The cliche line “it’s not as good as the original” is used all too often in film reviews of blockbuster sequels. I’ve used it along with countless other reviewers and casual moviegoers, and most of the time it holds true.
When a major film with franchise potential is successful, Hollywood is notorious for utilizing these opportunities to pop out sequels, whether for better or worse. Often this leads to movies that are financially successful, but that fail to deliver the same quality as the first film.
Yet amidst disappointments like Iron Man 2 and The Matrix Reloaded which all of us would rather forget, there remain other sequels which turned out better than their predecessors. Here are my picks for some of the best movie sequels of all time. Note: Aside from the top three, there isn’t a particular order to this list, as ranking these is too difficult.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
George A. Romero gave birth to what we know as the zombie film in 1968 with his low budget indie Night of the Living Dead, which is now a cult classic. A decade after this black and white horror gem appeared on the silver screen, Romero revisited this world with a new set of characters in the equally iconic Dawn of the Dead.
Whereas the first film takes place mostly inside a farmhouse where its protagonists are surrounded by the undead, its successor takes things up a notch by giving audiences a look at the global response to the zombie outbreak. The opening newsroom scene is a great introduction, as it sets the stage for the fear and mayhem which ensue throughout the film.
Dawn of the Dead delivers all kinds of blood and gore, long before this kind of violence was a norm for horror films. The survivors in it find themselves trapped in a secluded shopping mall, which soon becomes overrun by the flesh-eating undead. It may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about awesome movie sequels, but watch it and you’ll see why it deserves its spot next to Star Wars and The Godfather.
X2: X-Men United (2004)
The first X-Men trilogy came before the superhero cinematic renaissance of today, where Marvel and DC blockbusters pop up in theaters all the time. Since it first started in 2000 (was it really that long ago?), the X-Men franchise has had its ups and downs, but X2 remains one of the best in the entire series, surpassing the familiar origin tropes of the first installment.
Inspired heavily by the Chris Claremont storyline X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, the entire movie is in essence an allegory for people fighting for basic human rights. Brian Cox plays the villain Col. William Stryker, a military scientist bent on eliminating the mutant race permanently, and thus pivoting the X-Men into a loose alliance with their nemesis Magneto (Ian McKellen). The movie also continues to explore the origins of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, which then lead to the disaster that is the character’s first standalone film X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
Director Bryan Singer delivers some of the best action sequences and character drama in the entire series, doing a particularly excellent job with Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming). Though he would not return to make The Last Stand in favor of doing Superman Returns (sigh), Singer did come back years later to direct Days of Future Past, another major hit for the franchise.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Before you go and see if Terminator: Genisys is a worthwhile reboot or not, revisit the best installment in the series which gave us the iconic “Hasta La Vista, Baby” line. Yes, the first one’s great, but Judgment Day is an even finer masterpiece.
Writer-director James Cameron was way ahead of his time when he created the fight scenes between Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator and the T-1000 played by Robert Patrick. The CGI technology it took to make the T-1000 shape shift was far from becoming mainstream, as this movie came out two years before Jurassic Park and a decade before The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Beyond its revolutionary special effects, T2 is most memorable for its emotionally driven story. We see a misunderstood adolescent John Connor (Edward Furlong), his fiercely determined mother Sarah (Linda Hamilton) and a more humanized Terminator. The interaction between these characters as they set out to destroy the files that lead to the creation of Skynet, while being hunted by the T-1000, is fantastic and helps make this one better than the first film.
It’s no coincidence that Cameron makes this list twice. His knack for big budget filmmaking has allowed him to create some of the best, most explosive sequels of all time, which will hopefully continue to hold up when Avatar 2 finally comes out.
Aliens is truly unique in that it’s better than the original and accomplished this with a different director in charge, something which is unheard of. Following Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror classic Alien, James Cameron’s sequel became an action movie sensation. Set decades after the events of the first film, Aliens follows Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley as she awakens from a cryogenic sleep to discover that the planet in which the alien was found is now a human colony. Yet, upon losing contact with the people there, a military crew joins Ripley in one of the greatest and deadliest rescue operations in movie history.
We all know Weaver provides the heart and soul of this movie, as no true movie fan can ever forget her battle with the extraterrestrial creatures in a giant robot suit. Her character is one of the strongest and most compelling heroines in both sci-fi and cinema, making this one a couple notches above its predecessor.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Phase one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is no doubt entertaining and full of fanboy pleasing material, but ultimately it’s a series of standard superhero origin stories which then culminated into The Avengers. It wasn’t until Phase Two that Marvel began experimenting with different genres, the results of which proved wildly successful.
