Yes, it is possible for a sequel to be better than the original film. We look at ten of the greatest examples of such films.
The month of July has seen the release of many of the best sequel movies ever made. That makes sense because the summer is blockbuster movie territory, and blockbuster movies happen to have a lot of sequels. I mean these days, movies are all about sequels anyway. If your big budget movie isn’t popular or profitable enough to merit a sequel, it can be considered a failure. Hollywood runs on repeat business. Convincing audiences to pay money to see an original feature is risky, to say the least.
So, to honor the month of sequels, I decided to put a list together of the ten best sequels of all time. These sequels run the gambit of traditional sequels you may expect (such as being a part of a planned trilogy), to sequels which came out many years after the original film and so they could be considered unexpected. They are movies which had the unenviable position of following up incredibly popular or Oscar-winning original films, and exceeded our wildest expectations.
To qualify for this list, a film has to be a traditional sequel – that means the second film in a film franchise. It can’t be a spin-off or the sequel to a sequel. Next, it has to be considered just as good or better than the original film. You can have a good sequel that is similar in quality to the first film, but this list isn’t just about “good” sequels – it’s about the best of the best, and so they better be the most iconic film of a franchise (or a very close second). Finally, for a film to be considered one of the “best ever”, it has to be the kind of movie which had a significant impact on pop culture, and as a result has a huge following.
Here are some popular Sequels that didn’t make the cut, and my reasoning for this:
- Blade Runner 2049 – I don’t consider it to be better than the original film.
- Toy Story 2 – The most memorable film in the series so far is Toy Story 3.
- Paddington 2 – I don’t feel like the films are as popular or iconic as others on this list, at least not yet.
- From Russia With Love – Better than Dr. No, but would be overshadowed by Goldfinger.
- X2 – There are better, and more deserving, superhero sequel movies on this list.
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Same comment as for X2.
- Before Sunset – Is indeed a great film, but not widely influential.
- The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
The original Bourne Identity was a hallmark of Post 9/11 cinema. It didn’t just introduce general audiences to the steady-cam action sequence, it brought a popular modern novel with timely topics to the big screen in an entertaining and crowd-pleasing way. Many other action movies would follow in this film’s gritty, more realistic approach to violence.
But despite all of that, it isn’t the best Jason Bourne movie. That title belongs to the sequel, which kicked all sorts of ass. Having established the Jason Bourne character in the first film, the second one is an opportunity to throw new complications at him and dive deeper into his history. The highlight is one of the best car chase sequences ever seen in any film, and plenty of memorable action-packed moments. It was better than the original film in every way, and cemented the Jason Bourne films as among the action-movie royalty.
- Mad Max 2: Road Warrior (1981)
Before Fury Road became one of the best-received delayed sequels of all time, Road Warrior was the standout film in the franchise and catapulted what was a small sci-fi indie film into general pop-culture relevance. As we will see with several other films on this list, great sequels change the trajectory of a franchise both in terms of the narrative but also the production values. If studios recognize the potential of a film franchise, it can attract more investments and thus bigger budgets.
Following the original film which had a relatively tiny budget of only $400,000, the budget for George Miller’s sequel was ten times as much. The original film broke box office records in Australia, so of course the creative team was given more resources to try and outdo themselves with the sequel. That’s just what they did, delivering a Post-apocalyptic classic for the ages. It single-handedly shot Mel Gibson to fame, and transformed the franchise into a major player in the sci-fi realm.
- Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man was a huge success and not just because it made bank at the box office. It was the film which established the formula for the modern comic-book movie and in many ways opened up audiences to the idea that comic-book movies could be cool. It was also the culmination of more than a decade’s worth of work to get the famed web-slinger on the big screen. But the sequel film was even better, more important, and more memorable.
If the original film showed us how a big-budget modern CGI-driven comic book movie could be done, the sequel showed us how these stories focusing on a singular character could be built into a successful franchise. Indeed, all previous Hollywood attempts at superhero movie sequels had paled in comparison to their original films. This one showed how the filmmakers were learning about what would work and building towards bigger things. Of course, they went a little too far for the next film in the series….but that just makes Spider-Man 2 all that more special.
- The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
In Peter Jackson’s original Lord of the Rings trilogy, the second film may not be the best film in the series, but it is probably the most memorable. While the original film was lauded for its vision and ability to bring the beloved book to the big screen, it didn’t go as big or as bold as The Two Towers. This was the film that made us realize how big action blockbusters can be good enough in terms of both creative talent and technical execution to merit Oscar nominations (let alone wins) outside of the usual technical categories.
In many ways The Two Towers broke the mold of 90’s blockbuster moviemaking. While CGI had been steadily ramping up, nothing had been accomplished as convincingly as the fighting armies in The Two Towers. Peter Jackson created an event film that outdid the Star Wars prequels, and would remain the biggest (i.e. most widely-appreciated) force in mainstream cinema until the MCU came around. The Two Towers was a sequel that not only upped the game of the original, but really hit it out of the park and blew away its audiences.
