As a companion piece to my Disappointing Movie Sequels column I thought I'd compile a list of sequels that were actually superior to the original. It's something that doesn't happen often, but there have been numerous second or third cinematic chapters that have either expanded on or generally outperformed their predecessor.
**Please note, two common picks you won't see on this list are The Godfather part II and The Empire Strikes Back. Don't start throwing fruit yet, hear me out. While both of those films are great, I prefer The Godfather I and A New Hope, respectively, just by a hair. I can understand why some like the sequels better but I'm not one of those people.**
**Please further note, I also haven't included The Two Towers or Return of the King, as the Lord of the Rings trilogy is really just one extended film.**
So let's get to business....
10. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
James Cameron's 1984 classic The Terminator took Arnold Schwarzenegger's already burgeoning movie career to the next level by casting him as an evil cyborg sent from the future to destroy the mother of his enemy John Connor. From this simple concept Cameron created a mythic film saga of self-aware machines turning on their creators and laying waste to the entire planet; a concept borrowed for The Matrix series, among others. Only problem with the first film was the modest budget, which didn't allow Cameron to fully realize the story. Some of the effects were quite clunky and prevented full audience immersion. Seven years later he more or less remade the movie but set it during John's childhood, when a second Terminator has been sent to kill him instead of Sarah.
Unbeknownst to the evil machines, John's future self has reprogrammed one of the original Terminators (played of course by Arnie) to protect little John. T2 tells a very similar story but expands on it both visually and conceptually. John's mother Sarah is now a hardened badass who is determined to stop the creation of the network of machines before it ever starts, and she begrudgingly accepts Arnie's help despite her previous traumatic experience at the hands of his predecessor (not unlike Ripley's hangup with androids in Aliens). As for the new evil Terminator, that one's an upgrade model comprised of liquid metal, who can shapeshift and is nigh indestructible. This character is the subject of some of the movie's most innovative and expensive special effects, as he morphs from one likeness to another. The result is a pretty thrilling action movie which, despite basically being a retread, is an improvement on the original at almost every level. My only two complaints were that Edward Furlong wasn't much of an actor, and I missed Michael Biehn's presence. Seriously, that guy rules!
9. Bride of Frankenstein
I first saw the original 1931 Frankenstein on the TV show Creature Double Feature when I was probably seven years old, and like most kids I was fascinated by this little film about a man who creates a monster. It wasn't until years later when I actually read the book that I realized how simplistic the Karloff film was. So many story threads were tossed out and the moral ambiguity of Frankenstein himself was sort of glossed over in favor of a hero vs. monster scenario. Yes we somewhat sympathize with the monster, but he's kind of a mindless brute in the film, rather than the eloquent, tragic figure of the novel. In college I finally watched Bride of Frankenstein, and my original assessment was that it strayed so far from the book and was so unabashedly weird that I hated it. But upon later viewings I developed an appreciation for the film's uncompromisingly bizarre tone and for how ballsy its anti-religious and sexual undertones were for 1935. The story is also much more complex and Karloff's monster is completely sympathetic, aided by his newfound ability to speak (Sadly all of his dialogue is monosyllabic and clunky, but you take what you can get). The performances by Ernest Thesinger as the sinister, rather flamboyant Dr. Pretorious, and Elsa Lanchester as The Bride are also iconic in the pantheon of classic monster films. The Bride's "birth" is obviously the most film's famous scene; Lanchester based her movements on those of a bird to achieve a sense of otherworldiness. That this was such a memorable character is even more amazing considering how brief her appearance is. My only real gripes with Bride of Frankenstein are a) that there was no effort to make the few characters recast from the first film look like the original actors, even though Bride begins immediately after the first movie ends (For example the Burgomeister is now thin and has a mustache and Frankenstein's wife Elizabeth is suddenly waaaaaay hotter), and b) that Frankenstein's lab has a lever in the middle of the room that blows up the entire building. What might I ask moved him to install such an easily-activated self-destruct mechanism?
8. Toy Story 3
This wasn't supposed to happen. The Toy Story series wasn't supposed to reach its apex with a latent third installment released 15 years after the original. Somehow Pixar expanded this CG universe centered around children's playthings even further, bestowing still greater depth to its magical plastic characters, and reducing us all to weepy puddles of goo over the fate of a bunch of inanimate objects. Seriously, if you didn't choke up during the incinerator scene or Andy's goodbye at the end, you have no soul and I hope I never meet you. TS3 takes place several years after the first two, when Andy is a teenager about to leave for college, having long since lost interest in his beloved childhood toys. Woody, Buzz and the gang have all relegated themselves to either being sold off, trashed, or stored in the attic, and due to a misunderstanding they all end up at a daycare center that turns out to be an inhumane prison run by a evil pink teddy bear. The second half of the film deals with our heroes' plot to escape and/or reform the villanous bear, and it all builds to a sensational, heartwrenching climax. Amazingly by creating such a brilliant third chapter Pixar managed to make the first film sorta feel obsolete by comparison. These characters have left such an imprint on American pop culture we can't help but feel a tremendous emotional connection to them. They remind us all how much we miss the simplicity of being a child and how attached we were to little pieces of molded plastic.
7. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
This one took me completely by surprise. 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger was a fun 1940s romp that introduced what I thought would be one of the lesser characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I hadn't been much of a Cap fan growing up and pictured him as a flat, boring boy scout. Joe Johnston's film gave the character of Steve Rogers some depth but more or less underlined the idea that he wasn't the most multifaceted of our Avengers heroes. But then in 2014 Anthony and Joe Russo blew the doors off the Captain America mythos with The Winter Soldier, a tighter, more complex, eminently more compelling film that in my estimation is the best MCU entry to date. In this powderkeg of a sequel Cap is still adjusting to life in the 21st century when the mysterious title character bursts on the scene, ambushing Nick Fury and throwing SHIELD into chaos. Cap later learns that the entire SHIELD organization has been compromised and he can no longer trust anyone. With The Winter Soldier, Captain America has for me become the most interesting of the Avengers, and this absolutely riveting film has become the new Marvel yardstick.
6. Dawn of the Dead
Director George Romero more or less created the "zombie apocalypse" genre of horror films with his aggressively bleak, infamously low-budget Night of the Living Dead. This cult classic about seven ordinary people holed up in an abandoned farmhouse while the undead roam the countryside borders on guerrilla filmmaking and feels so real and unforgiving we're wrung out by the end. Ten years later Romero finally made a sequel on a much grander scale, with the zombie epidemic spreading to a national level. Four survivors flee the city and build a new home inside a shopping mall where they have everything they could possibly want - except a connection with the outside world. Romero peppered this horror masterpiece with satire, taking shots at an American culture obsessed with consumerism and material wealth. Dawn of the Dead sets a ferocious pace and never lets up, as the mall is sieged first by the zombies and later by maurading human gangs. The gore is over-the-top and resembles a comic book, with bright orange-hued blood splattering left and right. The makeup team led by Tom Savini reached new levels of disgustingly creative effects, and the censors refused to grant DotD an R-rating. Despite being released unrated, the film was a huge hit and became probably the definitive zombie film, whose influence can still be felt in the massively popular Walking Dead TV series, among others.
5. X-Men 2
Bryan Singer helped usher in the modern era of superhero movies with his understated production of X-Men in 2000. Eschewing the traditional, colorful spandex costumes, Singer instead opted for a Matrix-inspired black pallette and minimal masking of his actors' faces to allow them to better convey their characters. By casting Shakespearian veterans Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen, Singer immediately boosted the credibility of the project, which subsequently made Hugh Jackman a household name as the popular antihero Wolverine. X-Men proved to be a box office hit, and an auspicious start to the series. Then in 2003 Singer improved massively on the first film with X2: X-Men United, which pitted both the heroic and villainous mutants against a common enemy, played by Brian Cox. Cox's character William Stryker is a vehemently anti-mutant black ops soldier and wants to exterminate them, even employing a mind control chemical to turn all of humanity against the mutants. There's also a subplot that bestows more depth and backstory to the Wolverine character, as it turns out Stryker was the one responsible for Wolvie's adamantium-lined skeleton and his amnesia. X2 features easily half a dozen great set pieces as well, including Nightcrawler's attack on the White House, Magneto's prison break, and Wolverine's duel with Lady Deathstrike (another mutant with adamantium claws). The second X-Men film was a near-perfect entry in the series and set up what should've been an epic third act dealing with Jean Grey's transformation into Dark Phoenix. Unfortunately Singer dropped out before X3 to make Superman Returns, which was neither critically or commercially very successful. If only we could see how Singer's X3 would've played out.....
4. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture, while a box office success, was met with a rather lukewarm response from critics and fans, who found it tedious, overly cerebral and meandering. The story contained lofty existential concepts and was certainly thought-provoking, but unfortunately wasn't a whole lot of fun. I enjoy the first film to a certain extent but it's definitely not one of the stronger entries in the series. When it came time to make the sequel, Paramount replaced executive producer Gene Roddenberry with TV veteran Harve Bennett, and tasked him with making the film on a tight budget and schedule. Bennett prepared for this assignment by watching the entire original series from start to finish, and came to the conclusion that Star Trek has always boiled down to the relationship between the three main characters, Kirk, Spock and McCoy. He and director Nicholas Meyer also added a maritime feel to the Star Trek universe, with space battles resembling submarine duels, etc. Ricardo Montalban reprised his role as Khan Noonien Singh, out for revenge against the man who marooned him on a distant planet fifteen years earlier. ST2 is a streamlined, thrilling adventure film with themes of aging, friendship, and vengeance that builds to a spectacular emotional climax. Amazingly about 70 per cent of it was shot on a single set, with the bridge of the Enterprise doubling as that of Khan's hijacked ship the Reliant. Even more incredible is the fact that mortal enemies Kirk and Khan never meet face-to-face, yet the tension between them is palpable and drives the story. Star Trek II is still by most estimates the best movie of the entire saga, and demonstrates extraordinary vision and creativity on the part of its creators.
