With the first glimpse of Star Trek Into Darkness, most of the discussion centered around how the second Star Trek 2.0 picture seemed to be channeling Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight to an almost embarrassing degree. But to be fair, a trailer is a piece of marketing seemingly separate from the film itself. And moreover, even if the new Star Trek does end up going along the lines of 'lone agent of chaos upends the simple morality of Star Trek and makes Kirk/Spock question their ideals while causing destruction and killing off a major character or two', I would argue it's less about overtly ripping off The Dark Knight and more about simply following the sequel playbook. In short, most sequels go darker, a trend that goes back to at least The Godfather part II. And most sequels question the somewhat simplistic morality of the first film, as seen in the likes of The Matrix Revolutions and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. But rather than dissect the sequel template (because I already kinda did that), I'd like to point out a handful of genre sequels that bucked that trend. In short, these five sequels went the other direction, going in a comparatively lighter direction than their predecessors. To wit...
While I would argue that this PG-rated sequel to the R-rated Conan The Barbarian has its share of blood-spilling violence (it was cut down from its original R-rated form), it is surely less of a mythic journey than a kid-friendly adventure picture. Instead of embarking on an epic journey to kill the dark wizard who slaughtered his parents, Conan joins a ragtag group of merry men/women in order to protect a princess from an evil queen. Trading in the gloom and doom of John Milius's original for a lighter, jollier romp, this second (and final-for now) Arnold Schwarzenegger Conan picture plays less like a hero's journey into darkness and more like 'just another episode of that Conan the Barbarian TV series'. Instead of James Earl Jones and Max von Sydow, you get Grace Jones and basketball star Wilt Chamberlain. Conan talks quite a bit more in this one, and the film certainly attempts to be 'funnier' and mass-audience pleasing. Ironically the film was quite successful overseas, even as it slightly trailed the domestic box office of its predecessor. If there is indeed a third Arnold Schwarzenegger Conan picture, I'm guessing it will be more along the lines of The Barbarian than The Destroyer.
While Lethal Weapon 2 isn't exactly a toned-down PG-13 version of Lethal Weapon, it's actually quite a bit less dramatic and less somber than the genuinely grim first picture (which, if you recall, opened with a poisoned porn actress leaping to her death from a high rise). It trades character introspection and a sense of post-Vietnam gloom for far bigger action, a much higher body count (mostly bad guys), and broad humor. Save for a terrific scene with Mel Gibson and Darlene Love (where Riggs opens up to Trish Murtaugh about the night his wife died), there isn't much out-and-out character drama in this second installment. That doesn't mean it's a lesser picture per-se, as many would argue that it's the best of the series (I still prefer the original, natch). But while the first Lethal Weapon was a dark police drama with bursts of action (the first extended action sequence doesn't occur until the third act) and occasionally disturbing violence (Murtough's oldest daughter is threatened with rape as her boyfriend is murdered off-screen), the sequel turns Roger Murtaugh and Martin Riggs into a comic action duo and turns up the action/carnage quotient to eleven. The mood is relatively light throughout, even with a third act police-massacre montage, thanks to Joe Pesci's one-man punchline factory and goofy subplots involving Traci Wolfe and her condom commercials. The first Lethal Weapon had a certain real-world plausibility while the sequel pretty much set the standard for 'larger-than-life' action spectaculars that dominated the 1990s.
The first Joe Dante-helmed Gremlins is a mostly successful mix of suburban horror and creature comedy. The Gremlins that are let loose in Billy's sleepy little town are meant to be feared. Their chaotic antics result not just in anarchy and property destruction but at least two murders (I say 'at least' because I'm pretty sure Dick Miller and Jackie Joseph died offscreen in Gremlins yet return in Gremlins II). While the first Gremlins was a true black comedy, Joe Dante let his freak flag fly for The New Batch. Toning down the horror elements (I'm pretty sure the only confirmed death is Christopher Lee's animal-torturing scientist) and upping the post-modern comedy, Dante crafts a corporate satire which nonetheless makes the would-be Donald Trump stand-in (playing with gusto by John Glover) into a relatively nice guy. More than just being 'lighter' then the first Gremlins, this film is absolutely insane and shatters pretty much every narrative rule in the book. One sequence, which I won't give away in case you've never seen this under seen gem, involves one of the most brilliant variations of 'breaking the fourth wall' that I have ever seen. More than just a rare example of a major sequel going lighter in tone, Gremlins 2: The New Batch stands alongside Addams Family Values as one of the greatest comedy sequels ever.
