Audiences and filmmakers alike love sequels. And we all love to rank and debate which are the “greatest.” But deciding which films belong on a “best movie sequels of all time” list can feel overwhelming. How does one choose from every film ever made? And how to rank one above the other? While such a list is by definition subjective, it doesn’t have to be arbitrary. One way of more rigorously determining if a movie is the best in a certain category is by ranking it according to aggregated scores across categories.
Best Sequels Criteria
How do we pick the best sequels?
To determine the best movie sequels of all time for our list (and to avoid bad movie sequels), we’ve ranked each film by tallying scores in four categories, with the top 25 making the cut:
- Strength of story
- Quality of filmmaking achievement
- How well it’s held up over time
- How well it compares to the original
One final criteria we need to establish before we weed out the bad movie sequels is actually pretty important: what is a sequel? As enter our best movie sequels of all time list, let’s define what we mean by a "sequel."
SEQUEL FILM DEFINITION
What is a sequel?
A sequel is a film that comes directly after another film in a series (itself defined as two or more films) and derives from the story events of that film. So, for example, For Your Eyes Only (1981) is not a sequel to Moonraker (1979), because other than featuring several of the same characters, it’s a completely new story. Quantum of Solace (2008) can be considered a sequel to Casino Royale (2006), however, because it picks up where that film leads off and handles some of the same story events (Have no fear: Quantum of Solace is not on the list).
And while The Road Warrior (1981) can be on the list because it directly follows the original Mad Max (1979), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), for all its greatness, cannot – it’s a reboot. Also, the films have to be great unto themselves, they can’t just be demonstrably better than their predecessors. Sorry, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014).
Finally, if it seems like the best movie sequels of all time tend to fall in the same genres – action, sci-fi, comic book – it’s typically because these genres are the most sequelized. There is no Howards End: The Revenge, for example (as awesome as that might be).
Ok, let’s start ranking!
BEST SEQUELS — COMEDY
25. Christmas Vacation (1989)
Given how disposable most of Chevy Chase’s movies were, even as they were being released, it’s more likely that this third film in the otherwise middling National Lampoon’s Vacation franchise would end up on a bad movie sequels list. Instead it improbably entered the pantheon of beloved holiday films.
Reasons for its longevity include a handful of classic sequences (Clark stringing up his house with 250,000 Christmas lights), as well as strong performances by Chase, Beverly D’Angelo as his long-suffering wife, and Randy Quaid as redneck Cousin Eddie who lives in a “tenement on wheels.” Like any good farce, the movie keeps whisking new characters on stage until pandemonium erupts at the climax — although not, of course, before everybody realizes the true meaning of Christmas.
BEST SEQUELS EVER — ACTION
24. The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
The epitome of high-tech spy stuff at its release, the movie has grown dated in the face of rapidly proliferating political and technological changes: we’ve been living with GPS smartphones and revelations of domestic wiretapping for so long, it’s hard to imagine a 21st century spy thriller without them.
But even before these developments, The Bourne Supremacy is a credible and frightening portrayal of the reality that nobody can get off the grid. If the powers-that-be want to find you, you will be found. Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) knows this, and with the global security apparatus closing in, chooses to pursue a mission to discover his true identity.
Where Supremacy sets itself apart from the best action movies is in Bourne’s eventual agenda – not to take down the bad guys, but to seek out and apologize to a victim of his violence.
BEST SEQUELS OF ALL TIME — SUPERHERO
23. Superman II (1981)
The great appeal of the original Superman (1978) was that it made the Man of Steel recognizably human. Much of this had to do with the performance of the inimitable Christopher Reeve as both Superman and Clark Kent, whom he plays as a klutzy, desexualized nebbish.
Superman II takes the concept of humanizing Superman (again played by Reeve) to its logical conclusion, dramatizing what would happen if Superman gave up his super powers so that he could have a relationship with Lois Lane (Margo Kidder).
This premise is surprisingly affecting (so much so that Spider-Man 2 stole it years later), and generates one compelling scenario after another. When three villains from his home planet threaten Earth, Superman must make the ultimate choice about what he values most.
