Sequels are all the rage right now in Hollywood. Studios are constantly looking for properties to expand into franchises, and after securing a popular first entry, the next step is the shaky second part. This is the make or break moment for the franchise – a chance to correct any shortcomings in the first one and deliver more of what people loved, while still expanding the world enough to give them a feeling of something new.
“John Wick: Chapter Two” is currently blasting through cineplexes with headshots and pencil deaths galore, proving that it’s still possible to make second entries that rival the first installment. And while there is certainly a slew of Part Twos in cinema history – some bad (“2 Fast 2 Furious,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge”) and some passable (“Halloween II,” both versions) – the good ones also define themselves as being excellent movies in their own right that explore familiar characters in unexpected and novel ways.
Below are the 10 best second installments in cinema history. (And for those looking for the best threequels in cinema history, simply visit this entry as well).
10. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”
“Captain America: The First Avenger” was a fun enough film that had some great character moments and did well to define its central hero, but it left much to be desired when it came to action and plot. The Russo brothers’ first foray into the Marvel universe upped the ante by not only continuing on those well-established character beats but also brought along a ton of exciting sequences and a clever take on the political thriller. Captain America is on the outside of the law as he must fight for what he believes in, even though the deck is quite stacked against him. Cap’s universe is expanded through looks at his espionage work and exploring his relationship with Black Widow, Falcon, Winter Soldier and even Nick Fury. It’s a fun blockbuster that doesn’t require audiences to turn off their brains as they enjoy some impressive superhero spectacle.
9. “The Matrix Reloaded”
Probably the most contentious entry in this list, “The Matrix Reloaded” is often unfairly maligned and dismissed by people today. Yes, it lacks the novelty and unique elements that made the first “Matrix” film so fresh, but it makes up for that with crackerjack set pieces and a further exploration of the mythology the Wachowskis created. Those that remember it as more “talkative” than the first one are mistaken; there’s actually more fight and chase sequences in this one than its predecessor. And the most talkative element, The Architect, actually makes a great deal of sense in terms of computers. Why wouldn’t an advanced program simply dump out all of its knowledge in a verbose way? Plus, there’s the weirdo addition of the Merovingian and his cast of misfits, as well as one of the better car chase scenes in modern film. To those that want to dismiss this sequel as lesser than, it would be wise to revisit and watch with fresh eyes and see just how much the Wachowskis accomplish in this second chapter.
8. “The Raid 2”
When “The Raid” first hit the scene, it was a revelatory explosion of non-stop martial arts, brutal violence and increasing tension. Writer/director Gareth Evans manages to top all of that by removing the central aspect of the first film’s plot – the confined location – and instead explores a shadowy empire with even more violence and unbelievable action. Speaking of great car chases, the sequence in this film is what happens when splicing together “The French Connection” with “Enter the Dragon,” producing a gripping scene that other filmmakers will be hard pressed to top. There’s an expansion of the world introduced in the first “Raid” and the addition of colorful and dastardly villains who are intensely memorable. For those looking for a high-octane film that throws ballistic curve balls at the audience with some of the most impressive stunt work around, quickly seek out “The Raid 2.”
7. “Kill Bill: Vol. 2”
Technically, this isn’t a sequel, as the film was conceived and filmed as one long movie. However, it was released in theaters separately and it totally acts like a sequel with its continuation of the story and expansion of the weird universe in which The Bride lives. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino doubles down on his blending of ’70s kung fu and spaghetti westerns with a side order of sleaze thrown in for good measure. True, there’s not really an iconic scene like the showdown at the House of Blue Leaves, but there are still great moments for Uma Thurman and the rest of the cast as the tale of vengeance winds its way to its foregone and bloody conclusion. The fact that Tarantino accomplishes all of this and makes the film actually work on an emotional level as well is truly a testament to the film’s success as a genre-juggling act.
6. “Crank: High Voltage”
“Crank: High Voltage” is a completely batshit crazy film that is fairly offensive, mildly idiotic and utterly original. The go-for-broke action (and direction) of the first film is pumped up to 11 in this sequel which finds Chev Chelios seeking out his heart from the various ne’er do wells that stole it. The film is incredible as it goes in all sorts of insane directions – random Jason Statham kaiju fight, anyone? – yet all seems to make total sense and is part of a cohesive story that is incredibly chaotic but so much fun. “Crank: High Voltage” defies reality and good taste at every turn, but it also marks a weird melding of art and trash that is so unique and hard to define that it simply must be seen to be believed.
