Toy Story 4 is just around the corner. It is hard to believe that it has been nine years since Toy Story 3, even harder to believe that it has been 20 years since original sequel Toy Story 2 and almost a quarter of a century since the original film. God, where does the time go?
The miraculous thing about the Toy Story series is that it is the rare franchise where each sequel film is on par with the original. That puts Toy Story in rarified status. For every Godfather, there is a Godfather Part III. For every Lord of the Rings, there’s a Hobbit. For every Star Wars there is a prequel trilogy.
But what about that even rarer film? What about the sequels that actually manage to improve on the original? These are
10 Sequels That Are Better Than the First!
Bride of Frankenstein
The oldest film on our list, Bride of Frankenstein is a 1935 science fiction film and the sequel to the iconic Frankenstein. The film takes place immediately after the first film, with the Monster, having miraculously survived the events of the previous entry, hiding away from the villagers that want him dead and finding compassion in the company of a blind gypsy. Meanwhile, Dr. Frankenstein is visited by a devious scientist named Dr. Pretorius, who plays on the Monster’s loneliness and uses him to threaten Frankenstein into staging “the experiment” once more.
Boris Karloff and Colin Clive reprise their roles from the original film, but it is Elsa Lanchaster and her iconic lightning bolt hair-do that steal the show. Impeccably shot and designed, Bride of Frankenstein was a treat for the eyes and ears, but it was also a more nuanced and frightening portrayal of loneliness and despair, which earns it a spot on this list.
The Empire Strikes Back
The Empire Strikes Back is so iconic, so pervasive in our culture, that it almost doesn’t even need a paragraph of its own. Irving Kershner’s follow-up to George Lucas’ landmark classic takes the characters and the world audiences had fallen in love with to their next logical step.
The film picks up with the Empire discovering the Rebel’s hidden base on the ice planet of Hoth and beginning a full assault. From there, our heroes are split apart and on the run, with Han, Leia, Chewie, and C-3PO fleeing through an asteroid field and Luke and R2 stranded on the swamp planet Dagobah in search of a Jedi Master.
Empire Strikes Back took a film that everyone on the planet had seen and improved on it in every conceivable way. The universe is made larger, with Hoth, Cloud City, Dagobah, and Space Slugs in asteroid belts. The scale is grander, but the moments are more intimate. Han and Leia’s courtship in a corner of the Millenium Falcon is given the same time and attention as the space battles. Luke learning to lift rocks is treated as substantially as Vader pursuing the Rebels. Empire knows you’re going to see it and uses its time wisely. It doesn’t repeat the original, it advances and surpasses it.
While it was decently reviewed in 1980, the film has become a classic with an immense shadow that looms so large, even the other Star Wars films can’t escape it. On top of its beautiful matte paintings, impressive score, and outstanding visuals, Empire is also the film that introduced us to Yoda, Boba Fett, taun-tauns, AT-AT’s, Lando Calrissian, the Force’s ability to manipulate physical matter, The Imperial March, and the greatest twist in narrative history.
That the film was selected for preservation in the United States’ National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being culturally significant speaks for itself.
Evil Dead II
Evil Dead II is the most audacious sequel on this list. The sequel (or possibly, reboot) of the 1980 video nasty, The Evil Dead, EDII drops the “The” and adds gore, guts, and guffaws, along with a tantalizing subtitle “Dead By Dawn.”
The film centers on Ash, played by Bruce Campbell in the role that would define his career. Ash and his girlfriend Linda visit a cabin in the woods for a weekend of seclusion and romance. But Ash plays a tape recording that awakens a demonic spirit which possesses his girlfriend AND his hand.
With Evil Dead II, Sam Raimi created a sub-genre of comedy and horror all his own; ‘the Sam Raimi film.’ Utilizing a bevy of tricks and a lead performance for the ages, Evil Dead II is a sequel that doesn’t attempt to best the original, but to be its own thing entirely. The movie is a gift with chainsaw arms, eyes popping into women’s mouths, men cutting off their own hands, decapitated girlfriends ballet dancing through the fog, an entire room laughing at you like a Lewis Carol nightmare, and so, so much more.
