Categories Articles, Lists


      With the ledgers closed and audiences back to fall pursuits, the past four months can clearly be called the Summer of the Sequel. Of the ten highest-grossing films released between May and August, seven were based on previous hits.
      However, beyond a clear case of déjà vu, these top performers had something else in common: each demonstrated the importance of irony to a motion picture premise.
      Irony is that 180-degree twist that presents the hero with his/her ultimate challenge and infuses the narrative with a critical sense of unpredictability. It can be found at the heart of virtually every successful film from D.W. Griffith to Judd Apatow, from the most lowbrow studio comedy to the loftiest indie drama. Sometimes it’s overt (“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” Casablanca, 1942). Sometimes it’s more subtle, as with Terrence Malick’s 2011 The Tree of Life, where the seemingly trivial moments of everyday life are juxtaposed against the awe-inspiring forces of space and time that brought the characters to a particular moment.
      Certainly the films at the top of the all-time moneymakers’ list* contain the essential element of irony. For example:

irony-avatar AVATAR (2009)
Domestic Gross $760,507,625
On a distant planet, a human soldier assigned to join a tribe of aliens in order to eventually betray them, “goes native” and turns on the humans instead.
irony-titanic TITANIC (1997)
Domestic Gross $600,788,188
An unsinkable boat that sinks. A rich socialite who is neither. A young ne’er-do-well who demonstrates far more character that his “betters.” Need we go on?
irony-dark-knight THE DARK KNIGHT(2008)
Domestic Gross $533,345,358
A man who uses outlaw tactics to fight crime battles a master criminal who has no goal but chaos.
         Even in a summer suffering from sequel-itis irony is front and center. Here are the season’s top grossers (as of mid-August) and examples of how irony is key to each film’s premise:
Domestic Gross $358 million
It’s been seven films and ten long years since we were introduced to “The Boy Who Lived.” That the fate of the world rests in the hands of an undersized orphan child no longer seems quite as ironic as it did now that this child is in his early twenties and a battle-hardened veteran of
wizard warcraft. But novelist J.K. Rowling and screenwriter Steve Kloves have done everything they can to make Harry’s position vis-à-vis Lord Voldemort as uneven as possible by stripping him of many of his key allies, his powerful mentor (Dumbledore) and even his trusty magic wand. A Dumbledore-vs.-Voldemort showdown would be a contest of equals; Voldemort-vs.-Potter has an intentionally uneven tilt that makes it compelling – even if you’ve read the book.
irony-transformers TRANSFORMERS 3: DARK OF THE MOON
Domestic Gross $347 million
The premise of all the Transformers films remains the same: In a battle between giant alien robots representing the forces of Good and Evil, the fate of the Earth rests on the faith and courage of an everyday nerd. Shia LaBeouf’s Ben Witwicky may have the hottest girlfriends on the planet, but he’s still a whiny, undersized loser who must struggle with abusive superiors, overbearing parents and a penchant for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. (His last name, “Witwicky,” all but screams dork.) Just as every Rocky sequel demanded that its underdog hero be knocked back to society’s bottom rung so he could rise up again, so is Witwicky required to endure a series of brutal disappointments and humiliations in Act I so his eventual triumph in Act III is that much more dramatic.
irony-hangover THE HANGOVER PART II
Domestic Gross $253 million
The original movie’s premise could be expressed as: What is supposed to be a simple bachelor party turns into a nightmarish mystery with potentially deadly consequences when three friends awaken from a night of drunken revelry with one man missing – and no one able to remember what happened the previous evening. Or to reduce it to its essential irony (with apologies to Dickens): “The best of times turns into the worst of times.” Being essentially a beat-by-beat remake of the original, The Hangover Part II retains not only the plot of its predecessor, but its simple, ironic premise as well.
Domestic Gross $239 million
It could be said that the irony in this premise is that the legendary Fountain of Youth is pursued by a man who chooses to never grow up in the first place. What does Captain Jack Sparrow, the quintessential wild child, need with the Fountain of Youth? But on an even more elemental
On Stranger Tides exploits the same irony that has been at the center of all the POTC films: A swashbuckling hero who is cowardly, incompetent, unprincipled, eternally stoned and, his flirting with Penélope Cruz aside, most likely gay.
irony-fast-five FAST FIVE
Domestic Gross $209 million
All the Fast & Furious films are constructed on the same “switcheroo” premise: The bad guys are the good guys, and the good guys are the bad guys. Simple but effective – even after the fifth time around the track.
irony-cars CARS 2
Domestic Gross $186 million
The irony in the original Cars’ premise was quite wistful: A hero who craves speed finds himself marooned in a town where things move very, very slowly. (It’s the same irony that was at the heart of Tom Hanks’ Cast Away.) The premise of Cars 2 is far less elegant, still but no less ironic: The fate of the world rests in the hands of an idiot. Though animated and cast with anthropomorphic motor vehicles, the film is kindred to such well-known franchises as The Pink Panther, The Naked Gun and Get Smart.
irony-thor THOR
Domestic Gross $181 million
Finally! Our first original film! If you want to call the umpteenth movie based on a popular comic book “original.” In any case, here we find the following premise: A powerful but arrogant demigod is banished to Earth, where he must attempt to save the world from destruction armed with only the abilities of a mortal man. “Powerful becomes ordinary” is the ironic springboard that has powered movies from Coming to America to Gladiator.
irony-bridesmaids BRIDESMAIDS
Domestic Gross $167 million
Another original film! The premise: A middle-aged bridesmaid turns what should be a celebration of her best friend’s good fortune into an escalating pity-party of romantic frustrations and unrealized dreams. In other words, the heroine very early on stops supporting her best friend and makes the upcoming event all about her.
irony-kungfu-panda KUNG FU PANDA 2
Domestic Gross $163 million
As with the original film, the premise here is: The fate of the world rests in the hands of – wait for it – an idiot. Yep, it’s essentially the same premise as Cars 2, only with CGI pandas instead of CGI tow trucks.
Domestic Gross $150 million
The irony in this film all but writes the first act by itself: A ninety-eight-pound weakling considered unfit for military service is enlisted in a top-secret military project to be transformed into America’s ultimate super-solider. The man who can’t even qualify as a private, is bully fodder and a social misfit not only single-handedly wins WWII, he also beats up the bully and gets the girl. Oh, just to keep things consistent, the movie’s a prequel!
         As these films attest, just because a movie is a sequel or prequel doesn’t mean it can’t contain the same ironies that helped drive its original. Sometimes this means taking the hero back to square one. Sometimes it means shifting the focus to another character. And sometimes it means doing the original movie all over again and simply changing the scene slugs.Yeah, I’m looking at you, Hangover Part II.

* Source: Box Office Mojo accessed 8/16/11