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The Summer of Sequels No One Asked for (or Even Thought Possible)

‘Ocean’s 8’ kicks off a sustained run of movies seeking to ride the vapor trail of blockbusters like ‘Avengers: Infinity War.’ Is this a bad thing for the movies?

Warner Bros./Lionsgate/Paramount/STXfilms/Ringer illustration

Unlike so many of its summer sequel cohort, Ocean’s 8 is not in thrall to fan service. But it can recite its past from memory, like inscriptions in a yearbook it never opens. The key characters in this new movie have a relationship to figures from the original trilogy, two of whom even show up in small but crucial cameos. It uses the same tools and blueprint: lifting the nudgy-winky patter from George Clooney and Brad Pitt and passing it along to Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett; the big steal conceit, too, replacing the bank vault with a necklace; the time-skipping storytelling nodes that trace and retrace every slippery little lock-pick along the way of the heist at the center of it all. The gang gets together, jokes are cracked, and riches are razed. In context, the all-female Met Gala caper is a statement all its own—at one point Bullock’s character remarks that finally being a woman and “invisible” will be to their advantage. This movie is a first-among-equals endeavor, a slickly entertaining and worthy partner to its forbearers. But Ocean’s, it turns out, isn’t much of an extended universe—more of a constellation, seen through a high-powered telescope.

Ocean’s 8 marks an interesting turn in Hollywood’s urgent effort to get people to leave their homes: the curveball sequel. It is the first in a series of movies arriving in coming months appearing out of no evident desire, without the breathless anticipation that the studios have churned out for bigger, louder franchises. They’re crypto-franchises, ginned up without anything better to do. Later this week, the fifth Jurassic installment arrives—no surprise, that was all but guaranteed within days of Jurassic World’s release in 2015, when it earned a stunning $500 million around the world in three days. But there is also Incredibles 2, Pixar’s return to the superpowered Parr family, nearly 14 years since the original film became a touchstone of the animation studio. (And, memorably, the first to star actual human characters.) Later in June, Sicario: Day of the Soldado will come to theaters, perhaps the least-predicted sequel in recent times after the original 2015 thriller grossed $85 million worldwide. (Though it did develop a particularly fervent brand of cult fandom.)

That’s not all. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is the name of a movie opening in movie theaters next month. A new Ant-Man movie might not be the mostly hotly tipped movie in the MCU, but the corporate rationale behind it—after a $500 million gross—is sound. Mamma Mia 2 is a sequel to a film musical based on the music of ABBA that is a decade old. But guess what? Mamma Mia made nearly $100 million more than Ant-Man and is more beloved. (Ask my mom.) This is thoroughbred fodder. There’s nothing super or intergalactic about Ethan Hunt, but the Mission: Impossible franchise soldiers on in July with Fallout, the sixth film in the series. One week later, we’ll see Christopher Robin, a kind of ultra-sequel that blasts the titular boy and his friends from the Hundred Acre Wood decades into the future for new adventures.

In September, the ghostly visage of The Nun will haunt theaters, spun off from The Conjuring series, which itself was inspired by the paranormal investigators who are featured in the Amityville Horror films from the ’70s and ’80s. That same series already has a spinoff set in the Annabelle franchise of movies about an evil doll. All four of these movies—The Conjuring, The Conjuring 2, Annabelle, and Annabelle: Creationgenerated more than $1.2 billion in gross. And then The Predator returns for that alien’s first stand-alone movie in eight years. The three previous stand-alone Predator movies, it should be noted, have generated just $280 million in worldwide gross. Did I mention there’s a second Goosebumps movie this fall? And a second telling of Mowgli’s story from The Jungle Book, just two years after Disney’s The Jungle Book? A modern Suspiria, too? A new Grinch movie? Miraculously—desperately?—a new Lisbeth Salander movie? BUMBLE-goddamn-BEE?

We are in the great morass of IP—a quicksand pit in which the sand somehow manufactures more sand. This isn’t exactly new. For a decade, superheroes and Skywalkers and Dominic Torettos have dominated the movie industry arms race, an ever-narrowing gambit at cultural management and marketing. It has been an extraordinary feat of escalator enthusiasm, always going up up up. Their success has shrunken the point of view of studios and audiences alike. Why try new when you can stay old and familiar. Take, say, The Nutcracker. Haven’t you long wondered about the mystical origins of the figures in Tchaikovsky’s sumptuous 1982 ballet? Disney has got the answers. (No one has wondered!)

These movies have almost nothing to tell us about the work that came before them. That, in and of itself, is not a crime. But it has created a feedback loop of storytelling, an experience that treats sitting in a movie theater like shopping for produce; as long as it looks fresh, feels right, and has ripened, it’ll fill us up. I saw three of this summer’s “surprise” sequels this week, and the effect was uncanny. Some were good, some not. Infinity War, flawed and fascinating as it was, was grand design moviemaking, projecting years into the future. These new, smaller movies feel stitched together, patchworks from prior product. They aren’t ultimately sequels, but brand extensions.

This may seem frivolous, but it is tremendously relevant to the movies you’ll be seeing for the next 10 years. There have always been big-ticket projects on studio balance sheets—from success stories like Ben-Hur to notorious flops like Cleopatra. Spectacle is the hallmark of Hollywood, the swings that fund the minders on the margins. They aren’t going anywhere. But in this time of deathless iteration, the midbudget original movie is the victim, replaced by stories either unworthy of being spun or prized just enough by a corporate parent unwilling to release its rights to said property that it will make an entire movie before those rights lapse. (Ahem, The Girl in the Spider’s Web.)

I didn’t see curveball sequels coming, and my knees are buckling. No one knows how deep down the bench the business will look for fresh arms. But maybe there’s genius to be spotted through this View-Master card nostalgia filter. The one movie of this bunch that has me most intrigued—perhaps foolishly—is The Happytime Murders. From Brian Henson, son of Muppets creator Jim, it’s a crude, noirish, comic spin on dad’s mad-eyed puppets, starring Melissa McCarthy. It might also be a beacon for this strange time at the movies.

It’s also the best IP story going today. After the movie’s marketing campaign unfurled a “No Sesame. All Street.” tagline in its trailer, Sesame Workshop—which is entirely unrelated to this independent STX production—sued for a temporary restraining order ahead of the movie’s August 17 release date. It lost. The Happytime Murders isn’t really a part of the Muppets universe. It’s a riff, a gag, satire—not so much a spin as it is pure torque. It feels violently different from what came before. And it just might be the kind of thing movies need.