law is only valuable when paired with wisdom and restraint? Thankfully, Norrington takes the latter course, taking no action against Will and Elizabeth and letting Jack escape to his ship. “I think we can afford to give him one day’s head start,” Norrington says to his men with a wink. Taking the spirit of Norrington’s statement and the manner in which he says it, we as the audience assume he will not be pursuing Jack at all for time being— there are more pressing things (and far worse criminals) to attend to. So Norrington’s arc in The Curse of the Black Pearl is from prideful legalism to wise leadership.

Now let’s fast forward to the sequel, Dead Man’s Chest. This is where things get bad.

When we meet Norrington in Dead Man’s Chest, he is a disheveled wreck with scraggly hair, drunk in a bar.

Yes, the same character we were talking about before. Drunk in a bar.

“I nearly had you all off Tripoli,” he mopes to one of Jack’s crewmates, “If not for that hurricane.” (Apparently we’re supposed to believe that Norrington pursued Jack, sailed through a hurricane, got shipwrecked, and was disgraced by the Navy.) He then tries to shoot Jack, gets embroiled in a bar fight, and continues drinking. He also joins Jack’s crew, inexplicably becoming a pirate.

Throughout the film Norrington continues to be driven by selfish ambition, trying to procure a magic heart that he can trade to the East India Trading Company in exchange for a new position in the Navy.

Note: in the third film, At World’s End, Norrington does end up sacrificing his life to help some “good pirates” (including, for some reason, Elizabeth Swann, who is now also a pirate) escape some “bad pirates.” But this occurs in a terribly roundabout way, and doesn’t make his arc (if you can call it that) in Dead Man’s Chest any less ridiculous.

So let’s look at the problems with Norrington’s arc in Dead Man’s Chest:

  1. Based on Norrington’s character growth and important decision at the end of the first film, we would assume he would not become hellbent on pursuing and killing Jack Sparrow. In Dead Man’s Chest, we’re supposed to believe he (guess what) became hellbent on pursuing and killing Jack Sparrow. It’s almost like the character development in the first film was completely erased and the writers just started over from scratch.
  2. While the character of Norrington does develop throughout The Curse of the Black Pearl, one constant attribute of his character is that he is honorable. Flawed, yes, but always honorable. He hunted pirates because he thought that was the honorable thing to do. He learns to show mercy because he sees it as the honorable thing to do. In Dead Man’s Chest, all that honor goes completely out the window. The new Norrington is perfectly willing to shoot or stab anyone who gets between him and his ambitions; honor doesn’t even enter the equation for him.
  3. In the first film, the character of Norrington was always respectable. He dressed well and spoke well, and when he learned to show mercy he didn’t randomly cast off his uniform and start a rave. He could still dress and speak like a respectable Englishman while also growing as a person. Obviously he was someone who deeply valued order, manners, and traditions. In Dead Man’s Chest, that’s all gone. He’s literally a drunken pirate.

Essentially, Norrington becomes a completely different person in Dead Man’s Chest than he was in The Curse of the Black Pearl. This is bad not only because his new arc is strange and poorly written, but because the character’s change from one film to another is simply not believable.

The existence of character arc issues in Dead Man’s Chest is no surprise, given that production on Pirates 2 and 3 started without completed scripts. Johnny Depp offers a telling glimpse into what this was like: “They had to invent a trilogy out of nowhere… I remember talking to [Gore Verbinski] at certain points during production of [Pirates] 2 or 3, and saying: ‘I don’t really know what this means.’ He said, ‘Neither do I, but let’s just shoot it.’ This guy is this guy’s dad, and this guy was in love with this broad. It was like, ‘What?’”

I think that’s as good an explanation as any for the ridiculous “arcs” in Dead Man’s Chest.

The whole point of a sequel is to get to see what’s next for characters we care about. So don’t turn those characters into completely different people.

Now let’s talk about what a good arc in a sequel can look like.