BEST SEQUELS — DYSTOPIA
After the first Mad Max (1979) — made for pennies — was an unexpected international success, director George Miller let his freak flag fly in this sequel, which renders even more bleak and weird the post-apocalyptic future from the original.
When a band of savage punks (in the literal sense: they sport mohawks and leather bondage gear) terrorize a peaceful community for their dwindling fuel reserves, the loner Max (pre-superstar Mel Gibson) helps the community escape by luring the punks away with a gas tanker.
The film overall is a bit uneven. But the final chase with Max driving the tanker is one of the great movie sequences — a ballet of kinetic action that channels Buster Keaton’s The General (1926), and climaxes with a sensational twist that reveals the depth of Max’s sacrifice.
Released during a terrifying era of the Cold War, The Road Warrior (1982) remains a powerful evocation of the global fear of nuclear armageddon. It also captures the punk aesthetic at a time when it stood for working class indignation and not just the sale bin at Hot Topic.
BEST MOVIE SEQUELS OF ALL TIME — BOND
21. Skyfall (2012)
Skyfall was canny enough to recognize that the core of the Daniel Craig Bond films (sequelized, as opposed to just serialized as former Bond movies were) lie in the relationship between Bond and M (Judi Dench) — a mother figure to Bond’s orphan.
Here, the aging Bond and M represent the old ways — brawny men taking charge and protecting the homeland. Meanwhile, effeminate poseurs like the villain Silva (Javier Bardem) — overly in thrall to digital technology — embody the new. By the end, Silva and the female field agents are either dead or back behind desks, while the movie favorably compares Bond to a British bulldog, as though post-colonialism was never a thing.
But whatever you think of the movie’s politics, it is vigorous entertainment and top-flight professional filmmaking, featuring a Best Original Song winner by Adele; one of Bond’s best villains in Silva; and the most ravishing cinematography by Roger Deakins you are likely to ever see in a spy film. It also ranks pretty high on our best 007 movies.
BEST SEQUELS — SPIELBERG
This sentimental, hilarious and heartfelt movie – director Steven Spielberg’s mea culpa for the violent and macabre Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) which led the MPAA to create the PG-13 rating – reflects the director’s changing ideas about family. Like many of his early films, particularly E.T. (1982) and Close Encounters (1977), Last Crusade dramatizes Spielberg’s themes of family separation and parental abdication. In this case, Henry Jones Sr. (Sean Connery) has abandoned his son Indiana (Harrison Ford) to pursue a Holy Grail obsession that eventually lands him in the clutches of the Nazis.
But Last Crusade is also about a family reunified, a family healed. Spielberg had become a parent by this time and Last Crusade would launch an era of his films – Hook (1991), Schindler’s List (1993) Jurassic Park (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998) – in which men take responsibility rather than shirk it, and learn to put family first.
BEST SEQUELS — ALLEGORY
It’s a close call here between this and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), the middle picture in the recent Apes trilogy. Both movies feature astonishingly life-like ape characters, lush settings, extravagantly detailed story worlds, and cracker-jack action sequences.
War gets the edge, however, because its predecessor is somewhat muddled thematically. The trilogy’s final act is bold and unstinting in its condemnation of America as a nation crippled by xenophobia and addicted to its warrior ethos (Woody Harrelson plays an insane Col. Kurtz type who tries to exterminate the apes). The movie ends with a Biblical comeuppance for the humans, while the ape-king Caesar, in a Moses allegory, leads his people to the promised land.
BEST MOVIE SEQUELS OF ALL TIME — STAR WARS
18. The Last Jedi (2017)
Have you noticed that deafening silence online? It’s the sound of Last Jedi haters who know they can’t defend the abysmal The Rise of Skywalker (2019), which will go down as one of the most derivative (and possibly worst) movie sequels ever made.
Rian Johnson's movie, conversely, does everything it can to be original within its corporate constraints. Ok, almost everything. The throne room fight and the climax owe a little too much to Return of the Jedi (1983) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980) respectively. Even so, that duel – steeped in inky blacks and blood reds – is epic, and gives Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) their most thrilling moment of the sequel trilogy.
