perpetual stew

Strap on your leather aprons, guys. Time for a club meeting.

There’s a new Shaft in theaters. This one, Shaft (2019), is a sequel to Shaft (2000) which, itself, was a sequel to the original trilogy of films beginning with Shaft (1971). Richard Roundtree reprises the titular role, and Samuel L. Jackson returns from the previous film. In each case, an extraordinarily long hiatus between installments.

Film had an expiration date; each subsequent generation got its own set of cultural cues. If an idea had legs, after a certain point, you’d just reboot it with new actors in a contemporary milieu. Now, filmmakers can continue the same story from movies released before many in the audience were old enough to watch them and count on us figuring things out by catching up with YouTube and Wikipedia.

It’s much more narratively satisfying than a reboot. It’s also smart from a business standpoint: the actors who got more famous in the interim—Tom Cruise between Top Gun and Top Gun: Maverick—can draw new audiences, while the rest of the cast remains, well, affordable.

The long-hiatus sequel allows for a unique strain of creative fermentation—look at what Paul Newman did with the role of “Fast Eddie” Felson in The Color of Money (to my knowledge, the very first such sequel, made 25 years after The Hustler). It’s fascinating to watch the evolution of an actor and character when a decade or more has passed since their last adventure together. Shaft (2019) isn’t very good—apparently—but the fact that Roundtree is still around to play the role feels miraculous. It satisfies our desire for authenticity.

Now, for all you quibblers—and the quibbler-percentage of Maven Game readers continues to astonish me—I’ll define a long-hiatus sequel as one that continues the narrative from a non-recent film using at least some of the actors in their original roles. Ghostbusters (2016) isn’t a long-hiatus sequel, but Ghostbusters 3 (2020) will be. Terminator: Salvation wasn’t, but Terminator: Dark Fate will be. Emma Thompson reprises her role as Agent O in Men In Black: International, but the gap there is a modest seven years. Insufficient hiatus.

The reboot, as an art form, pleases no one—except audiences, I guess. The long-hiatus sequel is the storytelling equivalent of a perpetual stew where the pot is never cleaned and the flavors keep evolving forever. By the time Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill are long gone, we’ll be enjoying long-hiatus sequels featuring septuagenarian Daisy Ridley using the Force to fetch her slippers.

At the breakfast table the other day, I wondered aloud whether the new Shaft is the first long-hiatus sequel of another long-hiatus sequel. If it is, it won’t be the last. These sequels are now a massive trend—from Rocky Balboa (16-year gap) through Star Wars: The Force Awakens (32-year gap) and on to Bill and Ted Face the Music (29-year gap, assuming they stay on schedule, and if they don’t, they just have to remember to use a time machine to tell their earlier selves to make the movie sooner).

Inevitably, we’re going to have periodic franchise “hatchings” every decade or so, at whatever point the cultural soil has lain fallow long enough to return to a particular world and its inhabitants. Yet it irritates me not to have a name for this overall phenomenon beyond “long-hiatus sequel.”

Maybe, I wondered aloud, you could coin a snappy moniker for long-hiatus sequels using the metaphor of periodic cicadas? Cicadas lay their eggs and then go dormant for a specific number of years before re-emerging. Brood X, for example, fountains forth from the ground in disturbingly vast quantities every 17 years. (Come 2021, expect a Pharaoh-worthy swarm of locusts across the eastern United States.)

“Cicadian rhythm,” my wife quipped. (Reader, I married her.)

This is the thought process I use to craft book titles. Whimsy plays a role—you have to be willing to go a little too far to know when you’ve gone far enough. When we were brainstorming what would eventually be called Wisdom of Bees: What the Hive Can Teach Business about Leadership, Efficiency, and Growth, my colleagues were playing it safe, so I suggested Beedership. Because, obviously. Unfortunately, they never let me live that one down.

So be it. It had to be suggested. And, in fact, I’d still vote for Beedership. Better the slightly-too-bold title. Alas, a publishing house is not a democracy.

So, what are we going to call films in a series separated by a lengthy hiatus? Cicadaquels.

p.s. Leather Apron Club founder Benjamin Franklin documented the emergence of Brood X in Pennsylvania in May 1715 and May 1732. I imagine he took a break from air-bathing for a few weeks to avoid a cicada-themed version of Frank Costanza’s fate: “Million-to-one shot, doc. Million-to-one.”

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