Summer movie season is the land of too many sequels and has been for at least 30 years. Complaining about sequels is one of the most easy and common practices available to film critics, but it ignores one fact that is impossible to deny: plenty of sequels are really damn good. In fact, there are many sequels out there that are better than the original. Granted, we’re talking about the minority of sequels given that this is the cashiest of cashgrab genres, but that’s not what this article is about dangnammit! In a week when not one, but two sequels will be competing for the top slot at the box office (How To Train Your Dragon 2 and 22 Jump Street), we thought we’d take a look back at the top ten sequels that are better than the films that spawned them. This is how to do a sequel right, Hollywood. I know you’re not listening, but please let me have my moment.
10) Star Trek: Wrath Of Khan (1982)
Star Trek: The Motion Picture promised the first generation of Trekkies the film of their dreams that would prove that Star Wars movie was malarkey compared to their cherished Enterprise and its crew. What they got was a deeply boring movie that spent more time lingering on shots of spaceships docking that anything resembling an adventure. But, just three years later Wrath Of Khan came along to not only set things right, but deliver what remains the finest Star Trek movie even 30 years later. The movie was riveting, larger than life, and thrilling in ways the TV series could never be (and that’s just Ricardo Montalban’s prosthetic chest. ZING!). It was also a film that dared to kill off main characters for drama and provided a legitimate sense of dread and menace that could never be achieved on a weekly TV series that required a reset after every episode. In short, the film was the peak of the entire first generation of the Star Trek franchise and proved to be so successful that the film series continued for decades until last year when JJ Abrams essentially remade the picture and pissed off the fans for some reason (Oh Trekkies, you’re so adorable in your pop culture Puritanism)
9) X-Men 2 (2003) (plus X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days Of Future Past)
Hard as it is to believe now, back when Bryan Singer made the original X-Men movie in 2000, superhero blockbusters were not considered a sure thing. So, the director didn’t have the time, resources, or money to do the franchise justice. Plus, he faced the necessary burden of having to establish a whole world of characters while still trying to deliver a satisfying action movie. It wasn’t until X-Men 2 that Singer was able to make a proper X-Men film and delivered a sequel that managed to increase the action, deepen the meaning, and expand the characters established in the first flick in a far larger and more satisfying package. It’s a pretty spectacular piece of work that remains the best entry in the franchise. That said, First Class and Days Of Future Past at least equal X2 in quality because they benefited from advancements in special effects technology, increased budgets, and ambitious screenplays. The franchise is pretty fantastic sequel factory that should keep Fox in the blockbuster business for quite some time.
8) Spider-Man 2 (2004)
The absolutely massive success of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man that kicked off with the first ever $100 million opening weekend can be attributed with the current summer superhero movie onslaught. But, as strong as that movie was, it was still marred by some distractingly cheesy blockbuster conventions (hello unnecessary Macy Gray cameo!) and Raimi’s directorial flourishes felt somewhat neutered. Then came Spider-Man 2, possibly the greatest superhero blockbuster ever made. The film defined the color palette, gently comedic tone, and stunning CGI action set pieces of the future Marvel Cinematic universe. It was also littered with direct references to the original comics (even mimicking famous panels), served up genuinely moving human drama, provided heaps of genuine laughs (hello JK Simmons playing the ultimate J. Jonah Jameson), and even allowed Raimi to add his personal brand of visual insanity to the proceedings (the Doc Ock surgery scene alone felt like it came ripped from a Evil Dead flick). It is in many ways a perfect Spider-Man movie and its only flaws are those inherent in the source material (let’s face it, Spider-Man has always been a soap opera with superhero interludes). The film is so damn good that no Spidey film has even come close to matching it. Maybe some day some filmmaker who isn’t named Marc Webb will get a chance to top Spider-Man 2, but even if Sony never lets that happen, at least there’s one Spidey masterpiece that exists for all time.
7) Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
When it comes to sequels, bigger isn’t necessarily better. That is of course, unless you’re James Cameron in which case that sentence pretty much defines your entire directorial career. Cameron’s breakout movie The Terminator is a bit of a masterpiece in its own right, but it’s more of a horror film with a time traveling robot slasher than the over-the-top action delivery system the franchise is remembered as. It wasn’t until T2 that Cameron had the opportunity to cut loose and fulfill his wildest ambitions (it was the first time he mounted the most expensive movie ever made and literally every movie that he’s made since topped his own budget records). It’s a blockbuster that continues to deliver its thrills perfectly all these years later, filled with clever ideas like a liquid metal machine, crackerjack plotting that moves like a runaway train, astounding amount of physical action, groundbreaking digital effects that changed the way movies are made forever, and of course it features Arnold Schwarzenegger at the peak of its powers. Were it not for a couple of silly flaws like that deeply stupid thumbs up finale, Terminator 2 might even be a perfect movie. Though to be fair, as with all James Cameron productions the goofiness is a big part of the charm.
6) Dawn Of The Dead (1978)
Night Of The Living Dead might possibly be the most important horror movie ever made, but George Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead remains his masterpiece. This bright, colourful, and silly follow up to the original downer zombie movie was in many ways the antithesis of the original. But it was also a necessary evolution on Romero’s ingenious zombie concept. With Tom Savini at his side for the first time, Romero cut loose on gore like no film before and single handedly kicked off the splatter-flick trend that would define the next decade of horror movies. The sequel also came laced with biting social commentary about consumerism and human nature as well as introducing the idea of the slapstick zombie comedy before the zombie movie was a genre (there’s even a zombie pie fight in here people). This grindhouse hit that defied the ratings board was even recognized by critics in a time when no one took horror movies seriously and remains the greatest achievement in zombie filmmaking even after decades of follow ups. Few movies have ever been so influential, sequels or otherwise.
