Sometimes these days it seems as though sequels outnumber original movies playing at the multiplex. While many big-screen follow-ups can be terrific on their own (Captain America: Civil War, anyone?), they all face the uphill task of having to at least match the entertainment factors and cultural impact of the initial film that proved so popular that it launched a potential franchise.
There’s certainly no need to point out how many sequels fall short of fans’ expectations. However, as Terminator 2 turns 25—it exploded into theaters on July 2, 1991—it’s high time to praise those rare series extensions that surpass and even sort of swallow whole the movies that came before them. These are the classics that delivered huge on the Terminator’s signature promise, “I’ll be back!”
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Writer-director James Cameron introduced a brilliant complex and smashingly exciting sci-fi concept in 1984 with The Terminator. While the original was a masterwork of up-close intensity and rough-and-tumble action, its runaway success enabled Cameron to expand Terminator 2 to whole new realms of visionary cinema innovation and excitement. With Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton upping their game accordingly, Cameron’s team even developed new CGI technology in order to blow minds with Robert Patrick as a liquid robot killer from the future.
The Dark Knight (2008)
With Batman Begins (2005), independent filmmaker Christopher Nolan reinvented the superhero saga on his own terms. For its follow-up, The Dark Night, Nolan turned for inspiration to Frank Miller’s classic 1986 comic book milestone The Dark Knight and perfectly cast Heath Ledger as a version of familiar Gotham City villain the Joker that no one could have previously imagined.
Empire Strikes Back (1980)
There’s no denying the monumental standing of the original Star Wars (1977). Looking back, though, the general consensus is that creator George Lucas topped even that unprecedented achievement with the fuller, richer, and even more epic The Empire Strikes Back. After all, this was the movie that introduced us all to master Yoda and delivered the ultimate plot-twist gut-punch with a single line: “Luke, I am your father!”
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
The team of director Sam Raimi and stars Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst turned 2002’s Spider-Man into the wondrous blockbuster that ushered in the age of the modern superhero movie. They all returned two years later for Spider-Man 2 and elevated the series to an entire new level, due in no small part to Alfred Molina’s terrifying performance as multi-armed bad guy Dr. Octopus.
Toy Story 2 (1998)
Pixar’s Toy Story did nothing less than invent an entire new era in animated entertainment. It told a fine tale using technology that dazzled the eye as nothing else had in decades. Toy Story 2 not only improved the visual effects, its plot and character interactions dug deeper and touched hearts even more profoundly, creating a world of computer cartoon playthings that can only be described as beautifully human.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) successfully translated the beloved TV series into an epic big screen adventure, launching Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard NImoy), and the USS Enterprise crew into a huge new realm of possibilities. Star Trek II maintains that freshly massive scale, and it supercharges it plot by reaching back to a classic episode of the show to bring in Ricardo Montalban furious space villain Khan, an adversary who proves more than worthy of the franchise’s epic direction.
The Road Warrior (1982)
The Australian post-apocalyptic biker movie Mad Max (1979) gained a cult following worldwide as an electrifying grindhouse picture. For the sequel, which is simply called Mad Max 2 Down Under, creator George Miller and star Mel Gibson aimed for the big-leagues and stormed the world with an all-time sci-fi action classic that continues to influence everything from the Star Wars sequels to the Fast and Furious franchise.
Superman II (1981)
In 1978, Superman finally delivered the bold, massive-scoped comic book movie that Hollywood had never been able to pull off previously, due in part to visual effects technology not enabling audiences to believe a man could fly, and also because it took that long to find the one Earthling who was absolutely born to play Krypton’s favorite son: Christopher Reeve.
Superman II takes off in unexpected directions, with three Kryptonian villains wreaking havoc on Superman’s adopted planet, and the Man of Steel proving to have such a tender heart for Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) that he’s willing to give up his powers. Never fear though: he gets them back in time for a colossal battle in the skies above the Metropolis version of Times Square.
Evil Dead II (1987)
Sam Raimi’s scrappy, vicious, wildly inventive low-budget splatter-horror hit The Evil Dead (1981) announced the arrival of a daring and dynamic new filmmaking talent. Evil Dead II showcases exactly how daring and dynamic Raimi could get, reinventing the original gore-flick as a slapstick feat of comedic terror with bravura techniques that continue to keeps its viewers simultaneously laughing and screaming.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Night of the Living Dead (1968) not only established the rules of engagement for all zombie apocalypse sagas to follow, it begat a new age of terrifyingly intense, dire and downbeat horror that came to define fright flicks in the decade ahead via classics such as The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Ten years later, writer-director George Romero looked back on what his doomed vision had wrought, and sought to top them all with Dawn of the Dead, a sweeping, gore-blasted epic of zombie warfare that also sends up consumerism by taking place in a shopping mall.