Sequels. We hate them because they’re so often just lame retreads of what made the original film so enjoyable in the first place, pale imitations of greatness. Sometimes they’re crazy or weird or their own thing, but most of the time they’re terrible, boring and uninspired. But every now and again a sequel comes out that doesn’t just equal the original, it all but blows it out of the water. It’s rare, but it’s the occasional miracle that keeps us interested in sequels, no matter how much we know better.
These are seven sequels that are better than the original. A few small ground rules: These are all number twos – no third or fourth entries allowed. These are all actual sequels, not vague continuations, prequels or gussied up remakes. They’re standalone movies, not filmed at once as part of a pre-planned trilogy. And these are all great movies on their own.
The Empire Strikes Back – After Empire, Star Wars almost seems quaint. Irving Kershner and screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan open up the Star Wars universe in a major way, and they present exciting new shades of gray into the proceedings. While Lucas’ original film was a reimagining of Flash Gordon serials, Empire feels weightier, bigger and more in line with printed pulpy space opera. Grown up and throwing away the formula, Empire is really the only Star Wars film that works for me anymore.
Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey – While the original Bill & Ted is filled with wacky charm (the basic concept that all of these historical figures – including two murderous maniacs – would help a couple of dummies pass a school presentation is so delightfully sweet) the sequel opts for the big scale weirdness. Writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon could have just had Bill and Ted visiting other eras in history, but this time a metaphysical trip is in order, with Heaven and Hell on the itinerary. And along the way awesome new characters – Station! – join the proceedings, leading up to an ending that I think uses time travel gags much better than the first film.
The Road Warrior - The original Mad Max is a scrappy Ozploitation film (heavily influenced by 1974’s Aussie Stone), but it keeps the end of the world business too far at the margins for my tastes. And it’s essentially an origin story, a sort of vehicular Outback Death Wish. It’s the sequel, The Road Warrior, where Max’s world comes into sharp, eternally defining focus. As does the character of Mad Max, fully transformed into a high wasteland drifter. With a budget comes scope, and George Miller’s vision gets bigger, stranger and more action-packed.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan - Not just the greatest Star Trek movie, this is the greatest space combat movie of all time. It’s also a movie that understands the characters are just as important as the phaser bolts, and it balances the exciting submarine warfare of two ships in a nebula with the exciting personal warfare of two driven men. Thrilling, fun, sad and gripping, this is everything the lethargic, 2001-inspired Star Trek: The Motion Picture never was.
The Bride of Frankenstein - James Whale thought he couldn’t outdo Frankenstein so he turned this sequel into a semi-comedic take; in fact, watching the film you’ll be surprised at how little Young Frankenstein had to change for the parts it spoofed. And it’s filled with unbelievable oddness, like evil Dr. Praetorius’ collection of tiny people (his own attempts at making life), The Monster’s predilection for a good smoke or the ambiguous nature of Frankenstein and Praetorious’ relationship. But it also manages to be chillingly ugly at moments and ultimately incredibly sad. The Monster proves to be totally emo and unable to take rejection from his Bride (played with hissingly good theatrics by Elsa Lanchester), but you understand where he’s coming from. Dude just wants a friend and a smoke. It’s the interplay of comedy and horror and tragedy that makes Bride of Frankenstein easily the best of all Frankenstein movies.
A Shot in the Dark - This sequel to The Pink Panther came out three months after the original. And it was never intended to be a sequel to The Pink Panther. But it is the film that creates the world of Inspector Clouseau that we all know – it was here that Peter Sellars took his accent way over the top, and it was here that Dreyfus and Cato were introduced. In fact, it could be argued that A Shot in the Dark is the first real Pink Panther movie (even though the Pink Panther is not in it or, if I recall, even mentioned). It’s also a lot funnier than The Pink Panther, if a little broader. But Clouseau at the nudist colony or playing pool with a wickedly warped cue are the kinds of gags that appealed to me as a kid watching the films on TV and still appeal to me now. And beyond all that, A Shot in the Dark has Elke Sommer, and we all know that films with Elke Sommer are better than films without her.
The Godfather, Part II – Not just the best sequel ever but possibly the best film ever made, Francis Ford Coppola’s stunning masterpiece doesn’t so much blow The Godfather out of the water as it stands on that film’s shoulders and ascends into the heavens. Building on the rich, complex world and characters of the first film, Coppola shrewdly moves forward while looking back, contrasting the rises of two generations of Corleones. The depth of the film is staggering, as is the craft; at this point Coppola was firing on all cylinders, just before blowing out on Apocalypse Now, and he simply nails every single moment. The reality is that even the best movies I see in any given year aren’t half as good as The Godfather, Part II.