Sequels: whether in literature or film, they have among the most disappointing ratios of expectation to satisfaction. The rewards for success are great, but it is so easy to do them wrong. And film music is no exception.
The first ingredient to success is the composer of the original film. Very rarely have we seen successful multi-composer franchises. Alien stands as a rare exception. Every single movie in the enduring series (including the two AvP films), has had a different composer, yet the musical canvas manages to hold a kind of coherence.
X-Men is an example of things gone wrong. After five films with the bold topic of superheroes, you’d think that a recurring X-Men main theme might have become as famous as Superman’s melody, but no. Although each individual score in the series is excellent, they ultimately hold no thematic continuity.
But even a common theme is sometimes not enough to form a cohesive whole. The combination of Williams, Doyle, Hooper and Desplat creates a bizarre mélange of moods for Harry Potter’s world, despite the recurring presence of Hedwig’s theme. Then again, some argue that this musical progression matches the changing mood of the films.
Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The Omen, Back to the Future, Lost: these are examples of what franchise music can achieve in the hands of a single composer. The trick to sequel music is to continuously add more thematic material with each installment, while gradually diminishing dependency on the original main theme. It’s no coincidence that the famous Indiana Jones or Star Trek themes became less and less frequent as the franchises went on. They had become so popular that anything more than a small occasional instance would have been overbearing. It should also be noted that the most famous Star Wars theme (Darth Vader’s theme), was introduced in the sequel, not the first film.
But it’s not because another composer must be brought in to pick up the slack in a franchise that continuity can’t be achieved. As long as one is careful not to rely too much on the existing material (like John Debney’s Predators score), acceptable results are possible. Marco Beltrami has made a name for himself writing sequels for other people’s scores using their themes sparingly. Live Free or Die Hard and Terminator 3 are good examples. But the greatest achievement by a composer different than the original is perhaps Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem. There, Brian Tyler admirably fused themes and motifs from both franchises into one dynamite score that still bears his propulsive style.
Sometimes a composer takes a sequel in a direction that’s altogether different from the original, and yet nails it, making some of us wish they had been attached to the series from the start. Michael Giacchino’s Cars 2 and John Powell’s many Ice Age sequels are fine examples.
Also, some composers don’t quite have the knack for it, even when given the reins of a franchise. Lalo Schifrin never quite did anything new to reinvent his Rush Hour series across three movies. Elmer Bernstein’s sequel to The Magnificient Seven is essentially a rehash of the original’s material. Then again, some debate that “if the shoe fits…”
Ultimately, writing sequels music is a difficult, often thankless job, and that is perhaps why Danny Elfman publicly said in the early 90s that he’d rather avoid them: a statement at odds with the masterful quality of his Batman Returns score. But his three Men in Black scores show us that his policy obviously must’ve relaxed in later years.