In the world of film, the sequel is often derided as a lazy attempt to generate new revenues from an existing piece of art. This is perhaps why there are endless think-pieces decrying the current state of Hollywood as oversaturated with sequels, remakes, and reboots. While a sequel can sometimes be a pale imitation of an original, this is not always the case.
Every once in a while, a sequel comes along that is so much better than its predecessor that it becomes the standout film that defines an entire franchise. Much like Thor: Ragnarok and the upcoming Thor: Love and Thunder, the third and fourth installments are much better than the original. If you‘re wondering what the secret sauce is that makes a sequel outshine the original, let’s take a look at some of the best sequels ever made to see if we can uncover the answer.
The Dark Knight
The second installment in Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise is still considered to be one of the best Batman films ever made, one that catapulted Health Ledger’s joker to the status of legend and set the bar for every subsequent film in the canon. Today, almost any cultural representation or reference to Batman will nod to this film, be it in subsequent franchises or through video games such as the Arkham series. While the ultra-gritty film offers stellar performances all around, this sequel tells us that, sometimes, all you need to keep the momentum going is one flawless, original performance from a true master of the craft.
Captain America: Winter Soldier
The Captain America films, starring Chris Evans as Steve Rogers himself, all rank among the more critically acclaimed releases within the sprawling Marvel ecosystem. However, it is the second release – Winter Soldier – that continues to stand head and shoulders above the rest. What directors Anthony and Joe Russo did here added a more serious, darker twist to the original happy-go-lucky story, without descending into overly gritty kitsch. The film’s inspired plot, which pits the Cap against a Cold War-style surveillance state, is a brave departure from the usual Marvel fare, one that shows how taking narrative risks in a sequel can really pay off.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day
Ask anyone to quote a line from the iconic Terminator films, and they are likely to give you a few words from Judgement Day. James Cameron’s second installment, which came a full seven years after the original, continues to be the enduring cultural touchstone for this now-massive franchise. The characters from T2, including Robert Patrick’s haunting T-1000, continue to be reproduced to this day. For example, fans of the film can now play an official branded Terminator 2 slot, in which the stellar cast all appear as icons on the reels, dispensing cash prizes to online players. Few other sequels have this kind of staying power.
Silence of the Lambs
Very few people are even aware of the fact that Silence of the Lambs is a sequel. However, it is a direct continuation of the 1986 film Manhunter, itself a critical darling (albeit one that fared poorly at the box office). In this sequel, Anthony Hopkins replaces Brian Cox as Hannibal Lecter, an inspired decision that transformed a sinister villain into an unforgettable and terrifying character that continues to haunt audiences more than 30 years on. What makes this example so noteworthy is the fact that Silence of the Lambs feels like a completely different film to Manhunter in terms of style, content, and themes. Sometimes, the original film is little more than a launchpad for a truly great work of art.
The bloated X-Men franchise is littered with films we would rather forget, including the two Wolverine installments that came before 2017’s Logan, which sees Hugh Jackman return as the steel-clawed, sideburn-touting antihero. Again, this is a sequel that manages to feel like a completely different film from anything that came before it. Logan is arguably the first film in the entire franchise that takes some of the burning political themes of the day head-on, grappling with authoritarianism, refugees, and the military-industrial complex with a raw panache that none of the other films attempted. For us, the real winner from Logan is Hugh Jackman, who came to the table prepared to perform a completely different type of Wolverine, one that represents a stark departure from his previous turns.
Sometimes, you don’t need to make a dramatic departure from previous installments. This is aptly demonstrated by the 2013 film Before Midnight, the final release in the Before Trilogy which masters the art of continuity. The dreamy travelogue film follows Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, our star-crossed lovers from the original films, as a married couple on a family vacation on the Greek islands. The film grapples intimately with the ideas and themes explored in the previous films, reflecting on youth, ambition, and the manner in which our fantasies crumble in the face of reality. Despite being filmed a decade after the previous film, Before Midnight feels like it picks up right where we left off.
These stellar sequels tell us a lot about the art of one-upping your previous work. With the right combination of bravery, boldness, respect for the source content, and, of course, the help of incredibly talented actors, a sequel can outshine even the best original film.