Why is the Second Movie Always the Best One?

Batman II

What The Dark Knight poster should have looked like.

Despite that it needs no wordplay to be turned into its inevitable porn version, The Dark Knight Rises—subject of my last blog—simply cannot compete with its predecessor, The Dark Knight.  And I think at this point it’s a truism that the second of the series is, in general, the best.[i]  The best of the Star Wars movies is The Empire Strikes Back. The best of the Lord of the Rings Movies is The Two Towers.  Spider-Man was great; Spider-Man II is better. X-Men is great; X2 is, if not better, pretty spectacular in ways that X1 was not. The same can be said of Terminator and Terminator 2. Most people prefer Aliens, with its almost unheard of 100% Rotten Tomatoes approval, to Alien (with its mere 97%)[ii]. Toy Story II is better than I and III. Few people have seen Mad Max, but everyone knows Mad Max II: The Road Warrior; Silence of the Lambs was technically a sequel to some movie that I didn’t see and am too apathetic to even Google.  Even going back to the Cambrian Age of sequels, the 1970s, Superman II is better than the original, and Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan far surpasses Star Trek: Look, It’s a Movie Now, which I do not remember at all.

A sneaky way to get the word “Two” into the sequel. Yet Three Kings is not the next movie and is an entirely different film. Hmmm.

Yes, these are all genre movies, but so what?  I’m sorry that Citizen Kane II: Rosebud’s Revenge, was never completed at the time of Orson Welles’s demise, when he died of embarrassment after voicing the original Transformers movie.  (Its non-sequels, Transformers I and II, mess with my title, as they are equally terrible.) 

But even the best of the non-superhero, non-sci-fi Godfather movies was still Godfather 2.   Why?

The second film, the first sequel, especially when envisioned as a trilogy, tends to be the deepest, darkest, and most adventurous.  Screenwriting conventional wisdom says that it’s the middle of the story that’s supposed to be the hardest part to write.  The opening sets things up, the ending wraps them up, but how do you take the characters from their dramatic situation’s conflict to their ending’s resolution?  It’s why so many movies feature the long chase scene in the middle—they’re running from the beginning to the end.

But in the second film, you can see how well writers and directors do when they are freed from what turns out to be the tyranny, the narrative straightjacket, of beginnings and endings.  Every beginning is the same: establish characters. Establish situations. All well and good, and as Americans we seem particularly obsessed with origins.  But there’s not a lot of room for creative maneuver.

The end provides a little more room. There’s happy—conflict resolved! It all worked out! There’s sad—conflict resolved, but a character, or the relationship, died! There’s bittersweet—a character, but not the main one, and probably a dog, died, but the main character learned a valuable lesson!  There’s the non-ending ending, and the recursive we’re back at the beginning ending. 

But the middle! Ahh. The middle is the sweet, sweet cream between the hard cookies of beginning and ending.  And it’s made of pure, delicious conflict.  

Take Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s opportunity to shine.  He tried to shake the narrative shackles of beginnings and endings in Memento, and came close.  He later figured out a way to use frame devices and plots in plots to mess around with beginnings and endings in Inception.  But Dark Knight allows him to take the narrative gloves off and provide nothing but climaxes for two and half hours.    Unlike Batman Begins, Dark Knight Rises, and most adventure movies, DK completely eschews the three act structure or even the Aristotelian conventions of plot and action.

Get your mind out of the gutter, people.

It’s a cliché, but Dark Knight’s narrative arc really is like a roller coaster–build up, rush down, build up, rush down, repeat.  The opening establishes the Joker = up! Then there’s a party or something = down/building up. Batman flies in Hong Kong to capture that guy = up!  Then lots of other stuff with equal signs and ups and downs that’s kinda boring in summary (read it here if you want to, although Wikipedia does not supply the equal signs) but that includes what feel like multiple false endings and climaxes again and again—Bruce is gonna reveal his secret! Lt. Gordon is dead! (For a while.) Batman’s gonna kill the Joker! But he can’t! He captures him! But the movie isn’t even close to being over—the Joker escapes via that horrific scene with the cellphone in that guy’s stomach! Then Rachel gets killed and Harvey Dent becomes Two Face! God, I’m getting out of breath, and I’m just typing.  Then Joker threatens to blow up a hospital! Then he DOES blow up the hospital! Then the hostages are dressed as clowns and Batman has to fight a whole SWAT team to stop them from killing the wrong people! Then there’s Two Face, then the Joker, andthenBatmansomemore, and Gordon’s not dead but Two Face is going all Sophie’s Choice on Gordon and his family, then Two Face is dead and Batman is all running away and he like takes the fall AND THE TWO NOTE SOUNDTRACK MUSIC GETS LOUD AGAIN—Daaaaaaaa! DAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!—AND IT’S SUDDENLY OVER! Also, somewhere in there Joker makes a pencil disappear and also creates another Liar’s Dilemma by giving those two boats detonators that may or may not detonate their own vs the other one’s boat, and I don’t even remember when that happened and Wikipedia forgot about it but IT WAS THERE.  

