“It’s easy to make a good movie, but it’s hard to make a great one.”Orson Welles
For most filmmakers, it’s hard enough to make a movie that ends up great—one that’s well-received by critics, beloved by viewers, and remembered throughout the years.
And a lot of the times, lightning only strikes once. Following up a great movie with a great sequel is exceedingly rare. It’s hard to think of many examples, making it one of the rarest occurrences in cinema.
But it does happen. Every once in a while, a sequel arrives that’s actually better than the one preceding it—much to the delight of all involved, for it’s an achievement that few can accomplish.
From the crime families of New York to the toys of a child’s room, here are some of the best movie sequels that actually improved upon their original movies and came out better.
8. Toy Story 3 (2010)
When Toy Story 2 arrived four years after the first film, it improved upon the original film in every way.
It was funnier, more profound, and and more heart-wrenching than the first. Very few people thought Pixar could top the work they did on the second movie when the third one was announced.
But they did! Toy Story 3 was an improvement over its predecessor once again as Andy grew up and stopped playing with his toys—something that eventually came to pass for Woody, Buzz, etc.
The third film was an era-defining moment for millions who had grown up with Andy, played with the same toys, and eventually became adults themselves. The final moments are as emotional as any as we see Woody and Andy’s time together come to an end.
7. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
In hindsight, Spider-Man was a good superhero movie but it was too safe—like a Margherita pizza: solid, dependable, but lacking overt flair. That’s why Spider-Man 2 is the movie that sent Spidey fans everywhere into meltdown.
As a movie, it’s everything that a great sequel should be. It has moments of more intense drama, the characters get pushed further than they have ever been, and the stakes rise enormously.
The battle between Doc Ock and Spider-Man is one for the cinematic ages: bloody, visceral, and full of shocking moments.
To see Peter Parker know what he wants yet give it up for his responsibility to the mask is greater? That remains the best show of inner conflict in superhero cinema history.
6. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
The first three Mad Max movies were good, with a distinct feeling that captures the audience. But with Mad Mad: Fury Road, this sequel isn’t just better than the originals—it’s in a different league.
Mel Gibson’s Max is gone and in steps Tom Hardy, who immediately becomes his version of Max that leaves Gibson in the dust. The film is a heart attack on wheels. Every moment is spine-tingling, every moment is brutal, and it’s the distillation of pure cinema.
Films like Mad Max: Fury Road embody the cinema experience. The intense thumping bass drums, the spectacle on display. It’s a simple film that’s executed to perfection by George Miller and his team.
5. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
To this day, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a solid contender for best action movie ever made. It followed the first movie and improved upon it in every single way.
James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s original B-movie had become so successful that T2 received the biggest budget ever given to a motion picture at the time. And, in his typical style, Cameron changed cinema forever with it.
Cameron’s use of CGI effects revolutionized what could be achieved with computers—and those effects still hold up today.
Meanwhile, the action sequences, the humor, the moments like when the T-800 tells John he must go into the pit all land perfectly with depth, emotion, and beauty. It’s truly a masterpiece.
4. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back had the unenviable task of following Star Wars: A New Hope, a film that had taken the box office by storm in 1977. It’s now a classic example of excellent movie sequels.
The opening battle on Hoth set the tone for the rest of the film, and the lightsaber duel between Luke and Darth Vader became one of cinema’s most memorable action sequences.
The revelation that Vader was Luke’s father had jaws on the floor when it happened, which only solidified Empire Strikes Back’s reputation as entirely better than its predecessor.
3. Logan (2017)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine was a mess. The opening credits may have featured an incredible sequence, but after that, the film fell apart with terrible CGI and a predictable script.
Then The Wolverine came along. This one was more entertaining than the first, but still fell flat in several ways. Fortunately, it wasn’t the end. Hugh Jackman still had one last Wolverine film left in him—and he saved the best for last.
In the end, Logan isn’t really a superhero film at all. It’s a neo-western adventure that features savage violence, a beautiful story, and a send-off worthy of Jackman’s game-changing role.
The bond formed between Logan and Laura may only last a few days in the film, but the impact will resonate with fans forever. The film is as profound and visceral as any, and it broke new ground by being the first comic book movie to garner an Academy Award nomination.
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
Christopher Nolan’s genre-defying and genre-defining piece still feels like the last original comic book movie. Taking inspiration from films such as Heat, Nolan built a different world around Christian Bale’s Batman than he had done in Batman Begins.
Gone are the Narrows and the grimmer parts of Gotham City, replaced with tall buildings and a city-scale that feels like Tokyo. Everything evolved with The Dark Knight—a tighter script, a more complex Batman, and one of the best movie villains of all time.
Heath Ledger’s Joker has an enduring legacy as more than a villain. He represents a culture of people who feel that the world has left them behind. From that came a character who lived outside of the rules, who sowed chaos wherever he went. Incredible.
1. The Godfather: Part II (1974)
The Godfather: Part II is the original “best movie sequel” ever made. It introduced the idea that a sequel could be better than its predecessor. And what a task, given that this one follows The Godfather!
The first film remains one of cinema’s greatest masterpieces. Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone is a character larger than any era, with a performance that’s timeless and imbued with cunning intellect.
The Godfather: Part II saw the continuation of Michael Corleone’s story from the end of the first film, and Al Pacino managed to make Michael just as iconic, just as cunning, just as intelligent as Vito.
Whereas the first film is about family over business, this one is about business over family. The two films’ contrasting styles make them both compelling in vastly different ways, yet the character of Michael Corleone drives Part II to be everything Part 1 was and more.