To describe the brilliance of Evil Dead II is to describe the color red. It cannot be described with words. It must be seen to be understood.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Indiana Jones is back and this time he’s searching for the Holy Grail of historical artifacts; the Holy Grail. But that description is a bit misleading since, as Indy says “I’m not looking for the cup of Christ, I’m looking to find my father.” Indiana Jones returns from another whirlwind adventure to find that his father (whom he never got along with) has been kidnapped by Nazis while looking for the Holy Grail. Indy teams up with Marcus Brody and a researcher named Dr. Elsa Schneider to find his father and maybe find the grail in the process. Therein lies the great strength of the third Indiana Jones adventure. This film is about heart, and not the kind that can be ripped out of your chest.
For many, The Last Crusade played it too safe for a sequel. The film brought back the Nazis, dragged Indy back to a desert location, and relied more heavily on humor, but it also had boat chases in Venice, a battle between a tank and a horse, and a fight between planes and seagulls. But the real standout of this sequel outstanding chemistry between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery, the latter himself an artifact of great historical significance. By introducing audiences to Indiana Jones’ father and diving into the confrontational relationship between the two, The Last Crusade humanizes an archetype and presents an icon in a more vulnerable light. Everyone thought Indiana Jones was cool, except his father, and his quest for his father’s love and respect gives the movie greater stakes than any of the other films in the franchise.
The film also has the boldest climax of the series, relying solely on emotional resonance and character and the film is stronger for it. That is why it is my choice for the best in the series, and I chose wisely.
The Terminator was the film that put James Cameron on the map and for years he resisted doing a sequel. And that makes sense. What can be gained from a sequel to one of the tightest films of all time? And how do you one-up one of the most menacing and unstoppable villains the world had ever seen?
The answer? Like James Cameron’s other sequel, Aliens, you turn a horror film into an action film, you turn the bad guy into a good guy, and you replace him with a robot that is impervious to bullets and who can turn into anyone at any time. Sarah Connor has become a bad-ass since the first film, but she is also declared insane and locked in an asylum screaming about Armageddon. Meanwhile, her son John Connor, the person who will lead the rebellion against the machines, has become a punk with no parental guidance. The Machines send a Terminator back in time to kill him. But humanity has sent their own Terminator back to defend him.
Terminator 2 is one of the greatest action blockbusters of all time and easily the most “awesome” film on this list. The narrative is every bit as toned and tough as Arnold Schwarzenneger’s abs. It is also surprisingly funny and tender, with John’s reversed father/son relationship with the Terminator being a particular highlight. It the best of the Terminator series, and for many, the last they actually saw.
Sam Raimi is the greatest director of sequels in history. Yes, I know James Cameron made Aliens AND T2 but there’s a reason Aliens is not on this list. It just ain’t a patch on Alien, people. Spider-man 2, on the other hand, surpasses the original film in every conceivable fashion.
Back before the age of the cinematic universe, when superhero films were just a fad instead of the norm, Spider-man 2 presented a hero in crisis with Peter Parker struggling with school, work, rent, his duties to his ailing Aunt, his friends, and himself… oh, and he’s Spider-man. His responsibilities to the people (in the biggest city in the world) mean that he can’t make ends meet or be there for the people he loves. It is a film about a person drowning, something we can all relate to.
And yet, the film is not bleak or a downer. It is a joy to experience; moving, compelling, dramatic, and thrilling. It has the best action set-pieces a superhero film has ever delivered with a greater understanding of humanity than most blockbusters can even begin to comprehend. The secret strength of this sequel is that it is not, as the title suggests, a “Spider-man movie”. It is a Peter Parker movie. It cleverly focuses on the trials and tribulations of a human being struggling to get by and rewards your patience with an eight-legged mechanical monster punching him on a subway train. Spider-man 2 elevated the blockbuster by asking why it had to be one thing and instead became everything.
The Dark Knight
The Dark Knight took the world by storm, and in many ways, it feels as though we’re still dealing with it. You’ve seen it. You probably love it. And for good reason, it’s great.
While Batman Begins may be the better Batman movie, The Dark Knight is the superior film. Mature, propulsive, engaging, and occasionally demanding, The Dark Knight took the caped crusader of the comic book panels and dragged him into our world. The result was a film audiences didn’t even know they wanted and changed the goalposts for all future blockbusters.
It is a testament to the late Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker that we don’t even discuss the other terrific performances from the stacked cast. Gary Oldman continues to be the heart of this franchise, while Aaron Eckhart becomes a pitch-perfect Harvey Dent and his turn as Two-Face left many fans demanding his own movie.
