The Decade Rule — Limits of Staying True to an Original

The Decade Rule

What I wish to talk about here is not a new trend, but definitely a recurring one. As of this writing, the divisiveness of Star Wars: The Last Jedi is still harped on every now and then in memes and flame threads. It’s the sequel of a sequel, and other sequels and sequels of sequels have been subject to similar heat, especially if they come out a decade or more after the original. Never mind what they did to Luke Skywalker, they turned Michael Corleone into a mental patient in The Godfather Part III and the story is a complete crock of shit in Diablo III.

Submitted for your approval, here’s a hypothesis that I’m sure is far from a new idea, but I’d like to present within the frame of my own understanding. It doesn’t apply for all sequels that meet the criteria I have in mind, but this observation seems to apply to many of them nonetheless. I call it “The Decade Rule”, mostly because I don’t have a better term for it as of this writing. It’s vague and generic-sounding, but it should be clear once you understand what it’s about.

The Decade Rule of Sequels

It seems that sequels made more than a decade after the original become “problematic”. It’s not just a matter of quality, but also of perception. Most of them are judged as objectively bad, but many are disliked due to them seemingly not measuring up to their predecessors—whether they simply falter or are outright betrayals of their source material.

There are plenty of examples of titles going to the crapper because creators fettered too much with what’s widely seen as a winning formula. On the other hand, there are those disdained for being too unoriginal, never stepping out of their predecessors’ shadow. Sequels are gambles—further investments of money, time, and energy that may not work out, even if the original was successful. The sophomore jinx is real, and it’s mostly about perception and expectation.

In other words, sequels are expected to be judged unfairly. However, if they’re made and released at least a decade after their predecessors, that scrutiny is tenfold.

Usually, the making of that sequel is handled by a new generation who may or may not have been inspired by the original. They then have to fulfill the Herculean task of coming up with something new while staying faithful to the original. There may also be the old production crew from the original, but they’ve since gone through at least a decade of life and changing perspectives. Whichever may be the case, the mindset and inspiration involved in making the sequel are different from what sparked the original.

The difficult task of making something new while staying true to the original is made untenable when an executive producer outside of day-to-day production is involved in making decisions on its overall creative direction. That’s why Hollywood is now full of unsuccessful sequels of classics from decades past. It’s not that all of them are garbage, but you can watch the original Conan the Barbarian and Robocop, then watch their remakes, and try to compare them afterwards.

Of course, while what I just said applies to remakes, it becomes an even bigger point of contention with direct sequels. The George Lucas who made A New Hope and the George Lucas who made The Phantom Menace were two different filmmakers entirely. The former was hungry and going through hell to make something that was never seen before, while the latter directed from his chair with a cup of coffee in hand and didn’t even have a finished script yet when the sets were already being built.

It wouldn’t be fair to say the makers got greedy, lost their passion, or just didn’t really care about the material anymore, but things certainly change over time. This applies to the audience as well, from their expectations stemming from the original to the so-called “headcanon” born from those expectations and their own desires for how that series should be headed.

That’s exactly what happened to the Star Wars sequel trilogy, especially The Last Jedi. While The Force Awakens was criticized for following A New Hope almost beat-for-beat to scratch the nostalgia itch, The Last Jedi upturned the established lore of the franchise so much that detractors reacted with much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Whether it was what Luke Skywalker has become, Snoke having no backstory, or Rey’s parents being nobodies, there’s much to gripe about in that movie since it upturns so many things in the franchise.

Over time, the people involved change, the audience changes, and the world changes. When at least a decade have passed, those changes add up and we get something that doesn’t add up and seems either lacking or far from whatever the original stood for.

Examples of Critically-Panned Decade Sequels

Star Wars: The Last JediThe Star Wars prequel and sequel films are a given here. The Phantom Menace premiered 16 years after Return of the Jedi. With the sequel films being made under Disney and also having been released more than a decade after the prequel trilogy, that’s a double whammy. So when the online masses are complaining about how The Last Jedi ruined their Star Wars, I couldn’t help but laugh and feel bad for them at the same time.

With the Star Wars prequels, it was due to George Lucas being older and more of someone who just directs from a chair while having his coffee in a green screen-laden studio. With the Star Wars sequels, it was just due to having other filmmakers take the helm of making those films. Then there’s the preconceived expectations with most of the fans who have their own ideas of what Star Wars should be.

The Hobbit films by Peter Jackson are another case of both expectations shaping the making of the follow-up, as well as a change in the creator’s mindset and way of working. This trilogy came around a decade—give or take—after The Lord of the Rings trilogy. This series is considered inferior to its predecessor for a number of reasons, including how less tight the storytelling was, how it was made to reach the same heights of The Lord of the Rings trilogy to begin with (which was a mistake), the high framerate used to shoot the films, and so on.

