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It can help to think of the 2024 election not merely as a sequel to the 2020 election, but as the 60th entry in a franchise that started in 1788 and releases new chapters every four years

Illustration by Kevin Mutch (photo sources: AP, Getty Images)

Elan Mastai is a screenwriter and novelist based in Toronto.

These days, there’s no success in Hollywood unless there’s a sequel, even though the first movie in a series is usually the best, with diminishing returns as the franchise continues.

The Godfather is superior to The Godfather Part II and The Terminator to Terminator 2: Judgment Day. I understand that wars have been fought over less contentious issues.

There are, of course, exceptions. The Dark Knight is better than Batman Begins, Aliens is better than Alien, and Paddington 2 isn’t just better than Paddington, it’s better than almost everything, including sunshine, ice cream and democracy.

But the whole world is now facing a different kind of sequel, one whose impact will touch the lives of most of the planet: a sequel to the American Presidential Election of 2020.

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The last U.S. election had an explosive climax in the storming of the U.S. Capitol in 2021.Leah Millis/Reuters

The 2020 election was framed as a battle for the soul of American democracy, in the middle of an unprecedented global pandemic and a historic reckoning on race and violence, with the literal fate of the world at stake.

But once it ended, somehow the battle wasn’t done.

U.S. President Joe Biden, the 46th president of the United States, is once again the presumptive Democratic nominee, set to face off against the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, the 45th U.S. president, in a sequel few inside or outside the country asked for, but all of us are getting, whether we want it or not.

Sequels are big business, but they’re tougher to pull off than they might seem. A sequel has to be different enough to justify its existence while still being more or less the same to keep its audience satisfied. It’s the art of repetition that doesn’t feel repetitive.

The truth is, every Hollywood blockbuster tells a basically identical story. The main character is in need of a personal transformation they’d prefer to avoid, because it’ll be difficult, but when their life is disturbed by an unexpected threat, the only way to deal with it is to finally accept the necessity of change. This plot can be mapped onto pretty much every movie, major and minor.

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Indiana Jones has returned for four sequels to Raiders of the Lost Ark, each requiring a new explanation of his goals and relationships.Jonathan Olley/Lucasfilm Ltd.

That’s why the structural challenge most sequels face isn’t about plot – it’s about character.

Indiana Jones is an archaeologist who doesn’t believe in the religious meaning of the artifacts he finds, but by the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark he’s witnessed inexplicable supernatural phenomena that change his entire world view. Some treasures are too powerful and dangerous to wind up in a museum.

At the end of the movie, the conflict at the heart of Indy as a character has been resolved through personal growth.

And then comes the sequel. And the one after that. And the one after that. And the one after that.

Every time a sequel picks up the story, it either has to concoct an all-new personal conflict for the hero or undo the victory of the previous movie and repeat its journey.

That’s why a familiar trope of sequels is a protagonist dealing with the unexpected consequences of success. If you think Donald Trump is the hero of this story, the question is: How do you position yourself as an outsider when you were already the most powerful person on Earth? If you see Joe Biden as the protagonist: How do you position yourself as the only one who can heal a divided nation when you’ve been presiding over four years of … a divided nation?

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Joe Biden's inauguration in 2021 was 'democracy's day, a day of history and hope,' he said as Mr. Trump's era drew to a close.Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press

Characters – and candidates – need a fresh problem over which they can triumph.

Before he won in 2020, the core question of Joe Biden’s character was if he’d ever be the right man at the right time. He’d been essentially running for president for decades, but the timing was never on his side. His election resolved that question.

Now, like so many harried screenwriters trying to crack so many forced sequels, a new dilemma must be found. And it seems to be the issue of age. Is he too old to continue on as president?

This despite the fact that he’s only three years older than Donald Trump, who has a different character arc laid out for this sequel – redemption. Or, less charitably, revenge.

Revenge might feel like an inappropriate motivation for a presidential candidate, but it can be terrific fuel for a franchise. Just ask John Wick, who’s spent four blockbusters wreaking bloody vengeance on his enemies, a secretive political establishment that seeks to destroy him for the crime of not wanting to join them.

One of the most popular movies in the world right now is Dune 2, the story of a noble man who has his power stolen by a vicious deep-state enterprise and has to decide if he’s willing to manipulate the religious beliefs of his followers to seize it back. It’s an improvement on the first Dune.

