Second-Helping Summer

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"Everybody loves a hero," Peter Parker's Aunt May tells him in Spider-Man 2. "People line up for 'em." This summer they have lined up at the multiplexes for two unlikely heroes: Peter, the quiet college student who when duty calls becomes Spider-Man, and Shrek, the green ogre out of a revisionist fairy tale.

Two weekends ago, Shrek 2 passed the first Spider-Man installment to become the fifth top-grossing film of all time. Spider-Man 2 has set records of its own: it reached the $200 million mark for domestic box office in just eight days. These two sequels and the third Harry Potter movie, The Prisoner of Azkaban — have also received the blessing of critics, some saying the projects are better the second or third time around. Everything old is gold again.

Is this good news or bad? Does sequelmania provide evidence of a pop culture that has discovered a savory supply of renourishment or a culture that is simply feeding on itself? Indeed, does the love for sequels indicate that the very idea of artistic newness has become old-fashioned, obsolete?

It's easy to see why the Shrek and Spider-Man sequels earned the critic's vote: they are action films turned into relationship movies, with the ogre and the college boy trying to be normal while coping with their unique outsider status. Peter, having faced geek tragedy in the first episode, now considers early retirement. Believing that he can't both save the world and get the girl, he tosses away his costume and renounces his arachno-essence. It takes a woman's love to convince him that his mask doesn't disguise his identity; it is his identity.

You see here the relative freedom a sequel can bring. The first film in a series is like an awkward first date. Once they are past the getting-to-know-you stage, writers can flesh out characters they could only sketch in the initial film. Any critic could name a fistful of follow-ups that outshone originals: The Bride of Frankenstein; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; The Road Warrior; Aliens; Batman Returns. In TV, improving with age is the norm: a good sitcom, whether Mary Tyler Moore or South Park, ripens in its third or fourth season. Films used to be about drastic change, TV about the status quo. Now both bestow on their characters a steady evolution. A lot like growing up.

But do moviegoers ever grow up? Their need for familiar stories starts in childhood. Every parent knows that kids squirm when hearing a bedtime story the first time but love hearing it the 20th. As children or adults, we are supposed to crave novelty but really want assurance. That's why locals eat at the old neighborhood restaurant instead of one that just opened. Or they go to a fast-food franchise.

Franchise: it's Hollywood's magic word. For decades, the moguls groused because their products, unlike cars and potato chips, were not endlessly reproducible. The Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind and The Sound of Music were the up-to-their-time top grossers, but there was no Re-Birth, Re-Wind or Re-Sound. It took The Godfather, Part II, to make sequels chic. (An Oscar for Best Picture will do that.) In 1977, the opening crawl of Star Wars — announcing the film as "Episode IV: A New Hope" — stoked an endless stream of sequels, threequels and prequels, some inspired only by greed for blockbuster status they will never attain. Among this summer's underperformers are a sequel (The Chronicles of Riddick), a roundup of old movie monsters (Van Helsing) and two dips into antique legend (Troy and King Arthur). Studios might have risked less if they'd actually tried something original.

Sequels flourish especially in conservative times, when audiences are in retreat from the shock of the new. Which is why you could place a small bet on a Bush re-election; voters may choose the sequel to a wild ride over a four-year courtship with Kerry and Edwards. But if this is so, how to explain the surprise-hit status of Fahrenheit 9/11? Simple. It too is a sequel: the latest in the continuing adventures of Michael Moore, populist rebel with a cause. Remember Bowling for Columbine, kids, when Mike confronted the gun lobby and vanquished an aged Charlton Heston? Now our capped crusader aims to bring down the President of the U.S. — for real!

Of course, there's nothing new about saying there's nothing new under the sun. To the young, everything they encounter for the first time has the force of revelation; to the old, everything was done better before — when they were young. It must always have been thus. Some ancient Greek, hearing that Homer had just composed the Iliad, probably groused, "That old war story?" And when the Odyssey came around: "What? Not a sequel!"