When Is a Movie Series Not a Series?

As anyone who has been within a mile radius of a movie theatre in the past half decade can tell you, a whole lot of movie sequels have been produced recently. A lot of these sequels are great. Some of them that aren’t great—when in combination with the original film—still make for a very fun series.

Then there are those films that have sequels that just don’t feel authentic. I think it’s easiest to think of this with some older films that are still widely known. Take Jaws. Jaws had three sequels (and an Italian ripoff from director Bruno Mattei [who also made his own Terminator 2 before James Cameron ever got around to it] that claimed to be Jaws 5, but that’s another story). Many of us are aware of these sequels, whether we’ve seen them or not. We might know that the third Jaws was in 3D, or we might be aware that Michael Caine could not accept his first Academy Award because he was busy filming Jaws: The Revenge, one of the worst films ever made.

And yet when we talk about Jaws, there is only one film we talk about. The same is for the most part true of The Exorcist, which shocked audiences in 1973 and still stands as one of the best and scariest films ever made. Exorcist II: The Heretic came out four years later and was more or less laughed out of theaters. It had gotten so bad that The Exorcist III was just an afterthought in 1990, even if it’s a legitimately good movie, albeit far from a great sequel. There were even two prequel films released this century—well, technically one film with two vastly different edits to the point where they could both be released to theaters and Hollywood executives didn’t feel too guilty taking your money.

Things have gotten more complicated in recent years, of course, with reboots, remakes, prequels, and reimaginings. Quite frankly, we need to draw a line. I know no sequel will make the original disappear, but sometimes I just want to talk about Pirates of the Caribbean without people thinking I’m talking about a weird octopus monster who plays the organ with his tentacle beard.

Some sequels feel legitimate, while many others don’t. Sometimes you might draw the line once an important member of the cast or perhaps a writer, director, or producer ceases involvement with the series. It can be for any number of reasons.

First off, is a series different than a franchise? I think “series” focuses on continuity, while “franchise” can incorporate multiple continuities, reboots with very loose continuity, and spinoffs or remakes. But at the end of the day what makes a franchise “legitimate” rather than just a great movie with a bunch of cash grab sequels? Does it have to do with artistic merit or integrity in the face of the obvious bags of money being chased? Let’s explore a couple examples and see if we can’t get to the bottom of this.

Jurassic Park

The first one I’ll talk about in detail here has only recently been dethroned as my favorite film, one of Steven Spielberg’s two best films of 1993, and the one dinosaur film to rule them all. Jurassic Park is an incredible film, and it’s obviously had a truly lasting cultural impact. This movie shattered box office records and made dinosaurs cool again. So many people who wouldn’t have been able to name any dinosaurs other than a t-rex now know what a velociraptor is (even if the velociraptors in the film are far more emblematic of the Utahraptor, as the velociraptor was about the size of a turkey, but that’s neither here nor there).

It’s kind of difficult to talk about the Jurassic Park/World series as if it’s not a series because 2015’s Jurassic World is one of the most successful films ever made.

And yet when we think of the series, what classic moments, characters, and scenes come from any of the sequels? What cultural impact have the sequels had? I suppose Blue, the star velociraptor of the Jurassic World films, is significant. But what else? One of the best roller coasters in the world at Universal’s Islands of Adventure I guess is something.

I think this is where I draw the line. If it feels like more or less everything classic about the series is from the first film, then maybe we shouldn’t be viewing these as series.

My verdict: Really only one movie with a bunch of sequels, but it’s tough to ignore all the others given how popular the series is.


I’ll admit that I feel less strongly about this one than I did a few years ago. By my count, this movie has two legitimately solid sequels (Halloween III: Season of the Witch and 2018’s Halloween), with three other okay-to-decent sequels (the original Halloween II, Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, and Halloween H20).

But while this series has more than one good movie, it’s painfully apparent when marathoning this series that with the exception of the wildly original Halloween III, the series isn’t that interested in doing anything other than recreating what worked from the first movie. While some will say that’s true of all or at least most sequels, many franchises at least give us a different story here or there, or classic moments from sequels. Mel Gibson doesn’t pop his shoulder back into place until Lethal Weapon 2, and that’s one of the most iconic things from that series.

Admittedly it’s kind of neat to see Halloween II be a direct continuation of the original, and ironically Halloween Kills doing the same thing in regards to 2018’s Halloween is almost a point for it being a true franchise, but there’s just something so exhausting about how the series has gone to such great lengths to dig up any minor character from the original film and have them come back as major characters. There’s a fun little nod to Lonnie, the bully who picked on Tommy Doyle in the original, in the 2018 film, but then he’s a main character in Halloween Kills. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to see people look curiously at Michael standing off in the distance staring at them, only to have a cut and then he’s gone.

My verdict: Not a series, just one movie that keeps getting remade (and also the excellent and completely disconnected Halloween III).

Friday the 13th

From one slasher series about a masked killer to another, this one’s a no-brainer for me. This is not just a series, it is perhaps the series. And that’s not to say anything of its quality. Most of these movies are not great, some of them are even pretty terrible, but they all feel legit.

