It happens so often it’s practically a cliche: great movie, not-so-great sequel. It’s not that sequels are necessarily awful (though they often are). It’s just that, for the most part, they fail to live up to the original. Men in Black II, Batman Returns, The Matrix Reloaded, the second Pirates of the Caribbean, The Karate Kid Part II, The Boondock Saints II, Kung Fu Panda 2. Sure, there are some exceptions, but nevertheless, this second-act fizzle is so common that audiences have come to expect it.
Conventional wisdom says that sequels are just trying to cash in on the success of the first movie. People will go see them on name alone, so why bother to make a worthy successor? Certainly, the lengthy parade of second-rate sequels to Disney classics (Lion King 2, anyone?) lends credence to the idea.
But it’s more than just that. Even when the project’s given ample time, budget, and artistic love, the sequel effect still holds.
There’s something deeper going on here. Why do golfers blow past their competition on day one of a tournament, then falter on the second day? Why do bloggers write a killer post in twenty minutes, then struggle for hours to recapture the magic in a follow-up? Is it the pressure of living up to expectations, as sports announcers would have you believe?
The answer is far less dramatic. It’s a statistical anomaly called regression to the mean.
The idea is straightforward. In almost any performance – whether it’s golf, blogging, or directing a movie – two factors are at work. One is skill. The other is random chance or variation, the everyday fluctuation of circumstance and ability from one moment to the next. If a performance is especially amazing, generally it means you got both: skill and luck lined up. But in the encore attempt, only the skill remains. You’re unlikely to get lucky twice in a row.
Simple as that.
Statistics rule our lives, but our brains aren’t wired to think statistically. We like simple, interesting stories to explain the way things happen. But the truth is often far more mathematical.
What’s the worst sequel you can remember seeing?