50 years ago this week, Beneath the Planet of the Apes landed in movie theaters, extending the film adaptation of Planet of the Apes into a full-blown franchise that would encompass multiple films, a live-action TV series, an animated TV series, comics, and more. The follow-up film stretched the possibilities suggested by the first one, and offered an even more apocalyptic vision. That creative daring opens up a question: what are the greatest movie sequels of all time? To answer that, you have to judge the films on the Tom Morello criteria of impact, influence, and awesomeness. By that measure, here are the Greatest Movie Sequels of All Time.
Two films that probably should be considered but have debatable sequel status are The Silence of the Lambs and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. No, the second Jumanji film is not the gold standard, but it is a superior comedic sequel that references the original film directly, making it a combination sequel/reboot, while also using a clever body-switching premise that’s sturdy enough to garner solid laughs and flexible enough to be used in further creative ways in the second sequel, Jumanji: The Next Level. The Lambs novel is itself a sequel; Hannibal Lecter first appeared in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, originally adapted as Manhunter in 1986, which came out prior to Lambs. If you take the view that Lambs is a sequel, then it’s one of the greats. Another honorable mention is Fast Five, which takes characters from the all of the previous Fast & Furious films and completely reinvents the franchise as a globetrotting team action-adventure series. Both Jumanji and Fast & Furious subscribe to the “The Rock elevates your franchise” theory of filmmaking. And here’s a shout-out for the army of superior super-hero sequels; though a few make our main list, Batman Returns, X2, Spider-Man 2, and Avengers: Infinity War belong in the general conversation.
15. Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964) and Evil Dead II (1987) (tie)
Sam Raimi certainly wouldn’t mind having his gonzo zombie film Evil Dead II listed alongside one of the great monster-movie crossovers. Raimi’s original Evil Dead was a brutal affair of unapologetic horror; 2 flips the script, allowing the charismatic goofiness and misplaced machismo of leading man Bruce Campbell to come to the fore in a gross-out tour de force of laughs and horror. Meanwhile, Ghidorah is the fifth film in the Godzilla franchise, and it pits the titular beast against Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan. No building in Japan is safe, but it’s super-fun.
14. Christmas Vacation (1989)
The third Vacation film inverts the first two movies by having the Griswolds stay at home for the holidays while their families visit them. Chevy Chase embraces near fanatical levels of Christmas cheer as he tries to put together the perfect holiday, even if everyone else does their level best to derail it. Randy Quaid stands out as Cousin Eddie, wringing out a laugh nearly every time the camera points his direction. It’s a pretty inspired take that’s become annual appointment viewing.
13. Goldfinger (1964)
The James Bond franchise is full of remarkably sturdy entries, and you could pick any number of top-notch sequels. But Goldfinger in particular puts together so many bits that people fondly recall from the series that it just screams to be on this list. You have the best Bond (Sean Connery), one of the greatest evil henchmen in Oddjob, two world champion bond girls in Shirley Eaton’s Jill Masterson and Honor Blackman’s Pussy Galore, and the iconic villain, Auric Goldfinger, as played by Gert Fröbe. It’s also the Bond movie where the franchise becomes synonymous with gadgets, the best of which is certainly the tricked-out Aston Martin, possibly the best non-Batmobile car in movies.
12. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Face it: Star Trek: The Motion Picture was boring. But in Star Trek II, director Nicholas Meyer upped the action quotient while leaning on character, humor, and the original series continuity by bringing back Ricardo Montalbán’s Khan. There’s an undercurrent of pathos here, triggered by Kirk grappling with his own mortality and the sudden discovery of his son, David, while Khan literally invokes Captain Ahab in his mad quest for revenge. It climaxes in a great Run Silent, Run Deep-style space battle and one of the truly shocking sacrifices in film. It is, and always will be, a great sequel.
11. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
In The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger played an implacable killing machine. The James Cameron film drew critical acclaim and a cult following for its dark sci-fi and brutal action. How do you top that? By flipping the script and making the villain of the first film the hero of the second. In T2, Arnold is back as a cyborg Terminator, but this time he’s charged with protecting young John Connor (and, by association, his mother Sarah, his target from the first film). However, the new bad guy is the equally implacable Robert Patrick, playing a new version of Terminator with morphing capabilities. The special effects were next level for their time, the pace is ridiculously fast, and Arnold is even able to bring some humor to his emotionless battlebot.
10. Toy Story 3 (2010)
Toy Story 2 is a beloved sequel that expands on the first film and delivers a truckload of laughs. Toy Story 3, however, is funny, sweet, and sad, sometimes within the same scene. Even as it piles on the hilarity (like Mr. Potato Head affixing his parts to a tortilla during what is basically a prison break caper), the film comes loaded with a number of emotional gut-punches, including a scene in which the toys try to accept potentially inevitable destruction and a for-the-ages montage in which Andy symbolically and literally leaves his childhood behind. (Hey, whoever’s cutting onions in here, stop that.)
9. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
The second of the only two official sequels to get an Oscar for Best Picture, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is a massive feat of visionary moviemaking. Director Peter Jackson and the mad geniuses at his Weta Digital conjure startlingly realistic images of fantasy armies and battles that turned large-scale moviemaking on its head. While The Two Towers had an action all-timer with its Battle of Helm’s Deep, this film’s Siege of Minas Tirith and Battle of the Pelennor Fields are epic on an entirely new level. But that spectacle also comes wrapped in resonant emotion, whether it’s Eowyn’s battle with the Witch-King or Aragorn’s acceptance of his destiny or Frodo and Sam’s tearjerking struggle up Mount Doom. The Return of the King is the cultural and technological bridge from the Star Wars saga to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, films that use every possible piece of action, humor, and special effects to generate massively crowd-pleasing entertainments.
8. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
His hero may be called Mad Max, but George Miller is the madman. The Australian writer/director had previously given us three films with Mad Max, with the most popular being The Road Warrior. After a two decade hiatus (during which he made the wonderful Babe films and the charming Happy Feet, among others), he returned to the Max mythos with vengeance. With Tom Hardy taking over the title role and a bald, badass Charlize Theron as freshly minted feminist icon Imperator Furiosa, Miller cranks the action and stuntwork to simply incredible levels. Maybe the best description of the film comes from director Steven Soderbergh, who said, “I don’t understand how [George Miller] does that, I really don’t, and it’s my job to understand it. I don’t understand two things: I don’t understand how they’re not still shooting that film and I don’t understand how hundreds of people aren’t dead.”
7. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Super-hero films have a reputation for the second film in a series being slightly better or more enjoyable. The first film always has to shoulder the origin story and world-building, while the second film allows you to be off to the races. In the case of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Marvel Cinematic Universe had already logged two films with Cap, eight films total, and most of a season of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. That gave much more weight to the status-quo-shattering revelation of Hydra’s infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. The audience’s familiarity with the characters also allowed the identity of the Winter Soldier (Cap’s thought-dead best friend Bucky) to be a major shock. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo somehow managed to make an espionage/super-hero/action knockout that led to their direction of three more Marvel films in the next few years, each one more successful than the last.
6. The Dark Knight (2008)
After the campy and just-plain-bad misstep that was Batman and Robin, the Bat-franchise was dormant for years until Christopher Nolan revived it in 2005 with the outstanding Batman Begins. That film’s final scene teased the possibility of Batman’s greatest nemesis showing up in a sequel. Did he ever. Heath Ledger earned a (sadly, posthumous) Oscar for his portrayal of a shabbily unhinged Joker. Christian Bale did another strong turn as Batman, and he and Ledger’s scene in a police interrogation room is a high-water mark for the genre. Too little has been written about Nolan’s prescience regarding the nature of the surveillance state in the film, which adds a deeper of-the-moment undercurrent.
5. Avengers: Endgame (2019)
The Russo Brothers built on the success of The Winter Soldier with Captain America: Civil War and the one-two punch of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. Presently the number-one money-making film of all-time (adjusted for inflation, yes), Endgame pulled off the incredible logistical feat of paying off the 21 MCU films that preceded it. It’s a rare three-hour film that moves like a rocket, and its last act somehow manages to outdo just about everything you’ve ever seen in a film of its kind. (Frankly, if you had told ten-year-old me that I would one day see a movie that involves Scarlet Witch battling Thanos while Hawkeye and Black Panther execute a relay race that allows Spider-Man to grab the Infinity Gauntlet before he escapes certain death with the help of a power-armored Pepper Potts who tosses him to Valkyrie’s flying horse . . . I would have called you a liar and punched you in the face.) One of the most rousing action set pieces in movie history leads to a moving set of final sequences that allows an Iron Man to find his heart, a traumatized lion of Asgard to regain his nerve, the Hulk found his brain, and a time-lost Captain America to find his way home. When today’s kids are cranky oldsters saying that they don’t make ‘em like they used to . . . this will be what they mean.
4. Aliens (1986)
Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien was a magnificent merger of horror and science fiction. James Cameron took on the challenge of putting together a sequel and stunned everyone with one of the best action movies ever put on film. By positioning Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley as the smartest, coolest, and toughest person in the room, Cameron is able to shine a light on sexism, corporate malfeasance, and incompetent middle-management in the midst of some truly awesome monster attacks. There’s also a roster of excellent supporting characters, such as Paul Reiser’s scumbag company man Burke, Michael Biehn’s savvy and respectful Hicks, Bill Paxton’s hilarious Hudson, and Jenette Goldstein’s badass Vasquez.
3. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
In 1931, Universal Studios unleashed a new world of gods and monsters with the double-threats of Frankenstein and Dracula. Four years later, Colin Clive and Boris Karloff returned as the Doctor and his Creature in The Bride of Frankenstein, which is still acclaimed as one of the rare sequels that surpasses the original. Director James Whale elevated the aesthetic elements of horror film, using vertiginous shots, impossibly high ceilings, and Gothic design to great effect. It may seem a little slowly paced for today’s audiences, but it’s a timeless classic.
2. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The Post recently noted the following about Empire on the occasion of its 40th anniversary: “It regularly tops lists of sequels that are better than the original. It’s one of the most financially successful films of all time, and one of the most successful sequels. And the shocking Darth Vader revelation near the end of the film is regarded as one of the great twists in movie history.” It’s hard to out-sequel Empire. In fact, many people easily put it at the top of their list or note that it surpasses the original. In fact, there’s really only one other film that comes close . . .
1. The Godfather Part II (1974)
The first sequel to win Best Picture and a movie regularly recognized on film lists for its greatness, The Godfather Part II followed up the beloved first film by walking a narrative tightrope between two entirely different time periods. One story follows the ascent of young Vito Corleone (Robert DeNiro), and the other follows the ongoing tragedy that is the story of Vito’s son, Michael (Al Pacino). Many critics have called Pacino’s work in the film not only his finest performance, but also one of the greatest pieces of film acting. Director Francis Ford Coppola again shows his gift for nuance and family drama framed against the ruthlessness of the criminal enterprise that the family runs. It’s a rich, occasionally challenging picture that dares to be dark and unflinching in its storytelling. It’s not just that there are few finer sequels; there are few finer films.
Featured image: A scene from the film The Empire Strikes Back where Boba Fett arrives on Bespin, reenacted with action figures. (Willrow Hood / Shutterstock.com).
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now