Much of the rancor (no pun intended) directed at this movie derives from some fans’ belief that Luke Skywalker’s nonviolent stance in the film somehow doesn’t match his heroic characterization in the original trilogy. Perhaps they missed the part in Return of the Jedi (1983) when Luke throws down his sword and chooses to be LITERALLY ELECTROCUTED TO DEATH rather than kill Darth Vader.
GOOD MOVIE SEQUELS — ANIMATED
17. Toy Story 3 (2010)
All three of the Toy Story follow-ups arguably rank among the best sequel movies ever. This deftly-written, inventive sequel finds our favorite Pixar toys, including Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), mistakenly donated to a daycare center when their long-time owner, Andy, leaves for college.
Hijinks, of course, ensue. But the core of this film is the tragedy of Lotso Huggin’ Bear (Ned Beatty). Abandonment trauma has twisted Lotso into a brutal authoritarian who rules the toys at the daycare center with an iron fist. His callous treatment reaches a frightening climax when he sends Woody and friends hurtling into a molten garbage smelter.
The hellscape serves as a much-needed counterpoint to the plastic sheen of suburbia that encases this series. It somewhat mitigates its major flaw, which is that it doesn’t even try to reflect the diversity of its audience. Pixar movies are aimed at mall America, but how many of the kids in 21st century have grown up on canopied streets behind white picket fences? It’s one thing for the toys to be from the 1950s, but the movie’s race, class, and gender values seem stuck there as well.
BEST SEQUELS — STAR TREK
16. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Boasting a story almost as moving and exciting as the one he came up with for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) co-writer/director Nicholas Meyer gives us this Cold War allegory. The dissolution of the Klingon Empire (representing the Soviet Union post-Berlin Wall) marks an agonizing personal struggle for its characters, who must confront their own potential obsolescence.
“Is it possible that we two, you and I, have become so old and inflexible, that we have outlived our usefulness?” Spock (Leonard Nimoy) asks Kirk (William Shatner) at one point. Rueful, elegiac, and willing to confront some hard truths, Undiscovered Country is the perfect send-off for the Original Series.
BEST MOVIE SEQUELS — ZOMBIE
15. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
George Romero’s sequel to his seminal no-budget indie Night of the Living Dead (1968) expands the scope of the zombie apocalypse from the original’s remote farmhouse to the greater United States. Though Romero’s larger budget allows him a generous number of establishing shots showing the extent of the zombie plague, he sets the majority of the action in a shopping mall. Here he focuses on four survivors, led by Peter (Ken Foree), who must rid the place of the undead ghouls before they can set up home.
Romero’s vision in this film has been justly lauded for the way it skewers consumer society: Americans = shoppers = zombies. But what’s more engrossing is his depiction of how an ad hoc family comes together to create a facsimile of normality amidst apocalypse. For all his fame as a zombie scenarist, the director (he also edited) isn’t interested in the undead at all. Human behavior under pressure is what fascinates him.
The fact that Romero cast African Americans as the lead in both this film and the original is no small choice. He understands that when civilization crumbles, racial hierarchies won’t mean a damn thing.
BEST MOVIE SEQUELS OF ALL TIME
14. The Godfather Part II (1974)
Some would argue that this belongs higher on any list of best movie sequels — it’s one of only two sequels ever to win Best Picture, after all — but for all its entrancing power, it’s somewhat disjointed, especially compared to the perfect pacing of the original.
The cold, cynical nature of Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) ‘50s Nevada mob operation is meant to appear lacking compared with the warm flashbacks of a young Vito Corleone (Robert DeNiro) establishing the family business in turn-of-the-century New York (it was a simpler time for cold-blooded murder, evidently). But the two parts just end up feeling like different movies.
The fact that director Francis Coppola would go on to rearrange and re-release the Godfather films in multiple editions with various timelines suggests that he wasn’t entirely happy with the original cut either. Perhaps, had it been made today, this material would play more naturally across a ten or 13 episode TV series.
Still, what’s here remains haunting and powerful, especially the disturbing nature of Michael’s relationship with his wife (Diane Keaton) who sends him into apoplectic fury by aborting his child; and his tragic older brother Fredo (John Cazale), whom he has killed.