The Godfather trilogy is another good example of this. The first two are fine since they were only two years apart, but the third part is forever maligned. This is mostly due to Francis Ford Coppola having intended to keep the series at two films, yet studios kept pushing him to make yet another one. By the time he did put it out, it was already 16 years later and Al Pacino was somewhat a different man.

Diablo III is a prime example from the video game world, having been released around 12 years after Diablo II. From thematically-compelling settings and antagonists of its predecessors, Diablo III had brain-dead characters and obtuse narrative, as well as a gameplay that no longer impresses as it doesn’t innovate as much as its predecessor did. While the game now enjoys a loyal player base after its rehabilitation past 2012, it’s not exactly at the same level as Diablo II‘s legendary status.

It seems Blizzard Entertainment is prone to this. StarCraft II came out 12 years after the first StarCraft and its expansion Brood War, and the stories of each campaign came out seemingly kiddie-fied. The gameplay also went through massive changes upon release of the last expansion, Legacy of the Void. It was never going to be like StarCraft, especially with its easier interface, making it more like a pariah that was left behind once MOBAs got up to speed. The competitive StarCraft II scene has since scaled back after its heydays in 2012 and 2013 and the game has since been made (mostly) free to play. Meanwhile, the Brood War scene has been coming back after StarCraft Remastered came out.

Maybe I can also add Max Payne 3 into the mix. It’s far from a bad game, but it certainly didn’t have the same Max Payne feel as the first two games did due to this one being made by Rockstar Games, the same developers behind the Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead series. Therefore, it was bound to be way different from its predecessors at that point.

Then there’s the grand poobah of them all in video games—Duke Nukem Forever. The finished product was just put out to put the whole talk about it to bed. On the other hand, if there’s one sequel that will definitely disappoint at this point, it’ll be Half-Life 3. If it ever does get made, it’ll certainly have a reaction that’s the exact opposite of what Half-Life 2 garnered. Valve Corporation is a completely different company at this point, being continually fattened by the ongoing successes of Steam, Dota 2, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.

“Let it die or watch it change.”

The only constant in this universe is change, and it’s no different for works of fiction. If it doesn’t end or die off within ten years, it will undergo inevitable change, either its very core or its more superficial elements. Many things over time lead to those changes and not simply due to shift in creative direction, although that’s usually the biggest factor.

The making of long-awaited sequels is all about decisions, whether they’re of the creators who may change their minds over certain things or audiences whose tastes may either shift over time or remain the same while everything else changes. Either way, those sequels are bound to match up to expectations due to the length of time that has passed.

With all the reboots and remakes we’ve been seeing over the past decade or so, perhaps we should keep in mind the Decade Rule before going to a movie theater to watch Robocop ’14 or get hyped for the new System Shock game. The more money is earned from churning out these nostalgia traps, the more we’ll be bombarded by them.

It’s not a bad thing at all to just let them rest. Perhaps we can have remastered re-releases just so movies and games can still be consumed in current platforms.

Reason for Putting This Forward

This is hardly anything new, but it seems like people keep forgetting it—or at least seem like they’ve forgotten it. Instead of acting like you were born yesterday, you should understand how that title got to that point and sort out how you like or dislike it with that knowledge in mind. It’s not a shocking revelation how a creative product following up a classic may pale in comparison, especially when a significant amount of time as passed before it went into production.

Of course, all of this is subjective anyway. You can pick the juiciest and most succulent peach from the tree and later encounter someone who doesn’t like peaches. If you’re the type of person who responds to someone expressing a dislike for something you like with “How dare you?!”, then you need to check yourself. In this never-ending quest to objectify subjective experiences, we must take every praise and critique for a creative product with a grain of salt.

The reason why I felt compelled to write this isn’t because I knew I had thought of something original. I’m sure this phenomenon has been discussed plenty of times before, but I then attempted to bring shape to it in order for people to better understand why these creative works following up classic titles tend to be reviled and ridiculed constantly.

Then again, you can still choose to continue to argue with other people needlessly in Facebook or waste time hating on what other people like to look cool or different. There’s indeed comfort in being a rebel and outside of the herd, but you may want to deal with your tendency to deem most people as “sheep” and treat them with disdain.

If thinking logically about even small and trivial things like this isn’t attractive to you, then the most I can hope for with you reaching this part of the post is that what I put forth here has made you pause for thought, even for just a little bit.

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Also published on Medium.