Ah, the sequel. If we liked the first movie, we're sure to see the second. Thus the much-lauded box office of the sequel is typically a representation of how much we enjoyed the movie that came before it. Everyone who saw the original film in the theater, or on video, or has finally decided to see what all the fuss is about, will turn out in the first few weeks for the sequel, giving it the appearance of being a smashing success. (Opening weekend records are indications of successful marketing campaigns, rather than good films, and in the case of the sequel, the original film functions as an extended trailer.)
And then the internet is abuzz about how terrible and vapid the newer film is, how it diminishes or dishonors its predecessor, and how it should never have been made. The idea of trying to recapture the magic and originality of a successful film is a bit like a mad scientist trying to reanimate a corpse; even if it comes back to life, it won't quite be the same.
I'm fairly forgiving with sequels, just as I am with romances. I don't ask for much; whatever was special about the first movie can be altered every so slightly and repackaged, and I'll enjoy it. The Ocean's series is a good example. Ocean's Twelve and Ocean's Thirteen delve a bit deeper into the characters, but they are mostly just extended holidays with our beloved characters, doing the same-o same-o. Fine by me. I could enjoy an entire movie of Danny and Rusty sitting on the couch together watching television.
It is my easy-to-please quality that makes me all the more disgruntled when the sequel goes astray. I don't love Get Shorty the way my best friend does, but I do like it. But Be Cool is lifeless. And The Lost World feels like someone built a script around a few excerpted storyboards from Jurassic Park. The velociraptors wanted my wallet, and didn't care if they killed me in getting it.
To take a less extreme example, consider the Die Hard franchise. Die Hard is my favorite action movie, features my favorite roles for Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman, and is my favorite "terrorist Russian dancer takes hostages at Christmas" film (The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky is a close second, and I was the hostage). The central conceit of the plot is that our hero, John McClane, is in the wrong place at the wrong time. How do you repeat that without it seeming contrived? Die Hard 2 tries to recreate every element from the first movie: a sassy hero just happens to be the only one capable of thwarting a well-orchestrated hostage situation. And it works. It's only half as good as the original, mind you, but if you hadn't seen Die Hard, and didn't think it extremely unlikely that this could happen to someone twice, you might think Die Hard 2 were pretty good. Die Hard: With a Vengeance is a big leap. We still have our hero, but he's no longer sassy (the movie undermines the emotional success of the first two films by annulling the reunification of John and Holly). And it's not chance that he's at the center of the terrorist plot; it's revenge. The sequel is entertaining, but it lacks all the magic of Die Hard and bears almost no resemblance to it. But then we have Live Free or Die Hard; this fourth film is so unlike the original, and a smile so far from McClane's face, that you might long for the grumpy days of the third installment. Live Free or Die Hard is good, solid action, but it can stand on its own. Change a few character names and I wouldn't know it was a sequel.
But we're not here to bemoan sequels; we're here to celebrate them! So I list below ten sequels that are better than the original.
10. Evan Almighty (2005)
In Bruce Almighty, God lends his powers to Jim Carrey, with amusing (but not funny) results. In Evan Almighty, Steve Carrell's character has been reinvented from the original, and is made to relive the story of Noah and his ark. The films are nothing alike. Whereas the first is silly and pointless, the second actually has some heart to it. Carrell comes to believe in his burdensome quest, he and his family grow closer as a result, and the pro-environment manifestations (which I can endure in large doses) are satisfying because they are recognized by the public, not just by our main characters. To top it off, the ark is cool. I come away from the sequel feeling like I'm a better person.
9. Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (2000)
Both movies are crude, but funny. The sequel's strategy is to isolate the single most-enjoyable trait from the first film and expand it, to the exclusion of all else: if the audience enjoyed Eddie Murphy in multiple roles, just show him in those roles for a greater percentage of the film. Plot is irrelevant (and in the case of this series, annoying). The sequel is just a skit, and as such is a solid bookend to the metamorphic work Murphy began in Coming to America.
8. Toy Story 2 (1999)
This is a good example of 'rinse and repeat'. It doesn't matter what our characters do (though the plot is actually meaningful and entertaining); we just want to spend more time with them. As an added benefit, we're past the juvenile disagreements of the first film; our heroes are all best buds now. Plus we get Joan Cusack's Jessie, a fun addition to the team, and some good Star Wars spoofs.
7. The Dark Knight (2008)
As Amok says in The Specials, "noone wants to hear your boring f***ing origin story." Spider-Man's origin is cool; Batman's is not. With that Batman-centric plot behind us, we have a lot more time for the villain. The Joker is much more enthralling than is Ra's Al Ghul, absolutely stealing the show. Bale's dialog is less intelligible than in the first movie, but Batman is supposed to be the silent type anyway; by the next movie, he'll just be growling. The bat cycle is dumb, but so was the bat humvee. Harvey Dent's arc is compelling and meshes well with the Joker's scheme.