It helps here that most of what we think of when we think of the series isn’t even established in the first movie. Sure, we have the camp setting and we have the memorable and violent kills, but where is Jason? Where is the hockey mask? This series took a while to become fully formed, and as a result I’m hardpressed to think of a series that has fewer people vouching for the original film as the best in the series. Almost all will say Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (the fourth film – don’t ask questions) or Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives are the best (I’m a Part VI guy myself, though I’ll acknowledge that it’s close between these two). And it helps that most of these movies—even while they all have basically the same plot and structure—continue to have memorable moments. Depending on who you ask, the best moment in the series might be the sleeping bag kill or the liquid nitrogen kill, and these are in the seventh and tenth films, respectively.

My verdict: Obviously a series, and one of the best if you’re into this kind of thing. You can complain about the ninth film if you want to, though.

Pirates of the Caribbean

This one’s a little complicated. I think a lot of people will look at the most recent two movies and think of them as illegitimate because Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley are absent from the fourth, and the fifth came out so much later (and I still haven’t seen it, to be perfectly honest). But the original Pirates trilogy keeps a consistent cast, and all three films are directed by Gore Verbinski. So why don’t I view this as a true series?

I loved the first Pirates movie, and seeing the second on in the theaters was one of the biggest disappointments in my cinema-going life. I just thought it was a bad movie, and it kept me from watching the third one until probably around 2016, when curiosity finally got the better of me. But the more I thought about it, the more things became clear to me.

The second Pirates movie isn’t just a bad movie. It completely contradicts the first movie. In the first movie, we learn that Will Turner’s father is dead. In the second movie, we learn that he’s alive…and he’s part starfish. Or something. It’s still not really clear to me, 15 years later. Now before you go and yell “The Empire Strikes Back” at me, I’d like to point out that this isn’t the only example of this kind of thing within the series, because a little retconning isn’t always a bad thing. At the end of the first movie, when Will aids Jack in his escape from the gallows, Commodore Norrington concludes that they can afford to give him “one day’s head start.” This is a tongue in cheek line and a great way to end the movie. It’s a callback to an earlier moment, but it’s also the completion of Norrington’s character arc. He has learned throughout the course of the film that it’s possible to be both a pirate and a good man, arguably the central theme of the movie. Him saying this is him acknowledging that it’s his military duty to pursue Jack Sparrow, but at the same time he doesn’t much care because he knows Sparrow shouldn’t have been executed in the first place, since he’s a hero. And yet in the second film, Norrington took so seriously to pursuing Jack Sparrow that he captained his ship into a hurricane or something, and he was court martialed and is now depressed, alcoholic, and unemployed. I know this sounds like a small detail, but it’s so insanely dumb that I just can’t get over it.

This is perhaps the one I feel most passionate about. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is basically a perfect movie to me, and if you ask me, it hasn’t had a truly legitimate sequel.

My verdict: There is only one Pirates of the Caribbean movie.


We now have more Hellraiser films than someone who’s missing one finger has fingers, and over half of them have been direct to video. That’s as good a formula as any to making even a hardcore fan give up on the series. To be perfectly honest, there’s a DTV movie or two in the series that’s worth watching. Inferno is decent albeit barely a Hellraiser movie, and Hellworld is perfect dumb fun.

But Hellraiser’s complicated because unlike something like Friday the 13th, it comes from a significant creative voice in British horror author Clive Barker’s novella The Hellbound Heart. Barker even directed the first film in the series, and it remains a truly haunting encapsulation of his vision.

Barker had a role in the second film in the series, and then basically skipped town the second executives realized Pinhead was the star. The result is a series that feels like it has one legitimate sequel, and a plethora of junk (even if I don’t particularly like the second film, and my favorite sequel is actually the third movie).

Basically, you end up with one sequel that feels like the original, and a number of generic horror movies that feel like they had Cenobites thrown in to sell them. And even most Hellraiser diehards, I think, gave up on this series once Doug Bradley was replaced as Pinhead.

My verdict: Two movies, not really a series

Jason Bourne

I loved the original Bourne trilogy back when those movies came out. I still think The Bourne Ultimatum is one of the best action movies of this century, and the scene where Bourne tries to talk Paddy Considine through a train station when there’s an assassin trying to kill him is basically the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen. This series has now had two sequels that I haven’t seen, the first of which didn’t even have Jason Bourne in it, so I admittedly don’t know how that works.

If I didn’t know better, my instinct would be to say that since the original trilogy is all based on Robert Ludlum novels and the other two aren’t, then there are only three legitimate films in the series. Except having read these novels way back in high school, I can confidently say that you will not easily find more liberal literary adaptations. So the idea of there being a Ludlum story to draw upon doesn’t seem a prerequisite, given that there’s so little Ludlum in these movies to begin with.

My verdict: I don’t know. Someone who’s seen Legacy and Jason Bourne and understands what I’m prattling on about in this article let me know please.


Do most people even know Psycho has a sequel? I don’t think so. Not unlike Jaws, I think here we have an original film that’s just so classic that it just doesn’t matter that there was not one, but two sequels (and three, if you include the thing that Mick Garris made for HBO).

