How to Nail the Superhero Sequel Structure

By Shaun Leonard · July 2, 2018

The Difficult Second Album. The Sophomore Slump. The Terrible Twos. And finally, the Superhero Sequel. In this article, we’re looking at the second entry in a superhero movie series. Often plagued with overblown expectations, diminishing returns, and a desire to repeat a winning formula, all sequels are tough. Superhero sequels, in particular, tend to fall into a broadly similar structure. This article will shine a light on the typical super-sequel structure, highlighting similarities and underlining the advantages of leaning into the structure. Given the number of superhero movie trilogies, the sequels have to be doing something right. Certain less-than-inspiring sequels will get their moment too. We can learn from both.

1. Provide a crisis.

In a series of superhero stories, the hero’s origin is the typical structure for a first film, and the second is all about questioning themselves. The initial film establishes the character and gives them an opportunity to become a champion of good. Then the second provides a crisis. Sometimes a crisis of confidence. Am I really this person? (Spider-Man 2, Amazing Spider-Man 2, Thor: The Dark World) Sometimes it’s a crisis of conscience. Should I be doing what I’m doing? (Captain America: Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron) And sometimes it’s a crisis of time. Can I keep this up? And what happens when I can’t? (The Dark Knight, Iron Man 2). Superhero sequels aren’t the only films that involve characters questioning themselves, but it’s interesting to observe how sequels take the opportunity to retread the first film’s storyline, with new wrinkles based on a fear of failure. This structure also acts as a metacommentary for the very nature of sequels themselves. Can we give the audience more of what they loved about the first film? In the movies, the fate of the world is at stake. In the real world, it’s hundreds of millions of dollars.

2. Create long-term conflicts.

The questioning described above is usually caused by the first act’s inciting incident, often caused by the sequel’s antagonist. Again, this is common in all movies, but the specific superhero sequel element comes from how often the dramatic problem was created years before the second film’s setting. For example, in Iron Man 2 the main villain is a result of Tony Stark’s dad being a military-industrial tycoon (and a crappy business partner). Thor: The Dark World has a mythic opening about the wars between the dark elves and Thor’s grandfather Bor. In Captain America: Winter Soldier, the Winter Soldier’s missions and Hydra’s secret takeover of SHIELD have been happening for decades. Amazing Spider-Man 2 opens with an entire sequence dealing with Peter Parker’s parents being spies. Sometimes this temporal gap deals with a time jump between the first and second films, detailing how the life of a hero takes its toll. This is explicit in The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Iron Man 2. Simply being a superhero is a drain, both physically and mentally.

3. Make it personal.

Unlike most films, the main dramatic conflict of a superhero sequel is almost always a result of the hero’s (or their associates’) past actions. There are a lot of positives to this. We want to learn more about the fantastical world of the story, and we want there to be a reason the hero is particularly invested in the adventure we’re about to see. We want to know that this time, it’s personal. And if we can see the protagonist’s life is already difficult, then we’ll see how a new problem or villain could make them want to give up the cape and cowl or say “Spider-Man, no more.” Of course, if the historical incident is only tangentially connected to the main storyline (as is the case with Thor: The Dark World and Amazing Spider-Man 2), we will find it difficult to emotionally invest in the story.

4. Make them fail.

The second act of a superhero sequel is about failing because you’re not as great as you think you are. And yes, this is basically the second act of every movie. The persistent feature in superhero sequels is that the second act frequently involves relearning the lessons from the first movie. Like how the young X-Men always seem to be getting their costumes for the first time. The second act tends to be where sequels resemble their predecessors the most. The unity of action is the same, so the general setup is the same. In fact, some superhero sequels even involve the heroes learning how to use their powers all over again or learning how to use new abilities.

5. Reaffirm the truth of the first film in a bigger way.

The third act of a superhero movie sequel is reaffirmation. I am Iron Man. I am Batman. I am Spider-Man. Mostly, the sequel confirms the truth of the first film, while adding a new positive element. Iron Man learns how to be a team player, Batman decides he’ll take on a darker burden so a different myth can give hope to people, and the Avengers take on new members. Both Spider-Man sequels are about Peter Parker uniting his civilian and superhero personas by committing to romantic relationships. The resolution of a dangling dramatic question the first film left open, or the addition of a new element, provides a superhero sequel with depth. The sequel is supposed to be greater than the original. It’s bigger, broader, it has new facets. The second movie is the first movie again, but more.

The article can’t end without mentioning Ant-Man and the Wasp. It’s a sequel, but it seems to be shifting the paradigm of superhero sequel structure even based on its unconventional title. Going by the trailer, it’s about becoming a partner instead of going it alone. Although maybe the film is going to do everything described above, using the Wasp’s origin story as a way to emulate the first film’s structure, while Ant-Man questions himself in comparison with Wasp. And we already know the protagonists will be trying to rescue someone who was integral to the Ant-Man mythos. Sounds familiar. What do you think?

Shaun Leonard is an experienced writer, editor, and assistant. He is available for story consultation and script editing. Follow Shaun on Twitter @shaun_leonard

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