With ‘Men in Black: International’ and ‘Toy Story 4,’ it’s rule of fours
Among the funnier moments in “Booksmart” is an exchange between Molly, one of the two protagonists, who’s off to Yale in the fall, and her classmate Theo, who’s skipping college to make a six-figure salary coding for Google. “You failed seventh grade twice,” Molly sneers. “Rule of threes,” he shrugs.
What about rule of fours? This month will be seeing two high-profile fourth go-rounds. “Men in Black: International” opens June 14. “Toy Story 4” opens June 21. Hey, if you wait until next month, you can see them both on the Fourth of July.
That “fourquel” isn’t actually a word says something about the odd status of number-four films. “Threequel” isn’t a word either, but at least it rhymes with “sequel.” Fourquel sounds like a line of flatware sold on QVC.
The word for a four-film sequence is tetralogy (the way trilogy is the word for a sequence consisting of three films). That word implies overarching structure, as well as thematic and narrative culmination. Not to gainsay the merits of the new “MiB” and “Toy Story” offerings, but that wouldn’t seem to apply here.
With Andy giving up the contents of his toy chest, “Toy Story 3” (2010) offered a natural, and highly satisfying, conclusion to the three films. Will the new one be more coda or rehash? In addition to the old vocal gang — Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, and the rest — “4” brings on board Keanu Reeves, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, and Christina Hendricks. The toys take a road trip. Don’t worry: This one doesn’t involve any incinerator destination. The most notable new character, voiced by Tony Hale, is named Forky. That sounds like a diminutive for fourquel. But, no, he’s a spork who’s been turned into a toy.
“MiB: International,” which follows “Men in Black 3” (2012), has two new leads: Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, reunited from “Avengers: Endgame.” It has a new point of geographic departure: London instead of New York, hence the title. (The effect of Brexit on the status of space aliens remains unclear.) Emma Thompson provides the chief bit of continuity. She returns as Agent O.
One way of looking at tetralogies — all right, fourquels — is in terms of five d-words: dependability, duration, development, differentiation, and desperation. How a fourth film in a series does, and does not, fit under that heading can say a lot about it.
Oh, and just to be clear on classification, fourth films, as a category, isn’t merely numerical in nature. “The Phantom Menace” was the fourth “Star Wars” movie — in release, if not chronology (see how tricky this can get?) — but it was the first film in a second trilogy, not a fourth film.
And let’s leave superheroes out of this entirely.
This is the simplest consideration. How good were the previous three movies?
Seen that way, “Toy Story 4” holds great promise. But dependability isn’t always the best indicator. The Jason Bourne trilogy — “The Bourne Identity” (2002), “The Bourne Supremacy” (2004), “The Bourne Ultimatum” (2007) — reset the bar for the paranoid thriller as technical exercise. They were really good. Which meant “The Bourne Legacy” (2012), numero quattro, must have been very good, too, right? Not so much. Or maybe it doesn’t count, since Jason Bourne was nowhere to be seen; Jeremy Renner played the lead. A purist might plump for “Jason Bourne” (2016), with Matt Damon back as the title character, as the true fourquel. Except that that was as much of a come-down from “Legacy” as “Legacy” had been from the trilogy.
How long has it been since the third movie? This is also known as the what-took-you-so-long question.
“Raiders of the Lost Ark” came out in 1981. “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” came out in 2008. That’s more than a quarter century, though at least “Crystal Skull” had the wit to play up the passage of time. Also, in fairness, it wasn’t that much worse than “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984) and “Indiana Jones and the Lost Crusade” (1989).
Although duration tends to be a reliable indicator of quality, it can hold surprises. Thirty years passed between “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” (1985) and “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015). Bad sign? Hardly. You can argue that “Fury Road” is the best fourquel ever made.
Has the protagonist changed much over the course of the previous three movies?
Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, in “Alien” (1979) becomes a richer, more interesting character over the progression from “Aliens” (1986) to “Alien3” (1992). Whether the promise shown by the development justifies “Alien Resurrection” (1997) depends on how you feel about cloning as an explanation for the return of a character who’s gone to that big Nostromo in the sky. Presumably, it’s all in how you define “resurrection.”
To what extent has sameness set in?
In fairness, one viewer’s sameness can be another’s reliability. Either way, the important thing is that it can set the stage for exciting alteration. The champion here is “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” (1986). Not only does the Starship Enterprise return to present-day Earth, it does so with enough humor that even a Klingon might crack a smile (maybe).
At the other extreme is Rocky Balboa. “Rocky IV” (1985) differentiates itself by killing off the single most entertaining character in all those movies, Carl Weathers’s Apollo Creed.
This ultimately sets up a whole other series, albeit one that remains two films away from fourquel-osity.
A double-barreled question: Who cares and why bother?
Again we encounter Mr. Sylvester Stallone. “Rambo III” sent its title-character killing machine to Afghanistan to battle with the mujahadeen against the Soviets. Coincidence or no, the Iron Curtain collapsed a year later. That didn’t keep “Rambo” (who needs a number?) from coming out in 2008. The big guy goes to Myanmar. Very bad things happen to very bad people. Apparently, the hope is some people still care. “Rambo: Last Blood” arrives in October.
Four may rhyme with more, but five rhymes with jive.