There once was a time when “3” was the magic number for movie series. If a film was successful, it likely would get a sequel. If it was very fortunate, it could get a third entry, rounding out the series into a trilogy.
Many classic film stories were made into trilogies and concluded, with nary a thought of continuing into the unknown territory of “4.” Any series that did get a fourth entry, like Rocky, Lethal Weapon, or Police Academy, managed it by learning a formula and simply replicating the recipe with slightly different ingredients each time. There often was an air of desperation about the idea of a film series continuing past a trilogy and a derision of sorts from many audience members.
Such times, as long ago as the mid-‘90s, now seem antiquated. So far, 2012 has already brought us fourth entries in the Underworld and American Pie franchises. As this summer season brings audiences to the multiplex in droves, we’re also getting fourth Spider-Man, Ice Age, Step Up, and Bourne movies. Then, to close out the year, studios are giving us Paranormal Activity 4 and what many consider to be a fourth movie in the Peter Jackson-J.R.R. Tolkien partnership, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
How this phenomenon became such a common occurrence is a subject large enough for a whole other article on sequels, remakes, and brand names. Part of the answer, though, lies buried amidst the piles of sequels that now litter store shelves and dump bins.
In the ‘90s, movie series were still wrapping up in trilogies. As the decade began, Indy had just retired and the Exorcist series had redeemed itself in a fitting close. Halfway through the 1990s, Jack Ryan and John McClane both rode off into the sunset, with fitting bombastic dignity. As the 20th century gave way to the 21st, even post-‘80s series like Scream wrapped up into their own trilogies.
Then something changed. The mentality of audiences became more forgiving of fourth entries. Embracing, even. Despite The Sum of All Fears failing to revive Jack Ryan and both Exorcist prequels bombing, audiences started clamouring to see their old favourites again. Series like Indiana Jones, The Terminator, Die Hard, and Jurassic Park all were being requested. Such fan-driven requests hadn’t ever been uncommon, but the emergence of the Internet in the new millennium suddenly gave these normally soft-spoken audience members a booming voice.
In the last five years alone, we’ve been given Hannibal Rising (the fifth entry, technically, but let’s put semantics aside), Live Free or Die Hard, TMNT, Rambo, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Terminator: Salvation, Scream 4, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, and Spy Kids 4D: All the Time in the World. Three of those were from 2011 alone. 2012 has lined up eight, with more possibly to come. And let’s not forget the long-in-the-works Austin Powers 4, Beverly Hills Cop IV, and Jurassic Park IV, likely coming soon to a theatre near you.
To be fair, one major culprit for this that is often ignored (by sheer virtue of it being the fifth entry and not the fourth) is 2005’s Batman Begins. While the modern Batman movies had reached a total of four before the characters were abandoned post-Clooney, it was Batman Begins that showed there was an audience for once-thought stagnant characters and settings.
Because the tetralogy epidemic took hold in the last decade, one would think the central blame lies with a movie made since Y2K. Truthfully, though, the biggest cause of the boom of modern revisits came before the turn of the century, and it even just recently popped its head back out to survey what it begat and remind those paying attention: The Phantom Menace.
There were fourth entries that had succeeded at the box office before Episode I — even fourth sci-fi entries, like 1997’s Alien: Resurrection — but none made the impact that George Lucas’s return to the Star Wars galaxy did in 1999.
As a double-whammy, the movie got generally mixed reviews, which taught studios that audiences would flock to theatres to see their favourite old-school franchises, regardless of whether the reheated product was any good. This lack of a need for quality control led to the reintroductions of John Connor and Indiana Jones being so scattershot and alternatingly bombastic and lacklustre.
The Phantom Menace, for better or for worse, changed the landscape of cinema and the box office by making franchises out of series that would otherwise have stayed as trilogies. Whether you think that’s a blessing or a curse probably depends on whether you rushed out two weekends ago to see American Reunion.
Regardless of how you may feel about them, “fourquels” aren’t going away anytime soon. As long as people are lining up to see Jack Sparrow’s next adventure on the high seas or Ethan Hunt’s next impossible mission, studios will keep churning them out.
In a few years, I wouldn’t even be surprised to see a trailer for The Godfather, Part IV. Myself, I’ll probably be sitting on my couch, re-watching Back to the Future, Part III. I may have already seen it and know what’s going to happen, but there’s just something much more satisfying about a “The End” than a “To Be Continued.”