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A good sequel builds upon the original film. The best sequels strike a balance between maintaining what makes a first entry interesting and providing something new and fresh. Some sequels aren’t obviously better than the first, yet they stand out by choosing to go a different stylistic or conceptual direction, like Aliens. This list will judge the best sequels of all time by evaluating both the extent to which they improve upon the original and the strengths of the film itself.
10 Best Movie Sequels of All Time | For the sake of concision, I have limited the meaning of “sequel” to second movies only.
- Spider-Man 2 (2004), Sam Raimi.
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man is an important entry into the superhero genre, however many of its elements have aged poorly (like the Green Goblin costume). Spider-Man 2 is certainly an improvement. It shares its’ predecessors’ heart, but it tells a better story with a necessary focus on Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and his relationship with MJ (Kirsten Dunst). Tobey Maguire excellently sells Spider-Man’s serious side – an underrated aspect of these films. Though Willem Dafoe is fantastic as the Green Goblin in Spider-Man, Dr. Octopus (despite his ludicrous name) is a much more sympathetic, nuanced villain.
Spider-Man 2 also boasts more memorable sequences than either the first or third, such as the now memed-to-death train fight, which is one of the more memorable sequences of any superhero film. Still, Spider-Man 2 lacks something in comparison to the following entries – at times, like the original, it feels quite outdated. Nevertheless, it is stronger than the first and is one of the better superhero sequels, and films, out there.
- The Bourne Supremacy (2004), Paul Greengrass.
Though The Bourne Supremacy isn’t obviously better than the first, it certainly improves upon Identity’s worst features. With the arrival of Paul Greengrass comes the establishing of the franchise’s stylistic identity. Under new direction, Matt Damon is far more convincing as Jason Bourne and the action sequences hit harder. Supremacy is a fantastic example of visual storytelling – it is exciting all the way through. Where most films of this nature contain action scenes that feel somewhat separate from the story, The Bourne Supremacy’s narrative is seamlessly told through action.
There are also a handful of brilliant, pathos-filled character moments. The climactic conversation in Russia is still probably the series’ most impactful scene. The Bourne Supremacy lacks the novelty and warmth of Identity, but it improves upon its direction of action and is crucial to establishing the franchise’s overall tone.
- Blade Runner 2049 (2017), Denis Villeneuve.
Blade Runner 2049 brilliantly continues the themes and aesthetic of its predecessor. The fact that it is set so long after is a clever justification for the even more futuristic world it depicts. It also continues the original story reasonably well and is an engaging mystery relating back to Deckard’s (Harrison Ford) past. Ryan Gosling’s replicant protagonist also intriguingly evolves the humanitarian questions surrounding Deckard in the first film. Atmospherically, the film soars. It is awesome to behold – the visuals, cinematography, and sound design are completely engrossing.
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The visuals aren’t just pretty – they serve the story well. Blade Runner 2049’s LA looks like a reasonably plausible future, and it is made so by the incredible dedication to detailed sets and costumes. The film’s main downfall is that it isn’t as powerful or as subtle as the first, but it comes admirably close.
- Aliens (1986), James Cameron.
James Cameron’s explosive, game-changing follow-up to Ridley Scott’s horror classic is the perfect example of a sequel that succeeds by taking a different approach to the first. This time, as the brilliant title suggests, the human characters are tormented by several aliens instead of one. As such the film is more of a sci-fi/action flick than a quiet, nervy horror. This change of genre is crucial to Aliens’ novel appeal – it is a different beast from the first but as an action film, it succeeds in being exciting.
The climactic showdown with the queen alien is awesome to behold. Sigourney Weaver owns the role of Ripley – she is totally believable as an action hero. Aliens also showcases the fact that some franchises are suited to particular directors, even when they join after the first film (Paul Greengrass and Bourne being another example). James Cameron’s knack for creating visually dense sci-fi worlds feels like a natural fit to Ridley Scott’s world. Though I prefer the simple, well-designed terror of Alien, Aliens certainly adds to the world implied by the first film.
