Spider-Man 2 (2004) The first Spider-Man film, released in 2002, made a lot of people happy; action and adventure lovers and stone-mouthed critics praised it, while the important fraternity of comic book fans – who are known to guard the way their favourite characters are handled off the page – embraced it warmly. Fortunately for us, director Sam Raimi translated the already popular superhero to the screen in fine form – but the challenge, when the inevitable sequel was announced, was for them to pull it all off again. Thanks to a step up in gear in all areas – an emotionally complex villain in Doctor Octopus, who you could actually root for, unforgettable action scenes, and a subplot concerning Spidey potentially losing his powers and staying as Peter Parker forever – made Spider-Man 2 an enduring second chapter in the Spider-Man story. So if you want to make a follow-up to your superhero flick, do what this movie did and raise all the stakes.
X2: X-Men United (2003) The ending of the second X-Men movie is a brave thing; it leaves its heroes without a proper resolution, hanging a shadow over its would-be triumph in a style akin to The Empire Strikes Back. But thankfully, Bryan Singer ensured that the sequel to 2000’s first instalment in the X franchise was a winner from the get-go; the entire brilliant cast returning to their roles (including the pitch-perfect choice of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine) and a script that further expanded on the complex relationships between their characters made for a thrilling – and meaningful – upgrade. X2 also introduced new exciting characters, forging fresh rivalries to challenge the super-powered team in the form of Nightcrawler and Deathstrike, somehow upping the stakes to personal ones (as if global catastrophe wasn’t enough). These first two X-Men films are about subtext, not action – but that doesn’t mean X2 isn’t less than involving, shocking and essential.
The Dark Knight (2008) The Dark Knight is usually first on someone’s lips if you ask them about the best superhero movies, not just the best sequels to them. Taking the more fantastical element of Batman Begins and replacing it with a chilly, grandiose sweep, blockbuster darling Christopher Nolan dialed up the ambition for his second Caped Crusader picture and turned it into a dark, sprawling crime saga. Perhaps it’s the realism that keeps bringing audiences back to The Dark Knight – Bruce Wayne doesn’t technically have any superpowers – or perhaps it’s Heath Ledger’s staggering performance as The Joker, and the morally complex situations he forces on our growly hero. Either way, it’s the Godfather Part II of films in which people dress up in silly costumes and fight crime, and with over a billion US dollars in the bank from its box office, it’s difficult to criticise on any level.
Superman II (1980) This classic superhero sequel happens to be one of the best. Superman II was filmed at the same time as its predecessor Superman (though Richard Lester took over from Richard Donner on directorial duties), and as a result shares a lot of its DNA: it blended soaring action with a knowing sense of humour, and portrayed the legend of the Big S in a way that resonated with audiences everywhere (to the tune of millions at the box office). Superman II’s trump card, though, was the ever-charismatic Christopher Reeve as the heroic Man of Steel or the bumbling Clark Kent. The filmmakers must’ve known they were onto something when they filmed the movies back-to-back. But amid the world-bothering actions of a superbly camp Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), the subplot where Superman has to decide whether to give up his powers and live a mortal life is this sequel’s most effective – and resolutely human – masterstroke.
Iron Man 3 (2013) The youngest inclusion here may not have had much time to sit in the public’s consciousness, but time will prove that the third Iron Man took a lot of risks that ultimately paid dividends. What risks? Well, the franchise is well-known for Robert Downey, Jr’s timelessly hilarious and charismatic performance as billionaire playboy Tony Stark, cracking out one-liners left and right; Iron Man 3 takes it further, by using the entire film as a type of deconstruction of superhero film conventions. Whenever a moment arises that would typically require our protagonist to either escape, exhibit understanding, or deliver a moment-cementing line, he does quite the opposite. Even the films’ big villain doesn’t turn out how you expect him to be (but we won’t spoil that for you, just in case). Iron Man 3 diverted a lot of the rules, despite its surface-level action movie formula, kicking off Marvel’s post-Avengers batch of films with a bang and a smirk, setting the bar high for Thor: The Dark World.