Coming off the fun, but admittedly unoriginal superhero flick Captain America: The First Avenger, brothers Anthony and Joe Russo replaced director Joe Johnston for the sequel. Rather than dive into familiar territory, the Russos established an entirely different tone than the original by making Winter Soldier a 70s style spy thriller. Using Ed Brubaker’s iconic storyline of the same name as primary inspiration (and giving the comic book writer a cameo in the film), they raised the stakes for Cap more than ever by turning a corrupted SHIELD against him and reviving his former sidekick Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) as a villain.
I’ve talked with a number of people who said this movie changed their perception of Cap for the better. Whereas the character had been previously thought of as too much of a goody two-shoes kind of hero, Winter Soldier turned him into a true badass as he wound up fighting the organization which he had faithfully served for years. The film has been hailed by critics not only as one of Marvel’s better works, but as one of the better superhero movies to date.
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
This one holds a special place for me, as I remember seeing it as a kid three times in theaters. The first installment in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy is great, but it’s the second film which really nailed it. Roger Ebert even called it the best superhero movie since the 1978 Richard Donner Superman.
This movie has everything you could possibly want from a movie in this genre: a hero audiences empathize with, a villain with human motivations, a believable and engaging love story and of course stellar special effects and action sequences. Whereas the first movie is again a typical origin story, the sequel delves more into Peter Parker’s life and internal struggles, while delivering a superb antagonist in the form of Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock. There’s really nothing wrong with this movie, and it’s one more superhero movies should aspire to. Let’s just forget about the third installment.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
While it’s easy to think of The Lord of the Rings trilogy as one epic film in three parts, if I had to rank them I’d definitely put the third installment at the top. All three are great, but Return of the King is both emotionally captivating and insurmountable in terms of cinematic scale, hence it racking in a total of 11 Oscars.
Peter Jackson changed our definition of grand battle sequences in this trilogy, while providing a real human story that remained generally faithful to the beloved J.R.R. Tolkien books. The farewell scene between Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his dear companion Sam (Sean Astin) at the end of ROTK is heartbreaking, and the moment where the Ring is destroyed and Mt. Doom falls is a truly magnificent display of filmmaking, making this one the King (pun intended) of the epic fantasy series.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Now for the three champions. Too say that Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was a game changer when it was released is an understatement. The film has ushered in a wave of darker, more serious superhero and sci-fi movies, the bulk of which are sad attempts at trying to mimic this masterpiece.
As the second installment in Nolan’s Batman trilogy, the film builds on its equally gritty 2005 predecessor Batman Begins. Most memorable for the late Heath Ledger’s mesmerizing performance as the Joker, the film is also great for showing that even the greatest heroes can fail. Nolan and star Christian Bale did an excellent job in portraying Batman as both multilayered and broken by the end, which set the stage for the third and final installment The Dark Knight Rises.
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
If anyone would like to dispute that there’s a better Star Wars film than The Empire Strikes Back, I’m happy to meet you for a lightsaber duel. There’s just no debate. Beyond giving us the famous “No, I am your father” line and thus leaving its mark on movie history, the sequel to the original Star Wars presents everything moviegoers love about this universe.
While most recognizable for its Luke and Darth Vader confrontation, along with introducing us to Yoda, the film also showcases the epic battle on the ice planet of Hoth. Who can forget the first time they saw the giant Imperial AT-AT machines tower over the swarms of rebel troops struggling for survival? Director Irvin Kershner upheld the vision of George Lucas, while raising the stakes for Luke, Han and Leia and forever changing Luke. It’s an added bonus that the movie’s co-screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan has returned to the franchise to pen the script for Episode VII: The Force Awakens alongside director J.J. Abrams. May the Force be with them.
The Godfather Part II (1974)
The King of all movie sequels is also the hardest one to write about. Every time I watch it all I can think is “Man this is awesome!” As legendary as the first Godfather is, Part II takes things up a notch by telling two stories simultaneously, one in the present and one in the past.
In the present, we see the new Godfather Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) desperately trying to maintain his struggling empire, while also confronting legal issues and a crumbling marriage in the film’s second half. In the past, we see a younger version of his father Vito (Robert De Niro) as he builds the empire from scratch. The way in which these stories intersect and correlate with one another is phenomenal.
Director Francis Ford Coppola and writer Mario Puzo bring us cinema’s defining sequel with their attention to detail, story structure and one of the most brilliant displays of filmmaking of all time. That scene at the end where the fractured relationship between Michael and his brother Fredo (John Cazale) comes to a close is as visceral and perfectly placed as one could possibly hope for, making this one the number one champion of all movie sequels.
Conclusion: While many sequels are nothing more than money grabbing mediocrities, there are others which are fueled with even more heart and quality than the originals that came before them. I didn’t even get to talk about Toy Story 3, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Superman II (still like the first one better but the sequel’s great) and Mad Max: Fury Road, but rest assured they each have their place on this list. So the next time you cringe at the announcement of a sequel (as we all have), consider that it may end up better than you could have ever imagined.