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Top 10 Sequels: Better Than The Originals

By Noelle Buffam · November 20, 2010

Remember the scene in "Scream 2", where Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) explains to a class of students the rules of film sequels and what must be done to achieve a perfect sequel? Well, achieving the perfect sequel is no easy task. The art of the follow-up is often less art and more artifice in proving the law of diminishing returns. Most sequels are – lets face it – inferior to their predecessors. However, sometimes, a sequel comes along that is actually an improvement on the original.

A superior sequel not only has the task of staying true to the original story, but it actually has to exceed the original film in almost every aspect. The writer of a sequel has the daunting task to take the same world, same characters, and quite often a continuation of the same storyline, and somehow make everything better and different.

Since great sequels must meet such a high standard, we can learn a lot about screenwriting by studying them. Whether it's through character development, interesting plot twists, or witty dialogue, each of the films presented on this list improve upon the original film in a creative or innovative way.

10. National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989)

The third installment of any movie franchise is usually a bomb (case in point Jaws: The Revenge). However, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation escapes the usual fate of the third sequel with spot on humor.

The Griswold family was first introduced into the film world with the 1983 movie, National Lampoon's Vacation. With the success of the first film in the franchise, the sequel National Lampoon's European Vacation was created. Although each movie was a success in it's own right, the Vacation series didn't hit its full stride until Christmas Vacation.

John Hughes' screenplay portrayed the ridiculousness that is the holiday season. Christmas Vacation scored the perfect balance between slapstick humor – remember the squirrel – and wittiness that the former films seemed to lack. Clark Griswold's comments to his cousin Eddie were enough to set the film apart with lines like, "Can I refill your eggnog for you? Get you something to eat? Drive you out to the middle of nowhere and leave you for dead?" This humor, combined with the common identification of having the family over for the holidays, made Christmas Vacation more appealing to a wider audience and secured a top spot in almost every classic holiday films list.

9. Goldfinger (1964)

By 1964, the world had already been introduced to James Bond through the films Dr. No and From Russia with Love. But it wasn't until Goldfinger that James Bond's iconic status was sealed in cinematic history.

The film had a budget of $3 million, and it was earned back in only two weeks. And this was back in a time when we didn't have the multitude of cineplexes and massive wide releases on 4,000 screens. It's one thing to secure financial blockbuster success, but Goldfinger also secured rave critical reviews. Roger Ebert stated that Goldfinger "is a great entertainment, and contains all the elements of the Bond formula that would work again and again." The film outdid the first two movies in almost every way. The characters were memorable. Pussy Galore is the ultimate Bond girl and Auric Goldfinger is unmatched in Bond villain history. The gold smuggler is greedy, ruthless, and has some unforgettable lines like, "Choose your next witticism carefully Mr. Bond. It may be your last".

The dialogue is quick and witty with one-liners that now define the Bond series ("Shocking! Positively shocking!"). The characters and dialogue, combined with the right amount of stimulating action, helped set the standard for one of the most lucrative and successful films franchises of all time.

8. The Dark Knight (2008)

Based on the DC Comics character, Batman, The Dark Knight is the second installment of Christopher Nolan's reboot of the series. It's predecessor, Batman Begins, was well received although it lacked the sense of adventure usually promised in a superhero movie. While Batman Begins seemed weighted down at times, The Dark Knight jumps to life with intense action sequences and vivid characters.

In fact, The Dark Knight is a testament to the power of a single character. Heath Legder's critically acclaimed performance as the iconic Joker captured the horror and malice of a true villain – clearly one of the most memorable villains in film history. Even though it's undeniably clear that the Joker is completely bad, it's the uncertainty of the Joker's motives that force the audience to engage.

Nolan has been quoted as saying that "the Joker is an absolute. There are no shades of gray to him – maybe shades of purple. He's unbelievably dark. He bursts in just as he did in the comics". And burst in he did, wearing bright purple and green, with his face painted like a sadistic clown. The only thing more horrifying than his scars, creating that sinister smile literally from ear to ear, are chilling lines such as "Do you want to know why I use a knife? Guns are too quick. You can't savor all the… little emotions." Jeepers! The presence of this superior villain contributes greatly to the ongoing success of the film and demonstrates what an important role characters play within the story. The Dark Knight without the Joker would have been just another film.

7. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is the third and final film in Sergio Leone's "The Man with No Name" trilogy. The first two films A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For A Few Dollars More (1965) found success in their own right. However, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly stands as one of the most famous and revered westerns of all time.

Often hailed for exquisite directing in this film, Leone created layers and complexities in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly that were absent in the first two films. In A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More, Clint Eastwood is the protagonist against one singular enemy. In The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, he faces two antagonists: the Bad – Sentenza/Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) – and the Ugly – Tuco (Eli Wallach).

Eastwood, referred to as "Blondie", even has to team up with each of these villains at different points during the film in order to accomplish his goals. First, Blondie is nursed back to health by Tuco, and tells him that he knows which grave the gold is buried under. Later, Blondie is offered an equal partnership in recovering the gold by Angel Eyes. This layering provided an insight into the Wild West where right and wrong – along with the good, the bad, and the ugly – were hard to decipher. It was a matter of survival.

A final reason, and what many would argue as the quintessential scene that makes the film stand above its predecessors and go toe to toe with some of the best westerns in film history, is it's climatic end and final showdown. The three men are at the cemetery, and Blondie writes the location of the gold on the bottom of a rock, which is placed in the middle of all three. Tuco, Angels Eyes, and Blondie partake in a grueling standoff that builds for over five minutes, and by the time Blondie prevails, the audience has been transported, no doubt feeling the desert sun as Blondie rides away.

6. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

The first attempt at the big screen for the Star Trek franchise came with Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The film was widely hailed as bland, boring, and disloyal to the original television series. But in 1982, Trekkies everywhere rejoiced with the release of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

The sequel cured the tepid feel of the original with strong action, quick pacing, and intense character interaction. Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan proves that taking a risk as a screenwriter can have a big payoff. The sequel took a big risk (and gave the audience a huge twist) by killing off a main character, Spock (Leonard Nimoy). While the audience is expecting some twist of fate, the unthinkable happens as Spock sacrifices himself: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few". Of course, it's perfectly logical.

With all these factors, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan proved to be the movie The Motion Picture should have been. Not only was the film a box office success, but it also renewed interest in the Star Trek franchise, giving it the staying power for three more decades. Whether you are a Star Trek fan or not, it is certain that Star Trek (thanks to Kahn) is here to stay. Resistance is futile.

5. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1992)

Although 1984's The Terminator is a success in it's own right, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is immortalized as one of the best action flicks of all time. The sequel shows improvement on the original through its action and special effects. Liquid metal – super cool.

The scenes flow together seamlessly and the pacing is quicker than the original Terminator. Director James Cameron cranks it up right from the start when John Connor outruns the T-1000 on a motorcycle. Most importantly, the action in the film punctuates the storyline instead of overriding it. Furthermore, character depth was added as we see emotional growth in the relationship between John Connor and the Terminator T-800.

The film continues to go beyond the traditional action movie by exploring issues of loyalty and the fate of humanity, illustrated right off the bat during the opening narration. Sarah Connor sets up the story by stating that in the future her son would become the leader of the human resistance. As one Terminator is sent back in time to kill John, the resistance sends a protector. Sarah states the fate of humanity is "a question of which one of them would reach him first". These themes, along with state of the art special effects and high voltage action, put Terminator 2: Judgment Day above most action films, and ultimately seal it as one of the best sequels of all time.

4. Toy Story 3 (2010)

Chances are that if you haven't seen the Toy Story 3 yourself, you've heard a plethora of praise for the third installment of the Toy Story franchise. Not only is the film critically acclaimed, but it also grossed over $1 Billion worldwide in the box office. Yes, that was not a misprint – $1 freaking BILLON! The sheer magnitude of the film's success is due largely to the perfect blending of comedy and adventure for both children and adults alike. However, the element that sets Toy Story 3 apart from its predecessors is heartfelt emotion.

The moment that Andy shares his toys with Bonnie, carefully introducing them, pulls at heartstrings young and old alike. I can't help but tear up a bit just thinking of Woody quietly saying, "So long, partner", as he watches Andy drive away. Toy Story 3 is an example of the power of human connectivity. The film explores issues like abandonment, and the loss of innocence, and the inevitable departure from childhood that everyone faces. It's these experiences and emotions that connect the audience to the film's characters.

