We’re just under three weeks until the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Expectations are quite high considering LucasFilm already signed writer/director Rian Johnson to develop his own trilogy. For no other reason than I’m bored I decided to take a look at some of the most acclaimed movie sequels ever and ask myself if they’re actually better than the film that preceded them.
Is The Empire Strikes Back really better than Star Wars?
Despite receiving middling reviews on its release in 1980, Empire has gone on to not just be widely regarded as the finest Star Wars movie, but seen as the archetypal blockbuster sequel. It’s bigger, longer, and darker than its predecessor. With less expository responsibility, the film is able to dive deeper into the characters. George Lucas stepped back a bit, allowing others to actually script and direct the film so he could focus more on the complicated financial and special-effects development aspects that went into such an unprecedented production. Sci-fi author Leigh Brackett was hired to pen the film, and then Lucas’ Raiders of the Lost Ark colleague Lawrence Kasdan was brought in to redraft Brackett’s script. Lucas hired indie maestro (and his USC former professor) Irwin Kershner to direct, though there’s still some doubt as to who handled which scenes, as Lucas was reportedly heavily involved in the day-to-day operations of the film.
Regardless of whomever is chiefly responsible, the result is a true masterpiece. Empire is a narratively ambitious and visually stunning the film. The ending alone is unlike anything that came before it, with Luke losing his hand and Han being frozen. Star Wars was a great film; a landmark moment in cinema. But it was fairly lighthearted and driven by imagination more than anything else. Empire is an undeniable classic even the most cynical Star Wars hater has to acknowledge as special. The scene of Han being frozen is the high point in the entire saga. Exceptional mise-en-scene. Vader in control. Chewy pleading for Han to be spared. C-3PO, strapped to Chewy’s back and unable to see anything, providing comic relief. Gorgeously lit and colored, emphasizing the reds that the franchise has has always used to represent evil. Then of course there’s “I love you.”………”I know.”
Verdict: Yes, Empire is the better movie. There’s a reason it’s the film that great sequels are always compared to.
Is The Godfather Part 2 really better than The Godfather?
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 crime epic The Godfather is near the top of every “best movies ever” list for good reason. It transcended just about everything people thought they knew about cinema at that point in time with its own uniquely American aesthetic, and its thematic handling of gangsters (portraying them as a counterculture to a corrupt world rather than a collection of angry villains). The cast is of course exceptional, and nearly every scene of the film has become iconic in its own right. It breezes through its three-hour runtime. So while it’s a bit tiring to hear it always talked about, that’s not the movie’s fault.
The Godfather Part 2, released two years later, was actually the first sequel to draw real acclaim, going on to win the Oscar for Best Picture (like its predecessor). It shares many stylistic similarities with the first film, but a divided narrative (a subplot focusing on the rise of Young Vito) made it very different. Nowadays, many consider Part 2 to be the better film, and a perfect film. I just can’t get on board with that. While Pacino, Duvall, Cazale, Keaton and De Niro are exceptional…the film’s real-time narrative with Michael in Havana is, frankly, sort of boring and insignificant within the context of what makes the film compelling otherwise. During those scenes, I find myself begging to return to De Niro, or to Pacino interacting with his family members. Part 2 is just a bit too ambitious politically for its own good.
Verdict: The Godfather is a perfect film. Every scene matters. The sequel, while very much an amazing work of art, just isn’t as tight or self-aware. So, no, the sequel is not better in this case.
Is Aliens really better than Alien?
For two films that share Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the same species of terrifying extraterrestrial, Alien (dir. Ridley Scott, 1979) and Aliens (dir. James Cameron, 1986) couldn’t be more different. Alien is a close-quarters horror film, drawing much of its tension from its ambiance and what it *doesn’t* show you. Aliens is a balls-to-the-wall action film, preferring to wow you with spectacle and kineticism. Alien is a slow burn while Aliens moves quickly, as any great action movie should. Both films are very much products of their directors. Ridley Scott is a master of careful design. He understands how seemingly minor details such as single musical notes or shadows or close-ups of faces can make a film terrifying. James Cameron is an ambitious innovator. He wants to make the impossible into reality through moviemaking technology and sheer will, certainly proving himself capable of such time and time again.