5) Evil Dead 2 (1987)
Much like Dawn Of The Dead, Sam Raimi’s batshit insane slapstick horror/comedy Evil Dead 2 was so influential that many people mistake it for the original entry in the franchise. Ask anyone to describe the Evil Dead trilogy and they’ll talk about Bruce Campbell’s legendarily deranged performance and the lovingly ludicrous comedy despite the fact that neither element hit its stride until this sequel. Following a 15 minute remake of the original movie (which Raimi had to shoot because the sequel’s budget was too low to be able to afford to use recap footage from the original movie), the director and star transform their cult horror movie into a live action Looney Tunes cartoon with buckets of blood. It’s hard to even pick a favourite moment from the movie. Is it when Campbell cuts off his possessed hand or when the furniture starts laughing at him or perhaps when Campbell delivers the most dramatic line reading of the word “Groovy” in the history of cinema? It’s impossible to decide, but also impossible to deny that Evil Dead 2 is just straight up one of the entertaining movies ever made. Without it, chances are the Evil Dead series would not be remembered as a genre classic.
4) The Dark Knight (2008)
Sure, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins changed the face of Batman movies forever, but it wasn’t until the sequel that the ever-serious directing Brit delivered the greatest superhero movie ever made. What’s even left to be said about The Dark Knight? It’s a movie that treats the source material seriously and pulls from countless classic Bat comics (The Long Halloween, The Killing Joke, Gotham Central: Soft Targets, etc.) yet reinvents all of the influences to create something new that makes a potent statement about the relationship between control and chaos along with one hell of a visceral rush of Batman drama. Plus there’s Heath Ledger’s Joker, which is just one of the most iconic movie villains ever created. Sure, the third act features some missteps, but it’s unlikely anyone will ever make a better Batman movie (certainly not Zack Snyder at the very least). The Dark Knight is definitive proof that even big glossy superhero sequels can be art when treated with respect.
3) Aliens (1986)
The genius of James Cameron’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s masterpiece Alien was that he completely changed genres. Scott’s 1979 classic may have featured astounding set design, ageless special effects, and the greatest movie monster ever created (R.I.P HR Giger), but it was also a very slow-paced, atmospheric, and claustrophobic movie. Cameron’s Aliens, on the other hand, was a balls out action movie that traded in slow creeps for a non-stop adrenaline rush. It was an ingenious reinvention of hit movie that took huge risks with the source material (granted they were highly commercial risks, but risks nonetheless) to deliver one of the most purely entertaining popcorn movies ever made. In addition to reinventing the franchise and designing the iconic Alien queen, James Cameron delivered an amazing blockbuster screenplay that managed to ably introduce a half dozen characters before killing them off in elaborate ways, slip in some feminist discourse, topped one of the greatest effects films of all time with sheer spectacle, and even found time to have Paul Reiser eaten by an alien. It’s a movie that makes sequels look easy and a blockbuster that’s rarely been topped for sheer entertainment value.
2) The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
George Lucas’ Star Wars may have changed the Hollywood film industry forever and remains one of the most perfectly conceived pieces of entertainment ever produced, but it was The Empire Strikes Back that made the series one of the most important cultural artifacts of the 20th Century. Star Wars is a masterpiece, but even with all of its rigid adherence to Joseph Campbell’s theories about heroes and storytelling, it remains first and foremost an homage to movie serial storytelling. It wasn’t until The Empire Strikes Back that the Star Wars saga became a myth, layering on levels of philosophy through Yoda’s mouth, delivering one of the most jaw-dropping final twists in film history, and daring to traumatize children with a harshly downbeat ending that offered little of the heartwarming, crowd-pleasing resolution that made the original such a success. Its a ballsy extension to a popular franchise that deepened its subtext while also improving the series’ groundbreaking spectacle tenfold (there’s a reason why Empire was the movie least affected by Lucas’ Special Edition tampering). The Empire Strikes Back is a timeless masterpiece of blockbuster filmmaking that not only works beautifully on its own, but somehow managed to make the original Star Wars even better.
1) The Godfather: Part II (1974)
Speaking of sequels that make the original movie better, you’ve got to bow down to Frances Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part II as the ultimate trump card to play during discussions of whether or not sequels can ever top the original. The Godfather might be the most iconic movie of the series, filled with memorable moments that are enshrined in film history. But, it was Godfather 2 that elevated the pulpy series into full on art. Using a flashback structure that made the movie both a sequel and a prequel, Coppola expanded on his universe and transformed a gangster tale treated as myth into a deeply moving tragedy that cut deep into the heart of the myth of the American Dream and mined the depths of human nature. It’s a devastating piece of work that when combined with the masterpiece that proceeded it, just might be the greatest single achievement in the history of film. Now, let’s just pretend that The Gofather: Part III doesn’t exist. It’s easier that way.
Honorable Mentions: The Avengers (if that counts as a sequel), Bill And Ted’s Bogus Journey, Blade II, The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum), Bride Of Frankenstein, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Good The Bad And The Ugly, Gremlins 2, Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, Hellboy II, The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King, Toy Story 2