I must begin this list by explaining that the original films listed here are by no means poorly made or bad movies. When we are talking about a sequel being better than the first film, we are pointing to various aspects of storytelling, production, acting, and effects that were likely unattainable until the first in the series made its mark on the world of cinema. Let’s not forget that no production company would have greenlit a sequel if the first film didn’t perform well at the Box Office. With all that being said, the following list of films contains movies that were better in a lot of ways than their predecessors; these films built upon the backs of those that came before and simply raised the bar. You will likely find these movies mixed into other lists of great sequels on the Internet, but I have put this one together to highlight those sequels that elevated themselves from those that came before. Spoilers ahead…..
Desperado – Sequel to: El Mariachi
Desperado hit the theaters three years after Robert Rodriguez’s directorial debut with El Mariachi in 1992. The previous film was so well received and critically-acclaimed that it was placed into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. With such acclaim given to the previous film, it would definitely be hard to top, but that’s what happened when Desperado hit theaters in 1995.
Shot with a significantly higher budget of $7 million compared to El Mariachi’s modest budget of only $7,000, Desperado found its voice with a significant increase in violence akin to films like John Woo’s The Killer. The ultra-violence was so over-the-top, it could almost be considered a character in the film. The story somewhat mimics the first film, but also expands on it by taking the unnamed protagonist, El Mariachi, on a quest for revenge through the streets of an unnamed city in Mexico.
What makes it better? Desperado was significantly easier for Columbia Pictures to produce and sell to the American market due to it being shot in English as opposed to El Mariachi’s Spanish-language dialogue. This found the film a broader audience, but certainly didn’t make it better. The subtle and menacing presence of Antonio Banderas as El Mariachi is what separates this movie from its predecessor. Additionally, Salma Hayek’s performance as Carolina brought a powerful female character into the film and cemented Hayek as a huge star.
Spider-Man II – Sequel to: Spider-Man
The first Spider-Man film made by Sam Raimi was a massive success. It made over $115 Million in its opening weekend and set some amazing records. The movie set the stage for the following sequels and helped to solidify the modern superhero genre that is taking Hollywood by storm.
Spider-Man II had something going for it that the first film didn’t and it ended up being a better production overall. The film that followed was pretty bad in comparison, but the second in the series takes the cake as the best of the trilogy.
What makes it better? Alfred Molina. While the Green Goblin was an excellent adversary for Spider-Man in the first film, the much deeper character of Doctor Otto Octavius as played by Alfred Molina brought intense depth to the character and opened the story-arc so we weren’t hit with just another ‘Superhero Origin’ film. This one was all about the story and the characters who made this film just a bit better and relatable to this day.
Aliens – Sequel to: Alien
The original Alien that came out in 1979 was a cinematic masterpiece of science-fiction and horror/suspense. The film had so many things going for it that made it special: Brilliant sets, creature-effects, acting, direction, and story. Such a movie would certainly be difficult to top, but fortunately, we were treated to a sequel that amped up the action while maintaining a suspenseful narrative throughout.
Aliens took the first film and put Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley right back in the thick of it. Returning to the scene of the crime with some well-trained Marines and a plan to save the settlers who colonized the planet. When it comes to format, it’s fairly similar to the previous film. The corporation in charge of everything had a plan to capture the Xenomorphs to use them as biological weapons while ensuring the crew of the rescue ship as well as the people settled in place are expendable. The two films are separated by going from one adversarial Alien to dozens to include a finale with an Alien Queen. The action ramps up throughout and doesn’t disappoint in the end.
What makes it better? The action and pacing of the film are significantly more engaging than the first film. Though it was set in space and is certainly a Science-fiction film, the first Alien is more in line with the horror/suspense genre while Aliens was more about the Summer Blockbuster and super action film. Every aspect of the movie was amped up from the original and in this way, it does not disappoint.
Most importantly, we are introduced to an Alien Queen as the main antagonist and are given some understanding of the brood-like structure of the Xenomorph society. Ultimately, it all comes down to one line in the film that makes it just a bit better than its predecessor, “Get away from her you bitch!”
Terminator 2 – Sequel to: Terminator
The first Terminator film was an incredible entry into the burgeoning ‘new monster craze’ of the late 1970s and 80s. I’m talking about those monsters brought to life by the masters, Rick Baker and Stan Winston. The Terminator, Alien, and Predator ushered in this craze with other creatures such as Baker’s titular monster in An American Werewolf in London bringing it all together.
Terminator was action-packed and wracked with suspense. With an amazing use of stop-motion animation and puppeteering, the audience was engrossed in a world where cyborgs came from the future with no remorse in the killing of whoever they needed to. Let’s hope your name wasn’t Sarah Connor…
Terminator 2 came around when some advances in Special Effects technology were taking film out of the old (stop-motion, puppeteering, and makeup) and into the new rage of Computer Generated Imagery (CGI).
What makes it better? T2 had a LOT going for it that the first film didn’t. It had an amazing script that flipped the monster from the first film into the endearing bodyguard/savior of the second (And following films). The Special Effects wizardry that brought to life a liquid-metal T-1000 was amazing for the time and the effects still stand to this day. We were exposed to more characters who were able to humanize the film and we also saw some more structured glimpses into the future after Judgement Day. Let’s not forget the amazing transformation of Linda Hamilton who went from meek and mild-mannered waitress to muscled badass in the second film. The filmmakers basically flipped the script on the two main characters and the result was a film that stands the test of time.
The Empire Strikes Back – Sequel to: Star Wars
Nobody can say that the first Star Wars film wasn’t a groundbreaking epic that launched a new era of science-fiction and blockbuster filmmaking. We were just treated to a sequel that was three decades in the making and Star Wars: The Force Awakens looks as though it will break every record it possibly can and become the highest-grossing film of all time. With a legacy like that, how can anything top the original?
The first film was something of an experiment for George Lucas as well as 20th Century Fox. Every other production company turned him down and when he finally made the deal with Fox, Lucas had to take what he planned to be a six-film series and shoot just one movie. Because of this, Star Wars is shot like any standalone movie would be: It has an opening and introduction to the characters, a major conflict, a redemption, and a huge climax that results in the poor, orphaned farm-boy saving the galaxy by destroying the most menacing weapon of all time. It’s a great story and it could have ended with no sequels at all, but because of its success, we have been treated with films like The Empire Strikes Back.
What makes it better? Conflict and despair make this film better than the first. We are not only given the slow and rocky rise of Luke’s Jedi powers, but we also see Han Solo frozen in Carbonite and taken by Boba Fett to Jabba’s Palace. Luke confronts Vader only to find out that he is his father (Right after he cuts off his dominant hand). Everything about this film is unknown and devastating. Even the final scene (Shown above) has each of the main characters staring off into space with their backs to the camera suggesting that we just don’t know what is going to happen next. As far as sequels go, this one just makes you NEED to see whatever comes next.
We also saw some advances in Special Effects that continued to amaze audiences. The entire Hoth battle scene with the AT-ATs was amazing as was the Millennium Falcon’s daring escape from the Empire in the asteroid field. Most of those rocks may have been painted potatoes, but you can’t tell that just watching the film. The Empire Strikes Back was all about ramping-up the intensity and the action, which has solidified it as not only an amazing sequel, but as one of the greatest Science-Fiction films of all time.