Here's a dirty secret: the first two major comic book adaptations to follow on the heels of Tim Burton's Batman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Dick Tracy, still rank among the best. Here's another dirty secret. Friend/colleague R.L. Shaffer is right: The first TMNT picture is, in its own way, every bit as dark as the first Batman film. By placing its story in a very real New York City and feeling like a halfway plausible story, it beat out Chris Nolan's 'let's make a realistic superhero movie' gimmick by a good fifteen years. Based more off the comic books than the kid-friendly TV show, the first TMNT film was openly dark and violent, with several onscreen murders (a teenager is beaten to death by a major villain) and realistic fighting scenes (Raphael is pummeled within an inch of his life by countless foot soldiers). The film was a massive hit ($130 million domestic off a $25 million opening weekend), but parents cried foul at the PG-rated film's uh... PG-rated violence. So the second film instead went back to the popular syndicated animated series for inspiration. Gone were the character relationships, gone was the somewhat realistic violence, and gone was the general sense of big-city gloom that pervaded the first film. Secret of the Ooze was a far brighter and lighter and more kid-friendly picture, with action scenes rooted in comedy rather than combat and a climactic rap scene involving Vanilla Ice. As an eleven year-old thrilled by the first film, this sequel felt like a betrayal, and its box office seemed to bear that out (a $20 million debut weekend, but an $88 million domestic finish).
If you acknowledge that emotional angst doesn't necessarily equal darkness, this Sam Raimi sequel is actually far more '1960s comic book' than the first Spider-Man. The body count is far lower, with not a single confirmed fatality after Doc Ock's Evil Dead-inspired escape from the hospital right up until the villain sacrifices himself right at the end. While the first Spider-Man had the Green Goblin killing dozens of people, terrorizing Spider-Man's loved ones, and trading brutally realistic blows with the webslinger, this second installment has Aunt Mae being abducted as a way to defuse tension (since we know Doc Ock isn't going to kill her in the second act bank robbery action sequence) and various scenes of security guards being thrown around like Looney Tunes extras. The film mostly takes place during the daytime, trading in the scary New York nights for the bright and optimistic New York days. Spider-Man 2 is also filled with goofy scenes such as Spidey's conversation on an elevator and a montage set to "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head". This is not a criticism of the picture (the action scenes are still terrific and I have far more issues with the film's attempts at 'emotional angst' than its lighter tone), but its somewhat campier approach should have served as a warning in regards to the less successful mixing of camp and attempted darkness that is Spider-Man 3.
While trading a lower rating doesn't automatically mean that your sequel is less 'adult' (Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer got the PG rating that the first Fantastic Four surely deserved in the first place), the ways in which this underrated but still underwhelming sequel tones itself down are subtle but still present. While the body count is pretty much the same (around 15), there is almost no blood and an absence of dirt and grit (and there are certainly no heads in a jar this time around). Zorro moves less like a real-world superhero and more like Batman (which is ironic if you know your history), doing battle with mostly comic relief thugs who meet ignoble, but not fatal, ends. Yes there is occasional bloodshed and yes the film concerns a French terrorist who wants to destroy an on-the-verge of statehood California using weapons of mass destruction, but the film trades the human-scale tragedy and grand-myth making of The Mask of Zorro for broadly comic family melodrama. The idea of Alejandro de la Vega (Antonio Bandaras) attempting to raise his son to respect those below them on the economic ladder while pretending to be a selfish aristocrat is a potent one, as is the would-be Zorro's struggle to do his duty while keeping his own family safe. But the film trades a strong first reel for foppish comedy, leavened only by a surprising second-act murder that is otherwise promptly forgotten moments later. The film is very much about heavy and/or adult subject matter, it merely chooses to tell its story in a somewhat kid-friendly fashion. The Mask of Zorro is perhaps my all-time favorite superhero film. The Legend of Zorro is merely the next kid-friendly installment, losing points for telling an adult story while sanding down the nastier parts for the sake of that PG.
Okay, anything I missed? Feel free to share below as always.