It’s an exhausting but brilliant movie. When I saw it in the theater, my wife’s contact lens actually fell out of her eye because she had not blinked for so long. It felt like it was never gonna end, in a good and a bad way, and I felt shaken by it for at least a day.  

And if you prefer, you can use Kurt Vonnegut’s plot graph.  He’s less interested in charting the action than in the character’s good of ill fortune.  In this case, Batman has nothing but ill fortune from beginning to end.

Batman Begins and then Dark Knight Rises are more narratively conventional, because they have to be.  BB, as the title straightforwardly tells us, begins the Batman myth once again, if with some revision.  DKR works hard to pull together the loose strands of BB and DK, so that the Ra’s al Ghul and Harvey Dent plotlines connect.  DK, though, is nothing but middle.   You can say the same things about many of the movies I listed in the opening—freed from the necessity of telling, or in many cases, retelling, the foundations, and freed from the need to wrap the story up in a tidy closing bow, those movies can provide murky thrills without any final sugarcoating—Han is frozen in carbonite, Luke gets the worst news of his life and is symbolically castrated by his new father, and the Empire has, um, struck back.  The Fellowship has separated and, individually, faced to worst fight of their lives—but they now realize that the worst is really still ahead of them.  Godfather II—and, perhaps amazingly to say in the same sentence, Spider-Man 2 and X2—use their predecessors to deepen what we already know about the characters, or develop what previously were mere glimpses of backstory, or to provide dramatic irony for the audience, as when Ripley is ASSURED by that dickhead Paul Reiser that there are no such thing as aliens, or in Terminator 2, to pull disparate and unlikely continuities together in satisfying compositions.

Every summer it’s the same movie critic’s crisis: originality good, sequels bad.  But when critics lament yet another summer of sequels, they’re missing the vast narrative possibility that lies in the middle of things.    

Time: 90 minutes! I really need to get my time back down.


[i] I am not counting cash-in made for DVD retreads, so don’t throw, say, Lion King II: Simba’s Pride back at me, OK?

[ii] For the record, I prefer Alien. So much for my title.

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8 thoughts on “Why is the Second Movie Always the Best One?

  1. The 2nd of a trilogy tends to be the darkest of the series, and I think there is something in artists and appreciators of art that relates to the dark.
    The exception to this rule is Temple of Doom.

    • Hourman says:

      Oh my God, Temple of Doom really does throw the formula. Raiders of the Lost Ark is, in a way, more like Dark Knight–its summary is also one breathless series of climaxes, which is unusual for a first movie. Good call. Thanks for reading and commenting, Amanda.

  2. Johannes says:

    And here’s the reason why: Liminality! Process! Utopia! That’s what Movie # 2 is all about. Like the middle of “Animal Farm,” of the revolutionary moment–the bliss of freedom, before institutional tyranny returns. The second movie is the place of pure process, freed from the compulsion of origin or arrival. (The second movie is the way school should be.) In the Joker’s words, “Do I look like a guy with a plan?”

    Also, I thought your writing here is really really great–not that the Hourman cares about that, of course.

    Thank you for making me think!

    • owl says:

      Wow, “Liminality! Process! Utopia!” I think I’m in love.

    • Hourman says:

      Tying the Joker himself into the nonplot plot of Dark Knight is brilliant. Yes, Joker, not Batman, is absolutely in control of the movie’s narrative, and it’s no surprise that he emerges as by far the most compelling figure in the movie, maybe in almost every superhero movie. And Hourman cares very much about the writing. Thanks as always, Johannes.

  3. owl says:

    I loved Dark Knight Rises. And you summarize it exactly. I FELT your wife’s contact lens fall out of her eye. It was the real deal, man. AND, you give Anthony Lane a run for his money on this review. Nicely done.

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