Graphic: Jimmy Hasse

With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

As standard and stereotypical fantasies go, the cheerleader isn’t all that difficult to unpack. The opening production number in Peyton Reed’s 2000 teen cornerstone Bring It On spells out the appeal in baldfaced, rhyming, happy-shouting terms: They’re sexy! They’re cute! They’re popular to boot! They speak exclusively in exclamation points! The platonic ideal of the cheerleader charms the boys and inspires envy from the girls, an exemplar of immaculate good looks and perkiness. Countless high-school movies have reinforced the cheerleader’s spot in the uppermost social stratum. And Kirsten Dunst, America’s girl next door at 18, provided the perfect avatar for this combination of demureness and faint sexuality.

But she’s smarter than that, and so’s the song. The lyrics grow increasingly manic with every couplet, until they offer a hysterical parody of their own subject:

I’m flying! I jump! You can look but don’t you hump! I’m major! I roar! I swear I’m not a whore! I cheer! I lead! We act like we’re on speed! Hate us ’cause we’re beautiful? Well, we don’t like you either! We’re cheerleaders! We’re cheerleaders!

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The cheerleader archetype arrives freighted with a lot of regressive baggage, and it’s Bring It On’s determined quest to undo the negative association. Many consider cheerleading to be an accessory to football, a frivolous bit of set-dressing too slight to qualify as a form of entertainment and not purposeful enough to qualify as a sport. The performative aspect of cheerleading demands a young woman project erotic suggestion without ever sullying herself by acting on it. The profile of the typical fictive cheerleader doesn’t completely flatter, either; they’re conceited, vacuous, and bitchy in the worst cases.

But at San Diego’s Rancho Carne High School, the Toros football team sucks eggs and the cheerleading program is gunning for its sixth national title. Kirsten Dunst can bare her midriff free of judgement, and her boyfriend ends up outed as a total scoundrel. She and her teammates behave kindly and with wit, indicating that they’ve got brain cells to spare. The main cultural work of the film—of the entire Bring It On series—is the bridging of cultural gaps, the fostering of a unified school spirit that can transcend divides of race and class.

The over-caffeinated opening routine, the plastered-on smiles providing an ironic counterpoint to their lyrics’ concealed razor’s edge—it’s all a dream. Reed’s film takes place on a plane in closer proximity to the real world, albeit jazzed up with the hyper-referential sarcasm in vogue at the tail end of the ’90s. The sequence ends with Dunst losing her top in front of the class seated on the bleachers, jolted out of this retrograde fantasy and into a reality with a measure more sympathy and respect for the oft-condescended-to teenage girl.

Torrance is shook when she assumes the mantle of team captain and learns via new girl at school Missy (Eliza Dushku, having fun with the “wrong side of the tracks” vibe) that many of her squad’s moves were pilfered from another crew by former head honcho Big Red (Lindsay Sloane). At this point, Bring It On becomes a sports film about a girl who nearly drives herself mental trying to apologize to another girl she has inadvertently wronged. There’s a big make-or-break competition, but the real dramatic arc concerns Torrance’s continued efforts to earn the respect of Isis (Gabrielle Union), the leader of the East Compton Clovers. Torrance feels stung after traveling to a Clover practice on a mission of mercy only for Isis to brusquely rebuff her apology. Later on, she doesn’t understand why it’s inappropriate to offer Isis a check from her dad to solve the Clovers’ money problems.

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Torrance isn’t a bad person. But a sheltered upbringing has left her with a woeful lack of knowledge about life, and especially the harsher truths of socioeconomics. When the Clovers best Torrance and the Toros in the grand finale, it hardly matters, because Torrance has started to learn that the world’s much bigger than her bubble of affluence. And on second thought, it does matter that the Clovers won. Reed treats them as characters with motivations and wills unto themselves, and so good for them that they’re bringing home the trophy. They deserve it. We were rooting for them.

Much like Torrance, Reed aims to foster a spirit of buoyant positivity that makes for a generously pleasurable experience. Bring It On wins its audience over by leading through example; we want to love it as much as it loves everything. Torrance gets a few outright antagonists in backstabbing teammates Whitney and Courtney (Nicole Bilderback and Clare Kramer, respectively) as well as her thoroughly awful boyfriend Aaron (Richard Hillman). They’re all nuisances distracting from the primary friction between Torrance and Isis, a healthy rivalry resolved with open-mindedness, tolerance, and patience.

