Sequels better than the original films

Everyone knows sequels are never as good as the originals—except that every once in a while, they actually are. In fact, some sequels turn out to be even better than the films that preceded them. These movies all surpassed the franchise installments they followed—and some are now considered classics in their own right.

Spider-Man 2

Spider-Man was great, but it was hampered by two things: first, it spent a lot of time telling Spider-Man's origin story before it got around to the main action; second, they made some questionable choices regarding the villain. Willem Dafoe was an excellent choice for Norman Osborn, but his Green Goblin outfit looked pretty goofy, especially the immobile plastic goblin face. Painting Dafoe's real face green would have been far creepier and more effective.

Spider-Man 2 solved the villain problem by hiring the spectacular Alfred Molina to play Doctor Octopus, a villain who doesn't wear a mask and also has a lot more pathos than the Green Goblin ever did. With the origin already told and such a fantastic villain, plus the chance to explore classic comics plot points like Peter getting fed up and quitting as Spider-Man, it's no surprise this is the best movie in Raimi's trilogy.

The Empire Strikes Back

Star Wars: A New Hope (or just Star Wars, as it was known in 1977) is an incredibly fun movie, and it's no wonder it was a world-changing smash hit. But the follow-up, The Empire Strikes Back, manages to retain that sense of fun while introducing adult drama, romance, and tragedy. A New Hope ends with a big victory, but Empire is a reminder that wars are long, and even after a major win you may find yourself on the run from a stronger opponent, wondering if winning the battle will cost you the war.

In addition to upping the narrative complexity, Empire also introduces important and interesting new characters like Lando Calrissian, Yoda, Emperor Palpatine, and even Boba Fett, who doesn't do much but has a fan following anyway. And yes, as discussed in Clerks, it has a downer ending, which hits viewers like a gut punch and sets up the even bigger triumph of Return of the Jedi.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The First Avenger was one long origin story, taking Steve Rogers from a skinny, sickly Brooklyn kid to a World War II super-soldier, then transplanting him directly from the final days of that war to the 21st century. Its sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, took that time-displaced Cap and put him at the center of a very modern story. Like many of the character's best comics, Winter Soldier is at heart a story about how Steve Rogers comes from a simpler time and struggles adjusting to the complexities of the future. But just as importantly, he never seems foolish; in fact, his worldview gives him the clarity to see the creeping fascism of Hydra for what it is. On top of all that, Winter Soldier makes great use of the Black Widow, introduces the Falcon, and even features a fight with Batroc the Leaper.

The Dark Knight

Batman Begins has a lot going for it, but it's a pretty dour affair, with Christian Bale pouting his way through Bruce Wayne's scenes and growling his way through Batman's. Liam Neeson as Ra's Al Ghul and Cillian Murphy as the Scarecrow don't bring much fun to the movie either, both representing a nihilistic worldview that metes out destruction out of a misguided desire to purify the world.

Then The Dark Knight comes along and Heath Ledger changes the whole game. He gives what might be the best Joker performance of all time, and even though he's incredibly violent and destructive, he's certainly never grim. Despite ugly makeup and looking like he must smell terrible, Ledger is magnetic in every moment he's onscreen. Such a worthy villain makes this hands down the best Christopher Nolan Batman movie, and one of the best Batman movies of all time.

The Godfather Part II

There are very few examples of a movie and its sequel both appearing on legitimate lists of the greatest films of all time, but the first two Godfather installments frequently do. The Godfather was more than just a gangster film, bringing a level of craft and narrative complexity that the genre had never even come close to before. The Godfather Part II takes that complexity further, telling a story of family across two time periods simultaneously. The Godfather Part II is the continuing story of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), the previously sheltered son who has become as great a mafia leader as his father once was. But it's also the story of his father, played here by Robert De Niro, a Sicilian immigrant in New York City who learns how things work in his new home, and how much there is to be gained from a life of crime. These halves mesh seamlessly into one whole, a rare achievement in cinema.

The Road Warrior

Mad Max is an interesting if idiosyncratic film about a cop in a near-future dystopia who seeks revenge after his family is murdered. The Road Warrior takes that same character—and the actor who plays him, Mel Gibson—and builds a whole new world around him. What was once a collapsing dystopia is now a full-on post-apocalyptic world with no unified society at all. And whereas the first movie was about Max's life, The Road Warrior establishes him as a wanderer who reluctantly gets involved in the lives of others—a formula that has worked for the franchise ever since. Add to this the increasingly outré production design and costumes, and it becomes clear that it's The Road Warrior, much more than Mad Max, that gave George Miller's Max Rockatansky and his world staying power as a classic sci-fi franchise.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

In 2011, the Planet of the Apes franchise was rebooted with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. However, that film is a sci-fi drama very different in tone from what anyone expected out of a Planet of the Apes movie. It focuses on the very first intelligent ape, Caesar (played through motion-capture by Andy Serkis), and his relationship with the human who raised him, played by James Franco. It sets the table for the downfall of humanity and the rise of the apes, but it doesn't really get there.

By Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, set ten years later, things have progressed. This is the story of humans who—decimated by plague—have lost control of the Earth, and their growing conflict with the increasingly intelligent apes who are its clear inheritors. While Rise may have been the key to the way this saga began, Dawn is where it really gets exciting.

Toy Story 2

Toy Story was a game changer for animation and family films, proving that an entirely CGI story could be just as engaging as a traditionally animated one, and making Pixar a major player in the field going forward. The film stands up today, but with everything we've seen since, the seams on this first classic are starting to show. The animation's great, but it's a little stiff by modern standards. Likewise, the story is a lot of fun, but it's surprisingly simple.

Only four years later, Toy Story 2 leveled up the franchise. It had a more complex story, with a city-spanning rescue mission, a visit to a toy store, and a bunch of new characters. The animation is flawless, and it has just as much heart as the first one, if not more. Toy Story is very, very good, but Toy Story 2 is amazing.

Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan

Bringing Star Trek to the big screen was a great idea, but Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a mess. The costumes and production design were boring, the plot was lifted from an episode of the TV show, and at a runtime of more than two hours the whole thing seemed to move at a glacial pace. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was where they figured out how to make a Star Trek movie work, bringing in Ricardo Montalban to reprise his role as one of the show's most memorable villains and introducing important new characters, including Captain Kirk's ex Carol Marcus, their son David, and Kirstie Alley as Saavik. Director Nicholas Meyer also brought the whole thing in at less than two hours with plenty of action along the way. Many fans still regard Wrath of Khan as the best Star Trek movie.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch

Gremlins is a classic, but it's also a dark, cynical little film. It establishes an idyllic It's a Wonderful Life-esque setting and then has ugly little monsters destroy the whole thing. Gremlins 2: The New Batch is a very different animal. It moves the setting to a high tech skyscraper in New York City, and introduces a far zanier cast of Gremlins who wreak a much sillier sort of havoc. In addition to returning franchise stars Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates, it introduces John Glover as a Trump-inspired billionaire, Robert Picardo as a corporate sleazebag, and horror legend Christopher Lee as a geneticist whose experiments lead to a much wider variety of gremlin shapes and sizes. Gremlins was fun, but as a popular Key and Peele sketch pointed out, Gremlins 2 is completely bananas in a way that makes it awesome.

Addams Family Values

1991's The Addams Family was a surprisingly successful reboot of the classic TV show, and 1993's Addams Family Values takes that success to even greater heights. First of all, the sequel takes Wednesday and Pugsley to summer camp, where their encounters with more normal children, as well as Peter McNichol and Christine Baranski as the relentlessly sunny couple who run the camp, provide some of the most memorable gags in the entire franchise. Also, most of the first movie is occupied with a conceit that Uncle Fester is being impersonated by a con artist, until he turns out to be the actual Uncle Fester at the very end. In the sequel, we know he's Fester from the beginning, so Christopher Lloyd can fully occupy the role in a way he didn't get to the first time around, and his relationship with Joan Cusack's black widow is a particular highlight.

X-Men 2

X-Men came out in a time when superhero movies weren't a sure thing yet, and in retrospect it's hard not to notice that it hedges its bets, posing as more of a Matrix-esque sci-fi film. X-Men 2 is infused with far more confidence. It makes the X-Men feel more like superheroes, even if they still wear black leather. It expands the roles of Iceman and Pyro, introduces Nightcrawler, and brings the first movie's major villains, Magneto and Mystique, into an uneasy alliance with the X-Men against a much bigger threat. All of this goes a long way toward building the kind of complex world and layered character dynamics that made the comics such a big hit for so long. It also just makes a lot more sense than the first film, forgoing the "deadly device at the top of the Statue of Liberty" silliness for a more believable threat of extermination at the hands of bigotry.

Back to the Future 2

Back to the Future is a fun movie about a teen from the '80s visiting the '50s. But Back to the Future Part 2 tells a complex sci-fi story about the nature of time travel that the first movie didn't even attempt. In the first film, Marty McFly visits the past, ensures his existence by making sure his parents fall in love, and then goes home to the present. In the second movie, he goes to the future, then returns to the present only to find that it's been altered by another character messing with the timeline, which means he has to go back to the past again to set things right. That third segment even features scenes from the original film from different angles, as Marty does his best to make sure the plot of the first movie happens as it was meant to. It's a wild ride.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

The seven years between 1984's The Terminator and 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day marked a huge evolution in special effects, and an increased budget made utilizing those state-of-the-art effects possible. In The Terminator, the antagonist is a robot in human form who's come from the future to kill Sarah Connor before she gives birth to a son. In Judgment Day, that robot (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) has been reprogrammed to protect Sarah and her son from a more dangerous model of Terminator. The T-1000 isn't just a robot in human form, it's a shapeshifting robot made of liquid metal that can take the form of any human. The development of CGI "morphing" technology made the T-1000 possible, and it was mind-blowing at the time. Along with an engaging plot, the special effects made this sequel a standout.