- Mad Max 2 (1981), George Miller.
Mad Max 2 has a very simple story – it finds Max stumbling upon and helping a village oppressed by ruthless bandits. This second outing is gritty yet still specifically detailed in its vision of the apocalypse – it offers that dense sense of oddity that feels synonymous with Mad Max. Like Fury Road, though its story is simple it tells its narrative through engaging visual storytelling. Mel Gibson is brilliant as the grizzled Max, a man who speaks very little but who emotes powerfully. The final car chase is a delightfully brutal climax, which gloriously pays off the rising tension throughout the film – visually, it is one of the most impressive car chases you will see.
The first Mad Max is more about Max than the madness. What makes The Road Warrior successful is that it totally embraces the post-apocalyptic world and feels more in line with what we associate as being Mad Max’s identity. Its’ campier elements (revealing leather outfits) haven’t aged as well as its’ action choreography, but these features are still crucial to the identity of the world. Road Warrior isn’t quite as explosive as Fury Road but it certainly constitutes a step up from the original.
- Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), James Cameron.
Though The Terminator is thrilling yet simple, Terminator 2: Judgement Day expands and improves upon nearly everything that makes it good. Firstly, it is much more exciting than the first film. It moves at breakneck speed and contains some highly impressive action sequences. The visual effects are really remarkable and still look distinct to this day. Like the first, the narrative remains small in scale but you still get the sense of a grander conflict – the flash-forward scenes establish this wider war effectively.
Having the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) be the good guy is a great change which turns the first two films into interesting points of contrast. Judgement Day also retains the first film’s sense of humour – the Terminator stealing sunglasses and being forced to obey a child’s every command are two great moments of comedy. The villain is also suitably threatening. Some corny moments hold it down, but Terminator 2: Judgement Day is a great film in its own right and a substantial improvement over its predecessor.
- The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers (2002), Peter Jackson.
It feels strange to separate The Lord Of The Rings films from each other seeing as they are so connected – like The Godfather Part II, The Two Towers feels like a continuation of its predecessor, The Fellowship Of The Ring. In fact, all three films give the impression of one longer film rather than three separate parts, which adds to their appeal. The Two Towers deepens the world of the first film whilst seamlessly continuing the quest to Mordor. It doesn’t have the soppiness of the final chapter and yet feels nearly as intense (The battle of Helm’s Deep is as breathtaking as anything that came after).
It is also equally as intimate as Fellowship. Some aspects don’t work as well – it does go on long narrative detours and it is probably the least immediately exciting Lord Of The Rings film. Still, it is good enough to go toe-to-toe with the other entries in the trilogy – which is impressive, given the fact that in many ways The Two Towers is simply a bridge between the beginning and the end.
- The Godfather Part II (1974), Francis Ford Coppola.
To me, The Godfather is the best gangster film of all time and one of the best films, period. To follow up such a conclusive and well-rounded story seems like a strategy doomed for disappointment, however, it is incredible just how close The Godfather Part II comes to matching its predecessor. It continues Michael Corleone (Al Pacino)’s descent into immorality, which is then paralleled with Vito Corleone’s rise early on in the century. De Niro and Pacino are both fantastic as Vito and Michael respectively. The Godfather Part II cleverly delivers on the promise of its title – it really feels like a continuation of the tone, themes, atmosphere, visuals, and the story of the first. The familial ties are just as engaging, particularly between Michael and Fredo, and Vito and his family.
Despite keeping the original film’s qualities Part II feels refreshing enough not to feel repetitive – the parallel narrative structure works very well. There is a beautiful irony in the way that the different timelines inform each other without any explicit commentary being necessary. The only reason The Godfather Part II isn’t higher is because I prefer the “Hero’s” journey of the first to Part II’s more dreary darkness – but it is undeniably excellent.
- Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Irvin Kershner.
