While it’s easy to look at the machinations of the commercially-driven studio system as inherently anti-artist, the truth is, most people just don’t want to expend all that much effort to yield a significant return. And so, when coming off the heels of a significant financial success, the average producer will usually want to double-down on that formula – bring back as much of the original talent, simply conclude “hey, they seem to know what they’re doing!”, and pretty much let them do as they wish. This process has resulted in some of the nuttiest, most inspired cinema of the modern era; works that aren’t always entirely successful, but which give me eternal hope for innovation and boundary-pushing in an increasingly micro-managed medium.
Note: Josh Brunsting has previously contributed a list of the Top 10 Sequels, but there’s good reason that none of those are repeated here. Also, honorable mentions go to Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and Transformers: Dark of the Moon, both of which I love, but which I previously discussed in my Top 10 Kids’ Stuff list.
10.) The Matrix Reloaded (Andy & Lana Wachowski, 2003)
Remember 2003? How innocent we were. So certain that the sequels to our beloved The Matrix were destined for greatness, that the cumulative trilogy would reach heights previously unknown to blockbuster cinema. Those were sweet days. Even though we never got the trilogy we wanted, perhaps we got the one we deserved, one that pushes the action so far forward technologically and aesthetically that it becomes the inhuman entity it’s seeking to portray. And, really, who can totally reject a movie that ends with that whole business with The Architect? I mean really.
9.) Ocean’s Twelve (Steven Soderbergh, 2004)
I can’t honestly say that I hold this in incredibly high esteem, but Soderbergh’s sequel, almost an exploration of the very fact of its existence, has never quite ceased to intrigue me. Ostensibly upping the stakes of its predecessor, the film continuously doubles back on itself in a series of detours and anti-climaxes until you really have to wonder just what the hell kind of film this is, anyway. That it’s Soderbergh’s favorite of the three is of little surprise, as it’s clearly the one over which he and the cast had total free reign to reinvent and chase their own particular muses; for that, it is notable.
8.) Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992)
“I will return if the sequel offers something new and exciting,” Tim Burton said in 1989. “Otherwise it’s a most-dumbfounded idea.” Once he was granted significant creative control, even hiring Heathers and Hudson Hawk screenwriter Daniel Waters to handle to bulk of the script, Burton certainly found both. Batman Returns is something of a mixed bag, so overloaded with awful, sleazy dialogue, but so visually inspired and structurally rich (the city and its residents representing factions of Bruce Wayne’s psyche) that it remains one of the most vital portraits of the character, even if literalists have a thousand quibbles along the way. If one must take a comic book approach, look at it as an Elseworlds story, and it becomes deeply fascinating.
7.) Star Trek Into Darkness (J.J. Abrams, 2013)
Besides this being far and away more exciting, simply on an action level, than its predecessor, it also ended up justifying the absurd decisions they made to make this new universe a parallel timeline to that which we are most accustomed. By regurgitating so many plot points from The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek Into Darkness suggests that all of this was fated to happen in various configurations, and there’s only so much one can do to change the course of history, which, for a reboot said to be dreadfully low on such things, is a pretty Trekkian concern. It’s often quite silly, no doubt (Cumberbatch’s “I Am Khan” has one of the more disproportionate intended-malice-versus-actual-effect ratio), but their all-out approach is really quite effective.
6.) Muppets Most Wanted (James Bobin, 2014)
Not unlike Ocean’s Twelve, this is in many ways an exploration of its own making. Beginning right where 2011’s The Muppets ended, Kermit and the gang are instantly roped into creating any kind of sequel they can muster, so, following a spitballing session, they eventually land, basically at random, on “European adventure!”, and are off and running, continuously laying the track as the train approaches. Far richer, more compelling and innovative than that 2011 film, Muppets Most Wanted sacrifices human characters for the titular attractions, jokes for sentiment, and a madcap plot more conducive to The Muppets’ the-show-must-go-on nature.
5.) Crank: High Voltage (Neveldine/Taylor, 2009)
This list is mostly predicated on the idea that filmmakers work alongside studios to craft fairly solid but relatively safe movies that are then exploited by the filmmakers once the studios foolishly trust them. But Neveldine/Taylor’s original Crank from 2006 is anything but safe. It is, in fact, quite deranged, following a man who must keep his heart rate up to stay alive, and who does so by, among other things, having sex with his girlfriend in the midst of a large crowd. So when one finds out that there is a sequel that is even more outrageous within its first few minutes, there’s really no way to conceive of how that could possibly be the case unless one sees it for oneself. Which you probably should not. Except…you really, really should.
4.) Wayne’s World 2 (Stephen Surjik, 1993)
While Mike Myers and Paramount did not see fit to bring Wayne’s World director Penelope Spheeris back for more, this was always going to be Myers’ baby no matter how it shook out. The original could never be said to be a terribly disciplined affair, but there’s something really quite delightful about how specific and random the sequel gets with its references, plot lines, and character beats (remember how there’s an entire film noir subplot?). And anyway, there are few things in cinema that have remained as consistently funny as the entire character of Del Preston.
3.) Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau, 2010)
Rushed into production so fast that they almost couldn’t help but shoot from the hip, Iron Man 2 is one of those very few superhero films that really, fundamentally puts the character element first. More than happy to get swept up in the charms of Tony Stark (and Robert Downey, Jr. moreover), it is really about how that charm can both serve him and undo him, how it reflects his desire to escape trauma and complications. The film is so disinterested in the more marketable, good-versus-evil conflict that the plot points become far more motivated by the rather poor way Tony treats those around him, in the process allowing for more fun throwaway scenes than its plot-centric brethren could ever manage. So while some maybe find the intrusion of Nick Fury and SHIELD to be distracting, I was pleased as punch to have a superhero film that placed a trip to a donut shop at such a pivotal moment in the story.
2.) Bad Boys II (Michael Bay, 2003)
Bad Boys gave Michael Bay his film career, so for that, and its routine pleasures, I am thankful. But it simply can’t compare to seeing Bay totally unleashed in one of his best films, a reaction against and rejection of the PG-13 feel-good Americana he could have easily been destined for had Pearl Harbor been received just a little bit differently. Bad Boys II is the ultimate bad-taste blockbuster, a film that finds the most applications for corpses outside of an exploitation film (or worse) and uses a destitute third-world country as a poorly-navigated obstacle course. Its humor is vulgar to the point of being fundamentally evil and the ostensible heroes could not possibly delight in killing people more. And somehow this all stars Mr. Nice Guy Will Smith. But by committing so fiercely to this point of view, the film becomes downright amoral, and I could espouse for several hundred words about what that potentially says about the culture it is portraying and exploiting, but the fundamental fact is that I cannot believe that this was a major motion picture released by a wing of Disney.
1.) Gremlins 2: The New Batch (Joe Dante, 1990)
Probably the quintessential no-studio-personnel-allowed studio movie, Joe Dante held out on making this film so much that Warner Brothers eventually gave him triple the budget of the original and complete creative control. I had long heard that the result was an interesting film that felt very much like a reflection of Joe Dante, but which wasn’t all that good, and certainly not near the original. That is a huge load – Gremlins 2: The New Batch is an absolute masterpiece, far better than Gremlins, not only unbelievably funny but genuinely anarchic and far more creative, inventive, and original than the vast majority of films I’ve seen; not just sequels or blockbusters or whatever, but in cinema, period. It is at once a fervent piece of cultural satire and a celebration of his ability to unleash such chaos within that mold.