When a successful film makes the decision to launch a franchise, the results can either ensure a long life for that world and its characters or forever tarnish the legacy of the original film. In very rare cases, that initial sequel not only builds on its predecessor’s connection with audiences, but actually creates a lasting impact on the movie business in the process. Here are 10 movie sequels that have had a profound effect on the industry.
1. The Godfather Part II (1974)
Francis Ford Coppola’s legendary 1972 crime saga, The Godfather is unquestionably among the most revered films in history. So imagine audiences’ surprise when its sequel managed to match or surpass (depending on who you ask) the narrative complexity and emotional impact of the first film. One of only two sequels to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, the film pioneered the concept of a prequel by deftly meshing the backstory of Vito Corleone (played by a pre-Taxi Driver Robert De Niro) in with a proper follow-up to the original film’s story.
2. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
From the outset, Star Wars was such a phenomenon that it’s difficult to imagine how a sequel could actually improve upon that first adventure in George Lucas’ “galaxy far, far away.” Yet, The Empire Strikes Back bucked expectations to deliver what many still consider the finest film in the franchise, taking the story and characters to a darker place and launching the series to new creative heights in the process. Moreover, the climactic battle between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) may mark the popularization of the third-act plot twist as we know it.
3. Evil Dead II (1987)
Sam Raimi delivered one of the most popular superhero sequels with Spider-Man 2 in 2004, but it was his second film starring Bruce Campbell as the deadite-battling, catchphrase-spewing Ash that stands as perhaps his greatest career achievement. Balancing comedy and horror in a way many films have tried and failed to do, Evil Dead II made both Raimi and Campbell horror icons and opened up the franchise to a far greater audience than its indie predecessor. The Starz series, Ash vs. Evil Dead is a testament to its staying power.
4. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
2015’s Terminator: Genisys aimed to breathe new life into the aging franchise, but maybe Terminator 2: Judgment Day is simply too high of a benchmark for the series to reach again. Flipping the original story and characters, Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as the film’s hero, and Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor is now a battle-ready badass.
Director James Cameron cemented his status here as a filmmaker unafraid to push technology, and the early CGI used to bring Robert Patrick’s terrifying T-1000 to life still holds up better than most of today’s visual effects.
5. The Dark Knight (2008)
After Batman & Robin killed the Caped Crusader’s movie career, it was up to Christopher Nolan to rehabilitate his image. While Batman Begins did the heavy lifting to that effect, The Dark Knight legitimized comic book films as an art form, and Heath Ledger’s chilling Joker earned him a posthumous Oscar. Nolan infused the film with a serious tone more akin to crime thrillers like Heat and The Godfather than any superhero film to date. Upcoming comic book films continue to bear signs of The Dark Knight‘s influence, leaving Ben Affleck with a big cowl to fill in the years to come.
6. Aliens (1986)
Alien numbers itself among some of the best horror movies of all time, but it’s the film’s 1986 sequel effort that really stands tall as an instant classic. Entering the realm of your more standard sci-fi/action thrillers, Aliens was still revolutionary for its time. Here we had a powerful, self-assured heroine in Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), during a time when that was all too uncommon in cinema. Combine that with a strong directorial effort from James Cameron, and we have a mid-’80s sci-fi franchise that rivaled even Star Wars in terms of sheer greatness.
7. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
It’s staggering to think about just what The Two Towers accomplished back in 2002. Bearing in mind that this was years before the Marvel Cinematic Universe set the gold standard for expanded movie franchises, the follow-up to The Fellowship of the Ring showed us just how amazing a fantasy epic can be when done right. The film was buoyed by strong performances from its entire cast, along with one of the best battle scenes in all of cinema, pitting the terrifying nightmare-creatures of Isengard against our underdog heroes, holed up in the fortress of Helms Deep.
8. Toy Story 2 (1999)
The Pixar that existed in 1999 was far different than the one we know today. Back then, Toy Story and A Bug’s Life were the only films the studio had made, a far cry from their expansive library of lucrative characters they have now. That being so, you couldn’t blame anyone for being a tad skeptical of Toy Story 2. What we ended up getting was a stunning follow-up effort, that even today still sits atop a perfect 100% Rotten Tomatoes score. Not a lot of movies have accomplished that feat in the years since, much less an animated sequel from a studio with just a couple films in the can.
9. X2: X-Men United (2003)
While we widely recognized Iron Man as the catalyst for the biggest expanded superhero universe in cinematic history, it’s the 2003 sequel to X-Men that truly deserves the credit. First off, it predated Iron Man by a full five years, building on Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film in 2000. Second, it was the first time we saw Marvel heroes in a built-out franchise, beating Spider-Man 2 to the punch by a year. Interestingly enough, most of the special effects still hold up today, making it a timeless superhero classic.
10. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
We haven’t quite got enough distance from The Force Awakens to entirely contextualize its significance, but there’s little doubting its relative importance in the Star Wars saga. The J.J. Abrams-directed sequel launched the new-look Disney version of the franchise, working hard to amend the sins of the prequels, while providing us with a host of exciting new characters. Lucasfilm now has plans to release a Star Wars movie every year for the foreseeable future, and it’s all because of the incredible success of The Force Awakens.
Follow Robert Yaniz Jr. on Twitter @CrookedTable
Additional reporting by Nick Cannata-Bowman.
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