Trying to top a great original film with a sequel will always be difficult. Any further sequels are pretty much guaranteed disappointments. Furthering the celebration of The Empire Strikes Back 35th Anniversary, I’ve compiled a list of other great sequels that stand as definitive entries in their franchise.
Note: First sequels have already been counted over here. This is a list of threequels and other late franchise entries.
Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
The Two Towers contains probably the greatest battle in cinematic history. The Return of the King features several battles to give it a run for its money, while saying goodbye to over a dozen characters we’ve come to know and love. Sauron is defeated, the world of men is saved, the time of the elves is over, and Frodo is granted passage across the sea. The multiple endings are always criticized for being… well, multiple. In a normal situation I’d be inclined to agree with this sentiment. But with a trilogy of films as emotionally powerful as The Lord of the Rings, there’s really no better way to end each story with multiple farewells to the world of Middle-Earth.
The World’s End
The World’s End closes off Edgar Wright’s trilogy of films with a look back at the lives of Gary and Andy, two of the five musketeers from Newton Haven as they embark on a journey of self-understanding, social science fiction, and 12 pints of beer. Not so much an actual part of a trilogy involving continuity as it is a thematically, The Wold’s End is a reflection on the previous two movies and a look at the choices we make in our own lives. It’s one of the few modern comedies worthy of a best picture nomination and contains Simon Pegg’s best performance to date.
For every decade or so since 1995, Richard Linklater has reunited with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy to check in on a love story between Celine and Jesse. Before Sunrise is the meet cute as the two find themselves fulfilling the “love at first sight” trope. Before Sunset is “star-crossed lovers” who reignite their passion nine-years later. Before Midnight embodies “where are they now?” The happily ever after might not be forever happy. Fairy tales will try to convince you love is pure and honest. Sometimes it’s not, but it’s worth fighting for.
The Bourne Ultimatum
The final arc of the Bourne trilogy employs insane practical stuntwork and some of the most brutal fight sequences ever put to film. Bones crush, glass shatters, and oxygen is driven from the lungs of assassins. The first two films involving the chase for Jason Bourne are some of the best action movies in the modern era, and probably the only movies to use shakey cam properly, but The Bourne Ultimatum is without a doubt one of the quintessential American action films.
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
Light on plot but heavy on teamwork and action, this is the first Mission Impossible movie to get it 100% right. Tom Cruise is still the lead but we get opportunities for Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, and Paula Patton to play ball. Palms are guaranteed to get sweaty during the popular Dubai heist sequence which still pulls me near the edge of my seat. It’s Brad Bird’s live-action debut and probably put him in the running for a Star Wars movie.
Fast 6 and Furious 7 each have moments that improve upon this predecessor. Neither of them are as lean in their execution of action and character interactions as Fast 5. Not to mention how this one movie single-handedly redefined a franchise. The plot might be dumb and nonsensical, but this is a cleverly directed action adventure movie that stands tall and mighty above any other entry in the franchise.
Star Trek ’09
While it decidedly feels very non-Star Trek, this is a movie that delivers on a fun popcorn experience. A rip-roaring space adventure (JJ Abrams doing Star Wars before he was contracted to do Star Wars), we see the crew of the Enterprise as babies! Not actual infants but in their youth at Starfleet. We see the crew’s camaraderie with actors who are given more to do and even more exciting space battles. The “because destiny” story trope was worn out by then (and movies keep using it for some reason), but through this shift in events, the fates of these characters were altered. Now we can truly go where no man has gone before.
Iron Man 3
Maybe not the best Marvel sequel but it’s the only threequel we’ve gotten thus far from the series (we’ll see how Civil War does next year). And yes, it’s a sequel that does go for a bigger finale than the previous Iron Man movies, but it’s actually got something to say about the character of Tony Stark, the military industrial complex, and how fear has no limits to which it can control us. The fact that it spouts traditional Shane Blackisms (Christmas + inventive action) is all just the cherry on top.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Containing the most iconic Mexican Standoff in film history is enough to mention this film at every possible moment (how many finger gun battles have been fought in the name of Sergio Leone?). Actually, let’s just watch this one.
Toy Story 3
Saying goodbye can be difficult because what comes after is new territory. It can be scary, a little overwhelming, but at the end of the day, we all just want what’s best for the people we care about. We want assurance that we’ll be all right. Toy Story 3 says goodbye to Andy as Woody, Buzz, Jesse, and all the remaining toys have one final adventure.