The other night, I sat in a bar and — judging by the next-day hangover — drank a pitcher or two of methanol dyed brown. Anteblindness, an interesting conversation brewed over the best sequels of all time. You’d figure given the tendency of terrible sequels to spawn from a box-office hit that was probably such because of a lack of anything better, picking five of the best sequels would be simple; however, it wasn’t as easy as you think.
One reason it can be difficult is because of the criteria for a solid sequel. While many sequels are entertaining, to be a great sequel, the film must possess an original story line and not merely be a slightly adjusted rehashing of the previous film. You can’t just change the nationality or political motivation of the villain and call it a day.
Thus, Lethal Weapon 2 can’t be in the top five. Admittedly, I dig the Lethal Weapon trilogy (although I refuse to believe that Lethal Weapon 4 was not a test reel that got picked up by some bootleggers looking to make a buck or six). But honestly, Murtough is Murtough, Riggs is Riggs, and substituting a crazy South African diplomat for a crazy Gary Busey does not an original film make. And, seriously, the same crazy South African killed Riggs’ wife from Lethal Weapon and the attractive, leggy blonde in LW 2? Suspension of disbelief is one thing, taking whiteout to a script is another.
Likewise, the sequel can’t function as solely a bridge to the third film — see Spiderman 2,Spiderman 3, The Dark Knight, Matrix Reloaded, X3 (which just sets up Wolverine: Origins), any of the incarnations of Faster and Furiouser, or Final Destination. (Programming note: I’ll eventually tackle the irony of having four regurgitated films after a first one whose title inherently implies that it is the final one — redundantly even.)
That said, having a third installment does not render the “sequel” terrible, just so long as its purpose is loftier than reminding us that the character still exists. Overall, the sequel needs an arc that looks at a previous character in a new light or introduces a relatively new conflict that was not addressed in the previous film.
For this reason, the Indiana Jones trilogy can’t be considered. (Yes, trilogy. There were only three. You will never convince me otherwise.) While The Last Crusade might be my favorite of the three, Jones is Jones through the whole trilogy and always conveys little more than a momentary vacillation between fame for a discovery and the preservation of the same discovery. While this makes him endearingly human, it doesn’t necessarily make a great sequel. Instead, there are three entertaining movies with the same character, much like James Bond.
(Plus, Crystal Skull was a botched abortion allowed to gestate, and it disqualifies the entire franchise. We all tolerated the voodoo-doll-wielding kid and his avuncular goat-head wearing mentor who removed people’s hearts while they were still alive in Temple of Doom, but a sword-fighting Shia LaBeauf and aliens? Really?)
Admittedly, there were a handful of films that have, or will, go down as great movies, but they couldn’t quite fit into the category of a great sequel.
Empire Strikes Back is clearly an indelible part of the science-fiction genre canon, and to say that the movie isn’t deserving of recognition for being a spectacle of special effects would be silly. At the same time, it can’t really be considered a great sequel because it was cut from a series of six episodes and Lucas happened to pick the best three to start with. That said, you also couldn’t really watch Empire without viewing the other two, which means that the initial scene in the icy desert when Ben Kenobi appears as an apparition to Luke would be lost on a viewer who wasn’t privy to Obi-Wan’s lackluster death in Star Wars: A New Hope.
Moreover, Empire offers us the immurement of Han Solo, the deviousness of Lando Calrissian, the return of a wayward father and the larval stage of Luke becoming a true Jedi, but we are left waiting for the payoff to arrive in the third installment. In all reality, Empire functions as more of an artery to Return of the Jedi, which was not considered for this list. However, it will definitely be considered for our upcoming list for The Best Film Achievement in Casting of a Gaggle of Midgets and Shoving Them into Sweaty Teddy Bear Costumes.
I am aware that a wave of Elvish-speaking archers are loading their lhach-lit cus and aiming arrows at my lanc while my visage is burned in effigy, but Lord of the Rings sequels fall into a similar category as Empire Strikes Back. I can’t deny that each movie is masterfully done by Peter Jackson and, truthfully, it is some of the best CGI that I have seen in a movie.
At the same time, each movie is a teaser for the subsequent movie and is essentially cut from a nine hour film. Granted, Return of the King won an Oscar for Best Picture, which it probably deserved; however, it was more an Oscar to reward the culmination of a solid, nine-hour film rather than a recognition of standalone, individual achievement. Plus, it probably could have ended about thirty minutes earlier, and it’s difficult to watch any of the movies individually because they leave you hanging at the end or out of the loop in the beginning.
