It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these.
You see, we’re not going to Rotten Tomatoes or whatever for these great film sequels. These are my personal picks, there’s not a single movie here that I wouldn’t vouch for on some level.
Which is also why there are a couple of oddball choices in here:
The Godfather Part II (1974)
Let’s just get this out of the way.
It should have been a disaster to follow up on one of the greatest American crime films ever made, but The Godfather Part II manages to exceed its predecessor against all odds. The parallel storylines showing Vito and Michael Corleone’s rise to power in their own ways are just one of the many strokes of genius to be found throughout this film.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
…this one isn’t super fair in a way.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture isn’t exactly great, though it’s not horrible (cool twist at the end, I’ll give it that). It’s just that Wrath of Khan is a wildly better film in just about every way imaginable. From Ricardo Montalban’s iconic performance as Khan to the most emotionally devastating scenes ever in any Star Trek movie, Wrath of Khan is still arguably the apex of the entire series.
(Though, I seriously considered putting The Voyage Home above this one, I cannot believe how great that film is.)
The Road Warrior (1981)
A running theme that we’ll see on this list is that a number of these films had a very low-budget first entry that gained enough interest that a higher-budget sequel was made down the line that could truly show what the director was capable of.
I can’t think of a much better way to sum up The Road Warrior. While The Road Warrior isn’t a blockbuster extravaganza, it had a hell of a lot more money than the original Mad Max, and with that extra cash, George Miller unleashed one of the purest action movies of the 1980s.
Evil Dead II (1987)
Just like George Miller and The Road Warrior, Sam Raimi and Evil Dead II was a ferocious demonstration of what you can accomplish with a bit more cash on hand. Choosing to essentially remake the original film and expand on it in increasingly deranged ways, this horror-comedy sequel isn’t just one of the best sequels of all time, it’s one of the best horror comedies of all time.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
While not a single character from Night of the Living Dead carries over, George Romero’s talents did. Amazingly, Dawn of the Dead manages to squeeze out the first zombie epic ever on a budget of $640,000, building almost every cliche of the zombie genre in the process. Despite being ripped off by roughly a thousand movies, TV shows, video games, comic books, and every medium under the sun, Dawn of the Dead still endures as one of the foundations of its genre.
The Dark Knight (2008)
There are all kinds of words you could write about just how and why The Dark Knight is an unbelievable sequel, but you only need to write two:
No further explanation is required.
Most of the time, a sequel to a classic movie made seven years after the original with a new director are telltale signs you’re about to watch an uninspired cash grab.
The degree to which Aliens throws your doubts in the garbage in mere minutes cannot be overstated. James Cameron seemed to innately understand that making a movie like Alien all over again wasn’t going to work, and pivoting from pure horror to action-horror makes Aliens a truly thrilling successor.
I will say, I think this film probably least fits the spirit of this list if only because Alien and Aliens feel so different from each other. Most of these sequels seek to feel something like their predecessor, and Aliens does right up until it doesn’t, mutating into visuals and monsters far beyond what Alien ever envisioned. As a result, they both live in parallel in my mind. Alien isn’t better than Aliens, and vice-versa. They aren’t playing in the same arena, and I respect that.
Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Still the best one.
In the forty-plus years since its release, no one who’s touched Star Wars seems to be able to top Empire Strikes Back, which perfectly juggles thrilling battles, edge-of-your-seat chases, and quiet introspection into one supremely elegant epic.
Most of all though, I fiercely admire Empire’s commitment to being downbeat. By the end of the film, our heroes (that are left standing) are at their absolute lowest points, and watching how each character deals with that reality is why this movie still is the reigning champion of the franchise.
Toy Story 2 (1999)
It’s truly incredible to me that this was intended to be a straight-to-VHS movie originally.
Thankfully for audiences everywhere, Pixar managed to talk Disney into making this a full-theatrical project, and managed to top themselves in the process. The original film is still a great family film, but Toy Story 2 feels like the best kind of expansion you could ask for, not only deepening the characters we already know but adding new ones with just as much depth.
I know Toy Story 3 is great too, but Toy Story 2 just edges it out for me. Barely.
Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)
Hear me out.
The first Friday the 13th is a solid slasher, but Part 2 is where the reveal Friday the 13th films begin as far as I’m concerned. Not only is the film where Jason Voorhees finally becomes the killer, but his burlap-sack mask is scarier than the hockey mask. There, I said it.
Now, let me be clear. Is Friday the 13th Part 2 as good as any other movie on this list, like The Godfather Part II? Absolutely not. But it’s a sequel I love the hell out of, and I’ve seen it twice in theaters at this point. When it comes to deliriously fun slasher films, this is damn-near at the top of the heap.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
Yes, this is a sequel to a prequel, but I will take any opportunity to talk about one of the best modern film trilogies we have. Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and War for the Planet of the Apes are collectively an incredible work, but Dawn stands out in the end. Bleakly perfect and incredibly tense, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes works as a quiet drama about survivors of an apocalypse trying their best to coexist.
It’s also a movie where a chimpanzee rides a horse dual-wielding machine guns. As smart as Dawn’s script is, it’s also a blockbuster that delivers a bananas last third that escalates wildly. I think the entire trilogy is worth watching from end-to-end, but ultimately I enjoy Dawn’s balance of its tones the most.
22 Jump Street (2014)
It’s worth noting that this is the only comedy sequel on here, and with good goddamn reason. Most comedy sequels are total trash, which is why it’s even more baffling that the sequel to 21 Jump Street is fantastic.
This makes the list simply because when I saw this in theaters, it was the first time I’d been to a theater that served full meals. While I was eating some pasta, a scene happened in this film that was so funny, I almost choked and died from laughing, and thought the joke was so funny that I didn’t even mind that I almost existed this mortal coil in the dumbest way imaginable. I can’t say that about any other movie I’ve ever seen.
X2: X-Men United (2003)
I saw someone post the intro to this movie on Twitter recently, and I’d somehow forgotten that the Nightcrawler assault on the White House is one of the best superhero movie intros of all time.
And X2 has plenty of other surprises to unleash. Almost two decades later, X2 stands as one of the finest comic book movies of its era, filled with the fantastic cast from the first along with newcomers who feel right at home (Brian Cox is SO good in this). The comic book movie genre has definitely moved beyond films like this, but in this era, this one still (mostly) holds up.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Depending on who you are, we saved the best for last.
I find it truly remarkable that James Cameron not only has one but two of the greatest sci-fi sequels ever made under his belt. Terminator 2 is a colossus of a film, one of the absolute apexes of R-rated blockbusters. While the film is remembered for its absolutely groundbreaking digital effects, the amount of this film that’s still shot in-camera is astonishing, especially when car chases evolve into helicopter chases.
Most of all though, the expansion of Sarah Connor’s character is the true key to the entire movie. While Arnold Schwarzenegger, Edward Furlong, and Robert Patrick are all doing great work, Linda Hamilton is this film’s true star and beating heart. There have been four sequels since Terminator 2, and not a single one of them can touch this film’s excellence.