I’ve been pretty down on sequels lately, and who could blame me, but I will admit occasionally a sequel is a better movie than the original. In no particular order are a few sequels that I have actually seen (remember I don’t really see a lot of movies) that managed to not only get it together but exceed the first.
1) Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed – Hey, I didn’t say it was always a difficult task for a sequel to be better than the predecessor. While the film adaptation of Scooby Doo left a hole in my soul with its awfulness, I still watched the sequel. No, I did not pay money for it. I figured that the sequel could not possibly be worse, and I was right. The sequel still had some of the gang doubting themselves, but the mean-spiritedness of the first was gone. Still, I can’t say I’m sorry a third one wasn’t made.
2) Spider-man 2 – Too many superhero movies struggle with the burden of an origin story. Some manage fine and some absolutely do not. While I certainly enjoyed Raimi’s first entry into what became a trilogy (unfortunately), the second movie was better than the first to me. Part of the reason is that the origin story had been taken care of. I knew who all the characters were and their motivations. These were touched on to catch the audience up but mostly the movie proceeded with the assumption the audience knew what was going on. And this movie managed to make Dr. Octopus a genuinely threatening villain instead of some nerd with a fancy backpack.
3) The Dark Knight – Again, this is an example of what a superhero story can be without having to tell the origin story over and over and over again. Batman had begun, and now the audience finally got to see what that meant. This movie was helped by the fact the creative team had a clear progression for Batman and used the characters of Two-Face and the Joker to play into that character development as well as advance the plot. The result is a movie that at its core is a dark psychological thriller with some action sequences, which, I think, is exactly what a movie starring Batman should be.
4) Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back – The superhero movies have a slight edge in sequels because there is a popular perception of who they are. Sequels can go a little lighter on the recap because of that. But for this movie, and please remember I’m thinking of when it was originally released, the only story the public had to go on was Star Wars (now it’s such a part of pop culture even someone who’s never seen the original trilogy has probably heard of these characters). The opening crawl catches audiences up on the overarching plot but there is very little recapping on the last movie. For example, if the audience hasn’t seen the first movie, then the first appearances of the ghost of Obi-wan makes absolutely no sense. Think about that for those original audiences. At no point prior to the appearance of the ghost does Luke say something like, “Remember my Jedi teacher who was killed?” There’s just Obi-wan telling him to go to Dagobah. The story just basically picks up where Star Wars left off and keeps going, and it works so well.
5) Toy Story 2 – This sequel was a long time in following up from the original and like many people I didn’t think a sequel was necessary or could possibly live up to the original. I leave the subject of “necessity” to the side and opine that the second entry was actually superior to the first. I like the first, but going back and re-watching it is a bit hard because Woody is really unlikable, and I see signs that Sid is a neglected child who isn’t necessarily a monster. That doesn’t excuse what Sid does, but how was he to know the toys he was mangling were feeling, thinking beings? Woody and Buzz’s entire adventure is Woody’s fault, and while they do become friends at the end, I don’t think that excuses Woody’s behavior at all.
But in the second movie Pixar delved deeper into the themes just touched on in the first, namely, friendship and mortality. The relationship between Woody and Buzz is recapped enough for the audience to believe Buzz would absolutely lead a dangerous rescue mission for his friend, and the nature of the lives of toys is expanded upon and leads to Woody’s dilemma to either stay with Andy and risk being forgotten, or going with the rest of the gang to live forever in a toy museum. Jesse’s story only underscores the risk of Woody’s choice and the wordless montage of her life with her child is impactful and sad. To me, Jesse takes the greatest risk in joining with Woody knowing she will likely experience the same pain again. Also, even though Jesse is literally made to be Woody’s love interest, I like how her boisterous free-spirit makes her a better match for Buzz.
Overall – sequels just have a lot to live up to, and in many cases don’t really bring much else to the universe of the original story. But sometimes they turn out to be pretty good. The odds, however, are not in their favor.