BEST SEQUELS OF ALL TIME — MCU
13. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Any movie that features both Cate Blanchette and Jeff Goldblum vamping it up in leather and heavy eyeliner has its aesthetic sensibilities in the right place. And indeed, this third entry in the Thor series is a Heavy Metal magazine cover come to life, with '80s synth and one of our favorite movie songs (Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”) accompanying the (literally) kick-ass visuals.
Fortunately, Thor: Ragnarok matches its hip style with confident storytelling that deftly balances action, relationship drama, and humor. Yes, it owes a lot to The Lord of the Rings (director Taika Waititi is Kiwi, after all) and borrows enough of the plot of Gladiator (2001) to be liable for copyright infringement.
But every movie takes from other movies. The measure of success lies in how well it can craft something fresh from those borrowed parts. In this, Thor: Ragnarok emerges as the best of the MCU.
BEST MOVIE SEQUELS OF ALL TIME — FIGHT
12. John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
As opulent, decadent, extravagant, and merciless as its baroque Italian underworld setting, this sequel to the 2014 surprise hit opens with one of the most thrilling and visceral action sequences ever filmed, then somehow stays within shouting distance of it all the way to the end.
Like the original, the sequel is about an assassin named John Wick (Keanu Reeves) who shoots people, first out of obligation, then revenge. At one point, he asks someone, “Do you want a war, or do you just want to give me a gun?” to which that character responds, “somebody please get this man a gun!” in the cadence of a revivalist preacher proclaiming the second coming. If you have significant misgivings about Hollywood’s hot, panting love of firearms, John Wick may not be for you.For those that can get past that, the series offers sumptuous production design, inventive world building, tongue-in-cheek humor, and some of the most sensational action and fight sequences ever filmed.
BEST MOVIE SEQUELS — FANTASY
Being one of only two trilogies in which all three movies were nominated for Best Picture (The Return of the King won) speaks to the esteem with which audiences held Peter Jackson’s epic upon its release. Along with The Matrix (1999) and the Star Wars prequels, LOTR ushered in a new era of CGI filmmaking when fantasy worlds could finally be rendered with something like photo-realism (even if some of it looks a bit animated now).
And yet Jackson understood better than George Lucas or the Wachowskis that characters and story will always carry the day over the effects. One example here is Gollum (Andy Serkis), the first really sophisticated motion capture performance in a movie. Although the effects are a wonder, it's the character and performance that draw us in.
Gollum is also the main reason why the Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) material plays more compellingly than other plot elements, though Helm’s Deep is still one of the great battle scenes put on film. When all seems lost and Gandalf (Ian McKellan) rides in to save the day in a blaze of white light, you can’t help but cheer.
TOP TEN BEST SEQUELS
10. The Dark Knight (2008)
Heath Ledger’s performance as Joker consumes our collective memory of this film so thoroughly that it’s a bit of a shock to realize he only has about 30 minutes of screen time in 2 and ½ hours.
In between, Christopher Nolan squeezes in a LOT of plot. Some of it, especially the stuff with the Gotham City mob, gets very short shrift. But the central story, thick with irony and suggesting that the veneer of society is only paper thin, is still as powerful as ever.
You could argue that the sequel, The Dark Knight Rises (2012), improves on this film in a few crucial ways — particularly in its stunning cinematography and in the sense of realism it evokes. But no comic book movie has ever dramatized a conflict over moral philosophy as engagingly, and certainly not while channeling vintage Michael Mann.
BEST MOVIE SEQUELS OF ALL TIME — SCI-FI
9. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
If they had just left well enough alone, the first two Terminator movies would constitute a haunting cautionary tale for the ages. Instead, we’ve gotten every sort of reboot, remake, and sequel. Still, the knockoffs can’t rob T2 of its visceral power, insistent humanism, or sly wit.
If the sequel doesn’t quite pack the gut punch of the original, its blazing action and inventive special effects — especially Robert Patrick’s lithe and lethal T-1000 Terminator — make up for it.
