10 Sequels That Were Better Than The First Movie

Sequels that were better than the first movie include Dark Knight, Toy Story 2, and The Empire Strikes Back.

By Zack Zagranis | Updated

As long as there have been movies, there have been sequels. Rich, expansive universes like the ones in the Star Wars and Marvel films are practically begging to be explored through multiple entries. Unfortunately, not all sequels are created equal. For every Empire Strikes Back or Avengers: Infinity War, there’s a Rise of Skywalker or Avengers: Age of Ultron.

On the flip side, some sequels are made so well and do such an impressive job of building on what came before that they become widely regarded as superior to the originals. Here are 10 sequels that were better than the first movie.

10. Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Wrath of Khan

Star Trek made the jump from television to the big screen with 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. While Paramount deserves some credit for not trying to copy the success of Star Wars two years prior, they may have actually made a movie that was too Star Trek for its own good.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture features impressive visuals and superb model work that blows the original series’ special effects to smithereens, but it wastes it all on what is essentially one long episode of the TV show.

Enter Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, a movie with a budget 1/4 the size of its predecessor that moves at twice the speed with 10x the excitement. Wrath of Khan is a sequel that manages to give Star Wars a run for its money without sacrificing what makes Star Trek special in the first place.

Wrath of Khan brings back Ricardo Montalban to reprise the role of Khan Noonian Singh from the original series episode “Space Seed” and makes him Captain Ahab to the Enterprise’s Moby Dick. The result is a thrilling game of cat and mouse that ends with one of the saddest deaths in cinema history. Khan is the reason that Star Trek fans used to say all the good movies were the even ones.

9. Before Sunset (2004

Richard Linklater’s 1995 romantic drama saw Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Celine played to perfection by Julie Delpy meeting randomly on a train and spending a night together walking around Vienna. It was a simple, minimalist examination of spontaneous romance that wowed critics and made a modest profit at the box office.

Nine years later, Linklater brought the two actors together again to explore what happens when two people meet again after spending a single magical night together. Older and wiser, also sadder, Jesse and Celine reunite to talk about how unsatisfied they are with their current lives and loves while rekindling the flame that was first sparked nearly a decade earlier.

The sequel benefits from Ethan Hawke’s emotional state following his at-the-time still-fresh divorce from actress Uma Thurman. Hawke channels all his melancholy into an award-worthy performance that Delpy matches. Never has two people falling in love on screen felt so real.

8. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Winter Soldier takes everything great about the first Captain America and turns it up to 11. Not only is the action top-notch, but Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, and Samuel L. Jackson all deliver franchise-best performances as their respective Marvel counterparts.

Winter Soldier doesn’t just work as a superhero movie but as a throwback to the political spy thrillers of the ’70s. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo even brought in Robert Redford straight out of All the President’s Men to play the secret Hydra villain Alexander Pierce.

Captain America: Civil War might have the bigger fight scenes, but Winter Soldier remains not only the best movie in the Captain America franchise but one of the best Marvel movies, period.

7. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)

It’s almost impossible to explain the influence The Road Warrior has had on pop culture in the years since it was first released. When you think of the phrase “post-apocalyptic,” you’re thinking of something out of The Road Warrior even if you don’t know it. The Road Warrior‘s aesthetic has been aped by everything from arcade beat-em-ups like Double Dragon and Final Fight to professional wrestlers like the Legion of Doom.

Even something as innocuous as the Super Mario Bros. Super Show once had an episode called “The Toad Warrior” based on the George Miller film. This was the film that made Mad Max the wasteland messiah that he’s known as today. The popularity of The Road Warrior in comparison to the original Mad Max can best be summed up by the tagline on Mad Max‘s American VHS release, “The thrilling predecessor to The Road Warrior.”

When a sequel is retroactively used to hype the original, you know it’s good.

6. Toy Story 2 (1999)

Toy Story 2 has no business being as good as it is. Originally developed as a cheap straight-to-video sequel, Disney liked what Pixar was doing so much that they changed course and decided to make it a theatrical release. Toy Story 2 doesn’t just improve upon the first Toy Story. It elevates the material beyond just a cute movie about talking toys and turns it into a rumination on nostalgia and abandonment.

