In a review of the follow-up to My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, Ted Trautman talks about love plots in sequels:

Each genre that celebrates romantic love—rom-coms hardly have a monopoly on it—has its own way of abandoning relationships just as they’re getting interesting. Among romantic comedies, the most common solution is to simply not make sequels—to bury Jerry Maguire under Yucca Mountain and let its fiery passion cool into domestic routine far from public view. Which, frankly, is as impressive as it is disappointing: In an industry where intellectual property is increasingly recycled and warmed over, it must take tremendous willpower (or tremendous deference to young audiences’ tastes) not to throw Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in a room together and call it Swipe Left in Seattle.{…}

The first is introducing a new love interest: Call it the “When Harry Met Someone Else” approach. Sometimes an actor is unable or unwilling to return for a sequel; sometimes filmmakers just prefer new blood. In either case, the sequel ditches one lover in favor of the other, setting him or her—usually him—on the path to falling in love with a new character. A recent example of this is Zoolander 2, which kills off the title character’s wife Matilda Jeffries (Christine Taylor) in a tragicomic accident in the film’s first few minutes, clearing the way for a much less compelling postscript of a romance between Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) and Valentina Valencia (Penelope Cruz). In a classic, more extreme instance—Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me—Vanessa Kensington (Elizabeth Hurley) literally self-destructs to make room for Powers (Mike Myers) to fall in love again with Heather Graham’s Felicity Shagwell. For other serial monogamists, see: Bond, James; Jones, Indiana; Wayne, Bruce; the Ted movies, the Missions Impossible, and plenty of others.

The second method is artificial estrangement, or when couples who once attained marital or premarital bliss have suffered some falling out between movies—but who maintain enough grudging affection for each other that they spend their sequel falling back in love along more or less the same narrative lines as in the previous film. A relatively recent example is 2013’s Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, which pits Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) against his wife Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) in pursuit of a coveted promotion. In no time at all, they’re reenacting the bitter rivalry that was already exhaustively explored in the first film, and round two falls flat. Other movies to follow this pattern include Wayne’s World 2, Spider-Man 3, and my personal favorite, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, which features a characteristically chipper Nicolas Cage breaking and entering into the home of his ex-girlfriend Abigail (Diane Kruger) in order to steal her National Archives ID card—you know, just regular breakup stuff.

The quick jettison tack has often annoyed me. Whether the romantic plot in the first movie was the main plot or a subplot in an action film, it’s annoying to have all of that build-up for a story that’s often scratched almost immediately in the follow-up.

We’ve gotten used to this notion that just about every story needs a romantic plot, and it’s usually one of the two above. Book series tend to be a little better about this if only because the author knows that this can’t be done for every novel. So often, love interests will last several books before being dispatched for one reason or another. In crime series, often in a violent manner, sometimes in a dramatic manner, and sometimes in an oh-by-the-way manner.

One of the things that really impressed me about the Jason Bourne series was Robert Ludlum’s commitment to the relationship and marriage between Jason Bourne and Marie St Jacques. This was especially impressive because St Jacques exhibited many of the problems with first-book love interests. Namely, that first books are often the busiest in a series. You’re introducing the main character, the man character’s world, and the love interest. It’s hard for the last character to get all of the attention she (or he) deserves to be a sufficiently compelling character in subsequent stories. But Ludlum did it! He even managed to make Bourne a family man, which is not easy for an action hero. Meanwhile, in the movies, she was dead in the first ten minutes of the second movie, and a new love interest, Nicky Parsons, was added*. Parsons hung around for more than one film, though, so there’s that.

I found it noteworthy that, after Ludlum died and his books were taken over by Eric Van Lustbader, the very first thing he did (off-screen, in between novels actually) was kill off Marie. Van Lustbader may have replaced her with someone else, but that decision as well as other changes in direction made me less interested in the Bourne novels.

The dispatching of love interests off-screen in between sequels – or in the opening salvo of the sequel – is the ultimate cheap shot. If the last romantic plot was disposed of so easily, why should I invest at all in the new romantic plot? As understandable as the desire may be to have a by-the-numbers characters-meet-and-fall-in-love story, it’s a mark of laziness. Good on those writers who do a better job.