And while the look of Batman Begins was superb (indeed, it was nominated for an Academy Award), the cinematographer Wally Pfister’s work on The Dark Knight, with the help of IMAX cameras, takes the cinematography to the next level.
All the Mission: Impossible movies from 3-6
Brian DePalma’s Mission: Impossible, based on the television show of the same name, is a tense, well-made, narratively incomprehensible thriller. It is very good, probably better than you remember, and the Langley heist sequence is every bit as heart-pounding as it is iconic.
But that is not what the franchise has become.
Instead, ushered into a new era by J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible 3 and crystallized by Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, the MI films have become a spectacle of Tom Cruise putting everything on the line to perform one high-octane stunt after another.
Mission: Impossible‘s ascent to the top of the Action Movie Mountain has been an interesting ride, especially since it’s rise does not come with Cruise’s return to superstardom. Don’t get me wrong, Tom Cruise is a great actor, and he may be Hollywood’s greatest living movie star (come at me), but the days when every Tom Cruise movie was a box office smash are behind him. But Mission: Impossible remains, and audiences have fallen in love with it.
The fourth film, Ghost Protocol is where the franchise truly came into its own, with Cruise climbing the world’s tallest building, in Dubai. The gloves were off. The mission statement became clear. These movies were not going to be about men running around in capes, flapping around in front of a green screen. Tom Cruise is here. He’s going to do it for real. You’re welcome.
As you can see from this list, when it comes to sequels, the landscape is dominated by horror films, action films, and occasionally a comedy. But a romantic drama aimed at adults? That’s practically unheard of. And yet, the Before series exists and the world is richer for it.
The original 1995 film, Before Sunrise, tells the story of Jesse and Celine played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy respectively. The young pair meet on a train in Europe and decide to get off and spend a day together in Vienna. Freed with the promise of never seeing one another, the couple discusses life, love, the future, the past, their relationships with themselves and their societies, and more, with total honesty. The result is a romance of surprising intimacy. Then came Before Sunset, which caught up with our characters nine years later, and nine years after that came Before Midnight.
No one ever thought they’d make another after Before Sunrise. In fact, Julie Delpy’s agent told her she was wasting her time and that no one wanted to see another one of these films. But of course, the opposite is true. Each film is a gargantuan cinematic achievement and a testament to the inherent value of cinema as a tool to capture the now in a way no other medium can.
Before Midnight is particularly arresting, culminating in a 45-minute argument that ebbs and flows with tension. While Before Sunrise is about the magic of the night, where everything is mysterious, and Before Sunset is about making moves while there is still time left in the day, Before Midnight is about how you keep a relationship alive after your carriage has returned to pumpkin form. When the film was over, I felt as though a bomb had gone off, and walked around the real world in a daze. Why were all these people walking around? Smiling? Laughing? Don’t they know the world has changed?
Each film in the Before trilogy is better than the last: a rarity, which is why it is a lock for this list.
Mad Max: Fury Road
No one, and I mean no one believed Mad Max: Fury Road would work as a sequel. Even the cast and crew thought the film was going to be a disaster. A hellish shoot in a blistering desert, for a sequel to a franchise that had been dead for thirty years? That couldn’t possibly work. How wrong we were.
Set in the apocalyptic future, this sort of sequel/sort of reboot catches up with Max Rockatansky, a road warrior in this bloody hell whose mind is on the verge of collapse. Max is captured by a gang of pasty gangsters called The War Boys, tattooed and made a blood bag for their dying soldiers. However, when Charlize Theron steals the Warlord’s brides, Max is dragged along on a race down Fury Road. That’s it. That’s the plot. It is a 90-minute chase. And it is incredible.
It is impossible to stress how improbable this seemed. No director had ever returned to a franchise they had helmed over ten years ago and made a good film out of it. Steven Spielberg couldn’t do it with Indiana Jones 4, George Lucas couldn’t do it with The Phantom Menace, Ridley Scott couldn’t do it with Prometheus, and Peter Jackson couldn’t do it with The Hobbit. You either screwed it up or you walked away.
But George Miller did it. By God, he did it. Coming up with the premise in ‘98, and writing the film, not with words but with thousands of storyboards, Miller’s masterpiece is a work of extreme inspiration. It is a brutal, heart-clenching, guzzoline-fueled triumph and a repudiation of every action film that slacks off. There is a reason the film was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. And it was made by a grandpa!