Despite scathing reviews (including my own) The Hangover Part II is looking set to make a ton of cash this weekend-- some sites are expecting it to bring in nearly $100 million by the time the four-day weekend is through. It's not that surprising-- even though comedy sequels are trickier to pull off than the latest installment of Spider-Man or James Bond adventures, they usually pay off at the box office; that goes double for the sequel to something like The Hangover, which pulled in nearly half a billion dollars in global box office.
But with so many failed comedy sequels out there as examples, The Hangover Part II had to be careful not to repeat the mistakes no matter how much of a sure thing it was. Getting people to come out to see a sequel isn't usually about the quality of the movie itself-- it's a combination of timing, marketing, and sometimes dumb luck that helps a movie become maybe even more successful than the original. Because I'm still kind of depressed by how bad The Hangover Part II is, let's look at it strictly for box office, and see five previous comedy sequels with mistakes or successes that the newest Hangover probably kept in mind and learned from.
Austin Powers (1997): $67 million worldwide
Maybe the most crucial thing to do when releasing a comedy sequel is to get it out there in theaters before audiences have forgotten about the original. The first Austin Powers was the definition of a surprise comedy hit, pulling in only mediocre box office but killing it on home video; even given the delay between the movie coming to theaters and turning into a hit, New Line still managed to have a sequel out two years later, a sequel that managed to quadruple the first film's box office. It's definitely no coincidence that The Hangover Part II is also coming two years later.
The Blues Brothers (1980): $115 million worldwide
The perils of releasing a sequel years or even decades later haven't necessarily stopped some people-- Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull chanced it, Men In Black III will be pressing their luck on that next summer. But allowing so much time to pass between the first film and the sequel just gives time for the haze of nostalgia to set in, for even more people to declare Caddyshack their favorite movie of all time and judge whatever comes next even harsher. Of course it doesn't help that both of these sequels are legitimately awful, but they probably would have been given the benefit of the doubt if everyone hadn't also felt like they were ruining their childhoods. Fair warning, Ghostbusters 3-- or Hangover III: The New Class, if that's where things head.
Legally Blonde (2001): $141 million worldwide
Legally Blonde was one of the best success stories for a surprise comedy hit before The Hangover came along, boasting a starmaking performance from Reese Witherspoon and a legitimately funny script that turned a silly little movie about a sorority girl into a giant hit. They got the timing right for the sequel, releasing it almost exactly two years later, but removed pretty much all of the scrappy charm by making the whole thing too big. Setting the story in politics, making Elle Woods's outfits even more ridiculous and upgrading Luke Wilson from smitten love interest to beleaguered husband, the thin thread of charm from the first film was totally broken. The Hangover Part II has learned this lesson well-- even though they've switched to a bigger, "wilder" location in Bangkok, the stakes and situations are almost identical to what the guys got up to in Vegas.
Bruce Almighty (2003): $484 million worldwide
This is another example of the "too big" sequel problem, as the famously huge budget and ridiculous special effects in Evan Almighty helped it be not just a flop, but a financial disaster. But the biggest problem here really seemed to be that they swapped in Steve Carell for Jim Carrey and expected everyone to go along with it, despite the fact that Carell had been a perfectly good side character in the first film and nothing more. It's as if The Hangover Part II hadn't wanted to pay the salaries for the original stars and had built the entire film around Mr. Chow-- aside from how irritating that character has become, it would essentially be a bait-and-switch. Even the Pirates films spent time building up Jack Sparrow as a character before shipping him off on his own.
Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle (2004): $23 million worldwide (plus $60 million more on DVD)
I ripped The Hangover Part II apart for barely bothering to change the details from the first film and just presenting us the same thing we'd already seen and assuming that's what we wanted. Sadly, box office history suggests that's exactly what we want. Both the Harold & Kumar and American Pie sequels don't just lift the same basic structure from the first film, but repeat a lot of the same gags, whether embarrassing "birds and the bees" chats with Jim's dad or Neil Patrick Harris and his drug use and apparent superpowers. Both of these sequels work pretty well by also coming up with new and funny ideas too, but neither were in any hurry to mess with the formula, and both were rewarded for it at the box office. You can bet that the people behind The Hangover Part II took notice.