* – I was relatively certain a character named “Nicky Parsons” appeared in the books, but as a relatively minor character allied with the antagonist. Poking around has only dug into a number of assertions that the – or any – character did not exist in the books.


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3 Responses to Love After The Credits Roll

  1. Burt Likko says:

    I think this is inevitable from the perspective of the storyteller. All narratives are fueled by conflict. Man Versus Other Men. Man Versus Nature. Man Versus Self. Man Versus Fate. Man Versus Monster. Man Versus The Unknown.

    A romantic plot is a particular form of conflict, “Man Versus Woman” (traditionally, anyway). The flirting, the disregard of attraction, the passionate first sexual encounter — these are all depicted in fiction as acts of aggression. Sometimes the Man is the aggressor, sometimes the Woman is the aggressor, sometimes both. Genre matters in how the permutations play out.

    The aggressor effectively challenges the other, “I will make you fall in love with me.” The other responds with one of “No, I will make YOU fall in love with ME,” or “No, I will resist your efforts to make me fall in love with you.”

    Now there’s a conflict and the author can move the characters through their paces to resolve it one way or the other. Depending on the genre, this might be the “A” plot or it might happen in the “B” plot (“B” plot romances seem to be clumsily resolved a lot more than “A” plot romances are, IMO.) The fulfillment of a romantic liaison represents the resolution of conflict in the form of a conquest; the only peculiarity here is that if the execution is good, both parties to the conflict prevail. Mostly, though, movies are pretty much one party conquering the other.

    Now, consider the task of the sequel. The sequel seeks to re-create the magic of the original. What made the original story so great? Chances are, it was at a significant level the nature of the conflict that the protagonist went through. If the original is propelled by the Man Versus Woman conflict, the sequelist is going to be sorely, sorely tempted to go back to that well and give the protagonist another Man Versus Woman conflict because that’s part of what worked the first time. If you start out the sequel with the conflict of Man Versus Woman already resolved, then you need to find a new source of Man Versus Woman romantic conflict.

    It wasn’t a sequel, but I think the action flick “True Lies” did a good job of starting out a story with an already-resolved romantic conflict: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis were already married. Their love for one another was never really in doubt. They had the Man Versus Woman conflict dynamic though: first they had to rekindle a moribund relationship to once again be passionate, then he had to find the courage to tell her the truth about his superspy job, and she had to find the courage to trust and join him after learning this truth, and then he had to find the courage to accept help from her. Lots of good Man Versus Woman conflict there. Meanwhile, of course, they’ve got to Blow Things Up Real Good because that’s the genre.

    Now, I’m reaching back pretty far to come up with “True Lies” as a movie that negotiated the pre-resolution of the “forming a romantic relationship” narrative conflict well. Which I think is emblematic of how difficult it must be to do this, and therefore why protagonists’ romantic partners are so frequently quickly shunted out of frame in sequels.

  2. trumwill says:

    I think this is largely right, but I also think it’s right because we’ve chosen for it to be right. Not as an immutable force of creative law. It’s just become a part of our formula.

    Now, in a dedicated romance story, yeah, you need tension to drive a plot and it’s hard to have that tension while everything is happy. But if it’s a spy thriller, or a detective story, or whatever else… you can shift the romantic plot to someone else. Or simply not have one.

  3. When I read the quoted portion, my first thought was Karate Kid 2, which begins with the boy and girl breaking up (or the immediate aftermath….we don’t see the girl, probably because she didn’t want to do another movie or because it was inconvenient for the movie’s creators to have a girlfriend on the trip to Japan.)

    I will say that while I’ve never seen Zoolander, Austin Powers, or Anchorman 2, I suspect those movies–being, as I understand, tongue-in-cheek ironic comedies–would get a little bit of a pass from me. They seem like the kind of movies that would follow the creative formulas in part to make fun of them.

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