Summer is coming, which means so are the cinema blockbusters. The warmest season is always a good time for sequels, especially superhero ones, and though it’s still only May, we’ve already had two: “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” with more on the way, including “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” a direct follow-up to “X-Men: First Class” and a sequel of sorts to the original “X-Men” trilogy.
As a general rule, sequels suck. They’re normally lame attempts at cashing in on the success of the originals, but, as with everything in life, there are always exceptions. In no order, I will present five underrated sequels that were better than the first movies, but let me preface this with a disclaimer: You’ll notice two glaring omissions. The first is “The Godfather, Part II,” considered by many film buffs to be the granddaddy of all great sequels and the only sequel to ever win an Academy Award for Best Picture, but to me, without Marlon Brando, it just wasn’t the same. (Also, I’m not a huge fan of mafia pictures, despite-or perhaps because of-my Italian-American heritage.) The second glaring omission is “The Empire Strikes Back,” considered the best “Star Wars” movie by fans, but the first “Star Wars” movie will always be my favorite since it’s the one that made me fall in love with the series in the first place. Besides, I could never get over the fact that “Empire” has no ending and leaves you feeling frustrated and hopeless.
1) “Gremlins 2: The New Batch”
The first “Gremlins” scared the hell out of me as a child. After learning it was produced by Steven Spielberg, the same director of the extremely family-friendly “E.T.,” my parents brought me to the theater hoping for more cuteness and warmth. Man, were they in for a surprise. Right around the part where Spike, the psychotic Gremlin with the Mohawk, stabs Billy’s teacher in the buttocks with a scalpel, I started crying like a…well, kid. And don’t get me started on the scene that decided to ruin the story of Santa Claus for every good little boy and girl in the audience. Along with “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” this movie was responsible for inventing the PG-13 rating.
“Gremlins 2” takes the basic premise of the first movie and actually makes it fun, even mocking the moments that didn’t work in the original, like Phoebe Cates’ monologue about her horrific childhood memory of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Adding a whole cast of crazy characters, this “new batch” of Gremlins actually had personalities this time around, from the bat and spider Gremlins to the female one (she was sort of a Smurfette of the Damned) to, my favorite, the brainy one who could not only talk, he had the smooth, clear-headed voice of Tony Randall. And there’s nothing better than seeing a whole army of puppets that would make the late Jim Henson proud singing “New York, New York.” Even director Joe Dante, who helmed both projects, has maintained the sequel is better than the first, though admittedly, it wasn’t as successful.
This film has so much fun with the Gremlins idea, which basically states that when anything goes wrong with technology, it can be blamed on tiny, fictional creatures, that at one point in the movie, they actually insert the Gremlins into the projector booth showing the film, only to have them rip it to shreds and start playing with shadow puppets on the wall (until Hulk Hogan, of all people, comes to the rescue). And don’t forget the cute Bugs Bunny cartoon that randomly plays at the beginning. After scaring the bejesus out of me with the first movie, I’ve made peace with the nasty, yet somehow adorable, Gremlins.
2) “The Dark Knight” (sequel to “Batman Begins”)
“The Dark Knight” is not only one of the greatest sequels but also one of the greatest superhero movies of all time, though it can be argued it’s more an operatic crime saga in the tradition of “Goodfellas” and “The Untouchables” than a superhero movie. Although the original “Batman” from 1989 was my favorite movie as a child, “The Dark Knight” is perhaps a better movie in general terms of what makes a movie great: taut direction, fantastic acting, good writing, and-at least in an adventure movie-exciting action.
Heath Ledger’s twisted, Academy Award-winning performance as The Joker is leaps and bounds ahead of the previous movie’s villains of Ra’s Al Ghul (or, as I originally called him, “Ra’s Al Who?”) and even Cillian Murphy’s creepy Scarecrow, though he gets a too-brief cameo in the beginning of this movie.
The plot is a little tricky to follow (how exactly does Ledger’s Joker know everything that’s going to happen?), but it’s entertaining as hell, just the way a good superhero movie should be. And, to top it all off, the great Maggie Gyllenhaal replaced the annoying, too-young Katie Holmes. That itself was a minor miracle.
3) “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”
I remember reading a review of this movie when it first came out. It started with: “Terminator 2 gets 4 stars. Seriously.” I didn’t believe it until I saw the movie myself. They really weren’t kidding. Of course the action sequences were phenomenal, and the state-of-the-art CGI shots, some of the first in movie history, were way ahead of their time (if a little dated now), but what made this movie work was its heart. I was surprised as anybody to find an emotionally satisfying story in the middle of all the robot-blasting insanity. And its message of “No fate but what you make” was inspiring as well, as the heroes turn back Judgment Day for good. Or at least that’s what we thought until the underwhelming “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” completely negated the second movie by having Ah-nold “The Govinator” Schwarzenegger announce, “You can’t stop Judgment Day.” Thanks threequel for ruining a classic!
4) “Spider-Man 2”
“Spider-Man 2” had everything: great characters, a sure story, state-of-the-art special effects (at least at the time), and one of the best villains to ever crawl out of the laboratory. Since most of the characters were already established in the first movie, there was no need to waste more time on the hero’s origin to get to the action, but there was also a developing love story between Peter Parker and the unattainable girl-next-door Mary Jane that kept the movie’s emotions grounded.
Once more, it’s all about the villains, and Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus (a.k.a. “Doc Ock”) easily beats Willem Dafoe’s hammy Green Goblin. Alfred Molina, who before was most memorable as the jackass who didn’t throw Indiana Jones his whip in the prologue of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” proved he could still be a nasty villain more than 2 decades later as arguably Spider-Man’s best villain (his Joker, if you will).
There were also nice subplots involving Peter Parker’s courtship to Mary Jane and the temporary abandonment of his “great-power-comes-with-great-responsibility” shtick that balance out all that slick wall crawling and web slinging. Unfortunately, this franchise was temporarily derailed with the bloated, villain-overloaded “Spider-Man 3,” but that’s what reboots are for.
5) “Rocky III”
I know at this point people will be declaring sacrilege, but what do you think of when you think about “Rocky” and every great training montage in movie history? That’s right. You think of Survivor’s classic “Eye of the Tiger.” Well, that song didn’t come from the original or even its first sequel (though Bill Conti’s instrumental “Gonna Fly Now” did); it came from the third movie. (And it was also recycled in the fourth go-round.) The “Rocky” movies are known for great speeches, and this one has my favorite, when Adrian breaks Rocky down on the beach: “We have everything but the truth! What’s the truth, dammit?!” Add epic bouts with ’80s icons Hulk Hogan AND Mr. T, back when they were both plausibly threatening; throw in (old Spoiler Alert!) the poignant passing of Mickey, Rocky’s beloved trainer; and sprinkle with a heroic Apollo Creed crossing the ring into Rocky’s corner to take on his greatest role as his trainer, and you have the best entry of the bunch.
And yes, I’m also shocked that Hulk Hogan appears in this list twice.