Admittedly, I was trying to figure out how to fit Kill Bill Vol. 2 into this discussion because it is my favorite of the two films. While Kill Bill Vol. 1 is a killer homage to kung fu flicks — and Bruce Lee in particular — Kill Bill Vol. 2 offers a Sergio Leone-styled, karate spectacular that showcases the humanity that broods within the natural born killer, Beatrix Kiddo. Likewise, Tarantino’s exploration of the vacillations between love and revenge, pleasure and pain, honor and duty is stellar. And since Kill Bill Vol. 2 begins with a brief recap of Kiddo’s earlier killing spree, a viewer can actually watch the film without feeling lost and as if he or she is missing something pertinent from the original.
However, the same can’t be said for Vol 1. For all of its solid sequences — particularly the black-and-white limb amputations, the kick-ass animation interjection that exposits O-Ren’s origin and foreshadows her partnership with Bill and Bea’s revenge on Buck, who, incidentally, likes to fuck — Kill Bill Vol. 1 begs for closure and kindles an anticipation that is answered solidly by the denouement of Kill Bill Vol. 2. Thus, Vol. 2 is less a sequel and more a meticulous ending.
With this extended prologue now concluded and my rationale for what may otherwise be presumed as glaring omissions now fully explained, I give you the five best film sequels.
While X2 ends with a rogue wave engulfing Jean Grey and Cyclops mourning the presumed loss of his wife, it is a rare example of a comic book sequel that shouldn’t be considered a bridge to the next film. (I’m praying to the ghost of Richard Nixon that Iron Man 2 accomplishes the same feat.)
For one, the gravity of whether Jean Grey reemerges as Phoenix doesn’t suffice as a valid reason to create a third film. Similarly, the reigns of the third installment were given to Brett Ratner, who shattered the humanity applied to the outsiders cum superheroes that was emphasized by Bryan Singer. Most importantly, X2 focuses on Logan and his growing desire to uncover his past. This desire also exists parallel to a dwindling anti-social behavior that gives way to a mentorship that he adopts toward Rogue and the other protégés within Xavier’s gifted school.
Granted, viewers could suggest that X-Men focuses on Logan as well, but I would suggest thatX-Men really only introduces Wolverine — while definitely also using him to market the film — and ultimately focuses on Magneto’s transition from a Holocaust survivor to a super villain who turns to disorder in order to foster equality and seek revenge against oppression.
It isn’t often that a horror film spawns a solid sequel, but Aliens achieves this feat.
One reason might be that the film’s rebirth comes with a change of director, exchanging a solid Ridley Scott in 1979 to a recently Terminator-famed James Cameron to helm Aliens in 1986. Another advantage Aliens has is that it takes place 57 years after the original. (Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley is the sole survivor of the first film and spends the interim in a cryogenic state.) This allows for a believable manipulation of time and a re-imagination of Ripley.
In Alien, she evolves from a rescue crew member to a woman fighting for her life. In Aliens, she’s a former movie of the week rendered inconsequential in that no one believes her story about the alien habitation on planet LV-426. Therefore, the collective survival story presented inAlien devolves into a story of individualistic endeavors as Ripley not only battles aliens, but narcissistic, glory-driven marines and a capital-driven bureaucrat who is played wonderfully by Paul Reiser. (You may know him best as Helen Hunt’s foil from that one sitcom, or … yeah, that’s all you would know him from.) In other words, Aliens pits Ripley against a handful of venom-spewing enemies — not all of which are incarnations of the same acid-spitting horrific alien from the original.
In another deviation from the first film, Aliens functions as a revenge film — but not for Ripley. Rather, it is a revenge film for the alien queen. Alien is a spectacular horror film that forces the audience to sit on the edge of their seats, anticipating where the lone alien stowaway will emerge. At the same time, Alien is a product of the over-confident Kane birthing a fetal alien in one of the most memorable and spoofed scenes from the movie. On the other hand, Aliens, for the most part, avoids the dimly lit corridors and focuses on the personalities of each human character before building to a crescendo that finds Ripley surrounded by countless alien cocoons while the alien queen hunts her to satiate a maternal instinct to nurture and protect.
#3. The Color of Money
Much like Aliens, The Color of Money takes advantage of an extended passage of time between the initial film and its sequel by offering an evolution of Fast Eddie Felson, the protagonist and tragic hero of The Hustler.
In 30 years, Felson has found humility and developed a tempered confidence that allows him to pursue and succeed. While Tom Cruise hams it up quite a bit as Vincent Lauria, the incomparable Paul Newman’s Felson is endearing in his quest for victory in that he appears to be genuinely striving for personal success, and not financial gain. Likewise, because Felson has omitted the rye that plagued him in The Hustler, we want him to win and we want him to refine the cocky Lauria, while we mourn the confession that Cruise throws a match at the end for the benefit of a financial windfall.
