Captain America gets his first sequel this weekend, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier is far from the first time a superhero has gotten a second chance to make megabucks at the box office — and judging from the way Marvel’s been ruling the cineplex lately, it’ll be far from the last. In honor of Cap’s return to theaters, we decided to spend this week’s list looking back at some other super second installments, so grab your vibranium shield — it’s time for Total Recall!
Having already brought an end to the candy-colored, Schumacher-wrought nightmare that gripped the Batman franchise in the late 1990s, Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale had fans primed for a successful second act — but even after the smashing success of Batman Begins, few could have guessed just how popular The Dark Knight would be in the summer of 2008. A sprawling superhero epic that somehow managed to make room for jaw-dropping visuals, a compelling storyline, and stellar performances, Knight climbed out from under months of intense speculation — not to mention the shadow cast by Heath Ledger’s shocking death — with a worldwide gross in excess of $1 billion, a towering stack of positive reviews, and a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Ledger. Richard Roeper joined the chorus of near-universal critical praise, calling it “a rich, complex, visually thrilling piece of pop entertainment, as strong as any superhero epic we’ve ever seen.”
Sam Raimi knew he was setting up a franchise with 2002’s Spider-Man, but still, following up that kind of success must have been daunting, especially given the studio’s immediate hunger for a sequel, not to mention a protracted search for a workable script which saw Raimi and the producers turning to a succession of writers — including Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, David Koepp, and Michael Chabon — before ultimately turning to Alvin Sargent, who stitched together the most workable elements of the previous drafts to come up with a story that centered on Spidey’s struggle to conquer his own self-doubt while battling Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina). It might sound like a piecemeal approach, but it worked; although Spider-Man 2 didn’t meet or exceed Spider-Man‘s global box office tally, it came close — and critics actually liked the second installment better than the first one, sending it all the way up to 93 percent on the Tomatometer on the strength of reviews from writers like Lou Lumenick, who wrote, “sequels don’t get much better — or smarter.” While touching on a dizzying array of storylines from the comics, Raimi and Sargent delivered a bigger, more intense version of the original that still managed to keep the action streamlined (and, of course, set up a third installment in the process).
After putting together what seemed like a foolproof plan for a speedy Superman follow-up — hiring director Richard Donner to shoot much of the sequel concurrently with the first film — Warner Bros. watched with growing dismay as production slowed to a crawl, finally coming to a halt when Donner’s feuds with producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind led to his firing from the project. Things grew more complicated when new director Richard Lester came on board, and — needing to film at least 51 percent of the movie in order to obtain a director’s credit — reshot many scenes from a movie that had already been substantially filmed. Those are just a few of the many challenges Superman II needed to overcome before it finally arrived in theaters in 1981; amazingly, all that behind-the-scenes chaos didn’t have much of an adverse impact on the original theatrical cut, which broke the $100 million barrier at the box office while enjoying almost as many positive reviews as its predecessor. It certainly helped that the screenplay gave Superman (Christopher Reeve) the most formidable villains he’d face in the original trilogy: Kryptonian criminals Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O’Halloran), sent into exile just before the planet’s destruction by Superman’s father Jor-El (Marlon Brando) and freed by the blast from a bomb Superman threw into space. Add in a subplot involving our hero opting to give up his powers in order to pursue domestic bliss with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), and it isn’t hard to see why many fans consider this the best of the Reeve-era Superman movies (or why enough of them clamored for the release of Donner’s cut that it finally saw the official light of day in 2006). “Superman II,” sighed an appreciative Janet Maslin for the New York Times, “is a marvelous toy.”
Given the long odds it faced just getting to the screen, let alone pulling off the transition so successfully, it seemed altogether unlikely that X-Men‘s inevitable sequel would be able to achieve the same standard, let alone exceed it — but that’s exactly what 2003’s X2: X-Men United did, both at the box office, where it grossed over $400 million, and among critics, who praised it even more highly than its predecessor. This was, appropriately, accomplished two ways: One, the screenplay satisfied critics and longtime fans by tackling the comic’s long-running sociological themes, most explicitly the fear of “outside” elements (in this case, sexy super-powered mutants) and how that fear is channeled by xenophobic authority figures; two, the sequel ramped up the original’s gee-whiz factor by introducing characters like the teleporting, prehensile-tailed Nightcrawler — and daring to tease at the Marvel title’s Phoenix storyline, one of the most beloved, brain-bending plots in the publisher’s history. The result was a film that remains both a fan favorite and a critical benchmark for writers like Variety’s Todd McCarthy, who lauded X2 as “bigger and more ambitious in every respect, from its action and visceral qualities to its themes.”
Four years after the first installment, star Ron “Hellboy” Perlman teamed up again with director Guillermo del Toro for another round of supernatural fun — and while the original Hellboy earned mostly positive reviews, the sequel was an even bigger critical winner. A gleeful blend of popcorn thrills and uniquely del Toro visual splendor, Hellboy II: The Golden Army reunited the original cast for an epic battle between the forces of good and an irate elven king (Luke Goss) who wants to reignite the long-dormant war between elves and humans. While it was overshadowed at the box office by The Dark Knight and Iron Man, it still earned over $160 million — and earned the admiration of critics like Colin Covert of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, who called it “the biggest, richest, most imaginative superhero movie of the summer.”
