The Legacyquel Legacy: Where Hollywood’s Latest Sequel Innovation Went Wrong
The following post contains SPOILERS for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a movie that made $2 billion at the box office.
The big emotional climax of Star Wars: The Force Awakens isn’t a gun battle or a dogfight in space or even two characters talking. The last scene of 2015’s Star Wars saga revival follows Rey, a young woman from a desert planet, as she finally locates Luke Skywalker, the reclusive former hero of the galactic Rebellion. Without saying a word, Rey approaches Luke, reaches into her bag, and offers the Jedi master his old lightsaber.
One year ago, I wrote an essay about the rise of a very specific kind of a sequel that was becoming increasingly prevalent in American movies: the “legacyquel,” where “beloved aging stars reprise classic roles and pass the torch to younger successors” as part of an effort to “[revitalize] old franchises through the notion of legacy.” This moment between Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill at the end of The Force Awakens is almost a literal manifestation of that idea.
The legacyquel moniker gained a little traction online (it’s been mentioned in The Guardian and USA Today, among other publications) and the legacyquel concept has maintained plenty of traction in the film industry. But how are these movies doing with audiences and critics, and what is the growing legacy of the legacyquel? One year later, it seemed like a good time to take stock of this phenomenon.
While Star Wars: The Force Awakens was the biggest movie of last year (and probably the decade), the rest of 2015’s legacyquels had a spottier track record, both critically and commercially. On the positive end of the spectrum was Creed, with Michael B. Jordan playing the son of Rocky Balboa’s old boxing rival Apollo Creed. Sylvester Stallone wound up receiving an Oscar nomination for his performance, and the movie was almost universally liked by fans of the Rocky series. Yo Adrian, they did it, etc.
The same cannot be said for Terminator Genisys, which paired Arnold Schwarzenegger with a new cast of young actors in famous Terminator roles like John and Sarah Connor. Worst of all was Vacation, with Ed Helms as the son of Chevy Chase’s hapless world traveler. The new Vacation made less in theaters than the original National Lampoon’s Vacation did back in 1983. Adjusted for inflation, it’s the biggest flop in the entire series. (Also, it was terrible.)
2016’s legacyquels haven’t fared much better. Jeff Goldblum didn’t return for the sort-of legacyquel Jurassic World, but he did show up in the legitimate legacyquel Independence Day: Resurgence, which was so dumb it made it made the first Independence Day look like Uncle Vanya. The $165 million-budgeted spectacle barely earned $100 million in the U.S. and less than $400 million worldwide. (Also, it was also terrible.) Still, the rest of 2016’s legacyquels would have killed for those sorts of grosses. My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, Zoolander 2, Blair Witch; they all came and went very quickly and very quietly.
If we want to be a little flexible with the term (and it’s my term, so I can do whatever I want with it), then the biggest hit of 2016 is arguably a legacyquel. That would be Finding Dory, the Pixar smash that came 13 years after Finding Nemo. But if we include that movie (even though it didn’t offer much in the way of handing the franchise off to a new generation) then we should probably also include Ghostbusters, which was technically a reboot of the 1984 horror comedy, but featured more cameos and callbacks than some legitimate legacyquels.
Ghostbusters was a modest box-office success but it became a huge flashpoint for angry online fans, and it seems unlikely that it will lead to further installments with its new cast. And that’s the way it’s gone for most legacyquels. These films, which are specifically designed to jumpstart inactive properties, have mostly proven to be legacy killers, or at least franchise stoppers. They’re like the cinematic versions of the kids in Flatliners; they successfully bring characters back from the dead, but only at an enormous cost and with disastrous unforeseen consequences.
(By the way: Guess what other movie is getting a legacyquel next year? Yep, Flatliners! Kiefer Sutherland’s even going to be in it!)
Sutherland’s biggest TV hit, 24, is getting a legacyquel in 2017 as well; the word legacy is even in its title. Legacyquels are popping up all over television, and particularly on Netflix, where many of the programming choices seem fueled by nostalgia for the recent past. The streaming service already has Fuller House, with the kids from the popular ’90s sitcom now adults with their own children, and Wet Hot American Summer, featuring the all-star cast of the beloved cult film. They’re just about to debut a Gilmore Girls reunion series and in the coming months they’ll also become the home for the Kickstartered revival of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
But TV legacyquels have found about as much success as their movie counterparts. Despite mountains of hype, the new version of The X-Files met with lukewarm fan response. The same goes for Netflix’s Arrested Development, whose long-awaited fourth season failed to live up to the brilliant creative heights of its earlier broadcast run. It remains to be seen how David Lynch and company do with their improbable Twin Peaks reunion, coming to Showtime next year, but I’m keeping my expectations low.
Even with the spotty track record across multiple mediums, the Hollywood pipeline is still choked with legacyquels. In addition to Rogue One, Episode VIII, and Flatliners, 49-year-old Vin Diesel will resurrect his “extreme” spy hero Xander Cage in a new xXx. 20 years after the first film, almost all of the original cast will return for T2: Trainspotting. Shane Black, who co-starred in the first Predator 30 years ago, will now write and direct The Predator (and there are rumors Arnold Schwarzenegger could return for the film). Matt Damon (plus who knows how many other surprise guests) will pass the Ocean’s Eleven franchise to a new all-female cast of thieves in Ocean’s Eight. Legacyquel King Harrison Ford, who’s already legacyquelized Star Wars and Indiana Jones will next tackle Blade Runner with Ryan Gosling. And in what must surely be a record for longest time between original movie and legacyquel, Mary Poppins will return in 2018, more than 50 years after she last flew through the skies over London. (I’m assuming here that Julie Andrews or Dick Van Dyke or both will make some kind of cameos.)
Some of these legacyquels could be great. (I’m particularly hopeful for Ocean’s Eight.) But to date, few legacyquels qualify as supercalifragilisticexpialidocious entertainments. The two most successful so far, in my opinion, are The Force Awakens and the Star Trek relaunch featuring a young cast and old school Spock Leonard Nimoy on hand to give the whole thing his blessing. What those two movies have that so many crappy legacyquels do not have (besides J.J. Abrams) is a futuristic science-fiction setting that exists outside the normal flow of time. It’s possible to chalk up the bad legacyquels to bad creative choices, but I’ve begun to wonder whether the legacyquel as a format of story serialization works best in fantastical trappings.
After all, Star Wars is perpetually Star Wars; it exists a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. And Star Trek remains Star Trek; technically the events in the new movies transpire before the events in the old ones, but its future is elastic enough to allow for different actors and technology. So many of the other franchises listed above are explicitly tied to the time and place in which they were created: It’s hard to envision how xXx: The Return of Xander Cage fits into the world of 2016, for example. With enough money you can relaunch moribund series, and give viewers the thrill of seeing esteemed actors back in the roles that defined their careers. Recapturing the zeitgeist along with that thrill is a lot harder.
That’s resulted in a lot of movies where one generation hands the torch to the next, and the next doesn’t quite know what to do with it. That’s another major issue with so many legacyquels: Very few of the new characters they introduce as potential replacements for the old ones measure up to their predecessors. It’s not enough to draft on an existing legacy; you have to make a new one. More often than not, the only legacy left by these movies is the sensation that the past should have been left there.
Even in that final scene from The Force Awakens, it’s not Luke who gives his lightsaber to Rey, it’s Rey who returns Luke’s lightsaber to him. She doesn’t want to carry the torch; at least not yet. She wants him to carry it again. And the movie doesn’t reveal his response to her request.