5. “Dawn of the Dead (1978)”
“Night of the Living Dead” is a cult classic for a bunch of reasons, not least of which is its subtle commentary on current events and race relations in the U.S. When George Romero made this second chapter in his (original) trilogy, he doubled down on that sly satire and turned his eyes to America’s consumerist culture. He also brought in a ton of great gore effects and haunting horror visuals that would stay with people for generations. Combining the highbrow political undertones with the lowbrow blood and guts, Romero made a film that inspired millions of horror hounds around the planet and also gave them something to think about in between scenes of people being devoured by zombies. By bringing the apocalypse to a giant scale unlike what was seen in the contained and constrained predecessor, “Dawn of the Dead” presents a judgment day that many filmmakers have copied for years since, although never quite nailing his sense of wicked humor and abject horror.
4. “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”
Returning to a bunch of characters who are well known and already developed through three seasons of a TV show and a (pretty big whiff of a) movie could be a daunting task. Is there anything new to say about these people? Any new obstacles they haven’t yet encountered? Director Nicholas Meyer answered those concerns by finding a foe that the crew of the USS Enterprise hadn’t faced before: getting old and dying. Tying in a mostly forgotten episode of the TV series, Meyer finds amazing pathos in the aging Enterprise crew and does an exquisite job of stringing together themes of family and sacrifice, all while delivering a great villain and tense battles in space. Filled with memorable characters, quotable lines and brilliantly staged standoffs, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” is popcorn sci-fi at its best and it’s most human.
It would be very difficult to follow up Ridley Scott’s isolated, atmospheric “Alien” with another scary entry in the series. So the studio was wise to go with James Cameron’s take for “Aliens,” which is a great action sci-fi film that produced some of the most iconic moments and characters (including the aliens) the genre has to offer. Cameron’s thinly veiled allegory for Vietnam ended up being the template for most modern blockbuster sequels, by expanding the body count, calling back to aspects of the first film and introducing new elements of the mythos that present even newer and deadlier threats. Not only are the effects fantastic, culminating in an impossible to forget climactic fight, but attention is paid to the characters as well. Sure, Newt is a bit annoying, but the Colonial Marines (that survive for a while, anyways) are all fleshed out characters that are easy to understand and root for as they find themselves in way over their heads on the hostile planet. Plus, it furthers the evolution of Ripley from the first film and cements her status as a badass for millions to idolize.
2. “The Godfather: Part II”
“The Godfather: Part II” is arguably one of the best American films ever made, with a brilliant structure that furthers the plot while underscoring what the audience knows about the characters. Francis Ford Coppola’s genius work shows the parallels between the rise of young Vito Corleone in the past and the slow damnation of his son, Michael, in the present. Delivering breathtaking performances by some of the best actors to ever grace the screen, Coppola goes back and forth between the two patriarchs of the crime family that suggests the seeds of the current problems were planted a long time ago. It remains a moving and compelling piece of film that draws you in with tales of crime, revenge, betrayal, love and an attempt by both men to define themselves how they see fit.
1. “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back”
Nerds everywhere can rejoice in the naming of the best Part Two of all-time going to a “Star Wars” film. Until recently, it was the “Star Wars” movie with the least influence from George Lucas, with Irvin Kershner directing from Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett’s script. But it is (so far) the pinnacle of the entire franchise and a truly satisfying film experience that deepens the characters from the first movie while finding new avenues to explore. The story is a great middle section of the classic hero’s journey, where everyone is tested but comes out more resolute than before and ready to finish their quest. It has some of the best action sequences across all eight films and the best and most meaningful lightsaber battle in any of the “Star Wars” movies. With “The Empire Strikes Back,” Kershner and crew took the audience on a ride filled with twists, turns and revelations and a broadening of mythology, and it is arguably the sequel to which every other second installment is measured (especially in trilogies). While remaining true to the source, it surpasses the original and forges its own path to be remembered and revered by generations for years to come.
Honorable Mentions: “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”; “The Karate Kid: Part II”; “Bad Boys II”; “Evil Dead II”; “Hostel: Part II”