We are truly living in a golden age of meta sequels. Not only is “The Matrix Resurrections” now playing, which might be the most inward-looking sequel of all time, but “Spider-Man: No Way Home” just opened and broke records while also referencing the entire filmed history of the character. (An interesting thing that these movies both prove, too, is that self-referentiality does not equal a lack of sincerity. These are two of the most heartfelt blockbusters in recent memory.) In fact, it’s enough to makes us think about the history of meta sequels and why they do (or do not) work.
Ready to make some in-on-the-joke callbacks?
Photo: Warner Bros.
“Gremlins 2: The New Batch” (1990)
Until “The Matrix Resurrections,” perhaps the most meta sequel of all time was "Gremlins 2: The New Batch." (Curiously, both were made and released by Warner Bros.) Director Joe Dante, in the years since its release, has sheepishly described it as “one of the more unconventional studio films,” and he’s very correct. In following up the more traditional horror comedy beats of the first film, Dante went all out – from a Looney Tunes short starting the movie to a moment where the film “breaks” and gremlins attack the projectionist (a new version of the scene was inserted for the home video release where the VHS tape breaks) to film critic Leonard Maltin panning the first movie (and also getting attacked by gremlins). This is a nonstop gag-a-thon that is smart and funny in equal measure.
“22 Jump Street” (2014)
What did you expect from Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the geniuses behind “The LEGO Movie” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse?” Characters in “22 Jump Street” explicitly refer to “the 21 Jump Street reboot," Ice Cube is repeatedly talking about how expensive this version is (and how the characters just need to do the same thing again), and it has perhaps the most meta end credits sequence of all time, which cycles through what additional sequels in the franchise would look like. It is both a blessing and a curse that we never got any more sequels, despite Sony mulling over a “21 Jump Street”/”Men in Black” crossover that would have undoubtedly been endlessly more entertaining than “Men in Black: International.”
“Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives” (1986)
When your reportedly scary slasher movie sequel opens with an explicit 007 reference, you know you’re in for something different. And Tom McLoughlin’s “Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives,” which might not only be the crowning achievement of the entire franchise but one of the best horror movies of the 1980s (period), embraces this cockeyed spirit brilliantly. From the opening moments, which resurrects (via lightning) Jason Voorhees as an undead killing machine to the fact that this is the only movie in the franchise where the summer camp is actually opened (there are a ton of great kid actors too) to a moment where a character looks at the camera and says “some folks have a strange idea of entertainment,” “Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives” is outrageously fun but, crucially, still provides some great scares along the ways. You get what you want out of a “Friday the 13th” movie and so much more. It was also probably the most self aware slasher movie until …
Photo: New Line Cinema
“New Nightmare” (1994)
… Wes Craven was drawn back to the franchise he created, “Nightmare on Elm Street.” But instead of being a straightforward sequel, Craven decided to unleash all out meta madness. The movie treats Freddy Krueger as a fictional villain who infiltrates our existence, and has Craven playing himself, along with original actress Heather Langenkamp, who plays a fictionalized version of herself. This is Craven in full professorial mode, investigating the nature of horror movies and the societal need to be scared, while also orchestrating cool set pieces like a mechanical version of Freddy’s hand scurrying around and murdering people. As an actor Craven is a little wooden, but as a filmmaker, he’s never been sharper. And it feels very much like “New Nightmare” is a trial run for the career reinvention he would have just a few years later with the “Scream” franchise.
“Back to the Future, Part II” (1989)
All anybody ever talks about when they discuss “Back to the Future, Part II” is the brief section set in the actual future, but Robert Zemeckis’ first sequel to the classic original is much weirder and more complex. What the marketing didn’t reveal (and probably for good reason) is how extremely meta its third act is, which sees Michael J. Fox traveling back in time to 1955 when his character was already there, and interacting with sequences from the first film from a different angle/perspective. Part of this was a matter of necessity, after a script was written that saw Loraine and George in the 1960s, Crispin Glover refused to return, so any use of him in the movie had to be through existing footage or a different actor wearing a mask of the Glover (which actually led to a landmark lawsuit allowing actors more agency over their likeness). But it ends up working really well, with Zemeckis stacking obstacles and setbacks on top of one another from one timeline to the next.
“Scream 2” (1997)
Yes, all of the “Scream” movies are meta. But the first (and still the best) sequel is really meta. From a college class talking about which sequels are best (and why), to the creation of “Stab” (an in-universe movie based on the events of the first movie), to slyer gags like turning Sarah Michelle Gellar, who at the time was one of the most powerful women on TV thanks to her titular role as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” to an instantly-killed victim, “Scream 2” lovingly embraces its role as a horror movie sequel, both subverting and celebrating everything that goes along with it. Craven is clearly building on what he was playing with in “New Nightmare,” but heightening and expanding things (and making them much more palpable for general audiences). If anything, “Scream 2” set the bar too high.
“Toy Story 2” (1999)
All of the “Toy Story” movies are pretty self-aware, but “Toy Story 2” stands out as being the explicitly meta. (Think about the movie starting out with a big action set piece, leaning into sequels having to be larger and more explosive.) If there’s a moment where the movie really breaks the fourth wall, it’s when Barbie, giving a tour of Al’s Toy Barn, references the response to the first movie by talking about how “in 1995, short-sighted retailers did not order enough toys to meet demand.” This is a direct acknowledgement of the actual situation that happened in 1995 when retailers, looking at an unproven property from first-time filmmakers, failed to stock their shelves with assorted “Toy Story” bric-a-brac. (It was a problem that Disney never faced again, especially after formally acquiring Pixar in 2006.) Throw in an extended “Star Wars” gag and a generally more winking sense of humor, and “Toy Story 2” is the meta peak of the mountainous “Toy Story” franchise.