Like death and taxes, sequels are an unavoidable fact of modern life. But unlike death and taxes, sequels aren’t always terrible. On the contrary, some of them are pretty great! The last 17 years have been so overrun by sequels, reboots, seboots, and requels that people have naturally continued to bemoan the film business’ lack of creativity, but a small handful of these movies have leveraged their franchises (and/or their pre-existing fanbases) to create something special.
Whether deepening a beloved character (“Spider-Man 2”), deconstructing a sacred saga (“The Last Jedi”), or breathing fiery new life into a dormant legend (“Mad Max: Fury Road”), these sequels proved that Hollywood isn’t out of new ideas, they’re just hiding them in plain sight.
Here are the 20 best sequels of the 21st century.
20. “Blade Runner 2049” (2017)
One of those long-promised and oft-teased sequel possibilities that never quite felt real until it was really, really, oh look, Harrison Ford is coming back real, Denis Villeneuve’s 2017 sci-fi spectacle took audiences back to a future Los Angeles that was somehow even more bleak than the one first imagined by Hampton Fancher, David Peoples, and Ridley Scott back in 1982. While Fancher and Peoples’ script built in the kind of plotline audiences have come to expect from such sequels — something about a kid of the original stars, that old chestnut? — Villeneuve and star Ryan Gosling strived to make Gosling’s K his own thing, toiling in a familiar world with new secrets to unearth.
Aided by Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography (as is demanded by the cinephile elite, here is where we beg for an Oscar for the man) and production design that harkens back to the Scott original while firmly pushing forward, “2049” captured the spirit of the first while also very much doing its own thing. That doesn’t happen often, especially when it comes to a property as revered as the original film. While there were some misfires in the offing — sorry, Jared Leto, but no — bringing back a harried Ford and pairing him with the increasingly disillusioned K was a master stroke, and saving the best twists for last and forcing those stars to reckon with them in real time added the kind of emotional richness any million-dollar undertaking would love to have. — Kate Erbland
19. “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (2004)
Just as with the books, the Harry Potter films progressively grew darker and darker as the teenage wizard grew older. But before this became standard, there was “Prisoner of Azkaban,” which was reviled by fans at the time for being a dark departure from the warm and fuzzy Christopher Columbus films. To be fair, PoA is a bridge film, setting up plenty of the events to come in later films, but Alfonso Cuarón imbues the sequel with some truly beautiful shots (the Dementors gliding by and frosting over winter berries is especially stunning).
Most importantly, there’s Gary Oldman, his lanky body thick with grime and Russian prison tattoos, snarling about his thirteen years in Azkaban. David Yates’ impressive run on the series wouldn’t have been possible without the groundwork Cuarón laid down and there’s good reason why PoA is now considered one of the series’ best films. — Jamie Righetti
18. “The Raid 2″ (2014)
If you’ve been paying attention to action movies over the past decade, you know that there’s “The Raid,” and then there’s everything else. Gareth Evan’s Indonesian martial arts movie was set entirely within the confines of an apartment building and had an intense physicality to its incessant fight scenes like nothing else out there. The followup doesn’t quite match the claustrophobic intensity of the original, but it nevertheless raises the bar for action-based storytelling all over again, following a special forces officer who goes undercover in Jakarta’s criminal underworld.
Once again, the punches come hard and fast from innovative directions. The playing field is expanded: Fights take place ball rooms, restaurants, and — in a standout chase sequence that might be the best of its kind since the silent era — a highway where speed and enclosed spaces collide through the magic of brilliant editing strategies. Bonus points for unique villains (including the deaf-mute Hammer Girl and baseball-wielding brother) and high stakes that play out like a Jenga tower always on the verge of toppling over. But it never does. “The Raid” franchise puts virtually every action movie made by Hollywood to shame. — Eric Kohn
17. “The Trip to Spain” (2017)
Once again, British comedians Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan eat their way through a week-long drive through some repugnantly gorgeous European countryside. Once again, their playful (but gently existential) rivalry is expressed through dueling impressions of the more famous men who came before them. And once again, our two heroes — recast as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza tilting at wind turbines — struggle to reconcile the myths that men write for themselves with the realities that life is actually willing to offer them. “The Trip to Spain” isn’t the funniest of the “Trip” triptych, but it casts the series’ characters in a harsh new light.
After lightly chiding these gents for two movies, director Michael Winterbottom finally takes the knives out and begins to punish them, a decision that results in two late scenes that border on sociopathic and culminates in an unimaginably absurd ending that refuses to let Coogan off the hook. Perhaps these lovable clowns can take solace in the delicious irony that, for all of the impersonations, they’ll be most fondly remembered for playing themselves. — David Ehrlich
16. “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” (2008)
If the first “Hellboy” is a nice little appetizer for Mike Mignola’s comic book world, the sequel is a full-blown 10-course feast. Still the best and most beautiful movie that Guillermo del Toro has ever made, “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” ups the ante on the original in a way that superhero franchises no longer seem capable of doing. Not only is the motley crew at the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense a lot richer and more detailed in this installment, but the supernatural world beneath New York City is absolutely teeming with unforgettable monsters.
From the savage little tooth fairies that swarm around Hellboy’s team, to the forest god that sprouts along the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, to the mechanical Golden Army itself, the movie is like the pages of del Toro’s famous notebook come to life in living color. There’s more wicked imagination in that market scene alone than there is in most entire fantasy series. Yeah, it’s sad that del Toro was never able to make a third chapter, but where the hell could he possibly have gone from here? — DE