It was brought on again four years later in Bring It On Again, the first in the series to be stamped with the scarlet DTV. The quotient of originality shrinks a little bit with every passing film, and a graduation from high school to college constitutes the main change Again brings to the spring-loaded mat. Whittier Smith (Anne Judson-Yager), a name so unnatural and difficult to remember that it’s best replaced with Torrance Jr., shows up for the first day of her freshman year rarin’ and ready to join the world-renowned cheerleading squad at California State College. She’s disappointed to learn that a pair of harpies currently run the crew with a bedazzled fist, and sets out with her buddy from cheer camp to form a renegade squad she dubs, logically, The Renegades. Consider it brought on! Again!

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Again begins a tradition of incompetence that would persist through the rest of the series, defined not by the inability to be as funny, clever, or charming as the original, but the fundamental failure to heed the dictates of normalcy. In Again, as well as its mangled progeny, things just kind of happen and everyone onscreen rolls with it. The Renegades have to start small, and so they book their first cheering gig at a match for the varsity croquet team. My issue’s not with the concept of a college having a varsity croquet team, but rather what transpires when Torrance Jr. starts to lose the crowd: Her romantic interest, who is a DJ and also the absolute worst, unexpectedly rolls up in his truck outfitted with audio gear so he can drop some sick beats!

Bring It On: All Or Nothing enjoys slightly elevated stature among the franchise rabble on the merit of its pedigree alone. Hayden Panettiere starred as cheer princess Britney one month before Heroes made “save the cheerleader, save the world” into one of TV’s stranger catchphrases and made her a star. And for her nemesis Camille, the casting director tapped the artist then known as Solange Knowles Smith, a teen with a solo record and some scattered acting work to her name. Panettiere has to play the fish out of water this time around, unseated from her social throne by her father’s sudden unemployment and forced to move to—the horror!—Crenshaw. Aside from the noteworthy personnel, it’s cheersiness as cheersual.

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At least All Or Nothing goes through the same patterns with a bit more liveliness, which is to say Rihanna is in this motion picture. She appears as the supreme judge of the big cheer competition/denouement, an apt station for the film’s corporeal conscience. It’s Rihanna who spells out the major theme when she declares that all dancers shall be judged by skillz and freshness, not by pigment or background. She’s also the focal point of the credit sequence, which finds the cast awkwardly “dancing along” with Rihanna through the trickery of green-screen. It is a disaster, and the best part of the film. All Or Nothing may not be the best Bring It On movie, but it is definitely the Bring It On movie with the most Rihanna.

The boyfriends somehow keep getting worse in this franchise; quarterback and all-star douche Brad (Jake McDorman) wants Britney to lie about the fact that they haven’t had sex, and makes no bones about how mad he is about it. And yet Brad pales in comparison to Penn (Michael Copon), the apple of Carson’s eye in Bring It On: In It To Win It. Effortfully portrayed by erstwhile spring breaker Ashley Benson, she’s got it bad for a dude with a rat-tail who clips his cellphone to his Ed Hardy belt. He’s like a cartoon version of a guy who threatens to punch people at nightclubs, but as the star cheerer for Carson’s sworn enemy crew, he is irresistible to her and the film condones their leaden courtship.

Because subtext is for cowards, Carson represents the East Coast Jets at an elite summer camp while Penn hails from the West Coast Sharks. The bad news is that the script does indeed invoke the name of West Side Story just to make sure everyone’s on the same page; the other bad news is that nobody dies. The reason for all the scorn isn’t that this is the dumbest Bring It On movie, even though it is. This production just so happens to have been filmed at Universal’s Islands Of Adventure in Orlando, giving the entire project the reek of covert brand synergy. Pivotal scenes take place in front of the Hard Rock Cafe, while a romantic ride on the Dueling Dragons coaster brings our insufferable leads closer together and inspires their final routine.

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In It To Win It can’t even get the whole racial-harmony bit right. Working from the Romeo and Juliet schematic precludes the usual “outsider at a new school, broadened horizons” approach, leaving director Steve Rash to contrive a new path to the series’ signature awareness. As his lunge at a more incisive commentary, Rash drops in a flamboyant gay kid and a street-toughened black girl who says things like “Hey, Paris Hilton! If you and this little purse dog of yours ever pull that skanky East Coast mess again, I will slice you like government cheese!” It only seems blithely offensive, until Rash reveals that the guy’s actually hetero and the self-proclaimed “hood rat” were just playacting their stereotypes to win the favor of their peers. So that’s that, then—cue inexplicable around-the-globe-with-after-effects Ashley Tisdale music video!

