Holding Onto the Past: Why Hollywood's Newest Trend of Messing With Movie Continuity Is Bad for Creativity
I love everything about Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Well, maybe not everything. Edward Furlong's lessons to the time-hopping murder-bot about blending in and talking like a normal person have aged so very terribly, for one, but even flaws like that lend the movie a sort of charm without dating it too harshly. Most people tend to agree with this consensus, just as most people tend to agree that the Terminator sequels that followed were none too great. Terminator 3 arguably gets a worse rap than it deserves, but Terminator: Salvation and Terminator: Genisys seem to fundamentally misunderstand what made the first two great (note: I have never actually finished Genisys all the way through, and you can't make me). Not to mention the fact that Genisys fucked up the timeline irreparably, and added in a number of unnecessary complications and wrinkles for future directors and writers to sort through.
All of this is to say - the recently announced decision to ignore all sequels after T2 must be a good one, right? If the creative team wants to decide that certain movies aren't canon in service of a better story, what really is the issue with that? A true sequel to T2 is exactly what a lot of people are looking for, and veteran director Tim Miller is planning to deliver just that. On the surface maybe there isn't much of an issue at all. People liked the new Halloween enough, which ignored a hefty number of sequels and served as a direct continuation to the original (as did Halloween: H2O before it). But while I think these kind of moves might be good for some franchises, I think they might also have the added side effect of killing creativity in Hollywood.
Let's use 2018's Halloween as an example. Halloween got a mostly positive critical response, audiences seemed to enjoy it, and even Jamie Lee Curtis had her faith in the franchise revitalized through her participation. And yet, little of Halloween works outside of being a play on the original. We watch scenes where Laurie Strode and Micheal Myers recreate exact moments from the original film but with reversed roles. We have a clueless babysitter, just like in the original, murdered in the exact same suburban town as the original killing spree. We even get a psychiatrist with a similar affect to Donald Pleasance chasing around Myers, and a twist that depends heavily on what our expectation of that character should be. Halloween is one giant callback to a beloved film, anchored by a promise by the filmmakers to never recall all the bad ideas the franchise introduced since then. Without that connection, the new Halloween is just another slasher movie.
And I can see this exact same thing occurring with the new Terminator movie. Imagine it: Sarah Connor and her son battle alongside the Terminator against a new creation of Skynet, maybe even one with the same liquid metal powers as in Terminator 2. We'll get new characters surely - but I'll be damned if we don't get another creepy authority figure who thinks Sarah Connor is crazy, a young misfit who makes a connection with the Terminator and a key figure who does not yet understand their role in the creation of the deadly Skynet. There will be callbacks galore, whether it be a thumbs up from a melting Terminator or an "Hasta la vista, baby" for ol' times' sake, and who knows - maybe even a twist on something from the original two films or a clever role reversal. New ideas though, will likely be in short supply. Why come up with something novel when you can rely on fan service, bought with good will earned by creating a direct connection to the latest version of the movie that people actually liked?
Maybe I'm being cynical, or even worse, unfair. After all, movies, and horror movies in particular, are often saddled with a deluge of sequels that pervert and experiment with the original concept and put them in places that are hard to come back from. People didn't love Prometheus, for example, but I don't blame Ridley Scott for wanting to ignore the canon established in Alien vs. Predator and its sequel to better set that movie up. Brian Singer did the same thing with Superman Returns, also met with lukewarm response, and Wes Craven even largely ignored Friday the 13th Pt. 2. when making his sequels. These examples alone might be enough to convince me, if it weren't for the fact that I've seen a movie saddled with a rocky history of sequels that managed to embrace its troubled past, and not just succeed, but enhance the franchise overall.
I'm of course talking about Captain America: Civil War. Yeah, yeah, Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are actually both great movies, but Civil War is hardly a true Captain America film; it's a continuation of the Avengers franchise and the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. In particular, Captain America works in three of the more controversial MCU films and, instead of running from them, highlights them and adds layers to their stories. The first is The Incredible Hulk, dealt with by introducing secondary antagonist Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross as the US Secretary of State. In Hulk, we mostly see Ross as a two-dimensional stereotype of an ambitious military man, but in Civil War, we get the chance to see more of his motivation. He respects super-humans, maybe even admires their abilities, but sees their unchecked, and largely US-based, power as a threat to security and peace between nations. Sure, Ross goes back into rage mode before the movie is over, but we get to see a depth he never had, and maybe understand why he did what he did in The Incredible Hulk because of it.
The second film is Iron Man 3, received positively by critics but very negatively by fans for its portrayal of classic villain the Mandarin as a drunk British actor. At the end of Iron Man 3, Tony Stark trashes his Iron Man suits, effectively retiring from super-heroics, but without skipping a beat, we see him back in action in Avengers: Age of Ultron. AoU had no intentions of addressing this inconsistency and it's clear, a model more in line with what Halloween did this year and what the next Terminator installment plans to do with the plot points in its post T2 sequels. Civil War, however, decides to grapple fully with the change in Tony's behavior, largely though a monologue in which Stark admits that he tried to quit being Iron Man but could not bring himself to do it, and it wore on his relationship with his love interest, Pepper Potts. Stark is given a flaw we never realized he had, and another sore point in the MCU is remedied through clever dialogue and a little creative thinking.
The final film remedied by this change is Avengers: Age of Ultron itself, which wrapped up in a nice neat bow, with Tony Stark somehow completely escaping the consequences of creating a murderous robot that destroyed an entire city. The events in Civil War are the consequences, both legally and emotionally, that Tony must face as a result of his mistake, making Civil War feel like the ending that AoU should have had but didn't. Civil War had twelve entire films preceding it, about half of which were mediocre to bad, but it dealt with that baggage in a way that was both creative and respectful of the characters the franchise created. I'd say that's evidence enough that not only is erasing bad films a copout, but it actually robs films of the chance to embrace and explore difficult themes and character actions. Compare this route to something like X-Men: Days of Future Past, which dealt with the death of Professor X by simply having him return without explanation, and you see that there are real story and character opportunities that are being disregarded for the sake of convenience.
I think what I am really cautioning against is laziness and unoriginality. This might seem like a redundant point in a time where every other movie is a sequel, spin-off or reboot, but people really do value creativity. What made T2 and Halloween into such well-regarded films was their creative approach to science fiction and horror, respectively. So if a director or writer wants to shed the burden of terrible sequels and start fresh, it is worth considering whether they are doing it because of a creative idea, or as a way of luring in fans by associating their work with a film that achieved what they have been unable to since. There are smart ways to approach missteps in a franchise, and ignoring them is not the most graceful path by a long shot.