Sequels get a bad rap in the in Hollywood as being soulless money grabs or lazy attempts to recapture something. This can certainly be true in some instances, but in other times, a story needs more than one outing to be told. A good sequel doesn’t have to surpass the original as long as it offers up something different and manages to add to existing character arcs.
In making up this list, I decided to skip over the horror and comic book genres, since they tend to be more geared towards franchise building, I also skipped out on Star Wars since it probably would have made up 40% of my list!
10. Toy Story 3 (2010)
I’ll start by saying that while I adored Toy Story, I didn’t care for Toy Story 2, so when a third was released, I wasn’t in the biggest rush to go see it. What a mistake that was, as Toy Story 3 is amongst the best animated features ever made. Incorporating the best elements of the first 2 films, the third outing of Woody & Friends is fun for kids while being emotionally charged for the adults who grew up with the first entry 15 years earlier. Pixar hit magic again with Toy Story 4 in 2019, which was a close runner up to making this list as well. This is the kind of series that should live on and be passed down forever.
9. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
I was late to see the original Blade Runner as I didn’t see the entire thing until the filming started on the sequel. I loved it and hated myself just a little for continuously skipping over it previously. Then came the anticipation for the follow up. This long-awaited return to the Blade Runner universe wasn’t the mega box office hit that was hoped for, but much like the original, it seems to continually pick up an audience even years after release.
There are strong, understated performances throughout from an all-star cast, but the real treats here are the visual effects and cinematography as they carry the film through. About 45 minutes into the movie, I thought to myself, “I’m not sure I’m following what’s going on, but holy shit, is this gorgeous!” Director Denis Villeneuve will have a second chance at taking us back to a classic sci-fi world in 2021’s Dune which, if Blade Runner 2047 and Arrival are any indication, should be amazing.
8. Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018)
Say what you want about Tom Cruise, but one thing you can never take away from the guy is his ability to make a great action flick. The Mission Impossible franchise started way back in 1996 and—with the exception of MI: 2—it has gotten exponentially better as it goes along. The latest entry, 2018’s Mission Impossible: Fallout, is practically flawless. A smart plot mixed with ferocious hand-to-hand combat and truly spectacular stunt work puts this one just slightly ahead of 2011’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.
Henry Cavill joins the already outstanding cast and brings about a level of physical action the series hasn’t quite felt before. Sure, his moustache may have helped to tank Justice League, but I dare say, it was worth it! Also the fact that Cruise is still doing his own stunts—including flying a helicopter and free jumping from a plane, even as he approaches 60 years-old—is beyond impressive.
7. Fast 5 (2011)
Another rare instance of a franchise that got better with age is The Fast and the Furious. To think that the street racing, DVD player stealing band of misfits from the 2001 original would eventually be participating in some of the biggest, most elaborate action set pieces in movie history would have been met with more than a little skepticism. Fast 5 stands out as one of the better action flicks of the past decade. Duane “The Rock” Johnson is a most welcome addition, and the finale through the streets of Brazil is endlessly rewatchable. While some of the following entries are fun, this film is the peak of the series.
6. Creed (2015)
Nine years after the release and lukewarm reception of Rocky Balboa, a return to the Rocky franchise wasn’t front and center in many people’s minds. Luckily for all of us, the combination of Sly Stallone, Michael B. Jordan, and Ryan Coogler brought life to the franchise that was both perfectly fitting with the tone of the series and uniquely effective as a standalone film. Jordan turns in a star-making performance as the titular character, son of the late great Apollo Creed, who finds himself under the wing of Rocky. Stallone was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and in my opinion, the movie deserved Best Picture, Screenplay, Director, and Best Actor nominations as well. I’ll go as far as to say this is the best sports movie of the 2010s narrowly topping The Fighter Warrior and Moneyball.
5. War For The Planet Of The Apes (2017)
The most recent Apes trilogy could have all made this list. Starting with 2011’s underrated Rise of the Planet of the Apes and continued with 2014’s superb Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the bar was high for the 2017 conclusion, and director Matt Reeves scaled it with ease. Another stellar mo-cap performance from Andy Serkis is almost matched by that of Steve Zahn, and the forever watchable Woody Harrelson reprises his excellently despicable role as The Colonel. The emotional pulse of these movies is incredible and the connection the audience builds with lead ape, Caesar, is unparalleled in terms of a non-human character.
As in most conflicts, there are good and bad representations on both sides in this war, bringing about some sociological discussions one couldn’t imagine being broached in a movie of this nature. This is the rare summer blockbuster that has the intelligence of an awards season drama and the guts to mostly disregard the under high school age audience. It’s amazing the leaps in quality that can be made when toy sales aren’t a driving force.