A short feature that feels much longer, fifth installment Fight To The Finish is leagues removed from minimum functionality as a work of art or diversion and yet not so wildly dysfunctional as to be a perversely fun sit. There are but three things that a person could reasonably remember from their first viewing: that the fifth go-round finally addresses California’s robust Latino-American community; that it turns the series’ formula on its head by dropping a character of low status into the upper crust; and that said girl is “Dip It Low” singer Christina Milian. There’s a fun production number scored to Down AKA Kilo’s novelty hit “Lean Like A Cholo,” and the spoiled queen-bee type bullying Milian achieves a height of vicious racism unmatched in the franchise. (Lowest moment: responding to an earnest offer of friendship from the Cuban-born Milian with, “Sorry, I don’t speak Taco Bell menu.”) Still, there’s not too much to remark on. Especially not when the Bring It On franchise is about to enter the present, and with it, a new stratosphere of techno-insanity.

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That the latest film is titled Bring It On: Worldwide #Cheersmack (pronounced and heretofore written as Bring It On Colon Worldwide Hashtag Cheersmack, because that’s what it deserves) should be the first warning that something’s not right here. It’s 2017 now, the series has migrated to the digital dollar bin that is Netflix’s streaming catalogue, and most importantly, everyone’s gotten smartphones.

“You’ve been watching too many dance flicks,” scoffs Destiny (Cristine Prosperi) when some Cro-Magnon makes a snide remark about pom-poms. “You see, in the real world, we handle our battles on social media.” Cheerleading has gone online and mobile; that incoherent mishmash of symbols and syllables in the title refers to the practice of posting hostile challenges and disses to other teams on Cheer Goddess, which is a virtual network for cheerleaders, but also a person played by Vivica A. Fox.

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Bring It On Colon Worldwide Hashtag Cheersmack is a harebrained dance flick under the delusion that it’s a taut cyber-thriller, gesturing at every opportunity to timely technologies. Random hashtags appear over the heads of extras, to display what they’re tweeting about in a given moment. Sometimes, those hashtags are “#Femcredible” or “#cheerstrong.” Destiny’s not just the slightly tyrannical head cheerleader, she’s also an Instagram celebrity with over 1 million followers. We know this because she brings it up a lot. One of Destiny’s many haters starts a movement to turn her most embarrassing faux pas into a viral meme. Best and most bafflingly of all, a masked shadow organization of Anonymous-esque cheerleaders monikered “The Truth” periodically hacks into Cheer Goddess to post video callouts declaring an end to Destiny’s “reign of terror.” As absurd nonsense goes, this is of an exceptionally high potency.

The Wikileaks-but-of-cheerleading stuff makes for plenty of laughs, but as the final carrier of the Bring It On name’s reputation, BIOCWHC utterly fails to stick the landing. The palpable but unobtrusive feminist ethic of the original has been reduced to Destiny’s predilection for replacing syllables of words with “fem-.” (“My words are feminized to give them strength,” she says out loud.) In practice, she’s a real despot, rolling into a parking spot marked “CHEERLEBRITY” and cracking some wince-worthy one-liners about the predatory lesbians on her squad. Her arc humbles her, ultimately leaving her with the wisdom to not be such a jerk to her friends. In comparison to Torrance’s epiphany of thorny self-knowledge, Destiny’s facile conscience check makes for a banal takeaway.

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It is the great tragedy of the Bring It On series that it has grown into everything that Reed initially set out to subvert. Torrance Shipman never would have stood for the shameless, classless routines our ostensible heroes (cheeroes?) bust out for their big competition. As they pertly chant “There’s Hannah and Willow! They’ll make you bite your pillow! My girls, we’re fierce! Our nose and [bleep, paired with suggestive hands-over-nips motion] are pierced!” the franchise’s final shred of satire dies. Torrance specifically prided herself on being a cut above the basic, holding herself and cheerleading as a culture to a high standard.

In a final analysis, consider Destiny’s concluding narration in BIOCWHC, a heartfelt reminder that all we really need is “peace, love, and cheer.” Which Destiny has tattooed on her ankle.

Life’s not about how many likes or followers you have. It’s about how many friends are willing to stand by you, beside you, catch you in a cradle.

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Long live the cheerocracy.

Final ranking:

1. Bring It On (2000)
2. Bring It On: All Or Nothing (2006)
3. Bring It On Again (2004)
4. Bring It On: Fight To The Finish (2009)
5. Bring It On: Worldwide #Cheersmack (2017)
6. Bring It On: In It To Win It (2007)

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