Toy Story 2‘s secret weapon is Joan Cusack’s Jesse. The flashback to Jesse’s owner slowly outgrowing her set to “When She Loved Me” by Sarah McLachlan is sad enough to give the first 10 minutes of Up a run for its money as the Pixar scene that caused the most tears.

5. Aliens (1986)

james cameron aliens

Aliens is the first of two James Cameron movies on this list, and depending on whether you prefer creepy alien monsters or soulless killing machines, possibly the better of the two as well.

1979’s Alien and its sequel, Aliens, are so different that it’s hard to say that one is really “better” than the other. Alien is essentially a haunted house movie in space, while Aliens is an explosive action masterpiece. One area where Aliens objectively excels, however, is in its scope.

Alien featured a single xenomorph slowly picking off a ship’s crew one by one. Aliens features tons of xenomorphs that explode left and right as a ragtag group of Space Marines blows them to kingdom come.

Once again, it comes down to Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley and one of the titular Aliens at the end for a knock-down drag-out brawl. This time, however, Ripley is forced to go toe-to-toe with one of the most impressive practical creatures ever put on film, the Queen Alien.

As James Cameron has proved time and time again, when he makes a sequel, he makes a sequel!

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

Star Wars Darth Vader

What can be said about The Empire Strikes Back that hasn’t already been said 1000 times? From its darker tone to its romantic subplot, Empire takes everything great about A New Hope and gives it a more mature polish without sacrificing any of the fun Star Wars is known for.

For all its nihilistic overtones, Empire is a very funny movie. Take, for example, one of the best jokes in the original trilogy between C-3P0 and R2-D2. The two droids are walking side by side through the rebel base on Hoth while Threepio complains, “ I didn’t ask you to turn on the thermal heater. I merely commented that it was freezing in the princess’s chamber…”

Artoo beeps a response causing Threepio to shout, “But it’s SUPPOSED to be freezing! How we are ever going to dry out her clothes, I really don’t know!”

On top of everything else, the sequel features the best and most well-known twist of any movie ever. Say it with us, “I am your father!”

3. The Godfather Part II (1974)

The Godfather Part II might be the only movie on this list that’s not only one of the best sequels ever but possibly the best movie ever, period. The sequel won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Al Pacino, and Best Director for Francis Ford Coppola, an almost unthinkable feat for a sequel.

The Godfather II traded in the first movie’s Vito Corleone Marlon Brando for the younger Robert De Niro in a prequel segment that weaves its way throughout the present-day struggles of Pacino’s Michael Corleone. Coppola uses De Niro’s rise to power as a young Vito to mirror Michael’s own rise to power as his father’s successor as head of the Corleone crime family.

The movie is a slow-burn masterpiece full of double-crosses and family drama that no other mob movie has ever duplicated.

2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

arnold schwarzenegger terminator 2 shotgun

When Arnold said he’d be back in the first Terminator, no one could have guessed it would be in a sequel that had twice the action, twice the effects, and twice the Terminators. James Cameron proved he wasn’t a one-trick pony by following up Aliens with another slam-bang sequel that ups the ante of the first film.

Not only was T2 a more exciting movie than its predecessor but Cameron used the sequel as a showcase for newly emerging CGI technology that would go on to replace practical effects almost entirely in the years to come. If there’s one complaint to be made about T2, it’s that it pretty much follows the same formula as the first Terminator but with more explosions and bigger guns.

On the other hand, if it ain’t broken, why fix it?

1. The Dark Knight (2008)

the dark knight

The Dark Knight is the Godfather II of superhero movies. A complex crime drama that just happens to have Batman in it, The Dark Knight is probably as far away as a movie can get from the lighthearted colorful fare found in the MCU.

While Christian Bale, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Aaron Eckhart are all great, there’s one reason and one reason alone that The Dark Knight still endures as one of the best comic book movies ever made 15 years after its release: Heath Ledger’s Joker.

With the Joker, Ledger transcends mere acting and becomes a kind of chameleon. The Joker isn’t a role Ledger is playing so much as he’s a manifestation of the darkness present deep in the actor’s soul. It’s a darkness that earned the actor an Oscar but sadly also contributed to his death.

Above all, The Dark Knight exists as a bittersweet document of what Heath Ledger was capable of as an actor and the dangerous lengths artists will go to produce their art, even if it destroys them in the process.