Even so, the heart of the movie is the relationship between John Connor (Edward Furlong), his mom (Linda Hamilton), and his surrogate Terminator father (Arnold Schwarzenegger). As they attempt to ward off armageddon, they become the ideal nuclear family for the apocalypse.
BEST MOVIE SEQUELS OF ALL TIME — HORROR
8. Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Director James Whale's sequel to his original Frankenstein (1931) — it literally picks up moments after the conclusion of the first movie — is a far more accomplished film, with a design that leans even further into its influences than the first one. The high contrast lighting, canted angles, and skewed and slanting architecture are straight out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and other German Expressionist movies.
Where the sequel is better is in how it humanizes Frankentein’s monster (Boris Karloff) through a series of brilliantly-staged scenes that culminate in his desire for a wife — a desire the mad Dr. Pretorious (Ernest Thesiger) is only too happy to accommodate. Thus he brings the Bride (Elsa Lancaster) to life. Though she only has a minute of screen time, her character is so fierce and striking she has become one of the most instantly recognizable in the history of cinema.
BEST MOVIE SEQUELS — MARVEL
7. Logan (2017)
Director James Mangold and star Hugh Jackman must have used up all their Hollywood capitol to get this film made. It’s one thing to ask the studio to let your kiddie film have an R-rating for extreme, gory violence, much of it perpetrated by a child (Logan’s mutant daughter). It’s quite another to make your hero look really bad before killing him off along with several other beloved trademarked characters. All credit to the execs who greenlit this film.
The action is as good as any you’ll see — certainly the best in the X-Men series — but where this movie really shines is in the performances, which owe much to the tragic stage. Mangold mounts the domestic scenes between Logan (Jackman) and Caliban (Stephen Merchant) like something out of Eugene O’Neill. Meanwhile, Patrick Stewart goes full, ranting Lear in his depiction of a tormented and dying Professor X.
BEST MOVIE SEQUELS OF ALL TIME
6. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
But then you would miss out on its compelling story, which follows from the original Blade Runner in which the android “replicants” assert their selfhood and try to embody the claim of their creators that they are ‘more human than human.’ This time, we follow the Pinocchio story of a replicant (Ryan Gosling) as he searches out the mystery of his creation and experiences the peril inherent in escaping bondage. Although Denis Villenueve's film sorely misses the sensuous Vangelis score from the original, Blade Runner 2049 is in every other way as good a sequel as one could wish for.
BEST SEQUEL MOVIES OF ALL TIME — INDIE
5. Before Sunset (2004)
An unlikely sequel to a tiny indie film, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995), which was about an American, Jessie (Ethan Hawke), and a French woman, Celine, (Julie Delphy), who share a night of love and ideas in Vienna. As they depart, they agree to meet in six months and rekindle things. But in their youthful certainty of reunion, they fail to share contact info. When Jessie returns and Celine doesn’t, he has no way to find her.
In Before Sunset, Jessie has written a book about that fateful night nine years earlier. Celine comes to his book signing in Paris and they share an afternoon together. Their conversation is tentative, polite, guarded, as they catch up, but eventually they reveal the depth of their feelings. For both of them that night was a turning point that has never been equaled.
Linklater is known for experimenting with time in movies such as Slacker (1989) and Boyhood (2014), and the Before movies (the most recent is Before Midnight (2013) unfold almost in real time, as Celine and Jessie just walk and talk. This may seem dramatically inert, but the stakes (finding true love, avoiding life-long regret) couldn’t be higher.
BEST MOVIE SEQUELS OF ALL TIME
4. Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004)
Technically not a sequel, according to director Quentin Tarantino, but since Miramax released the film in two parts, and since the studio is still profiting off selling two films, we’ll give it that designation here.
Also,Vol. 2 is very different from Vol. 1, especially in terms of pacing and genre influences. Where Vol. 1 (2003) finds Tarantino in a frenetic freak-out of samurai and kung-fu, Vol. 2 leans into the slithery menace of the spaghetti western (with legendary composer Ennio Morricone contributing to the soundtrack). This more leisurely chapter opens in Texas and closes in Mexico as the Bride — our woman with no name — (Uma Thurman) traverses the dusty southwest to finally kill Bill.
