It’s back. On January 20, 2017, xXx: Return of Xander Cage will debut in theaters, marking actor Vin Diesel’s return to the series 15 years after he appeared in the first xXx film in 2002. That film was a surprise hit while its sequel xXx: State of the Union, starring Ice Cube, failed to find the same audience as its predecessor. Kong: Skull Island is also shaping up to be what amounts to a “Return of King Kong” movie or an homage to Jurassic Park.
These films aren’t terribly interesting to me on their own. But they are intriguing inasmuch as they showcase what happens when a popular actor or character leaves a series he or she started and later returns to it. Some series try to ignore the fact that they were gone at all while others make it a big selling point that they’re back, such as advertising it right in the film title.
Let’s talk about a few examples of this in honor of the return of “the return of” movie.
Returning After an Absence
The most obvious example of a “return” movie is 1988’s Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers. John Carpenter wasn’t terribly thrilled with how Halloween II turned out, so he figured it would be best to just leave the Michael Myers character in the grave and devote future Halloween films to other horror-themed stories. That idea lasted all of one film: 1982’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which underperformed and killed the series for the next six years. With Halloween 4, the filmmakers brought the series back to its roots of Michael Myers killing people in Haddonfield, pursued by Dr. Loomis. They don’t even bother trying to acknowledge that Myers and Loomis were killed in a fire at the end of Halloween II.
This year, we saw another example of this same formula with Jason Bourne. No, they didn’t call it “The Return of Jason Bourne” or anything like that, but they took a page from the First Blood playbook (actually, quite a few pages, but that’s a discussion for another day) by having its final film title be the main character’s full name, a la John Rambo. But make no mistake, this film is attempting to ignore the events of The Bourne Legacy and just stick to the same story that previous installments followed. It’s hard to ignore how tired that story is by now.
Never Say Never Again is a unique take on the “return of” movie title. At the tail end of a number of James Bond films, a little title card comes up saying “James Bond will return.” I know, 1983’s Never Say Never Again isn’t an official Bond film, and I could go on for a long time discussing why that is. The dramatic story behind the film’s production is far more interesting than the film itself. My point is that after filming 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever, Sean Connery reportedly said he would never return as James Bond. Thus, Never Say Never Again is a clever stand-in for saying “The Return of Sean Connery” or something blatantly obvious like that. Many other film titles in the Bond series, particularly The Spy Who Loved Me, Licence to Kill, The World Is Not Enough, and Skyfall, are references to Bond as a character, not to any actor playing him. But Connery was the original Bond, and Never Say Never Again is an exception to the rule in many ways.
This is a bit of a tangent, so bear with me. 1985’s The Return of the Living Dead is a self-aware horror film that treats the zombie-related events in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead as if they are actual history. It’s not so much a return of familiar villains as a reinvention of them. It introduced the concept that zombies eat humans’ brains, not their whole bodies, in order to escape from the excruciating pain of existence. It also did away with the concepts that zombies can be killed by shooting them in the head and that only being bitten by one will turn a regular person into a zombie.
Disney was bold enough to call the direct-to-video sequel to Aladdin, its blockbuster 1992 animated film, The Return of Jafar. They left the titular character of the first film completely out of the title of the sequel. That’s pretty crazy. Jafar wasn’t even the most memorable Disney villain, especially when compared to the likes of Ursula, Gaston, and Scar. But I guess they thought they couldn’t do another Aladdin film without him, much like the Wachowski Brothers thought about Agent Smith while writing the Matrix sequels.
I’ll just briefly mention Alien Resurrection, too. In Alien3, Ripley killed herself to stop the ominous Company from getting its hands on something as potentially catastrophic as an Alien Queen. In Alien Resurrection, the Company brings back a clone of the alien, as well as of Ripley. It’s not exactly a return of the original character of Ripley, but the cloning gimmick gave actress Sigourney Weaver an excuse to return to the series that started her career without having to hand the reins over to anyone else. That came later with the forgettable Alien vs. Predator films.
Return of the Jedi and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King are both the third films in their respective trilogies. These are unique among all of the other films discussed above in the fact that they don’t involve a character or actor coming back after an absence from the series or seemingly being unable to return after the end of last film. They are simply the natural culmination of everything that’s happened over the course of the two previous installments. We get to see Luke Skywalker grow and learn the ways of the Force so that by the end of Return of the Jedi, not only is he ready to return to face Darth Vader, but he’s also ready to usher in an age of peace under the restored Jedi Order.
The same is true of Aragorn. He’s unwilling to accept the mantle of King until the time is right and he’s proven himself worthy of the title in combat and diplomatic settings. And his return as King also marks the beginning of the Reunited Kingdom of Arnor and Gondor.
Superhero Returns with Lower Box-Office Returns
Batman Returns and Superman Returns are interesting case studies in the increasingly crowded world of superhero movies. Batman Returns seems to take its title from the 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, which partially inspired the 1989 film Batman. There doesn’t seem to be any other reason for that title since the character didn’t show any signs of retiring or going anywhere at the end of the first film. Batman Returns is a celebration of Tim Burton-style excess. Its even-darker tone turned off casual fans of the first film and ensured the sequel wouldn’t do as well as expected at the box office. “Returns” probably would have been a better word to use in the title of, say, The Dark Knight Rises, which actually tells a story of a long-absent Caped Crusader.
Superman Returns, on the other hand, has a good reason for having that title. It deals with the problem of Superman being absent from the silver screen for nearly two decades by incorporating it into its story and asking if the character is even relevant anymore. Despite its intriguing premise and creative ideas, Superman Returns couldn’t live up to expectations and it, too, underperformed in ticket sales.
We Now Return You…
It’ll be fun to see if Vin Diesel’s return to the xXx series will have the same effect as it had on the Fast and Furious series. I’m also curious if people will take the bait on Kong: Skull Island and see how the same kind of story as the first one plays out with modern technology. Until then, we now return you to your regularly scheduled Internet program. Feel free to return anytime.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
All images are the copyright of their respective owners.