Star Wars changed cinema forever. However, its successor, The Empire Strikes Back, is easily the best film in the franchise and was almost just as influential. The final twist is one of the most significant in pop culture history. The choice to make the heroes lose is brave considering how kid-friendly Star Wars is. Lines like “I love you…..I know” are iconic. Empire explores Luke’s battle with the dark side quite spiritually and feels like the closest the series ever gets to a nuanced discussion of good and evil. The final lightsaber battle between Luke and Darth Vader is brilliant – it is legitimately tense and visually striking.
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Speaking of – this film, not the first, feels like the reason for Darth Vader’s enduring reputation as one of cinema’s greatest villains. His costume is sharper, less goofy and he is given far more evil to do. The rest of the characters progress equally well – Luke and Han Solo are particularly well developed. Though most people remember The Empire Strikes Back for its climax, it is worth noting that it takes time to get interesting – the Battle on Hoth is overlong. Still, once it does get going, it continues to be increasingly gripping until its memorable climax.
- The Dark Knight (2008), Christopher Nolan.
When people remember Nolan’s Batman trilogy, more often than not, they remember The Dark Knight first, not Batman Begins, and rightly so. The Dark Knight honours the comics by still featuring heightened characters such as Two-Face, yet it still remains rooted in a believable, recognisable reality. Narratively, it echoes relevant fears of terrorism and civil collapse which genuinely sell the threat carried by its antagonist. It remains the only Batman film I have seen that gets to the heart of what is interesting about the character: the manner in which such a figure would affect a real society.
The Dark Knight knows that the existence of “a Batman” wouldn’t necessarily be good news, and it engages in this discussion in the most iconic, dramatically engaging manner possible by throwing The Joker into the mix. Heath Ledger’s version of the character is one of the best villains put to film, ever (and is my personal favourite). This isn’t solely owed to Ledger’s fantastic performance; the way he is written into the story is seamless. He has a believable conflict with the hero and affects him permanently – you really get the sense that the hero may not defeat him (by the end of the film, it’s a tie at best).
The visual portrayal of Gotham greatly expands upon the griminess of Begins. Indeed, it widens the scope – The Dark Knight’s Gotham seems massive and suitably fictional yet it is still a recognisable metropolis. On a technical level, the film is fantastic. The truck chase, bank-heist, and Hong Kong sequences are brilliant, especially because you can see that so much of it is done for real. Zimmer’s score is gloriously nightmarish. Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine (the series’ unsung hero), and Heath Ledger all give great performances, the latter of which is my favourite screen-performance of all time. The Dark Knight’s also funnier than you may have remembered – it has some inspired moments of dark (no pun intended) humour, like the pen scene.
The Dark Knight occasionally lacks subtlety in the way it delivers messages. Some of the recurring features haven’t aged that well (the Bat-voice is a bit much). Also, it is arguably true that it peaks in the second act. But what a blistering, exciting, and emotionally satisfying second act this is. The Dark Knight improves on Batman Begins’ in nearly every way whilst being noticeably different and satisfying as an individual story. For these reasons, I think it is the best sequel of all time.
How To Train Your Dragon 2 (2014), Dean De Blois.
From Russia With Love (1963), Terence Young.
Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011), Jennifer Yuh Nelson.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013), Francis Lawrence.
X2 (2003), Bryan Singer.
22 Jump Street (2014), Phil Lord, Christopher Miller.
Shrek 2 (2004), Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury, Conrad Vernon.
Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol.2 (2017), James Gunn.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Anthony Russo, Joe Russo.
Toy Story 2 (1999), John Lasseter, Ash Brannon, Lee Unkrich.
Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004), Quentin Tarantino.
The Raid 2 (2014), Gareth Evans.
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Amhara Chamberlayne is a graduate in English Literature from Warwick University who shares Hollywood Insider’s passion for cinema. When he is not watching films he is writing about them. Uninterested in gossip and agenda, Amhara instead believes in sharing his honest individual reaction to cinema. He enjoys the multi-variant reactions films elicit and believes his take is just as valid as others. For Amhara, the joy lies in the exchange of opinions.