With the third film in the Captain America trilogy set to be released in the next few weeks, and me being an extremely huge fan of superhero films, I decided to take a look at some of the best superhero film follow-ups cinema has ever brought us.
For this list I have compiled the top ten superhero and comic book movie sequels that surpassed the original film. These can be part of a single series, like the X-Men films, a spinoff series, like Wolverine, or a series that brings together an extended universe, like The Avengers. Any sequel is game for this list as long as it is an improvement on the first film featured in a given franchise. Also movies like “Dredd” will not be included as it is more of a reboot than a sequel to the original. I’m also not looking at simply critical acclaim or box office success with this list as some of these films may rank where they are do simply to their better use of a given hero and their story to present a great film. This list can be hotly debated so let me know your favorite superhero sequel in the comments and be sure to catch one of my personal most anticipated films of 2016, “Captain America: Civil War” in theaters on May 6th.
- The Avengers: Age of Ultron
While I may be in a minority on this one I actually saw “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” as a superior film to the equally impressive first Avengers movie and while it might be a divisive film among hard core fans I’m not alone in believing the conflict between the titular superhero team and the big baddy Ultron created an epic sequel. While the first Avengers film provided a great setup to bring the team together against Thor’s brother Loki and the iconic but generic Chitauri alien race, the second film proves to be more epic in scale and conflict with a much more threatening single enemy in Ultron creating his own army and a plan for total world destruction that forced The Avengers to test their combined might on a whole new level. Featuring new characters like Quicksilver and Scarlet Which who prove to be formidable enemies and heroes in their own rights, and the somewhat surprise introduction of The Vision, we got to see even more epic heroes take to the battlefield as well. We also had a villain that tested the mortality and stability of The Avengers and we got a great glimpse at the backstories and deeper personality traits of many of the heroes that we had yet to see fully fleshed out on screen. This added depth, heart and even more intense action to a film that had a lot to live up to and accomplished that challenge in almost every way.
- The Wolverine
As the most popular hero in the X-Men franchise it’s no surprise that Wolverine got his own film series to compliment his appearance in the X-Men movies. However his first solo outing, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”, proved to be a massive train wreck and improving on it was not a hard task. While it’s far from a perfect film, 2013’s “The Wolverine” saw the titular superhero in a depression and self-imposed exile of sorts after the events of the third X-Men movie. He’s called back into action however in a sequence of events that sees his healing factor stripped and a new love interest that forces him to come into conflict with his own identity and emotions following the loss of Jean Grey in “The Last Stand”. What makes the film stand out is that it doesn’t lean too much on the “mutant” concept and feels like a unique film separate from the rest of the X-Men franchise. It does justice to the attitude, guilt and personality of Wolverine and while it’s final battle is a little disappointing the film as a whole not only improved on “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”, it gave fans a fitting solo film for the hero that they can use to ignore the existence of the first film altogether.
- Iron Man 3
Another divisive film among fans, while “Iron Man 3’s” epically horrible twist backfired on the film it’s hard to deny that the third installment in Iron Man’s solo outing that kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008 was a big improvement on the original film and even the second entry that was good but not great. Focusing more on story and character development than non-stop action, “Iron Man 3” contained a very different feel than other films in the MCU and not only delved into some of Tony Stark’s personal history, but made the otherwise cocky and hot-headed genius much more human by stripping him of his suit for the bulk of the second act and forcing him to use ingenuity and creativity to progress in his search for the villainous Mandarin. It’s a side of the hero we have only seen in “Iron Man 3” and was only hinted at in any other movies and could play a big role in the characterization of Tony Stark in “Civil War”. Combine that with the epic finale and great first act of the film and the story that began in 2008 grew to amazing and entertaining heights like never before in 2013.
- Superman II (The Richard Donner Cut)
While the first “Superman” film is an iconic 1978 work of art, its successor “Superman II” proved to be an even bigger adventure, but only when the movie reached its full potential with the Richard Donner Cut. Donner had clashed with producers when making the second film and was eventually replaced by Richard Lester and while the original theatrical version was an awesome film to behold, it was not until the so-called Richard Donner Cut came to be that audiences got the full picture of the epic the second Superman film had to present. Featuring iconic performances by Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman and Terrance Stamp, the original “Superman” may have set the bar high for comic book films to follow but it was “Superman II” that showed not only are these films marketable, but when given the budget and proper consideration they can be truly epic movie experiences and major cash machines. “Superman II” quickly became the film all other superhero films strived to be and while the original “Superman” is more popular, the second one is an overall better movie experience if seen in it’s fullest form.
- Batman Returns
This one was a tough one for me to put on this list because it’s actually not my personal favorite movie of the Tim Burton Batman series. However, I have to give respect where it is deserved and while Tim Burton’s original is a superhero classic in it’s own right, “Batman Returns” upped the anti by adding two new villains and a creepy holiday-themed backdrop that helped add to Burton’s vision of Gotham. Michael Keaton returned to play his now iconic role and fans knew that the Batman franchise was in the right hands. Today it pales in comparison to other more recent adaptations of the Dark Knight (more on that later), but “Batman Returns” not only reestablished the popularity of superhero movies, magnificent performances by Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer solidified the significance of proper casting when it comes to villain roles and proved that multiple bad guys could be involved in a story without a film feeling overblown with conflict. While not as big a success as the first one financially, the impact of “Batman Returns” is enough to put it above its predecessor, but it’s the great casting choices and performances by everyone on set that make it just a bit better than the first film which was pretty much held up by Keaton’s surprisingly good performance and the inclusion of Jack Nicholson’s Joker rather than the quality of the film as a whole.