I have a hard time saying which approach is better for these films, and therefore have a hard time deciding which is the better final product. I probably prefer Scott’s take, maybe because I’ve seen so many movies like Aliens but so few like Alien. But that’s just a personal taste thing.
Verdict: Too close to call, and the aforementioned reasons make this such an odd comparison. Therefore I find it silly to vehemently argue this one either way.
Is Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior really better than Mad Max?
The Mad Max franchise is my favorite collection of movies ever. All four of George Miller’s dystopian action films, including 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, are exceptional. The first film, 1979’s Mad Max, accomplished an awful lot. A huge and surprising financial success worldwide, it established Australia as a hotbed for filmmaking talent and also made Mel Gibson into a global superstar (he’d go on to become one of the most successful action stars ever). The vehicular stunts look spectacular even through a modern lens.
But The Road Warrior is something else; something more. It doubles down on the survivalist mayhem. The vehicles are bigger and louder. The dialogue is more sparse. The desert photography is more epic. The leather costumes now feature a great deal of bondage. The overall punk aesthetic of the film influenced an entire generation of artists. It’s also truly a film of nonstop action, perhaps only matched in raw intensity by Fury Road (if we’re comparing Fury Road to the original trilogy, it certainly bears the most resemblance with The Road Warrior). The Road Warrior is the rare film that actually put a bigger budget to good use. It’s unapologetic action pornography.
Verdict: Mad Max will always hold a place in my heart, but The Road Warrior is, for my money, the greatest action film of all-time. So, yes, the sequel is better.
Is The Dark Knight really better than Batman Begins?
Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins remains the finest superhero origin story captured on film. Visually creative and loaded with narrative heft, it really is a thinking man’s Batman movie. While the Tim Burton-Michael Keaton rendition of the classic character was certainly very good, the Nolan-Christian Bale version is something truly major. This was the first comic-book blockbuster to be taken seriously by a cinephile community that is frustratingly pretentious at times (I’m allowed to say that because I’m part of that frustratingly pretentious community).
But let’s not overthink it. The Dark Knight is better. It’s basically Heat but topped with comic-book verve. Gorgeously shot and tightly plotted, the first two hours of TDK never let up. The opening bank robbery and vehicle chase shot on the lower level of Chicago’s Wacker Drive make for two of the finest action sequences ever staged. The story is loaded with moral and emotional complexity. Every performer breathes life into their characters. Heath Ledger deservedly received most of the praise, but how good is Aaron Eckhardt in this movie? The Dark Knight is so fucking good that when it missed out on a Best Picture nomination, public backlash forced the Academy to open the category up to as many as ten nominees.
Verdict: The sequel is better. Don’t be an Armond White. The Dark Knight is as incredible as everyone says.
- T2: Judgement Day is NOT better than The Terminator. It may be bigger and more action-packed and loaded with groundbreaking VFX work, but it lacks the intelligence of the first film.
- As far as the X-Men go, X2: X-Men United (while very good) is not better than X-Men, and Days of Future Past certainly isn’t better than First Class.
- This one is probably obvious, but Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 is one of the great superhero films ever and a major step up from the first film.
- Not sure if it counts since the entire trilogy was shot together, but The Two Towers is by far the best Lord of the Rings film. It’s one of the best-edited films ever.
- The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Blade II, and Superman II are all significantly better than their predecessors.
- I will probably die alone on this hill but I think The Temple of Doom is the best Indiana Jones movie.
- As far as the Marvel Cinematic Universe goes, both Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are much-improved sequels. They’re also the two best movies in the entire franchise thus far.
- The Color of Money is harmless but it doesn’t touch The Hustler, and I say that as the world’s biggest Scorsese fan.
- It’s damn near impossible to top Jurassic Park, and while The Lost World didn’t come close, I’d be mad at myself if I didn’t mention that insane “trailer hanging over the edge of the cliff” scene, the most brilliant and original action staging since the titular Thunderdome in the third Mad Max movie.
- Mostly thanks to a better villain, J.J. Abrams topped his own solid reboot with Star Trek Into Darkness (despite that terrible title).