- The Godfather, Part 2 (1974)
When people think of The Godfather, they don’t necessarily picture Part 2, the pseudo sequel-prequel. That’s the only bad thing I have to say about it in reference to the criteria for ranking films on this list. Yes, it is arguably a better movie than all of the other films on this list, but its predecessor was such a game-changer and iconic film it is impossible to ignore it. Therefore, in terms of sequels I don’t rank the second Godfather film as highly as its quality might dictate. It’s like the Ford Model A of movies.
That being said, Part 2 not only lives up to the very lofty expectations of its predecessor, you could argue it passes it in several important areas. The story is elevated, the cast is more dynamic, and it provides suitable context to these characters and the world they live in. In a time when sequels were just a cash-grab by Hollywood to take advantage of a hit film, this movie could have been an unmitigated disaster. But against all odds it wasn’t just passable, it was phenomenal.
- Aliens (1986)
The original Alien was a huge hit, and was one of the most successful science fiction films that had been greenlit after the success of Star Wars and the sci-fi void it created. Yet Alien was different because it was a fusion of the science fiction and horror genre, something that hadn’t really been seen before. So, it carved out a unique niche all its own. You would have thought the studio would have pounced on an opportunity to make a sequel right away, but that never happened.
Seven years later the world was graced with the release of James Cameron’s Aliens. It utilized that first film as a jumping off point, but went in a completely different direction. Under different creative control, this could have been a disaster, but it wasn’t. Aliens is an action-packed high-budgeted (for the time) blockbuster. It seemed to resonate with audiences even more than the original film. More importantly, it established the theme park ride-like approach to moviemaking that would take over in the 1990’s.
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
When your sequel is the best film of one of the longest-running and most prolific science fiction franchises in film history, it belongs on this list. When that film single-handedly revives said franchise from the brink, and becomes so well integrated into the fandom that they basically copy key plot elements for a prequel/sequel 30 years later, you know it’s gold. Wrath of Khan is simply Star Trek at its most cinematic, and most memorable.
Maybe this film isn’t as ground-breaking as the films I’ve ranked higher, but the importance of this film to its franchise is unmatched. Without Wrath of Khan and its timeless themes and enjoyable adventure, Star Trek could very well have withered away in the mid 80’s. But this film brought renewed life back to the franchise and made it a legitimate competitor to the mighty Star Wars. That interest in Star Trek would soon result in the development of new television properties, essentially kicking off the first modern mega-franchise where properties existed on film and television simultaneously.
- The Dark Knight (2008)
The Dark Knight is one of the best (if not THE best) comic-book based films ever made. It took Nolan’s unique action-oriented perspective on the caped crusader and turned it up a notch thanks to a twisted and engaging story, incredible action sequences, and an impactful performance by the late great Heath Ledger. Look at all the other films on this list and they (mostly) have one thing in common – a very memorable antagonist (especially the top 4 on this list).
I think that is the key to elevating a sequel to be better than its predecessor: the villain. If you have a great protagonist established in the first film, but an even more memorable villain for the second film, chances are it will be a success. Batman Begins was the origin story, and welcomed audiences into Nolan’s version of Gotham City. But The Dark Knight is where the character and the story really get to open up their wings. Without the burden of world-building and character building we can jump right in.
- Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The original Star Wars film already had a formidable and memorable primary antagonist. But the film didn’t really help us understand who he was and where he came from. Vader had the potential to become just a generic bad guy. For the sequel, that changed. Vader went from just a memorable antagonist to the greatest antagonist of all time. You know the spoilers so I won’t go over them, but but adding context to both the antagonist and main protagonist it certainly makes the stakes of the franchise higher and adds new emotional weight which wasn’t there before.
Suddenly Star Wars changed from just being eye candy to having a deep and complex story that begged for more exploration. The Empire Strikes Back wove its main characters closer together, giving us something interesting to occupy our minds with as well as our eyes and ears. And yes, the film still had cutting edge (for its time) special effects and space-faring adventure to keep even the most picky audience member effortlessly entertained. The film was a necessary turn to something deeper, darker, and more substantial – it elevated the game of blockbuster moviemaking and few films since then have been able to match.
- Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
James Cameron’s second effort at making a delayed sequel resulted in the greatest sequel ever made. 1984’s Terminator was a nightmarish science fiction film that struck a chord with audiences, but it was still a low-budget small scale affair. Judgement Day catapulted the franchise into cutting-edge blockbuster territory. 4 additional sequels later and studios are still trying to capture what made T2 so thrilling. Unfortunately, I don’t think the franchise will ever be able to get back on the right track because of the fact that T2 was simply the right film at the right time.
T2 was one of the first films (along with Cameron’s The Abyss) to make use of photo-realistic 3D CGI effects. The use of these effects to create a liquid-metal T1000 not only blew audiences out of their seats. They had never seen anything like it, and it stuck in their minds. This made for one of the most memorable antagonists of all time. But that isn’t all the movie does either. For this second entry, it takes the antagonist of the first film and makes him the star protagonist. It makes us feel good about something that previously scared the crap out of us. Its a startlingly exciting twist of perspective. Add in all the normal changes you might expect for a sequel – going bigger, louder, and upping the stakes – and you have the sequel that tops all other sequels.