As Hollywood prepares to unleash another barrage of sequels—some anticipated (looking at you, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Batman v Superman and Finding Dory), some not (another Alice in Wonderland, really?) and some baffling (a follow-up to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that nobody saw coming)—audiences already know the routine: We hope for the best but brace ourselves for the worst.
When a movie’s a hit, studios scramble and quickly prepare for a sequel, eager to reap the revenue off what could become a franchise. Nine times out of ten, it’s awful. But sometimes a sequel will rise up from the darkness. These sequels aren’t just the second act; they become the main course, and everything we saw in the first film now just feels like a prologue.
Below, we’ve ranked our favorites—but keep in mind that we’ve limited this list to direct sequels. There’ll be no treating Mad Max: Fury Road as a long-delayed follow-up to the first Mad Max, or mentioning Die Hard with a Vengeance and skipping Die Hard 2 (not that either film could top the original anyway). We also left out the final chapter of a trilogy or the best last-film-of-a-series. So you won’t find Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, or The Return of the King or The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly here. And if every film in the series is good, we’ve left it off too. You also won’t see the Bourne movies here for the same reason why you won’t see any Toy Story: the entire trilogy is amazing. Got it? OK, let’s go.
15. ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES (1993)
Sequel to The Addams Family (1991) While the first Addams Family movie focused on introducing us to the eccentric eponymous family and their macabre interests, habits and quirks, Family Values was allowed to revel in them. With multiple subplots—like children’s summer camp for deadpan Wednesday and her brother Pugsley, a new baby for matriarch Morticia, and a murderous gold-digging nanny—this film allows us to see the Addams in full force.
14. BATMAN RETURNS (1992)
Sequel to Batman (1989)
Burton’s first Batman was a risk that paid off big for the studios, bringing in over $400 million for Warner Bros. and redefining the image of the Caped Crusader from the cartoonish camp of Adam West to the intense vigilante that creator Bob Kane intended. With Batman Returns, Burton was able to really go off the deep end in Gotham. With warped villains powered by strong performances from the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny DeVito and Christopher Walken, and a plot so twisted (kill all of the city’s firstborn sons by throwing them into the sewer? Jesus.) there’s only one hero dark enough to save the day.
13. 22 JUMP STREET (2014)
Sequel to 21 Jump Street (2012)
22 Jump Street is more or less the same film as 21 Jump Street: two narcs go undercover as students in school to investigate a new type of drug. “Infiltrate the dealers, find the suppliers.” But 22 succeeds strangely because it’s the same. It’s self-aware, and the main characters talk openly about the fact that sequels aren’t as good as the originals. These cops, played by Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, are able to settle into their roles, while funny but one-dimensional characters from 21, like the police captain played by Ice Cube, are given more space to develop.
12. EVIL DEAD II (1987)
A Sequel to The Evil Dead (1981)
Like 22 Jump Street, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II is part sequel, part remake of the first Evil Dead, this time with a bigger budget and a sharper focus. This sequel brought more gore, more special effects and essentially more fun to the screen in a frenzied rush, with a take on horror that ranged from satire to slapstick. By the time our hero Ash wields a 12-gauge shotgun and a chainsaw strapped to the stump where his right hand used to be, all bets are off.
11. MAD MAX 2: THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981)
Sequel to Mad Max (1979)
The first Mad Max is the story of a man seeking revenge against the gang who murdered his wife and son. The Road Warrior is an all-out war in the desert, exhilarating and terrifying, with relentless energy, spectacular stunts and explosive special effects. This sequel is the first to depict the nonstop action that the entire Mad Max series would become known for, and the arid junkyard landscape would set the standard for countless science fiction films set in the dystopian future.
10. DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978)
Sequel to Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Night of the Living Dead offers both terror and social commentary in equal measure, with the threat of an unstopped zombie force as a mirror for us to examine our own 60s society, ideas of class and race, Cold War-era politics and the Vietnam War. Dawn of the Dead took these pieces and explored them further, pushing the boundaries of violence and devastation on-screen, all while still retaining a trace of satire. After all, how better to examine our American consumer culture than to have survivors hole up from the zombie apocalypse inside a shopping mall?
9. SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004)
Sequel to Spider-Man (2002)
Although 2005’s Batman Begins is often cited as the first superhero film to broach the struggle of being a real person behind the facade of a superhero persona, it’s really Spider-Man 2 that paved the way. In the film, Peter Parker is stretched to his limits as he loses his job, his girl and his powers, and for the first time learns the weight of the suit he wears. We understand that “with great power comes great responsibility” from the first Spider-Man, but it’s not until Spider-Man 2 it really hits home.
8. X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014)
Sequel to X-Men: First Class (2011)
For a franchise spanning more than a decade, it’s only fitting that the follow-up to X-Men: First Class, a movie whose novelty stemmed from the depiction of the heroes as young adults, is now dedicated to time travel itself. The ageless Wolverine is “psychologically” sent back to the 1970s in order to sway a younger Professor X, Magneto and the others into preventing the extermination of mutants worldwide. While First Class introduced us to the characters we would come to know (in past films no less), Days of Future Past merged the younger cast with the original X-Men trilogy, leaving a “perfect” chronological timeline and setting straight much of the mess leftover from X-Men: The Last Stand—a task worthy of superheroes indeed.
7. BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)
Sequel to Frankenstein (1931)
At a time where monster films were diminishing in Hollywood, Frankenstein debuted in 1931 to critical acclaim. Its sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, improved upon everything from the previous film, with better cinematography, special effects and music. But where Bride broke new ground was with the complexity of the themes it presented. This was more than a great genre film; it was a great film—a new concept for 1930s Hollywood. In Frankenstein, the people are horrified to discover Frankenstein’s monster. In Bride of Frankenstein, the monster realizes that he will never find a place in our world and with this insight, he destroys the tower laboratory and himself along with it.
6. ALIENS (1986)
Sequel to Alien (1979)
Plot-wise, Aliens takes much of the formula of the first Alien—on an impromptu offworld expedition, a team (including an android) uncovers an unknown alien race that begins to eliminate each crewmember one at a time. All the while, female warrant officer Ripley, who consistently has the right idea about what to do, is silenced by the male figures around her. The difference between films is that James Cameron’s sequel is deliberate. In Alien, the mission for these truck drivers from the future is simply survival. In Aliens, the terror and action are amplified, but so too are the emotions. The soldiers go from fully confident to completely decimated, and when Ripley reaches this new film’s end, she’s no longer just barely escaping; she’s kicking ass.
5. THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
Sequel to Batman Begins (2005)
Widely considered one of the greatest superhero movies of all time, The Dark Knight blew away comic fans and critics alike when it debuted in 2008. Audiences going into theaters expected the next action-filled chapter in the Batman saga, this time with the Joker. Instead, Christopher Nolan delivered a haunting and complex crime saga that kept escalating the stakes and never let up, pushing the entire Batman universe to its breaking point and featuring an unforgettable penultimate performance by Heath Ledger. The Dark Knight refined what was possible for a comic-book movie, offering not only a darker tone that has since been mimicked in everything from Sherlock Holmes to Star Trek Into Darkness to Skyfall, but also serving as the benchmark that all future superhero movies would be measured against.
4. STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982)
Sequel to Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
After years of development, by the time Star Trek: The Motion Picture finally made it into theaters, it was a critical and commercial failure. The film’s plot moved at a crawl, there was virtually no action and most of the dialogue consisted of bickering amongst the Enterprise crew. It was a gamble to bring in new producers and create the sequel (let alone attempt one at all after The Motion Picture’s $46 million dollar price tag, the largest budget ever for a US film at the time), but it was an investment that paid off tenfold. Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan succeeded where its predecessor had failed, returning to the series’ roots with a solid plot filled with daring and danger, smart dialogue and a villain as outrageous as Captain Kirk himself. But more than that, Khan rejuvenated the Star Trek franchise as a whole, bringing the series back from the brink and breathing in new life that continues to this day.
3. STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)
Sequel to Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
As arguably the best film of the entire Star Wars franchise, The Empire Strikes Back took the gigantic universe introduced in A New Hope and built upon its foundation by bringing the story into focus. With a more thought-provoking story arc than the first film, Luke, Han and Leia come to truly face the Dark Side as each character is devastated by the seemingly unstoppable Galactic Empire—none more so than Luke, who realizes that his archenemy is his father in one of the most iconic scenes in all of film. This revelation not only binds Hope with Empire, but it gives the trilogy an emotional core that has elevated Star Wars to the pantheon of timeless modern sagas.
2. THE GODFATHER, PART II (1974)
Sequel to The Godfather (1972)
The Godfather is a masterpiece. Widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, the question of whether or not Part II is superior to the original is a debate that has raged for decades. Many view both films are a single work. One element that Part II claims over the original is the use of nonlinear storytelling; twin narratives portray the simultaneous journeys of Vito and Michael Corleone, both rising to power in their respective timelines. These two stories are seamlessly interwoven and faithful to the original novel by Mario Puzo, and the passage of time allows The Godfather’s themes of family and loyalty to develop and fully mature. Part II widens the scope of the first film and pushes further, with a sprawling narrative ambition matched only by the Corleones themselves.
1. TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991)
Sequel to The Terminator (1984)
The Terminator wasn’t anticipated to be either a commercial or a critical success when it first opened in 1984, but it achieved both as a smart thriller with momentum and intense action. Although some critics wrote it off as a B-movie or big-budget episode of The Twilight Zone (or specifically The Outer Limits, as claimed by science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, who threatened to sue Cameron for infringement when the movie originally debuted), The Terminator was a hit. By all accounts, the film’s sequel could’ve easily been a rehash of the first. Instead, Terminator 2: Judgment Day not only exceeded the original’s action, computer graphics, visual effects and cinematography; it also offered a main machine with a brain, and a heart. Schwarzenegger’s Terminator grows from being a killing machine to surrogate role model and parent. While The Terminator ends with Sarah Connor driving ahead toward an oncoming storm, Terminator 2 realizes that there is “no fate but what we make,” with the hope that if a machine can appreciate life, perhaps we can too.