There is, generally speaking, a law of diminishing returns when it comes to movie sequels. But exceptions make rules, and wouldn’t you know it there’s a heck of a lot of follow-ups out there that do the impossible and improve upon their predecessors.
Below, I’ve assembled some of the best, but first, some housekeeping: to narrow things down I only took direct, second-entry sequels into consideration. This eliminated franchise-bests like Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Cars 3. I also avoided sequels that I felt matched the greatness of their predecessor, like Aliens and How to Train Your Dragon II. This is also probably a good time to sound the “art is subjective” gong. My rankings might not look like yours! That’s okay! If everyone liked the same things Gremlins 2: The New Batch would have sold more tickets—but the world would be a much more boring place!
Onwards and upwards, here are the 25 of best sequels that outdid their originals.
25. Paddington 2 (2017)
Sequel to: Paddington (2014)
What makes it good: With chilling sweetness and gentle warmth, Paddington 2 is bottled charm buoyed by a tremendous cast and an overwhelming, much-needed sense of goodness.
What makes it better: Paddington is an exceptionally good film, but Paddington 2 is literally the best-reviewed film on Rotten Tomatoes for a reason. Politeness continues to prevail.
Iconic moment: The marmalade montage.
24. X2: X-Men United (2003)
Sequel to: X-Men (2000)
What makes it good: With the groundwork laid by X-Men, Bryan Singer pulls out the school for gifted youngsters bells and whistles, diving adamantium claws first into social science-fiction.
What makes it better: X2 builds on its predecessor without feeling like a retread, broadening its roster of colorful characters while impressing balance with a tight plot and grounded themes of otherness, bigotry, and acceptance.
Iconic moment: “Have you ever tried not being a mutant?”
23. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
Sequel to: Mad Max (1979)
What makes it good: With kinetic rhythm and visual panache, director Geroge Miller shepherds us through the wasteland, reuniting with our alienated, raggedy hero as he navigates tribal warfare, car chase set pieces, and adorable feral child sidekicks.
What makes it better: Road Warrior leaves its predecessor in the dust by being more action-packed, polished, and more operatically post-apocalyptic. The world may be going to shit, but this franchise is just getting started.
Iconic moment: Greetings from the Lord Humungus!
22. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
Sequel to: Hellboy (2004)
What makes it good: Between its puppet prologue, sewer king, and jaw-dropping bestiary, Hellboy II is a striking, imaginative, and uncompromisingly unique spectacle that sees our beloved weirdos at the precipice of a world-ending supernatural war.
What makes it better: With the ins-and-outs of the Bureau well established, Hellboy II is freed up to lean into its charming weirdness with a little more confidence.
Iconic moment: Three words: Angel. Of. Death.
21. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Sequel to: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
What makes it good: The Russo Brothers bring 70s-style political thrills, a twist of Hydra treachery, and a more conflicted, demonstrably badass Cap.
What makes it better: With some of the most kinetic action sequences of the MCU, more nuanced character development, and stone cold political intrigue, The Winter Soldier is well-defined shoulders above lackluster predecessor.
Iconic moment: Elevator throw down.