What Makes a Great Superhero Sequel?

X-Men Days of Future Past20th Century Fox Film via Everett Collection

Consider the superhero movie sequel. With the millstone of the characters’ origin stories removed from around the collective necks of the filmmakers, they are free to jump right into a rip-roaring premise with plenty of superhuman action bursting from the screen. Fans are eagerly awaiting X-Men: Days of Future Past for exactly that reason… we’ve already seen two different origin movies for the the mutants, so let’s get on with the time-bending heroics. 

Why, then, is it that so many superhero sequels don’t live up to their promise? More importantly, what it is about the ones that do that make them rise above the others? Let’s take a look at what anyone making a superhero sequel after decade’s worth of examples both good and bad.

Don’t Waste Time Rehashing What We Already Know

Just trust that we saw the origin story movie. There’s no need to tell us who the characters are and why they’re important. Anyone that needs to know what’s happening isn’t the target audience anyway… and they can be brought up to speed by whatever friend dragged them along to the theater. If you really, really feel the need to catch everyone up then just do what Superman II did and stick a montage with the opening credits.

Start Fast

The awesome thing about being past the origin story is that we can get right into the action. Even if the new story is going to take a while to set up, don’t lead off with that. Don’t meander into things like Iron Man 2. Don’t give us action that we don’t fully understand like in Thor: The Dark World. The hero doesn’t even have to be involved. Go right for the jugular like they did in X2: X-Men United, with Nightcrawler ransacking the White House, or Christopher Nolan’s dual threats of setting up first the Joker in The Dark Knight and Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.   

Find a Great Bad Guy

As Nolan showed, really any superhero sequel is going to live or die by the choice of the super-nemesis. By unleashing Heath Ledger’s Joker in the second film, filmmakers didn’t force audiences to wait for him while the story tried to get Bruce Wayne to the point of being Batman. Similarly, the first great superhero sequel, Superman II, did likewise by giving us Terence Stamp’s awesome General Zod from the beginning to the end. Don’t make them weak or sympathetic either. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 is a solid sequel, but it suffers from making us feel sorry for Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus. And, don’t get us started on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s depressed Mr. Freeze in Batman & Robin.

Just Don’t Find Too Many

It sounds great… now that the superhero has been established; let’s start throwing a bunch of his comic book foils at him in the movies. After all, most superheroes have a whole group of villains that they’ve been doing battle with for years. Only, it never works that way. Diverting attention away from one main bad guy just muddles the plot… and it’s already touch-and-go whether there’s enough of that anyway. Going the Spider-Man 3 route where it was Green Goblin and Sandman and Venom gets confusing and feels lazy. It doesn’t mean that there can’t be other bad guys around, especially when we’re talking about seminal characters like Lex Luthor, we just need to have one at the center that leads us into a fitting (and ginormous) climactic battle.

Mo’ Superheroes, Mo’ Better

It’s not an accident that The Avengers was such a smash… we like to see the costumed crowd playing together. It reminds us of the greatest part of comic books where we could imagine all of these spectacular personalities in a universe where they would sometimes collide. That’s the same reason that X-Men fans screamed and shouted when fan favorites like The Beast and Gambit were slow to join the fun (if they ever got to at all) in the Bryan Singer films. It doesn’t even have to be characters that are household names. The average person didn’t know Black Widow before Iron Man 2 or Falcon before Captain America: The Winter Soldier… but the people that do are the ones that help create a buzz for the movie.

Even a bad sequel, can provide at least a few minutes of interest with a crossover… like The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. The Marvel diehards that saw that one did so just to see Mr. Fantastic and The Thing interact with the metallic former Galactus henchman… and the fact that the movie actually made money proves the point. Whether they like the choice of Ben Affleck as the Dark Knight in Zack Snyder’s Batman vs. Superman, you can bet that superhero fans everywhere are still going to line up to see the DC Comics’ titans go at it. (And, ok, to see Gal Gadot in her Wonder Woman outfit.)