3. The Road Warrior
Australian filmmaker and former doctor George Miller created a powderkeg of a car stunt movie with 1979's Mad Max, about a society coming apart at the seams and a hero cop who loses everything he loves and becomes a desolate nomad obsessed with vengeance. This bleak, low-budget action thriller was a massive box office success and led to the creation of a bigger-budget, action-packed sequel. In Mad Max 2 (dubbed The Road Warrior in the States), we're thrust into a post-apocalyptic future where rival gangs battle for the last supplies of gasoline, and our antihero stumbles on a peaceful settlement being sieged by a band of marauders. The Road Warrior's structure resembles a Western, with the tight-lipped protagonist reluctantly agreeing to help the settlers transport their fuel stores to the Australian coast. With this film Miller created one of the most unrelentingly kinetic action films of all time; the story moves along at a blistering pace leading to one of the greatest sustained action sequences in film history. The vehicle stunts are impossibly dazzling and the characters are simple but colorful. This is undoubtedly Miller's masterpiece, influencing countless films over the past thirty years, and illustrates his prodigious knack for economy of storytelling.
James Cameron makes his second appearance on this list with his amazing followup to the highly influential and atmospheric sci-fi horror classic Alien. Where most horror sequels are simply a regurgitation of the original, Cameron took what was basically a Ten Little Indians story and expanded on it, adding new layers to the Ripley character and the world she inhabits. Set 57 years after Alien, Aliens begins with Ripley still in hypersleep and drifting aimlessly in space, before a deep space salvage team finds her and brings her back to Earth. Upon waking she finds that everyone she knew has since died, including her daughter (This bit was cut from the theatrical release which is pretty unforgivable considering how integral it is to Ripley's character, but it's restored in the Special Edition). She is also horrified to learn that the strange planet she and her crew landed on has since become an Earth colony, hosting approximately 70 families. The colony is of course overrun by aliens and Ripley accompanies a team of hardened space marines to go in and wipe out the invading xenomorphs. What follows is a brilliantly crafted high tension thriller, as the marines are cut off and surrounded by the murderous creatures, and Ripley forms a motherly bond with the only surviving colonist, a ten-year-old girl named Newt. Sigourney Weaver gives a career performance as this reluctant leader, balancing between her natural toughness and her maternal instincts. James Cameron surrounds Ripley with a cast of memorable characters who are much more fleshed out than their Alien counterparts, including Paul Reiser as the weasely company man Burke, Bill Paxton as the loose cannon Hudson, Lance Henriksen as the insecure android Bishop, and of course Michael Biehn (LOVE that guy!) as the introverted Corporal Hicks. Aliens builds to a fever pitch and doesn't let up for basically the second half of the film. It really is an extraordinary achievement in suspensefully terrifying action, and I consider it easily the best film of the series. It would sadly be followed in 1992 by the worst......
1. The Dark Knight
Christopher Nolan's sequel to Batman Begins is a masterpiece, unbound by the limits of the superhero genre. At its core The Dark Knight is a sophisticated crime drama that just happens to be about a man who dresses up as a bat, mired in a good vs. evil duel with a terrorist who dresses like a clown. At stake is the soul of Gotham City's entire population, in the person of the heroic new District Attorney Harvey Dent. Strangely The Dark Knight is not even primarily about Batman or The Joker, but about the rise and fall of Gotham's "white knight" Dent, whose unorthodox war on crime is so effective he nearly rids the city of crime singlehandedly. Of course the most memorable aspect of TDK is the iconic performance of the late Heath Ledger, as the living, breathing personification of evil. The Joker is pure id - unchecked, murderous hostility, at odds with Batman, who has pledged to save Gotham from its own corruption. Their struggle is almost Faustian, as the very fate of Gotham rests on whether or not Dent can be corrupted. One thing I found so refreshing about TDK is that most of the climactic scenes are dialogue-driven exchanges of ideas, rather than action set pieces reliant on special effects and explosions. The centerpiece of the film for me is the interrogation scene between Batman and The Joker, where the two mortal enemies try to dissect each other's viewpoints. Nolan and co. perfectly capture the ongoing relationship between the two that borders on codependency. It's no surprise that The Dark Knight is considered the greatest comic book film of all time, but it's also much more. By populating the film with authentic characters and action, Christopher Nolan has created a film that stretches far beyond the superhero subgenre into simply being a great piece of cinematic art. Batman Begins opened the door for comic book films to transcend, and its near-perfect sequel did just that.
And those are my picks for the ten sequels that truly outshined their predecessors. Think of any that I missed? Comment below, and thanks for reading all my nonsense here at Enuffa.com!