Annabelle: Creation

Technically, as its title implies, Annabelle: Creation is a prequel to Annabelle, not a sequel. Still, it's the second movie in the Annabelle series (a spinoff of the Conjuring films), and critics and audiences agree it's far more effective and unique than its predecessor. Whereas the first film had a satanic cultist bring the Annabelle doll to malevolent life with a blood sacrifice, Creation goes back much further to show that the doll was evil from the beginning, and why. The prequel also brings a whole group of young orphaned girls into the house where Annabelle was built, and their terror is that much easier to empathize with when the demon that lives in the doll begins menacing them. In short, Annabelle: Creation has turned out to be a must-see horror film on a level that Annabelle never quite was.

See No Evil 2

See No Evil, featuring veteran WWE wrestler Kane as the monstrous Jacob Goodnight, was a forgettable horror movie that most would probably agree didn't need a sequel at all. But See No Evil 2 was directed by up-and-coming horror mavens Jen and Sylvia Soska, and it uses the Goodnight character (still played by Kane) to build a complex and self-aware little movie that revitalizes not just the See No Evil franchise, but the slasher genre as a whole. The cast is built around popular scream queens Danielle Harris and Katharine Isabelle, and the whole thing is set in a city morgue where a young undertaker's friends have come to visit her on her birthday, just as the supposedly lifeless body of Jacob Goodnight is delivered. When Goodnight gets up, the whole thing turns into a violent and terrifying ordeal that any horror fan will enjoy.

Evil Dead 2

Evil Dead is a ridiculous film by accident. It wants to be straightforward horror, but thanks to a low budget and the off-kilter sensibilities of its director, Sam Raimi, and star, Bruce Campbell, it turns out to be something much weirder. In Evil Dead 2, Raimi embraced that weirdness and made full use of Bruce Campbell's comedic abilities to make a delightfully bizarre horror comedy that starts in the same cabin in rural 1980s America and ends in medieval Europe. Everything that came after—Army of Darkness, Ash vs. Evil Dead, the darker Evil Dead remake, probably the entire future career success of both Raimi and Campbell—all happened because of the slick, tongue-in-cheek self-awareness of Evil Dead 2 far more than the low-budget schlock of the original Evil Dead. After all, Ash isn't really Ash until he replaces his possessed and severed hand with a chainsaw, and this is the film where that happens.

Blade II

The biggest reason Blade II is much better than the first Blade is simple: Guillermo del Toro. The Mexican director was still mostly unknown in the U.S. when he was hired to direct the second film based on the Marvel Comics vampire hunter played by Wesley Snipes. The story of the sequel is pretty similar to that of the first movie, but del Toro brings a level of style that really makes Blade II something special. The complex fight scenes, often involving Blade, his reluctant vampire allies, and the super-vampires known as Reapers, are by far the best in any of the three Blade movies, and the juxtaposition of a gothic Eastern European setting with a stylish punk aesthetic gives the film an unmistakeable—and unmistakably del Toro—look and feel. Interestingly, the Reapers are almost identical to the vampires of del Toro's much later TV series The Strain, so he must have realized there were ideas in this movie worth holding onto.

Magic Mike XXL

Magic Mike is a Steven Soderbergh drama about a male stripper who doesn't want to be a stripper anymore. Magic Mike XXL, directed by Gregory Jacobs with Soderbergh as a producer, is a movie about the joys of being a male stripper. While there was a lot of fun to be had in the first movie, the sequel puts that fun at the forefront. It portrays a kind of easygoing, comfortable masculinity that isn't threatened by putting one's body on display for the pleasure of others. Unsurprisingly, the biggest fans of XXL were women, who flocked to the movie in groups, almost as if they were going to an actual male strip club, albeit one populated by some of the most handsome actors in Hollywood. Visual pleasure is central to film as a medium, and few films have made that pleasure as central, or as visceral, as Magic Mike XXL.

Bride of Frankenstein​

Visionary director James Whale didn't want to make a second Frankenstein movie, even though the first had been a smash hit. The studio finally convinced him by letting him do pretty much whatever he wanted. The result was Bride of Frankenstein, an arch, deliberately campy outing that's generally regarded as the first horror comedy. Whale paired the high-strung Dr. Frankenstein with a new scientist named Dr. Praetorius, a proud degenerate who gleefully defies the laws of nature. He also gave the Monster the power of speech, which he had in the novel but lacked in the original film. There's still plenty of pathos in Bride, particularly the extremely dark ending, but it's balanced with a levity that the original lacks, making for a much stronger film. This was Whale's last Frankenstein movie, and is widely regarded as the highlight of the franchise.