Sequels That Rise Above the Originals

By Jake Schroeder
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Can lightning strike twice? Movie producers certainly think so, and every once in a while they prove they can make a sequel that's even better than the original.

It's not easy to make a movie franchise better — usually, the odds are that meddling further will just make something worse. That's why movie fans should celebrate rare events like a superior sequel’s release. When amazing sequels like these come along, it's like winning the movie lottery.

The Empire Strikes Back

The Empire Strikes Back had a tough act to follow after the original Star Wars movie premiered. How do you top the movie that changed the world and sent box office profits into hyperspace? By going deep into what makes these characters tick and not being afraid to get dark.

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Luke gets beaten up over and over, we learn about the Force from Yoda, Han and Leia fall in love while on the run and Vader gives audiences the greatest twist moment of all time. Unhappy ending, but super-happy fans.

The Godfather Part II

The Godfather showed Mafia members as three-dimensional figures, not just as cartoon villain characters. These people had families, children, hopes and dreams, and they’d do anything to protect them.

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The Godfather Part II traces the rocky ascent of Michael Corleone as he’s forced into some hard choices while expanding the family business. A parallel story flashes back to how his father Vito arrived in America and began the family’s empire. As Vito builds the foundation in the past, Michael secures the legacy in the present. It's a triumphant masterpiece.

Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier

While the first Captain America is a nostalgic look at the feel-good patriotism of WWII, Captain America: Winter Soldier takes us into darker and more complex times. What is the meaning of patriotism if the government itself is full of traitors? What happens when friendship and duty collide?

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Where the first film was an adventure, the second plays like a conspiracy thriller with a shocking revelation at the end. The film soars by developing Steve Rogers fully and explores the belief that there’s nothing more patriotic than doing the right thing.

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Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Star Trek: The Motion Picture underperformed. A huge budget and fantastic special effects couldn't rescue a film everyone found...boring. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan had to save the franchise. And boy, did it deliver!

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Director Nicholas Meyer interpreted the film similarly to a submarine thriller, with opposing captains playing cat and mouse and messing with each other's heads. It features spectacular battles, incredible suspense, a scene-stealing villain and a tragic ending for Spock, who makes the ultimate sacrifice. The rousing musical score is the cherry on top.

Mad Max: Fury Road

It had been 30 years since the last Mad Max movie when Mad Max: Fury Road was released. After such a long time, would the sequel be worth it? It was — and then some.

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Director George Miller poured his heart and soul into the film, and it visually feels like high art. At one point, a massive caravan of crazed villains chases Mad Max and friends through the unforgiving desert. One vehicle is outfitted with huge speakers and a guy with a flame-throwing guitar. That's how awesome this movie is.

Aliens

Aliens switched genres on fans. Whereas Alien was a haunted house horror movie in space, Aliens is a high-octane action-thriller with horror elements. More than 30 years later, it's still the high watermark of the franchise.

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It has an incredible script coupled with perfect execution. James Cameron delivered a rare jewel: a hit action film with a female lead that expertly balances horror and humor. Ripley's motivation is dead simple: save survivors from the doomed colony, kill any aliens along the way and nuke the entire site from orbit.

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The Dark Knight

Batman Begins was a near-perfect origin story for Batman. By the time he finally puts on the cowl and cape, it makes perfect sense.

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The Dark Knight is another animal altogether — a crime thriller that tests both the character and the very idea of Batman. At its center is the Joker, played with such terrifying chaos by the late Heath Ledger that people are still talking about the performance. By the end, Batman grimly accepts that he is the hero Gotham needs, but not the one it deserves.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Filmmakers have been desperately trying to make a hit followup to Terminator 2: Judgment Day for over 25 years. No matter what they do, they can't even come close.

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It's a near-perfect action movie, one that takes the premise of the first film and turns it on its head. What if the Terminator that was originally sent to kill you becomes your protector from something even scarier? The film's fast pace, incredible action scenes and breakthrough special effects made it a smash hit that spawned other vastly inferior sequels.

Toy Story 2

When Toy Story first debuted, audiences were gobsmacked by the CGI. It had never been done at this level before — it ushered in a whole new era. From then on, that was the level of quality that audiences would expect from an animated movie.

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Toy Story 2 expanded on the original by exploring heart-wrenching themes like abandonment, purpose and ways to find meaning in life after devastating loss. Just try not to cry watching Jessie's backstory. Toy Story 2 showed that even for toys, broken hearts could be healed.

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The Silence of the Lambs

Hannibal Lecter originally debuted played by Brian Cox in a Michael Mann film called Manhunter. The movie was a modest success. But The Silence of the Lambs changed the game.