And speaking of characters, not only does Toy Story 3 create a world and situation in which the audience actually feels a strong emotional bond, hoping and fearing for plastic toys, but the real genius of the film is in bringing our house hold heroes – Woody, Buzz, and the gang – into a brand new world at Sunnyside Daycare. Brilliant! Thanks to Sunnyside, we get to meet Lotso, Ken, Big Baby, and the Chatter Telephone, to name a few.

3. Aliens (1986)

The 1986 film Aliens is widely considered one of the best science-fiction films of all time. The film is a sequel to the 1979 movie, Alien. The original Alien storyline and the original characters were expanded to create a multi-dimensional sequel. The success of the sequel is due in large part to this new-found complexity.

Sigourney Weaver is quoted as saying that Aliens made Alien "look like a cucumber sandwich". Her character, Ellen Ripley, struggles against the males who aim to silence her. This complexity made the character, as well as the story, appeal to a much broader audience. It is hard enough to get an audience that isn't completely made up of men to watch a science-fiction film called "Aliens"…let alone to get that audience to like it. However, Aliens did just that and more. It redefined the action genre and proved that chicks can kick ass too.

The beginning of the film opens with Ripley testifying about the Alien in front of a panel. Her testimony is met with demeaning skepticism and marks the beginning of Ripley proving herself to her male military counterparts. The idea of what a science-fiction film could be changed with Aliens. It showed that ordinary people – women included – when put in extraordinary circumstances can overcome overwhelming obstacles… and kick some serious butt.

2. The Godfather: Part II (1974)

I'm not about to argue that The Godfather II is indeed superior to The Godfather. The original film is a piece of cinematic history and considered to be one of the greatest films of all time. However, The Godfather: Part II is a fantastic film and one of the best sequels ever made. One great aspect of the film is that it took the audience somewhere unexpected.

The storyline switches back and forth between a young Vito Corleone (Robert DeNiro) and the present day Michael Corleone (Al Pacino). The disconnected stories come together seamlessly to depict the beginning of the mob family as well as the present state of the family business. The many story layers are further accentuated by the intense issues the film explores.

The audience gets a sense of the price Michael, now the "Don", has to pay for embracing the family business. When Kay reveals that her miscarriage was really a cover-up for an abortion, Michael flies into a rage as the realization that his attempts to keep the family together by sustaining the mob lifestyle cost him a child.

Another aspect that makes The Godfather: Part II an excellent sequel is its faithfulness to the original story. Instead of thinking of new plots and gimmicks, the film allows the original themes (family values, loyalty, and patriarchal leadership) in the first Godfather to mature. The Godfather: Part II stands as an example of fully exploring the emotional themes in a film through character and storyline.

1. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Although it had mixed reviews when released, Star Wars: Episode V- The Empire Strikes Back, the follow up to Lucas's 1977 Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, has widely grown in popularity and is arguable considered the best film in the Star Wars six-film franchise.

The Empire Strikes Back has interesting and iconic characters. One of the most famous scenes in all of film takes place at the very end when Darth Vader gains power over Luke Skywalker by cutting off his dueling hand and declares, "I am your father". Not only is this a shocking plot twist, but the infamous line makes both characters even more compelling and complex. Just like the characters in the film, the dialogue throughout elevates The Empire Strikes Back to icon status. Take Yoda, with lines like "No. Try Not. Do or do not… There is not try", it's no wonder his has words of wisdom have become part of the popular fabric of society, dialogue repeated by fans everywhere for nearly three decades.

The film also explored a darker and more thought-provoking storyline than the original movie. Perhaps one of the best aspects of The Empire Strikes Back is how it breaks away from the traditional hero/action mold. The end of the film does not yield a victory for the hero. Instead, the bad guys win, thus setting it apart from other similar films.

The ending adds to the underlying sense of darkness that invokes an emotional response from the audience. It's not a "feel-good sci-fi movie", but rather a look into a dark period in Rebel Alliance history. True success is the ability to overcome the many failures on the journey without losing sight of the ultimate goal. Clearly, the Rebel Alliance has failed, but the war is not over. The emotional attachment through the darkness makes The Empire Strikes Back one of the best sequels ever made, ultimately propelling Star Wars into the worldwide phenomenon that it is today.