Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a masterpiece, and I will brook no argument to the contrary. It’s a film that manages to be many things at once: A heart-wrenching romance, a character study, a contemplation of a certain time and place, and an epic, kick-ass Wuxia film. The acting is superb, the directing brilliant, the writing spot-on, the cinematography dynamic and lush, and don’t even get me started on the music.
So when Netflix said they were doing a sequel — the epically titled Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (seriously, a comma and a colon) — I was excited. I didn’t even think to be super nervous about the quality of it. Sure, Ang Lee wasn’t directing and Chow Yun Fat would obviously not be returning, but still. You take a title like Crouching Tiger and you’re taking on some responsibility, man. There are expectations. Of course it would be done well.
It’s amazing, the naivety I still have despite 43 years in the world.
Sword of Destiny was a bad film. Had it not suborned the Crouching Tiger name, it would’ve made a half-decent diversion as a second-rate Wuxia film churned out by the folks who churn out such things on the regular. But because it was a sequel to Crouching Tiger, it suffered immeasurably in comparison to the original. Michelle Yeoh brought her usual gravitas to Shu Lien, and managed to infuse the character with the same subtle emotion we saw in the first film. Problem is, nothing else about Sword of Destiny was subtle, or even competent, and thus her considerable talents were wasted.
The rest of the acting consisted of either over-the-top mugging or lethargic attempts at emoting; the story ripped off the same beats from the original without making them any more fun or engaging, and seemed only to exist to go from fight to fight; there was a lot more CGI and a lot less real-world setting; the directing seemed perfunctory; the music was straight from the “exotic action-adventure” Muzak file.
Yep, every single aspect of this film was markedly inferior to the original. And what’s more, the story actively screwed up the one character left from the original that we cared about. Without spoiling it (in case you still wish to watch after this rousing review), the backstory that really made Shu Lien who she was in Crouching Tiger was basically preempted and rendered moot by Sword of Destiny. Her entire life’s journey was basically taken out back and kicked in the tenders.
So all of this got me thinking about sequels. I’ve written two sequels — the second and third books of the Daedalus trilogy — and now that MJ-12: Inception is heading to the finish line, I’m plotting out the major beats of the second MAJESTIC-12 novel. No, there won’t be Wuxia fighting, sadly. But I’m hoping — praying, really — not to do to Inception what Sword of Destiny did to the original Crouching Tiger.
I think the first rule of sequels, in film or print, is this: Above all else, do no harm to the original. It can be tempting for a storyteller to want to play gotcha with the audience. You know the hero with the tragic backstory? He’s actually rich and kicks puppies. The setting infused with quiet mysticism? It’s run by giant hamsters on wheels deep beneath those majestic mountains. Those sailing ships in space, powered by alchemy? It was all hallucinogens in the rum, mate. Say hi to Jack Sparrow!
Jeez, no. If the original story was beloved and well received and worked, then trying to somehow suborn it or mess with it just seems dumb. Yeah, I’m looking at you, Highlander II. And you, Matrix Reloaded. And of course, Sword of Destiny. Even if a sequel is just a bad movie, it should not commit the easily avoidable and very basic sin of messing with the original film.
The second rule, while I’m rule-making here, can probably seem contradictory. Don’t just do the exact same thing. This was one of the well-deserved knocks on Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in which the gang has to get together to save the galaxy from a big planet-sized weapon that can blow up entire worlds. Heck, Star Wars did this three times. I think a lot was forgiven because The Force Awakens pretty much worked in every other possible way, and didn’t have senate negotiations or a trade agreement — but hear me now, Disney. No more Death Stars or planet-lasers. You’ve used your limit.
Sword of Destiny flopped here as well, for reasons I spoil here, though The New York Times did kinda-sorta. The plot was basically the same — if anything, it was dumbed down and simplified. When I go to see a sequel, I’m going because the story, characters and setting of the last film or book was such that I want to see what happens next, not a rehash of what happened before. It’s why I enjoyed Skyfall, which took Bond out of his comfort zone and made him actually care about people and his past — and why I didn’t even finish Spectre, which seemed perfunctory and paint-by-numbers by the time I quit watching.
Third rule, then: Raise the stakes. Thinking about Skyfall again, we lost Judi Dench’s M in that one. That’s huge for Bond. It’s a character-changing moment, and one that should have had even greater ramifications for him down the road. (Maybe it does in Spectre, but again, I basically trailed off during the boardroom scene.) I’ve written about raising the stakes in sequels before. In fact, I thought I went a step too far in The Venusian Gambit with Napoleon’s alchemical revenants invading England until Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and made me feel better about the whole thing. So yeah, if it was a tight squeeze or a tragic loss before, you have to put the screws to the story even more the next time out. Ideally in a unique way that doesn’t break the previous installments.
I suppose we could go on here, but I think that’s enough for now. Got any thoughts on sequels and how they work? Or don’t work? Drop ’em in the comments. I got a three-book deal, after all — and that means two sequels to MJ-12: Inception. I’ll need all the help I can get!