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Anthony Hopkins gave us an unforgettably creepy version of Hannibal Lecter that people will be quoting until the end of time. The cryptic relationship that develops between Dr. Lecter and FBI agent Clarice Starling is the emotional tightrope of the story. Even though Buffalo Bill is supposed to be the big bad guy, it’s Lecter who's the most terrifying.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

Poor Clark Griswold is a victim of his own ridiculously high expectations. In the first Vacation film, his quest for the perfect road trip causes disaster at every turn. In Christmas Vacation, Clark unwittingly ruins Christmas as well.

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And it's the funniest thing actor Chevy Chase has ever done. One catastrophe is scarcely over before another piles on top of it, and by the end, Clark Griswold is wound up so tight he snaps spectacularly. Audiences liked Vacation, but they loved Christmas Vacation and are still watching it every holiday season.

Ant-Man and the Wasp

Paul Rudd's comedic everyman portrayal of a diminutive superhero in Ant-Man proved to be a surprise hit. Combining the heist formula with comedic elements resonated with audiences and was a refreshing turn in the Marvel universe.

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Ant-Man and the Wasp expands on the successful formula and becomes a lightning-paced superhero adventure that marries equal parts heist, chase and comedy. It's never a dull moment as Ant-Man and the Wasp race against the clock to save Janet van Dyne from the quantum realm while remaining one step ahead of the bad guys.

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Die Hard

Frank Sinatra originally played the John McClane role (then called Joe Leland) in The Detective in 1968. Die Hard was based on the screenplay adapted from the novel "Nothing Lasts Forever," which was the sequel to "The Detective."

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But the director wanted more action, so writers changed major elements of the screenplay. The end result is not only an action classic but is also one of the best alternative Christmas movies of all time. No one remembers The Detective, but everyone knows "Now I have a machine gun. Ho. Ho. Ho."

X2: X-Men United

It's hard to believe, but at the time, no one was sure that a team superhero movie would work. Long before the Avengers era, there was X-Men. It was a modest superhero movie by today's standards, but it paved the way for bigger epics.

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X2: X-Men United built on the original premise with more confidence. Professor X and Magneto team up to stop a sinister plot to kill mutants everywhere. The movie was a rousing call against racism, and fans loved seeing a superhero team reach its full potential.

Goldfinger

James Bond was still relatively new to the movie-going public back in 1964, but they knew even back then how to spot a winner. Goldfinger was Bond's third cinematic outing, and in many ways, it cemented how we think of the classic character today.

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Goldfinger standardized many of the classic James Bond tropes: the womanizing, the gadgets, the one-liners, the bigger-than-life villain, the shaken-not-stirred martini and, most of all, Sean Connery. A quintessential Bond story, Goldfinger remains the highest-rated sequel in the entire sprawling franchise, according to Rotten Tomatoes.

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Spider-Man 2

The original Spider-Man was a huge hit. A classic origin story, audiences flocked to see a hero that — after decades of waiting — had finally received the big-screen treatment.

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Spider-Man 2 borrowed its plot from a handful of his popular comic book stories and gave audiences a daunting villain for Spider-Man to conquer. The story shines and is at its best when Spider-Man, despite it all, has compassion for even his most deadly enemy. Fifteen years later, many fans still regard this one as the best film in the ever-growing franchise.

Evil Dead 2

Evil Dead was Sam Raimi's breakout horror hit, but he did it on the cheap. Forced to work within a tight budget, Raimi used ingenious techniques to enhance the film, such as "shaky cam" and shooting from the point of view of the evil deadites.

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Evil Dead 2 is not really a sequel — it's a total remake. Raimi took the same story and shot it again with a much bigger budget. The result is a ridiculous blend of in-your-face horror and slapstick comedy that fans will love until the end of time.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

As a movie franchise, the Harry Potter story was already a hit. But director Alfonso Cuarón took genuine risks with the source material. Putting the students in street clothes and pushing the story towards horror and suspense, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban became the film that paved the way for its darker sequels.

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For many fans, it's still the best film of the series. It has something for everyone: violent trees, fantastic beasts, a magical map, time travel, shapeshifting villains, crazy plot twists...you know, Harry Potter stuff.

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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) wasn't the first attempt at a cinematic story featuring Hunter S. Thompson. That honor goes to Where the Buffalo Roam (1980), in which Bill Murray deftly played the Thompson role.

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Depp's version of the soused character was a little more flamboyant. And although Fear and Loathing didn't do well at the box office, it later became a huge cult classic. What's not to like about total dedication to hedonism experienced through the lens of a counter-culture journalist with an intimidating vocabulary?

Superman II

Superman changed the game when it proved to the world that comic book fare could translate into box office bucks. It didn't hurt that Christopher Reeve was born to play the role.