4. Aliens (1986)
While the original Alien certainly fits into the horror category, this James Cameron-helmed follow up is more of a space action thriller hybrid, so it qualifies for this list. Sigourney Weaver is back as ass-kicking Lt. Ripley, this time with a squad of space marines with eternally cool names (Apone, Hudson, Vasquez, Drake, Hicks… all memorized by me as a kid) and weapons galore.
If War for the Planet of the Apes was made better by not having toy sales in mind, Aliens is partially so memorable because almost every set piece, character, weapon and alien lent themselves towards merchandising. It’s almost bizarre that a 2 hour 20 minute, R-rated film seems so kid friendly. I remember wearing out a VHS copy of this and had an amazing toy collection in the early to mid-90s from a movie released the year I was born.
Thirty-five years and 6 movies later, this franchise is still struggling to find its footing. In my opinion, Aliens is the leading factor in those failures, filmmakers aren’t sure whether to indulge in the horror-centered original or recreate the action in the sequel, leading to a bunch of messy middle ground films that have made filmmakers such as David Fincher and Ridley Scott seem overmatched. The plus side is we will always have this classic to go back to, and thanks to that Cameron magic, this movie still holds up visually to the CGI wonders of modern movies.
3. Terminator 2 (1991)
Speaking of that particular brand of magic, for the second time in 5 years, James Cameron took a horror flick from the prior decade (this time, his own The Terminator) and turned it into an action spectacle that ended up being genre defining decades later. Another similarity with Aliens is that this franchise has suffered from multiple underwhelming entries after a sequel that either matched or surpassed the original.
T2: Judgement Day is an adrenaline rush, white-knuckle, on-the-road action movie that only relents for moments when the cast gets genuinely poignant. Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger return, though Arnold is a protagonist in the sequel as opposed to being the central antagonist in the original, This time, Robert Patrick steps in as T-1000 and delivers a stellar emotionless performance as the liquid metal, form-altering villain.
The soundtrack also deserves some shine here as the pulse-pounding score by Brad Fiedel has been a favorite of mine for years and perfectly sets the tone for this spectacle. Finally, the most surprising element here is that the CGI truly holds up. Considering there are a slew of movies from the ’00s that look like something a 12 year-old could do on a laptop today, that’s damn impressive.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
I was never a big fan of the Mel Gibson Mad Max trilogy. While the mayhem and violence are intriguing, there just always felt like there was a more interesting tale to be told in the dystopic wasteland. Mad Max: Fury Road is that story, a sprawling, gorgeous yet ugly, violently eloquent, epic achievement of movie-making. From the dazzling visuals to the gritty Charlize Theron-led performance, every element of this movie works; the frantic, edge-of-your-seat suspense starts off instantly and escalates continually until the end credits roll. It’s hard to imagine a plot as simple as the one laid out in Fury Road leading to 10 Oscar nominations, but once you see it, you believe… it’s damn near flawless. This is also my favorite Tom Hardy in a mask performance, beating out The Dark Knight Rises, Dunkirk, Venom, and the beard/bandana combo in The Revenant.
1. The Godfather: Part 2 (1974)
The recently released Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone (The Godfather 3), a new edition of the much maligned third entry in the Godfather trilogy, served as the inspiration for this list. The Godfather 3 is an above average Mafia film in every sense of the word, but it gets dragged down by its title before the viewer can even settle in and give it a chance. The Godfather: Part Two is the reason for that.
While The Godfather is widely considered amongst the greatest films of all time (top 5 for me), amazingly, the sequel manages to top it. It’s the rare instance of a sequel improving and complimenting the original, with the narrative wrapping around the events in the first film. The dual tales of young Vito Corleone’s rise from traumatized child arriving in the new world of America to boss of one of the five New York Mafia families sets the table for the original film, while the modern section of Michael Corleone attempting to lead the family in a more legitimate direction contains some of Al Pacino’s finest work as he attempts to balance his job, his family, and The Family. With a runtime of 3 hours and 22 minutes, everything is fully explored, and Francis Ford Coppola’s direction makes every frame feel absolutely necessary. Robert DeNiro, Diane Keaton, and Robert Duvall are all excellent, but it’s John Cazale’s tragically nuanced performance as Fredo Corleone that sticks with you long after the credits roll. Quickly approaching its 50th anniversary, The Godfather: Part Two is still topping all sorts of “Best” lists, and that trend won’t change anytime soon.
Truth be told, it would have been easy to double this list in length. There were 2 or 3 franchises represented here that could have had 2 or 3 entries each along with a slew of tough cuts. So, let’s lighten up a bit on sequel bashing. While originality will always be king, there’s nothing wrong with spending some new time with old characters.