I think it’s easy to overlook a sequel that comes out 20 years later. And yet, as we’ve seen in recent years with Mad Max: Fury Road, Blade Runner 2049, and Doctor Sleep, it’s possible to revive a long-dormant series and make legitimately great sequels to some of the greatest films of all time.

Yet Psycho’s reputation is just so grand, and its director, Alfred Hitchcock, is so legendary that it just didn’t seem possible that this film could have a sequel that would do the original justice. Doctor Sleep is probably the closest comparison because the Mad Max series may be great, but let’s face it: George Miller is not Alfred Hitchcock.

And yet Psycho II is a pretty great continuation of the original film. Anthony Perkins and Vera Miles come back and do their original roles justice. It’s a sequel that I think a lot of people now are aware is pretty good, but it’s still a bit of a deep cut.

But the bottom line is that as good as Psycho II is (and I even kind of like Psycho III, though it’s admittedly far more flawed), you get the full Psycho experience from the original. I don’t think the sequels really do a whole lot to stand out, though they are pleasant surprises. I’d compare Psycho II to The Exorcist III—far better than it deserved to be, but there’s still a reason when we say “The Exorcist” or “Psycho,” we’re referring to one movie.

The verdict: Pleasant surprise—a series is there if you want it to be, but I don’t blame anyone for wanting to call it quits after one movie.

James Bond

Even more than the Friday the 13th series, this is clearly a series. I don’t think I know anyone who considers Dr. No the best in the series, though there isn’t really a consensus as to which film is. Casino Royale, Goldfinger, From Russia with Love, and Skyfall all seem to be popular picks, and given that this series has run for so long, there’s even some debate as to what actor we think of when we think of Bond.

Continuity doesn’t mean a thing here, as only a few films in the series prior to Daniel Craig’s involvement even pay attention to what happened in a previous film. So while having one consistent continuity may be essential to another series, here it just never mattered.  

If the James Bond series called it quits after one movie, here’s a list of things we’d be missing out on:

  • Daniel Craig
  • Jaws
  • Oddjob
  • “We Have All the Time in the World” by Louis Armstrong
  • “Do you expect me to talk?” “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”
  • “A martini. Shaken, not stirred.” Pretty sure he drinks a shaken martini in Dr. No, but he doesn’t make this iconic order until Goldfinger
  • The Goldeneye N64 game
  • Union Jack parachute
  • Ernst Stavro Blofeld, James Bond’s archnemesis
  • Pussy Galore
  • Auric Goldfinger
  • “Goldfinger” by Shirley Bassey
  • Basically everything iconic in Goldfinger
  • Judi Dench as M
  • Scaramanga’s third nipple
  • That awesome John Barry action music during the fight at the gypsy camp in From Russia with Love
  • James Bond running on top of alligators to escape a death trap in Live and Let Die
  • Margaret and Dennis Thatcher interrupting James Bond while he’s having sex

The verdict: Do I look like I give a damn?

Texas Chainsaw Massacre

This is a weird one, and of course the recent Netflix release is what inspired this. It’s weird because there’s a fairly consistent involvement from the original filmmakers, with producer Kim Henkel directing the fourth film and being involved in all the films since as a producer. Original director Tobe Hooper directed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and even original cinematographer Daniel Pearl returned for the 2003 remake.

And yet this series is a giant mess, let’s be honest. With the exception of 2017’s Leatherface (one of two prequels with different continuity) and TCM2, every movie has the same plot. Hell, Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III is basically a remake of the original.

And this isn’t to say that there’s nothing to enjoy outside of the original. Matthew McConaughey’s performance in The Next Generation should be studied at Julliard. And Alexandra Daddario’s “Do your thing, cuz” when tossing Leatherface a chainsaw is an all-time line read.

But there’s really nothing iconic here aside from the first two films, and even that’s perhaps being generous with TCM2. When you sit down to watch a Texas Chainsaw Massacre, you know you’re probably going to get narration to open. You know you’re getting that flashbulb sound effect, even if it only made sense in the first movie. You know you’re probably getting a dinner scene with someone tied up. You know there’s a decent chance you’re getting a low angle shot of a woman’s butt as she approaches a house.

And while there’s an appeal to the sameness of a series (see Friday the 13th), the series also has weird differences, most notably with Leatherface’s family. Leatherface is the one truly consistent member of his family—a family which, it should be noted, does not even keep the same name throughout the films. Each movie seems to just invent new family members for Leatherface, to the point in which when we saw younger version of these characters in 2017’s Leatherface, I wasn’t even sure which characters they were supposed to be.

This is one of my least favorite series because each entry after the second just seems so uninspired. Even if you think some of the sequels, prequels, or remakes are worth watching, I find it hard to argue that they add to the original film.

The verdict: Please stop

What Have We Learned

Maybe nothing. Maybe this whole post is just as much an exercise in futility as making yet another direct-to-video Hellraiser sequel. But maybe we can safely determine that there is no set criteria for what makes a sequel feel illegitimate (sometimes continuity matters and sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes the original source material or filmmakers matter and sometimes they don’t). So how do we know when a series just feels off? Well, it seems like when we know, we just know.

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