Like most of Tarantino’s best movies, Vol. 2 still plays amazingly well. Six years passed between Jackie Brown (1997) and Kill Bill, and Tarantino obviously learned a great deal in whatever self-styled directing school he put himself through. The saga remains a treat for filmmakers and cineastes.
BEST SEQUEL MOVIES EVER
The famous New Yorker critic Pauline Kael said of the film that “the pieces of the story fit together beautifully,” which is sort of amazing, since the screenwriters were doing major redrafts right up to the start of production. Miraculously, they came up with a movie that is not only leagues better than its bland and bloated predecessor, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).
It is one of the great screen adventures, highlighted by tense starship battles, and themes by composer James Horner that are as lush and stirring as anything John Williams ever wrote for Spielberg or Lucas.
As he has done elsewhere in his career, co-writer and director Nicholas Meyer leans heavily on works of Western literature — in this case Moby Dick, Paradise Lost, and A Tale of Two Cities — to evoke themes. These classics lend the movie a timelessness that balances the scorching immediacy of Khan’s (Ricardo Montalban) bloodlust.
This is a tragedy told in fire and rage, with its heroes all but helpless at the hands of one of cinema’s most relentless and charismatic villains, whom they escape only after paying with their “dearest blood.”
BEST MOVIE SEQUELS OF ALL TIME
2. Aliens (1986)
57 year after the events of Ridley Scott’s pioneering Alien (1979), the xenomorph-destroying hero of that film, Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, is found floating in space, her aging stopped by her capsule’s cryo-freeze. No sooner does she have a cup of coffee then she’s being asked to accompany a marine unit back to the alien-ridden planet where somebody thought it was a good idea to set up a human colony. Now the colony has gone radio silent. Could it be...aliens???
The setup is just an excuse for James Cameron to unfurl the most relentless and horrifying thrillride. The marines — well-drawn and well-cast — go down one by one in a heroic but fruitless battle against their superior foe, until Ripley — calm, cool, collected, capable, fierce and seriously pissed off — is the last woman standing. Almost 40 years old, Aliens doesn’t feel like it has aged a day, so world-specific and convincing is Cameron’s vision.
BEST MOVIE SEQUELS OF ALL TIME
1. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
A no-brainer. One of the greatest movies ever made, itself a sequel to one of the greatest movies ever made, definitely belongs at #1 on the best movie sequels of all time list. But what is there to say about a movie that has been so universally lauded?
Let’s talk about the filmmaking. Apart from the amazing inventiveness of the Star Wars material, Empire features some of cinema's most dazzling production design. But director Irvin Kershner is not satisfied to just point the camera at his elaborate, beautifully lit sets. He gives us all manner of shots: high and low angle, POV, overhead, moving camera.
Nothing ostentatious, just the exact right choice for each story moment. At one point, as the Millenium Falcon escapes Imperial ships, it plunges straight down, and we suddenly realize what George Lucas couldn’t convey in Star Wars for all its brilliant innovation — space has depth.
Narratively, the movie practically vibrates with mythical resonance. The suffering and hard choices thrust upon the characters give the actors more to work with, upping the quality of their performances from A New Hope. The story’s one flaw is that we don’t get a sense of the duration of events, or how much time passes in between them.
Finally, this is one of the great movie soundtracks, both the sound effects — every beep, boop, pew, and roar breathed into life by the Foley artists that help to fully realize the world — and the music. It’s become so culturally ingrained, we forget the shock of first hearing the Imperial March: those sharp, confident, almost jazzy, horns propelling the Imperial Navy across the galaxy. Yoda’s theme and Han and Leia’s theme are likewise memorable and exquisite. Any one of these John Williams compositions would be the centerpiece of another movie. Empire has half a dozen of them. This movie just keeps on giving.
Best ‘80s Movies of All Time
Some of our best sequel movies of all time — including the top three — are ‘80s flicks. For more of the best of the 1980s — including Back to the Future, Do the Right Thing, and Raging Bull — check out this filmmakers’ playlist.