Good arc #1: Character is confronted with a flaw in themselves and must choose whether to overcome it

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For this example we’ll turn to the best reviewed movie of all time on Rotten Tomatoes: Toy Story 2. The Toy Story trilogy is not only critically acclaimed but also beloved by viewers of all ages. And for good reason: a delightful concept (toys come to life), gorgeous animation, a perfect combination of humor and emotion, and best of all, well-written characters.

For purposes of this article I’ll focus on the character of Woody in Toy Story 2. First, let’s look back at Woody’s arc in the original film, Toy Story. In that film, says Pixar director Andrew Stanton, the writers decided that Woody would be “kind, generous, funny, and considerate,” on the condition that he remained “the top toy” — the one in charge. At the beginning of the film, Woody, like all of us, “lives life conditionally.” Then, throughout  the story, Woody has to learn to share the spotlight. He realizes that power might be worth giving up if it means getting something more valuable — friendship — in return. By the end of Toy Story, we as the audience not only like Woody more, we respect him, because he has learned humility.

Now let’s consider what the writers could have done with the character of Woody in the sequel, Toy Story 2, if they didn’t understand what makes a good character arc.

  1. They could have simply backtracked the character to where he used to be, repeating the same character arc from the original film (see Bad Arc #1 above). They could have had another toy do something annoyingly flamboyant, and Woody could have reacted with anger and selfishness, having to learn the same lessons of humility all over again. This would have been tiresome and frustrating to viewers, because they would know that Woody already learned these lessons.
  2. They could have fundamentally changed Woody’s character to make room for a different arc (see Bad Arc #2 above). For example, even though Woody is a strong leader in the original film, the writers could have changed his character for the sequel, making him a reckless fool who needs to learn cleverness, restraint, and decent public speaking so he can lead his friends to safety from danger. This would have been confusing for viewers because they would remember Woody as a character who possessed leadership qualities and wonder why he no longer had them.

So what did the writers do with the character of Woody in Toy Story 2? Brilliantly, they recognized that Woody had come a long way from the prideful toy he used to be. But they also realized that even though Woody had learned to share the spotlight, he would still have insecurities in other areas. For instance, if he realized that the relationship he has with his owner might someday fade, he would fear that loss and would be looking to find love and acceptance that would be guaranteed to last.

At the beginning of Toy Story 2, Woody’s arm gets torn and he is put on a shelf (in the world of the film, being “shelved” is a horrible fate for toys because they may never get played with again). He meets Wheezy, a broken toy who’s been shelved for years — and now Woody’s fear of rejection comes to the forefront. What if his owner, Andy, doesn’t want him any more? Or what if Andy simply grows up and loses interest? What if Woody is doomed to be alone forever?

Later, Woody is stolen by a toy collector and ends up meeting kindred toys who are bound for a museum in Japan, where they will be put on display to be gazed at forever. At first, Woody wants to get back home, but he gradually starts to like the idea of going to the museum. At least in a museum there would be no loss, no disappointment, no rejection. Ultimately, though, with the help of his old friends, Woody learns that it’s better to love and lose than never to love at all. “I can’t stop Andy from growing up,” Woody says resolutely in the climax, “but I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

So, in Toy Story 2, Woody is confronted with a character flaw in himself: he’s insecure. He sees the love of his owner and his friends, but he’s always worried about losing it. If he can imagine a worst-case scenario of being rejected and alone, he’s going to do whatever it takes to stop that from happening — even locking himself in a museum display. But throughout the film he learns to overcome this flaw while still acknowledging the realities of the world. He goes from fragile optimism to wise resolve.

It’s worth mentioning that not every arc of this sort has to turn out well for the character. The character doesn’t always have to overcome their flaws — sometimes they can go deeper into their flaws, and the story becomes a tragedy, a warning signal for others to avoid. MacBeth, for example, is a well-written and dynamic character, but he makes the wrong choices instead of the right ones. That’s a valid character arc too. Toy Story 2’s character arc for Woody isn’t good because of its happy ending — it’s good because of the well-crafted journey that Woody takes to get there.