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Paul Atriedes, known to his zealous Fremen followers as Muad'dib, dukes it out with Feyd-Rautha in Dune: Part Two, which adapts the latter half of Frank Herbert's 1965 novel.Warner Bros. Pictures via AP

Of course, some movies were never intended as one-offs. Superman will always face a new supervillain and America will always need a new president. That’s what distinguishes a stand-alone sequel from a franchise. The latter is built to continue for as long as audiences – or voters – keep buying tickets.

Franchises tend to keep retelling the same story. Most Batman movies ask how far he’ll go to stop a villain who doesn’t follow the rules. Marvel movies are usually about a hero who made what seemed like the right decision at the time, which leads to an unforeseen fallout that the hero must face. The Fast and the Furious movies are about a villain who threatens the ensemble’s family … and who will inevitably join that family in the next instalment.

Every presidential election poses a vivid collision between history and character: Is this candidate the one and only person who can lead America at this precise moment in its national journey?

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An 1845 poster celebrates George Washington's journey to New York in 1789, where he was inaugurated as the first U.S. president.U.S. Library of Congress

It can help to think of the 2024 election not merely as a sequel to the 2020 election, but as the 60th entry in a franchise that started in 1788 and releases new chapters every four years. Seen this way, what stands out about 2020 is the twist ending.

Most presidential elections wrap up on election day, with minimal plot mechanics in the inaugural epilogue. In 2000, a new storyline was introduced, a too-close-to-call election between Bush 2 (a sequel to Bush 1) and Gore (a sequel to Clinton) that resolved itself in a contested recount halted by the U.S. Supreme Court. Still, once the election was decided, the defeated candidate stepped back and let the winner assume power.

In 2020, this convention was shattered. The Jan. 6 insurrection flipped the script on the peaceful exchange of power. A defeated president who refuses to accept he lost and many millions of followers supporting those claims – that’s not something America had seen before. Or, if your politics skew Trumpian, it was a rightful presidency snatched away by the machinations of the corrupt political system he’d committed himself to reforming. In both interpretations, the twist ending demands a rematch.

The job isn’t done.

The best sequels work because the characters have unfinished business. It’s a tried-and-true sequel trope. The new crisis might not be the protagonist’s fault, but it is their responsibility.

The U.S. president might be the most powerful person in the world, and, as a dozen or so Spider-Man movies have reminded us, with great power comes great responsibility. Whether someone voted for Donald Trump or for Joe Biden, by the principles of the movie sequel, the current state of America is their candidate’s responsibility.

The question is what kind of sequel this will be. Is it one where the villain has been biding their time, consolidating their power, and learning from past mistakes to strike back against a hero who mistakenly believed them vanquished? This interpretation tends to favour the Democrats’ point of view.

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Alien warlord Thanos succeeded in his mission of cosmic genocide at the end of Avengers: Infinity War, but superheroes managed to undo that in the sequel.Marvel Studios via AP

There are also precedents for a Republican take. Rocky famously ends with the hero just barely defeated, only to knock out his nemesis in Rocky II. More recently, the credits on Avengers: Infinity War run with Thanos triumphant, and the sequel, Avengers: Endgame, the second most financially successful movie of all time, involves Captain America’s quest to right that wrong and Make Marvel Great Again.

This ties into a persistent affliction of contemporary Hollywood: sequel fatigue.

With each sequel and prequel and spinoff insisting the fate of the world is on the line, there’s a flattening out of audience investment in the outcome.

It used to be that presidential elections were the big ones, and they only happened every four years. Now any election has world-shaking consequences: congressional and senate elections, but also governorships and state senates and even school board and judicial races. Every ballot is a referendum on the future of human civilization and none resolve this state of permanent crisis, leading to something akin to chronic sequel fatigue.

Call it the Marvelization of politics.

Maybe the 2024 election will prove to be another cloying follow-up, the kind where you know exactly what’s going to happen in its cliché-ridden plot, the climax as obvious as the well-worn path to get there. Or … maybe not. Maybe it’s the kind of sequel that surprises you with unforeseen twists and unexpected revelations.

That’s the thing about surprises. They’re not always good. Lots of surprises are bad. Some are even catastrophic. The world won’t know what this sequel has in store for us until Nov. 5.

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Morry Gash/The Associated Press

U.S. election 2024: More from The Globe

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