Paramount just dropped a new theatrical poster for Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog 2, and it’s a pretty standard one-sheet. What’s interesting is that it gives above-the-title billing not just to the two major human characters (played by James Marsden along with Jim Carrey who gets the “and” credit) but that the first and third billing go to Ben Schwartz (who voices Sonic) and Idris Elba) who voices Knuckles. I’d argue that Tika Sumpter and Tales voice Colleen O’Shaughnessey deserve a note, but this is usually a contract issue as opposed to subjective valuations of participants. Moreover, paired with the Knuckles-centric Super Bowl commercial released last week, Paramount is selling this second Sonic the Hedgehog flick in an aggressively old-school sequel.
First, obviously, the film is titled Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and not Sonic: Rise of the Dark Knuckles or whatever. Second, while there are behind-the-scenes plans to continue the franchise both in theaters (a third Sonic movie has begun the development process) and on Paramount+ (spoiler: Idris Elba’s Knuckles apparently doesn’t die at the end of Sonic 2), the trailers, commercials and posters are hawking it as “You liked the last movie, so here’s more!” Knuckles is being positioned as a classic “bigger/different suit” (Iron Man 2) or “evil doppelganger” (Superman II) nemesis, an added value element (in terms of being a marquee baddie) who represents a classic sequel-escalation threat. Sonic even refers to him as “the Winter Soldier,” which is “subtext meets text.”
In the post-Dark Knight era, we saw a lot of big sequels using the appeal of an actor you like playing a villain you know as a major added value element, usually encased in a story that challenged the simpler good-versus-evil morality of the first film and/or our hero tested physically as well as morally. I’m not sure to what extent Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is going to be a “dark sequel,” I’m guessing neither Robotnik nor Knuckles will notch a body count, but I’m reminded of Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan, Health Ledger as the Joker and Sebastian Stan as the Winter Soldier (and Robert Redford as the secret baddie) justifying the “He’s like me… but better and less moral!” personal stakes for the next adventure.
And, yes, in a time when franchises are let loose into theaters with plans of trilogies and cinematic universes already spilled out into the press, it was a little refreshing to see Sonic the Hedgehog merely spawn a theatrical sequel after reviews, word-of-mouth and commercial earnings ($146 million domestic and $306 million worldwide on an $82 million budget just before Covid shut everything down) justified one. As absurd as this sounds, there mere idea that Sonic the Hedgehog got a sequel because audiences showed up and liked what they saw now almost seems quaintly old-fashioned. What also strikes me as old-fashioned is the notion of Paramount doing well by its theatrical franchises. Because they were once better at this than anyone else.
They ruled the blockbuster mountain in the mid-2000’s right up to the early 2010’s, with Transformers, Iron Man, Star Trek, The Last Airbender (which nabbed a $69 million Thurs-Mon debut), Thor, World War Z and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles all scoring big bucks before they lost DreamWorks Animation to Fox and lost the Marvel Cinematic Universe to Disney. And that coincided with the bottom falling out (thanks to streaming) for the star-driven, high-concept studio programmer, meaning prior hits like Shutter Island, World War Z or Super 8 were relics of a bygone era. The studio programmer is still on the ropes, but Paramount has thus far scored with Scream (about to pass Halloween Kills worldwide with over $130 million) and Jackass Forever.
Can they score with Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum’s The Lost City on March 25? That’s the kind of film which used to represent both a Paramount Picture and the kind of bread-and-butter movies that flourished theatrically alongside the less-frequent fantasy-action franchise flicks. I’m expecting decent returns for Sonic the Hedgehog 2 on April 8 and everyone’s fingers are crossed for Top Gun: Maverick on May 27. Could we have a once-unthinkable scenario whereby Paramount emerges from the pandemic with its first wholly successful year since, I dunno, 2014? That doesn’t mean tripling down on “doing what Disney does” for Paramount+ (announcing shows and movies for every IP you own) is a good idea, but a halfway decent theatrical slate means that Paramount+ will be less of a do-or-die proposition.