We live in the Age of the Sequel. Studios want franchises with multiple sequels, and increasingly, shared movie universes copied on the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While sequel fatigue may be creeping into many movie goers minds, the fact is that sequels are here to stay. Sequels do have advantages over original films. They have a built-in audience connection, the opportunity for deep character exploration and the chance to build large and challenging plot lines that wouldn’t be possible in a single installment. When filmmakers take advantage of these unique tools, the sequel can even eclipse the film that inspired it. The best sequels build on and expand great films. Here are 10 films where the sequel managed to top (even by the slimmest of margins) the original.
1. The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is often thought of as one of the greatest westerns of all-time, but it is also a sequel (a second sequel, in fact). The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is the finale to the Man With No Name Trilogy starring Clint Eastwood. A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965) were good, but The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is one of the definitive films of the western’s genre and Eastwood’s career.
2. The Godfather Part II (1974)
Whether The Godfather or The Godfather Part II is the better film is something that could change every time you watch one or the other, but it was the first sequel to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Part Two is a structurally more complex film than the first installment. Tracing two timelines, The Godfather Part IItells the story of young Vito Corleone (Robert DeNiro) and the beginnings of the Corleone empire, while also showing his son, Michael (Al Pacino), build the family business and lose his own family in the process. Whichever is truly better, both are among the best films ever made.
3. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The original Star Wars, for all it set in motion, was a fairly simple movie. Good triumphs over evil in a galaxy far, far away. The Empire Strikes Back exploded the boundaries of the Star Wars universe, what we thought we knew about it, and remains the best entry in a franchise that is currently entering a new Golden Age. Yoda, The Battle of Hoth, Boba Fett, Lando, and one of the greatest twists in film history all spring from Empire, and by the end of the film, things aren’t simple any more. The bad guys win! Han is a frozen wall painting! Vader is Luke’s father! The events of Empire are still impacting the current episodes nearly 40 years after its release.
4. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
The first Star Trek movie has an intriguing premise, but it’s wrapped in an enormous amount of boring slog surrounded by very, very dated 1970s uniforms. To say Star Trek II is better is probably the safest call on the list. The Wrath of Khan remains the best of the Star Trek films, has the series’ best villain, and the best moment in the history of the franchise. Spock’s sacrifice, giving his life for the needs of the many, is one of the best death scenes ever filmed. Naturally, he got better in the next installment, but they didn’t know that in 1982, and it’s still an immensely powerful moment today.
5. Aliens (1986)
Ridley Scott 1979 Alien was a horror movie. One alien trapped on a ship with a woefully unprepared crew. When James Cameron took over the sequel in 1986, he wisely didn’t try to replicate the horror movie environment. Aliens isn’t a horror movie. Aliens is a war movie. This time Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and a band of marines are knowingly going into a nest of the xenomorphs. This allowed Cameron to expand the mythology of the creature, introduce the Alien Queen, and set up one of the best fights of all-time, when Ripley gets into a cargo loader to take on the ugliest bug of them all.
6. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Another James Cameron sequel and, this time, he topped himself. The Terminator in 1984 introduced Arnold Schwarzenegger to a mass audience. In the first film, Arnold’s Terminator is a monster. Cameron again turned things on their head for Terminator 2: Judgment Day, by making Arnold a reprogrammed protector of John Connor against a much more highly advanced liquid metal Terminator (Robert Patrick). Cameron invents technology for his films. It’s one of the reasons they’re so long in development. For T2, he and his F/X team took morphing technology first used in the film Willow, then combined it with the malleable metallic effect that was used in Cameron’s own The Abyss to create the effect that allowed the liquid metal terminator to emulate any object it touched. Within two years, the technology was so commonplace it was in shaving cream commercials, but it never looked better than when the T-1000 walked out of the fire at the end of the aqueduct chase.
7. The Return of the King (2003)
The Lord of the Rings is really one, 12-hour film broken into three parts. However, since they were released that way, and since the finale, The Return of the King, put on the biggest Oscar sweep in Academy history, winning every one of the 11 Oscars for which it was nominated including Best Picture, it’s safe to count that finale as the best of the three parts of the whole. The number of plot threads that The Return of the King is asked to wrap up is astronomical, plus it has to top the moments that have already transfixed us earlier in the trilogy. The Return of the King is a catalog of amazing scenes, jaw-dropping battles, emotional moments, and several well-deserved curtain calls, laying down its claim as one of the greatest films (or trilogies) of all-time.
8. The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
The Bourne Identity was a different kind of spy thriller. It was believable, practical, grounded. Matt Damon doesn’t look like an action star, which is why he’s so effective as Bourne: an everyman who can do anything. The first film was about discovery and sending a message that he wanted to be left alone. They really should have listened. The Bourne Supremacy is a tale of vengeance and atonement. The upgrade in director from Doug Liman to Paul Greengrass brought together one of the best action films of the last 25 years and the most insane, plot-driven car chase of all-time.
9. The Dark Knight (2008)
The middle installment of The Dark Knight Trilogy is widely considered to be the greatest comic book film of all-time. Drawing inspiration from crime epics like Michael Mann’s Heat, Christopher Nolan delivered the ultimate Batman movie. Heath Ledger’s spellbinding take on Batman’s greatest foe astounded audiences and critics alike. and Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his performance as The Joker. From the incredible bank robbery to begin the film, the iconic interrogation scene, the Batpod chase, all the way to the film’s bittersweet ending, The Dark Knight is the standard by which all comic book films are measured.
10. Toy Story 3 (2010)
Toy Story 3 is a perfect example of how sequels can use multiple installments to build characters. All of the Toy Story films are perfect, but by the third film, we’ve spent a lot of time with Woody and Buzz and the gang. We’ve also watched Andy grow from a little boy to a young man leaving for college. That building of character and the passage of time hit like a sledgehammer when Andy decides to give his toys away. That scene, the giving up your childhood friends for an adulthood, resonated so much with movie goers, especially grown men, that newspapers were writing articles on the phenomenon of adult men breaking down in tears watching the film. That’s a moment that was paid for with three films of perfection, and shows how good sequels can be at their best.
Honorable Mentions: Superman II (1980), Spider-Man 2 (2004), X-Men 2: X-Men United (2003), Captain America: Winter Solider (2014) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
In 2017, we’ve certainly had our fair share of sequel busts, but we’ve already had some great sequels like John Wick Chapter 2, Logan and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Nothing is truly new in Hollywood, and the proliferation of sequels could be likened to the serials of the 1930s and 1940s. While they might not have had the polish of today’s franchises, those old film serials like Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon inspired a generation of filmmakers like George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg. Who knows what the generation of directors raised on the new Star Wars films and the MCU could go on to create?