- Hellboy II: The Golden Army
This is the movie that probably surprised me personally the most on this entire list. I had seen the first “Hellboy” film and thought it was, well, alright. It didn’t leave much of a lasting mark but managed to become a hit in its own right and showed that utilizing less well-known properties in the comic book world could succeed in cinema. When the sequel came out it not only reinforced that fact, it blew expectations out of the water and established itself as not only a better film than the first, but one of the best comic book films around at the time. “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” is more fun and enjoyable to watch than the first film and provides a great backstory for the conflict and a threatening villain that posses a real challenge to the heroes as the villain’s life is directly connected to the life of one of the hero’s allies. Hellboy is humanized many times in the film, either through conflicts with other characters or in his relationship with his pyrokinetic girlfriend Liz, and the action and battle scenes are well choreographed and just downright fun to watch. In an era where the MCU had yet to be established (“Hellboy II” came out the same year as the first “Iron Man”) “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” was a huge shot in the arm for comic book films in the early 2000s and an almost universal improvement on the first installment in the series.
- Spider-Man 2
Considered by many the best Spider-Man movie to date, “Spider-Man 2” has the distinction of being placed smack dab between two films that, for one reason or another, don’t really match up to half the quality of the second film in the trilogy. Sort of like Goldilocks and the three porridges, the first Spider-Man film was understandably sidelined with the need to tell an origin story, which slowed the pace of the film a bit, and the third film dug its own grave with poor storytelling choices and too many villains. The second film however was just right, bringing in one of the Spider-Man’s most popular bad guys in Dr. Octopus and delving into Peter Parker’s own personal conflict with having to juggle the real world and his superhero persona. It showed a growing maturity in the young hero we had yet to see and even added heart and reliability to its villain and his motives. Amazing fight sequences, a real sense of danger for the hero, a villain we can actually feel for and some well placed clichés made “Spider-Man 2” a superhero film phenomenon that is seldom matched to this day, despite Sony’s attempt to recapture the magic in their ill-fated reboot films.
- X2: X-Men United
Much like Spider-Man the first X-Men movie was a little sidelined by the need to establish the world and set up the origins of many iconic Marvel characters. With that universe now set and the characters fleshed out we got “X2: X-Men United”, the best film in the original trilogy. Tackling not-so-subtle social issues like national security and prejudice (including that very well executed “coming out” scene for Iceman and that magnificent Nightcrawler scene) “X2” stands as the deepest narrative in the first three X-Men films and is still the best representation of the social issues that made up the heart and soul of the original X-Men storylines in the comics. While the reboot films are great, “X2” stands above the rest by giving fair screen time to nearly all of its characters while establishing new threats, new allies and a relatable story along with some impressive special effects that, while obsolete today, stand out above and beyond anything in it’s predecessor or successor.
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
It seems superhero and comic book films have a hard time making great origin movies that hold up to their sequels. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is yet another case where its predecessor was held back by the need to tell an origin tale, but even with that in mind “Captain America: The First Avenger” was a great and entertaining film that required a massive amount of effort to top. “The Winter Soldier” not only succeeds in improving on the first film, it provides a movie-going experience that is bigger, better and much more in depth than almost any other solo hero film in the MCU as Captain America goes on the run after being implicated in the death of Nick Fury. As the story unfolds Cap unravels a conspiracy years in the making and is forced to go head to head with his best friend Bucky who turns out to be the assassin the Winter Soldier. It all adds up to one of the most epic and rewatchable superhero films ever with a truly deep and personal conflict between hero and villain, a story that plays out much like an action thriller and expertly choreographed fight scenes that all make it one of, if not the best non-Avengers film in the MCU to date. If you want just one reason why this film tops its predecessor just watch the elevator fight scene. That itself is great entertainment. We shall see if “Civil War” tops or even matches the epic scale of the second Captain America film. Early reviews say it will give “The Winter Solider” a run for its money indeed.
- The Dark Knight
And now we get to the cream of the crop…and possibly the absolute greatest comic book movie in history. Christopher Nolan did a great job establishing his dark vision for the Batman reboot in 2005’s “Batman Begins”, but even without the crutch of an origin tale holding back the first film it’s hard to believe any first adaptation could hold up to what was to come. “The Dark Knight” is gritty, it’s fun, it’s action packed and it’s full of so many iconic moments, characters and one-liners that it has become the superhero movie all others, before or since, have been compared to. Its villain alone, Heath Ledgers outstanding and iconic turn as the Joker, make this a far better movie that “Batman Begins” and while Nolan tried to recapture the magic in “The Dark Knight Returns” it seems impossible to top the perfection that is “The Dark Knight”. While the film is a very different take on its characters and the concept of a comic book and superhero movie as a whole, its use of practical effects, expert writing and dialogue, amazing timing and character development and its massive scale have made it not only one of the highest grossing films in history, but one of the best of the 2000s and possible one of the greatest films of all time, not to mention the greatest superhero movie sequel ever.