6. Fay Grim (2007)
Henry Fool's titular character is a dysfunctional wannabe-poet who cultivates the (pornographic) poetic talents of a sanitation worker, Simon, and builds a strange romantic relationship with Simon's sister, Fay. The movie is watchable, but too weird and its central character too unlikable to be enjoyable. The sequel focuses on Henry's wife, Fay, years later, who becomes an amateur sleuth/spy as she attempts to find her missing husband before the FBI does. Many of the characters return from the first film, but now instead of being on the periphery of Henry's antisocial outbursts, they form an ad-hoc think tank for Fay, feeding her information as she circles the globe. Jeff Goldblum is perfect as the FBI agent, trying to bait Henry with Fay, but beginning to suspect that Fay is actually a secret agent. Fay Grim is bizarre but gripping from start to finish.
5. House II: The Second Story (1987)
The first film, a horror comedy, is terrible. A man is tormented by his possessed house, which tricks him into murdering his own wife (not funny, ever), tormenting him with grotesque monsters, and concluding with a hollowing dimensional rift at his house's center. The sequel has no relation to the first; no characters or themes carry over. It is a buddy adventure comedy in which a young man inherits an old house, awakens his dead but jolly many-times great grandfather, and must help his aged relative protect a mystical relic from a nefarious living dead gunslinger. The eponymous house is a bridge to many fun trans-dimensional time periods, including an Old West town, a Mayan temple, and a prehistoric jungle. I watched this movie a lot as a kid; as an adult, I recognize that it's not great, but it is exceptional when contrasted to the original.
4. Goldfinger (1964)
Sometimes a series takes time to get rolling. By Goldfinger the womanizing James Bond has found his sweet spot for all the basic Bond principals. 1) The second woman Bond sleeps with always dies. And none more horribly or thematically than here. 2) Cool gadgets. Bond's car is practically a co-star. 3) The Bond girl. 'Pussy Galore' is such a funny character name, and so appropriate for the series, that not even spoofs can one-up it. 4) A diabolical villain with a formidable henchman. Auric Goldfinger speaks the great line, "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die" while employing the great trope of trying to kill the hero in some bizarre way that the hero is sure to escape as soon as the villain has left the room. And Oddjob has that great hat. 5) A fiendish plot of global proportions. Most Bond villains have dumb schemes that are either far fetched (kidnapping spaceships) or not ambitious enough (taking over media networks?). Auric Goldfinger plans to irradiate the contents of Fort Knox, thus skyrocketing the price of the country's remaining gold (much of which is in his possession). This gives us an excuse to see a lot of gold, and who doesn't like that? When our hero chucks a gold brick at the villain, and it bounces off the villains laughing face, you know he's one tough dude.
3. X2: X-Men United (2003)
Exactly what a comic book movie should be: beautiful, action-packed, and more about a world of heroic conflicts than about an individual hero. There have been many good superhero movies, but this is the rare movie that conveys the rich complexity of a long-standing comic universe, with fun cameos and references at every turn.
2. A Shot in the Dark (1964)
The Pink Panther is goofy and entertaining, but A Shot in the Dark is a masterpiece of comedy. At its foundation is an unsolvable whodunnit, which I like better than the heist central to the first movie. Inspector Clouseau has a new love interest, a devoted servant who constantly attacks him, a maniacal boss, and a would-be assassin lurking in the shadows, all making for ripe comic moments.
1. Aliens (1986)
Ridley Scott's Alien is an exceptional horror movie. With only seven characters to kill off, Scott is forced to be economical with his violence. The result is suspenseful, claustrophobic, and terrifying. It also doesn't leave a lot of loose ends, so how does one extend the story? James Cameron's sequel has a plot that doesn't sound promising on paper: return to the scene of the first movie, with more potential victims. That is the pattern for most horror sequels, and the reason why most fail to capture our attention the way their creative predecessors did. Cameron's genius is to jump genres. Instead of sci-fi horror, his movie is sci-fi action. Yes, we're scared, and our heroes could die grisly deaths at any moment. But this isn't a damsel-in-distress story; this is war. Our heroes are numerous, trained, and armed-to-the-teeth. When I first saw this movie in the theater, I was so scared I made my dad cover my eyes. The cultures of the colonial marines and of the aliens are fascinating. The action is non-stop. And Sigourney Weaver's Ripley is the greatest, most kick-ass heroine I've ever seen on film.