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Superman II gave Superman bigger obstacles to conquer. What if he came up against three supervillains that had the same powers he had? As Superman's romance with Lois Lane blooms, the evil trio plots a takeover of the planet. It all culminates in a spectacular brawl in New York City and the Fortress of Solitude, where Supes finally turns the tables on them.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Even if you don't know the movie, you know the whistling theme song. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly became the movie synonymous with both Clint Eastwood and great westerns. It’s still considered among the best.

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One of the signature elements of the film’s flair is sequences without dialogue. The real reason for this is that director Sergio Leone had a smaller budget for this one and was shooting on the cheap. But this added to the gritty ambience of the film that modern westerns are still measured against.

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Thor: Ragnarok

The Marvel cinematic universe is a project of a scope that has never been seen before — or since. With 23 movies and counting, it's an embarrassment of riches. So what makes Thor: Ragnarok so special?

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Mainly, it throws the gravitas of the titular character out the window and reinterprets the serious franchise as a comedy. Chris Hemsworth was made for laughs, and it's as if the writers finally figured it out. Audiences loved the Odd Couple-style humor of Thor and Hulk as they rampage their way through Sakaar and Asgard.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

You have to hand it to Tom Cruise. Say what you want about him, but he knows how to do great action films. And he’s had the broken bones to prove it. At an age when most male actors are opting for dramas, Cruise simply doesn't slow down.

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Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol felt like a reboot of an already successful franchise, breathing fresh energy into the adventures of Ethan Hunt. Taking the best of the previous movies and remixing it into a high-stakes action masterpiece, Ghost Protocol became the new standard for secret agent popcorn films.

Dawn of the Dead

We can thank George Romero for the existence of zombie movies as an entire genre. Night of the Living Dead popularized zombies among modern audiences and paved the way for the gazillion zombie stories that followed.

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Dawn of the Dead was the movie that brought zombies out of old, decrepit houses and into modern settings — like an American shopping mall. While the zombie effects are lame by today's standards, the storyline of heroes making a fortress out of whatever they can find has become a standard trope of the genre.

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Logan

Is it really possible that an X-Men movie can make us cry this much? Yes, and then some. Logan was a daring R-rated dramatic sequel to both the X-Men franchise and the spin-off Wolverine movies.

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Hugh Jackman plays a mutant whose power is waning and who finds himself as the unwitting protector of both Professor X and an orphan girl who has virtually the same abilities he has. Making it his mission to make sure she gets to a safe haven, Logan is a heartbreaking send-off to the Wolverine character and a masterpiece in its own right.

Hellboy 2: The Golden Army

Whatever movie director Guillermo del Toro tackles has an incredible visual style, and Hellboy II: The Golden Army shows just what he can do with the proper budget. For the sequel, Hellboy is less in our world and more in the magical realm beneath it.

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Audiences already loved Hellboy, but the sequel created a supernatural universe so vivid and detailed people came back for more. Is it weird to have a good-guy demon team up with an amphibious fish-man, a gaseous German and a flammable love interest? Yes, and it's awesome.

The Bourne Ultimatum

It’s rumored that producers were forced to reboot the Pierce Brosnan James Bond films because the Jason Bourne franchise reinvented the spy movie. Watching them again, it's easy to see how this could be the case.

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The film strives for realism and inventiveness at the same time. Authentic-feeling control rooms with bureaucratic spies combine with high-octane scenes in which someone is beaten senseless with a household item like a book. The Bourne Ultimatum takes the best elements of the previous films and tops itself in both style and story.

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Bride of Frankenstein

In Frankenstein, Boris Karloff embodied the role of Frankenstein's monster so well that no actor since has come close. Back in 1935, people lined up for the sequel, having no idea it would be even better.

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Bride of Frankenstein resurrects both Frankenstein and his monster, which were seemingly dead at the end of the first movie. Here, Dr. Frankenstein is blackmailed by an even crazier scientist into creating a female companion for his monster. The look of the female creature has become iconic — and the ending a total heartbreaker.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

It seems unlikely that Planet of the Apes would find audiences in its second reboot. But a modern take on the tale of super-intelligent apes resonated and showed us the best and worst the human race has to offer.

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes fast-forwards to a world where humans are an endangered species and apes reign supreme. Though Caesar tries to forge peace with humans, his noble efforts are undermined by rogue elements. The story is a meditation on war, peace and the limits of compromise.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Even though it has a dozen endings too many, Return of the King is still one of the best fantasy films ever made. This is the tale that culminates in the final epic battle for the fate of Middle Earth.

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Beyond the magic and fighting is the beating heart of the story: Frodo and Sam's arduous journey to destroy the ring to both deliver the realm from evil and save Frodo's soul. The stakes couldn't be higher, and director Peter Jackson pulls out all the stops for the climactic end.

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