Good arc #2: Character is forced to make increasingly harder choices consistent with their values and accept the consequences

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There’s an even more subtle type of good character arc, though, one that might not seem like an arc at all. In this type of arc, a character’s values remain the same throughout the film — there’s no big change — but those values are challenged at every turn.

For this example we’ll turn to a film that is widely considered one of the best sequels ever made, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. We’ll look at the character of Luke Skywalker.

In the original film, A New Hope, Luke is a farm boy who becomes a war hero. Using the power of The Force, he destroys the evil Empire’s planet-destroying weapon. But he is not yet trained in the Jedi arts. In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke must seek out an old Jedi master named Yoda so Luke can be trained as a Jedi Knight and become strong enough to defeat the Empire for good. Luke is young and impulsive, but he has a good heart and wants to do the right thing. He cares deeply about his friends Han Solo and Leia Organa and would do anything to protect them.

Interestingly, Luke doesn’t really change much as a character throughout the film. At the end, he has the same values and flaws he did at the beginning. And yet, he is far from a boring character — we’re captivated by his adventures and actively rooting for him the whole time. That’s because even though he doesn’t undergo a massive change, his worldview is constantly being challenged by the events of the story. He has to make major choices and actions in order to do what he believes is right.

To understand Luke’s arc in The Empire Strikes Back, picture Luke in the center, Yoda on one side, and Darth Vader on the other — both trying to pull Luke toward their point of view. When Luke learns from a vision that his friends Han and Leia are in danger, he wants to go help them. Yoda tries to stop him: “Only a fully trained Jedi Knight, with The Force as his ally, will conquer Vader… if you end your training now… you will become an agent of evil.” Luke protests, “And sacrifice Han and Leia?” “If you honor what they fight for, yes!” says Yoda. Yoda wants Luke to learn patience, wisdom, and restraint. But Luke declines — he flies off to go help Han and Leia. There he meets Darth Vader (now revealed as his father), who tempts him, “Join me and I will complete your training. With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy.” But Luke declines this offer as well, opting to take a dangerous fall from a precipice rather than accept his corrupt father’s hand of “friendship.”

So ultimately, both Yoda and Vader are wrong about Luke. Yoda failed to fully train Luke and thought Luke’s recklessness would turn him into an agent of evil — but when Luke is literally given that option from Vader, Luke remains true to his own character. So Luke doesn’t really change significantly, but the push and pull of his elders is captivating to watch, as we see Luke struggle and wonder whether he will turn to the right or to the left. By the end of the film he’s essentially the same person he was at the beginning, but his struggles have given him new perspective and increased resolve that will shape his actions in the third film of the trilogy.

It’s worth mentioning that Luke’s character has a very different arc in the most recent Star Wars film, The Last Jedi. I have some thoughts on it, but I will withhold those for now since I don’t want to spoil the film for those who haven’t seen it. I do recommend you see it; it’s a good sequel with some fascinating character arcs.

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In the above I have detailed four types of “arcs”: two flawed options and two strong ones. I am sure there are other types of arcs I have left out. If you have one in mind, and a film that demonstrates it, please let me know in the comments. I would love to hear your thoughts.

So why does any of this really matter? Well, for one thing, the existence of good sequels gives us good movies to watch (considering the vast number of sequels produced each year). But perhaps more importantly, I believe sequels actually affect us in a meaningful way. The continuation of a movie character’s story subtly tells us something about our own lives. A bad sequel tells us that there’s literally nothing new under the sun, no better adventures ahead than the ones we’ve already had; that it’s all downhill from here, and we’ll never reach the heights we did when we were young; that we’ll never learn our lesson, our deficiencies will follow us forever, and there’s no hope for lasting redemption.

A good sequel, on the other hand, tells us that there’s a new and better adventure around every corner, and there are deeper lessons yet to be learned; that getting older can mean growing wiser; that temptation is resistible and progress is possible; that the future is brighter than any flashback.

About the Author
Nate Mancini

Nate Mancini

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Founder of Forefront. Independent Video Producer. Director of the short film "Pastime" and the feature film "Asleep in a Storm."

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