Though initially reluctant to film a sequel to 1989’s Batman, director Tim Burton was eventually persuaded to return to Gotham after wresting complete creative control from Warner Bros. and hiring Daniel Waters (who worked with Burton on an attempted Beetlejuice sequel) to write the script. The result was 1992’s Batman Returns, a casting dream that found Batman (Michael Keaton, donning the cowl for the final time) facing off against Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer, resplendent in leather) and the Penguin (a scenery-chewing Danny DeVito). Though some critics (and parents) felt the film was too dark, most reviews were positive; in fact, before Christopher Nolan came along with Batman Begins, Batman Returns was the best-reviewed film in the franchise, something Desson Thompson of the Washington Post attributed to the fact that it “Comes closer than ever to Bob Kane’s dark, original strip, which began in 1939.”
When your franchise is blessed with a leading man as charismatic (and as effortlessly well-suited to the role) as Robert Downey, Jr., you can cover up a lot of problems with your script simply by aiming the cameras at your star and letting him do what he does best. Perfect case in point: Iron Man 2, which managed to serve up a fair amount of Downey-derived fun in spite of a workmanlike plot that seemed to actively try and tamp down the many colorful possibilities inherent in a plot pitting our hero against Mickey Rourke as a half-mad Russian who uses the technology behind Iron Man’s armor to try and destroy him. Fortunately for the franchise, even lukewarm Iron Man was good enough for nearly $625 million in global grosses, as well as praise from most critics. “There are too many new characters, too many crossing story lines, not enough romance and our hero’s a smug jerk for the first half hour,” shrugged Tom Long of the Detroit News. “Who cares? Iron Man 2 still rocks.”
When Thor (Chris Hemsworth) left Earth to return to Asgard at the end of his first big-screen adventure, he was eager to return for Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) — but he had to have been hoping for cheerier circumstances than the ones the couple faced in Thor: The Dark World, which found the hammier-wielding hero making his way back as part of an epic battle against the nefarious Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), ruler of the Dark Elves of Svartalfheim, who’s on a quest to destroy the universe using a mystical weapon dubbed the Aether. With prophecies, ancient artifacts, galaxy-spanning war, and another dose of the ever-charming Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Dark World managed to woo most critics even if it didn’t quite reach the celestial heights of the first installment. “Comic-book superheroes have become so angst-ridden in recent years,” lamented the Sydney Morning Herald’s Sydney Hall. “It’s a relief to be around one who has hung on to his sense of humor.”
It’s a late-period Wesley Snipes movie and the sequel to a vampire flick, but don’t dismiss 2002’s Blade II out of hand; for starters, the second installment of New Line’s Blade franchise brought in Guillermo del Toro to take over for original director Stephen Norrington, lending the sequel more smarts and visual flair than you might otherwise expect from a film including a scene that takes place in a vampire nightclub. Though the plot is bogged down with more double-crosses than a bad heist movie (and giggle-worthy stuff like UV grenades), screenwriter David S. Goyer was smart enough to include plenty of action — and to set up a third installment in the epilogue. At 59 percent on the Tomatometer, Blade II ain’t exactly Citizen Kane, but it’s the best-reviewed of the Blade trilogy, and its $150 million worldwide gross makes it the most financially successful, too — something several critics attributed to the change in director. “If you can keep your eyes open amid all the blood and gore,” wrote the Denver Post’s Steven Rosen, “you’ll see Del Toro has brought unexpected gravity to Blade II.”
In a way, Tim Story had it better than either Sam Raimi or Bryan Singer while making the Fantastic Four sequel, Rise of the Silver Surfer — where both of those directors had to contend with the weight of crushing expectations, both from fans of the comics they were adapting and moviegoers who enjoyed the earlier installments of their respective franchises, Story was blessed with the opportunity to follow up a film that people turned to for mindless summer entertainment in spite of all the critical enmity it earned. With the bar set relatively low, Story and his cast were free to improve upon the first Fantastic without suffering undue scrutiny. And improve upon it they did, if only slightly; Rise of the Silver Surfer‘s Tomatometer, while still Rotten, inched a few notches higher than the original film’s, and although its box office total fell roughly $40 million short of Fantastic Four‘s $330 million, it still generated a pretty hefty pile of dough. For all that, however, Rise of the Silver Surfer nonetheless went down as a missed opportunity — to turn Fantastic Four into a viable franchise, to provide a launchpad for a spinoff starring one of Marvel’s most unique (and let’s face it, downright silly) characters, the Silver Surfer, and most of all, to entertain critics like Scott Brown of Entertainment Weekly, who sighed, “if you swept the cosmic dust of the superhero boom into a flimsy dustpan, you’d have the Fantastic Four franchise.”
On paper, one might assume that an injection of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s cracked action aesthetic would be exactly what a Ghost Rider sequel needed, with their gleefully lurid style providing a perfect complement to Nicolas Cage’s marvelous knack for playing characters embroiled in over-the-top situations like being saddled with the curse of owing one’s soul to a vengeful demon. Alas and alack, the reality of Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance proved to be far less compelling than the theory, and although the movie’s $132 million global box office demonstrated how little audiences cared what critics thought about movies featuring central characters who roared around on motorcycles with their heads on fire, reviews were even worse than they’d been for the first Ghost Rider, and hopes for a trilogy were abandoned when Sony let the rights to the character revert back to Marvel. Still, for a handful of critics, Spirit of Vengeance was a disposably good time; as Ken Hanke wrote for the Asheville Mountain Xpress, “It was exactly what I expected it to be, and I was fine with that.”