Second time’s the charm: Sequels that are better than the original

February 21, 2012

More often than not, sequels are a bad idea, and usually little more than a mercenary cash-grab that trades on the familiarity of the original. That is especially true now, in the time of direct-to-DVD retailing that allows franchises to continue ad-infinitum. But it was true even in the days before DVD and even home video. Was there ever a reason for The Sting 2? Or The French Connection 2? Or even Jaws 2? I mean, beyond the promise of filthy lucre? No, not at all. And yet, every so often we get a kind of unicorn—a sequel that eclipses the original. They’re not so rare as all of that, yet still they are the exception to the rule. Still, with Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance being a much more fun film than its predecessor, it seems like a good time to look at some of these outliers. The one that always springs to mind first for me is…

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: It’s almost impossible to overstate how important this film is in the Star Trek canon. In 1982, when it first hit screens, Trek was still just a short-lived, but well-known TV show that had spawned a lodgy, overblown movie that failed to fulfill Paramounts dreams of creating a franchise that could compete with Star Wars. Writer-director Nicolas Meyer was given a substantuially-reduced budget, but made a film that was fleet, exciting, and most importantly tapped into the humanism of Trek that made people like it. Not only did it draw non-Trek fans, but it created a visual and storytelling template that would successfully carry Trek for thirty years, four additional series, nine more films, and earn Paramount billions (that is with a B) of dollars from the franchise they so desperately wanted. If any sequel did more heavy lifting than that, I don’t know what it is.

100% more spaceship battles; 100% fewer bald chicks.

The Godfather Part Two: No one can deny the brilliance of The Godfather, which took Mario Puzo’s potboiler of a novel (not a well-written one at that) and elevated its core story to great art. Yet Part Two broadened and deepened the story to create one of the few truly American tragic stories.

The Empire Strikes Back: Of course Star Wars will always have a special place in our hearts, but no one can deny that Empire expanded the canvas and the characters and deepened the story. It also deepened the idea of the Force from simply a handy set of coincidences that helped Luke blow up the Death Star, to a personal journey of affirming the endless potential within all of us. You know, until it was explained away as just stuff in your blood that might make you special or not.

And there are these things.

Friday the 13th: Part Two: Weird as it seems, the sequel gave us Jason Voorhees and the iconic character…for the good or the ill. The original was just a simply slasher flick, inspired by creater Sean Cunningham’s idea for a cool credits sequence. With Jason, the franchise created an antagonist that would drive the films to, uh, ten (?) sequels, and create a whole genre of horror. For the good or for the ill.

The Bourne Supremacy: It would have been easy enough to simply put Jason Bourne on the run again from government assassins, but Supremacy, continued to tug at the mysteries introduced in The Bourne Identity, and overlaid a plot of geopolitical intrigue. In doing so, Jason Bourne became not simply a rat in a maze but a pawn in a world-spanning intrigue. Director Paul Greengrass never lost sight of Bourne’s emotional depth, but also rewrote how action films would  be made—an impact felt even by the venerable James Bond franchise.

Plus he uses a P99...

Terminator 2: Judgment Day: The Terminator was a crackerjack low-budget thriller, and almost single-handedly responsible for the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Eight years later, James Cameron, armed with a budget unheard of at the time, made a massive blockbuster sequel that not only expanded the scope of the original, but doled out the familiar (robot from the future hunts Sarah Connor) with the new (Sarah is now a kick-ass survivalist and is aided by the bad guy from the first movie) in perfect measure. Cameron also exhibited some state-of-the-art CGI effects that would transform cinema forever.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army: The first film was a funny, irreverent, and original comic book movie. It was also kind of tedious in places and anticlimactic. The sequel did much the same thing Cameron did in expanding the canvas, while remaining true to the characters.

Spiderman, Superman,  X-Men: I lump these together because they all followed more or less the same pattern: a fine original film whose runtime was crowded with origin story is followed by a sequel that allows the superheroes to face a new threat that forces them to reckon with their super powers. All three sequels bring unexpected depth to their heroes, and make for better, more exciting and engaging films. Alas, all three were also saddled with terrible third installments.

Kelly Hu makes anything better...she's like bacon that way.

That’s what I got. There are probably more, but I can’t think of them right now.


  1. Great list! Also there is Evil Dead 2, Aliens, and The Godfather Part 2!

    • I never saw the first Evil Dead, so it didn’t seem fair to put ED2 on this list. I’m not sure Aliens is better than Alien, since it’s a different genre of movie and kind of incomparable. One is a horror film, while the other is an action movie. But it was definitely a worthy follow-up.

  2. No one knows how many Friday the 13th sequels there are.

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