AN INTRODUCTORY BELLY-ACHE: To prepare for this column, I checked various websites containing lists of superior sequels in an attempt to plagiarize... ah, er... research the subject. My God, did it get my blood boiling. Most websites now take it for granted that film history started somewhere around 1999 and the venerable artform is now almost 25 years old. Such film sites (with a millennial’s worms-eye-view of history) can blow me. Film as an artform is more than 120 years old. If you find you can’t wrap your tiny mind around all that history, maybe you shouldn’t be fucking writing about film. Sheesh.
AN INTRODUCTORY CAVEAT: Yes, I know when dealing with any sequel situation, the original film had to do all the heavy lifting and set up the background and characters and set the stage for blah blah blah blah. Yes, I get it. Let’s move on!The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) A bigger budget, a longer shooting schedule, an iconic musical score, an amazing use of black humor, more developed characters, and an additional villain make this one of the greats. And by “additional villain,” I don’t mean Elsa Lanchester’s Bride, whose screen time turns her part into a glorified cameo. I mean Ernest Thesiger’s Dr. Pretorius, one of the best personifications of evil in movie history. Can he have your soul? It’s his ONLY weakness.
2. The Godfather, Part II (1974) Certainly a more ambitious film and one we need to give the proper credit. Only Francis Ford Coppola in the 1970s had the artistic hubris to attempt a sequel to what, even then, was being acknowledged as one of the finest American films of all time. If the first Godfather film asked the question, “To what extent is capitalism government-sanctioned crime?”—the second film asks the far deeper and more existential question “To what extent is one’s family one’s destiny?” How many of us would love to look at the lives of our parents and see how events before our births affected our lives? In that sense, Godfather II is a lot like Back to the Future, if you think about it (with a little bit less of the son wanting to make it with his mom.) This sequel features amazing associative editing; a huge, evocative recreation of Little Italy at the turn of the century; and a Pacino performance as strong or better than his performance in the original film. I said, “ENOUGH!”
NOTE: My wife disagrees with this! My God, do not ever engage her about Star Wars! Sheesh. (EDITOR’S NOTE: JB’s gorgeous and intelligent wife does not “disagree” so much as “holds a more nuanced and complicated opinion about one of the finest franchises in cinema history.”)
4. The Road Warrior (1981) You could argue that the first two films in the series have different things on their minds so it’s unfair to compare them. I wouldn’t. Mad Max seems like a rough draft, an actor’s exercise you jot down in a notebook and never let anyone see before you give the real performance. The final chase scene in The Road Warrior has rarely been topped in other action movies. It’s a pure tour-de-force. “In time I would grow to manhood and become leader of the great Northern tribe. And the Road Warrior? The movie lives on... only in my memory.”Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) Given the big, bloated, boring mess that was the first Star Trek movie, it could not have been that hard to best it by going back to what made the original television show great: brisk storytelling and sticking to the iconic characters and the choices they make. Ricardo Montalbán is also a far superior villain to…some sort of cranky rocket ship? I don’t even remember. Was it a rogue Roomba? V-Ger? V-Gen? V-getable?
6. The Color of Money (1986) 25 years lapsed between The Hustler and this Martin Scorsese-directed meditation on the themes of The Hustler. Incredibly cool that they were able to get Paul Newman to come back and reprise his iconic role. While the original film is a hard-scrabble B&W look at “the rackets,” I love how the sequel is an extended essay on the uses of irony in everyday life. Pool hustlers always pretend to be something else. Paul Newman is just looking for Tom Cruise’s best game—no tricks, no lies, no deceit. It’s an anomaly, a thought-provoking, big-budget star vehicle, released by, of all studios, Touchstone Films.
8. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) James Cameron’s sequel tops his original in every conceivable way: plot, score, depth of character, dialogue, action-set-pieces, and of course, special effects. The liquid metal Terminator effects still hold up more than 30 years later. Sad, affecting ending too.Toy Story 2 (1999) As much as I love love love the original, I have to give credit, as a onetime toy collector myself, to this incredible sequel. Besides being an extended meditation on playing with toys versus investing in toys (always play with toys; toys are made to be played with) the sequel gives us three wonderful new characters: Al, the awful toy collector; Jesse, the Woody’s Round-Up cowgirl sidekick; and Stinky Pete, an awful toy whose villainy is caused by never having been played with. You will never read the phrase “Mint in Box” the same way again.
10. The Dark Knight (2008) I was not the biggest fan of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. The sequel bests it in every way possible: better plot, better villains, better weapons, better score, better cinematography, better action set-pieces, better theme, and an increasingly more-gravelly Batman voice.
POSTSCRIPT: I will never agree that Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again is better than the original Mamma Mia!, which somehow seems to have become a canonical critical opinion. Same with Back to the Future III, Aliens, Scream 2, Superman II, From Russia with Love, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Toy Story 3, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Blade Runner 2049, or Dawn of the Dead...
None of them is better than Mamma Mia!