The Slow Death of the Hollywood Sequel Has Begun

It was a magical run: somehow, the first Now You See Me was able to ride its A-list cast and quirky premise — Ocean’s Eleven, but with magic! — to become a surprise summer hit back in 2013.

But perhaps the greatest trick the movie pulled was earning over $350 million worldwide, a magic number that got a sequel greenlit faster than you could say “Abracadabra.” Despite, you know, the middling reviews and the fact that no one was especially clamouring for a movie franchise about a ragtag team of magicians pulling elaborate heists.

And now, here we are, a little over three years later, with Now You See Me 2 coming to theatres (and, perhaps most disappointingly, not called Now 2 Don’t). All your old “favourites” are back: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman, the less-weird Franco brother. Lizzy Caplan, meanwhile, has taken over for Isla Fisher as the token “female Horseman” — although, to the movie’s credit, this is both openly acknowledged and mocked.

There’s also a new villain (Daniel Radcliffe, having a blast chewing scenery), an evil twin, something about a microchip and cell phones and privacy concerns and something something, and the result is… just fine. It’s a perfectly watchable retread of the first movie, with all the requisite twists and flashy tricks — sorry, illusions. And, most importantly, an ending that leaves things wide open for another sequel in 2-3 years, assuming all goes according to plan.

None of that is particularly surprising. The prevailing M.O. in Hollywood seems to be that if a thing works once, it’s worth trying again. And again. And again. Until proven otherwise. This is how we get five Transformers movies, and counting. And Now You See Me 2 isn’t even the only sequel to hit theatres this Friday (hello, The Conjuring 2).

But while what makes a hit movie often seems to come down to intuition, timing, and maybe even a little magic, Hollywood is bound and determined to make a science out of it, figuring that a similar combination of actors + plot + marketing is an endlessly repeatable formula for success. It’s like winning a coin flip, then betting the house that it’ll come up heads a second, third and fourth time in a row.

The only problem? That plan isn’t really working right now. Recent articles by The Hollywood Reporter and Variety have showed that this year’s sequels are suffering from a serious case of diminishing returns. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2. The Huntsman: Winter’s War. Alice Through the Looking Glass. Ride Along 2. London Has Fallen. Zoolander 2. X-Men: Apocalypse. They’re all struggling to make half what their predecessors earned at the box office —  even Neighbors 2 is hurting, despite strong reviews.

Somewhere along the way, sequels have gone from a slam dunk sure thing to an increasingly risky proposition. And it makes perfect sense when you watch something like Now You See Me 2. It’s a strange thing to see the movie’s adoring crowds go nuts for the Four Horsemen, screaming their names, giving them a standing ovation when they hit the stage (and caring, or even remembering that Dave Franco’s character was supposed to be presumed dead). It’s not a good sign when audiences in the movie care demonstrably more about the Horsemen than the people in the theatre.

But that’s the problem with making sequels according to audiences’ previous purchasing history and little else. It’s also overlooking what makes a “surprise hit” in the first place: a movie that didn’t cost much, and made more than anyone expected. But when the inevitable sequel inevitably costs a whole lot more, it also needs to make a lot more to break even. All of which ignores the fact that there may simply be a ceiling to how much audiences want to see more magic-aided capers and convoluted backstory about a secretive ancient order of magicians. Or an origin story for Chris Hemsworth’s huntsman character, or more of Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter.

In other words, it’s not so much that audiences are suddenly tired of sequels (see: the billions raked in by Captain America: Civil War) as they’re tired of sequels no one ever asked for. And as Hollywood continues to struggle to find answers for why ill-advised sequels keep bombing at the box office in 2016, the solution to combating this so-called “sequel fatigue” seems relatively obvious: it’s easier to make sequels that people actually want, rather than to just automatically give everything that hits a certain magic box office number a sequel, and then try to convince people they wanted this all along.

Not everything needs a sequel. Not every hit needs to become a never-ending franchise. And it’s a lesson that Hollywood needs to learn. Fast. If not, we’re headed for an even more depressing sequel next year: another summer of sequelitis at the movie theatre.