Plus, we get a glimpse at a 25-year old Forest Whitaker as Amos, a young hustler who mirrors Felson by sinking an improbable shot. Simultaneously, Felson is a mirror to the gullible stooge that he set up with a similarly improbable shot in The Hustler. Overall, Martin Scorcese offers a glimpse of Fast Eddie at the paternal stage of his career, but before he is absolved of his trademark confidence.
#2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Every time someone mentions the achievements of Titanic, I taste bile. So it’s kind of strange that the director of one of my banes has two films on this list. But it’s impossible to omit T2 from a list of great sequels.
First off, James Cameron takes CGI to an unmatched level in a 1991 film. Truthfully, it’s still better than George Lucas’ visually masturbatory Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones that were released ten and thirteen years later, respectively. The awkward movement of the metal skeleton that emerges from the flaming carnage in The Terminator does not exist in Judgment Day. Instead, the special effects are selectively used and Cameron pays close attention to the minutia of detail in the liquid-metal assassin.
Moreover, Terminator 2 makes this list because of the change of roles that each original character undertakes. Admittedly, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s transition from ominous T-800 hunting machine to charismatic protector T-800 could have been a way to ensure that audiences were drawn to the newest installment — but I think the character offers a parallel to the original protagonist and father of John Connor, Kyle Reese, who is killed at the end of the first movie. Not only because the T-800 is now the protector, but more so because he assumes the role of father figure to the pubescent John Connor, who is need of guidance.
Likewise, when we meet Sarah Connor in The Terminator, she is a meek, gentle waitress in need of a guardian. When we meet Connor in Terminator 2, she is not only physically ripped, but confined to the high-security wing of Pescadero Mental Institute. In the span between movies, Sarah gives birth to John Connor, becomes a bomb-setting anarchist and dons a slightly unhinged persona. Most provocatively, we are unsure if she is truly unhinged or merely driven to protect her son by any means necessary.
Much of this dichotomy is created by Cameron who illustrates a sedate Connor as she views a previous interview of herself in which she portends a twenty-million-degree apocalypse while throwing a chair through a window and being restrained by two ward attendants. This scene offers a re-imagination of Sarah Connor that parallels her with Kyle Reese in that it recreates a scene from The Terminator where the meek Sarah Connor watches an irate Reese become visibly frustrated that his tale of a time-traveling assassin is not being taken seriously. Like Sarah, we are forced to wonder how tightly wound, or tightly held together, she is.
#1. The Godfather: Part II
Hmmmm … the only sequel to win Best Picture and the only series to capture an Oscar for a character that is portrayed by two separate actors. I think we have a winner.
Accolades aside, The Godfather II alters the familiar gaze of Michael Corleone and shrouds it in villainy and antipathy.
In The Godfather, Michael is the benevolent son who is reluctant to enter his family’s business, as he sees it as a corrupt and illegitimate endeavor. However, he is subsequently thrust into the center of the business when assassins attempt to murder his father, Vito Corleone. In turn, Michael becomes a vigilante who murders a corrupt police officer and kills the man who ordered the hit on his father. Still, Michael remains an endearing fellow whose dabbling in organized crime is acceptable because his motive is protecting his family.
But with the eventual death of Vito, Michael becomes the reluctant head of the Corleone family. And in becoming such, Michael first seeks revenge for the death of his brother Sonny, and then orders the assassinations of the heads of the five mafia families in order to consolidate power and turn the Corleone empire into a legitimate business within five years, leaving us with the feeling that Michael’s pragmatism is for the greater good.
On the other hand, The Godfather II re-imagines Michael as an individual who is swept up in the power that he wields and the influence that he might have. As the movie progresses in a Macbethian-fashion, Michael becomes more and more raveled in a paranoia that forces him down a path of isolation, auguring a wider chasm between business and personal, pushing his wife away and ordering the murder of Hymen Roth, a man Michael suspects of treachery, but who in fact is innocent.
The culmination of this paranoia is the murder of his brother Fredo. Granted, the murder could be justified in that Fredo is the initial reason that Michael and his family are attacked in the first fifteen minutes of the movie when their house is riddled with bullets.
However, each of Micheal’s actions in The Godfather II is juxtaposed with flashbacks that depict a young Vito Corleone’s rise to power. While Vito’s actions are designed to overthrow a tyrant who threatens to disrupt the collectivism of a community, Micheal’s acts are designed to consolidate power within himself and alienate those who cause a threat to his control. In other words, Michael adopts the visage of a tyrant, motivating people through fear and acting in apathy.
While the ending of The Godfather offers a look at the legitimizing of organized crime, The Godfather II leaves us with an image of Micheal Corleone, brooding over his fratricide, isolated and embodying the demonized character that was once beloved.