We don't need our future-scope to know what the future of mass entertainment holds: more sequels. Every hit movie has to spawn more movies with colons or numbers in their titles. Every awesome book has to become a series. And every great TV show has to go on and on. And on. There's no stopping the deluge of continuations. But it doesn't have to suck quite so bad. Here's our guide to how entertainment can vaccinate itself against the dreaded sequel-itis.
First, try abstinence.
The absolute best way to avoid sequel-itis is to avoid sequels. Just say no. Don't succumb to peer pressure - just because everybody else lets go and greenlights a fourth Spider-Man movie and a second Wanted movie doesn't mean you have to. Tell everybody you're saving yourself for the right original project.
If abstinence fails, at least don't be a story slut.
So you had a story that worked really well in the first installment, and you want to go back to the well. At least try to expand on the story that worked the first time - don't go hooking up with every stray idea that comes along. Look at The Matrix: The first film had a perfectly excellent set of ideas, dealing with the nature of reality, and whether you can be sure you're not living in a virtual world created by evil machines. The Wachowskis even wrote a sequel script that dealt with those same issues (a copy has been floating around for years, and I think it's genuine). But then they decided to go off in a million other directions, dealing with fate vs. free will, cyclical history, rogue computer programs, evil ghost Rastas, etc. etc. etc. Now we can't even watch the original Matrix without thinking about all the layers of crud the Wachowskis added to it. Like orgasm cake and the keymaker and stuff.
Don't get caught up in trying to chase a bigger and bigger rush.
It's understandable - you want your sequel to be bigger and crashier than the original. If the original had one great chase scene, the sequel needs five great chase scenes. If the original had a poignant soliloquy about the hero's burden, your follow-up novel should have a 500-page treatise on the burdens heroes must bear, and whether it helps for the hero to have lumbar support. Etc. etc. This is how we get movies, with numerals in their titles, that are five hours long and feel as though you've always been watching this movie, since before you were born. (It's not science fiction, but the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie made me feel like I was keeping vigil over the melting of the polar icecaps.)
Along those lines, skip the villain crowd scenes.
Villains are like giant missiles. You know how when you shoot two giant missiles in opposite directions, they can cancel each other out? So that it's almost like you didn't fire any missiles at all? Villains are like that. Two villains are almost like no villains in a movie. Three villains are like half a villain, according to a complex mathematical formula that I will be happy to sketch on a napkin at Comic-Con for anyone who asks. More than three villains in a movie, and you actually have a villain implosion that leaves your movie completely mellow and sort of peaceful... like laying in the grass watching the clouds explode in the distance.
Avoid the "We won! What now?" subtext... or at least do something with it.
When you make one of the biggest movies of all time, it can be kind of overwhelming, and the pressure to craft a sequel that matches - or tops - that accomplishment can be pretty intense. It's almost like you, the filmmaker, are the hero who's vanquished the ultimate evil, and you're left wondering what you're supposed to do with the rest of your life. So it's tempting to play out those anxieties in your story itself. Like Spider-Man 3, for example, which is clearly partly about the creators' anxieties about the success of Spider-Man 2. How else do you explain the fact that Spider-Man has gone from being publicly reviled to becoming everybody's favorite hero, with people celebrating Spider-Man Day? And suddenly the story is about whether fame will go to Peter Parker's head. Wha huh?
If you have to play out the "What next?" anxiety in your story, do what The Dark Knight did: make Batman's success part of the problem. Batman has done too good a job of pushing out the mob, and he's opened up a power vacuum that can only be filled by a mofo as crazy as Bats himself.
Don't do a three-quel.
Just don't. There's no need. Or if you're doing a book thing, maybe do a trilogy and stop there. Don't go back to the well until it's a brackish puce color. We'll all thank you.