2023 will be a great year for comic book sequels. Marvel has a full slate, including Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania this February, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 in May, and The Marvels in July. Not be outdone, DC only has sequels to Aquaman and Shazam as well as The Flash, the Scarlet Speedster’s first solo project and a quasi-sequel to the misguided and ultimately disappointed Justice League.
Indeed, the comic book genre is alive and thriving, producing new movies every year and expanding exponentially. However, not all superhero sequels are worthy of acclaim, and not all earn it. Those that do often rank from safe to serviceable, with only a select few transcending their genre’s limitations, whether by offering something fresh or by upping the ante and featuring emotional stakes that live up to their larger-than-life premises. From films within the MCU to entries that pre-date the modern superhero boom, these sequels are the very best the comic book genre has to offer.
5. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Many might say Avengers: Endgame is the best MCU movie, but they would be wrong. Endgame is an ambitious but scattered film that falls apart the minute you try to analyze its feeble plot. Infinity War is the superior film, thanks largely to Josh Brolin and Zoe Saldaña’s performances, which provide a firm and compelling basis and add some much-needed gravitas.
Brolin’s Thanos is the new villain in the MCU: intimidating yet quiet, thoughtful yet decisive. Thanos is a genuinely threatening enemy that earns his status as Earth’s mightiest foe. Infinity War revolves around him, placing him front and center of a universal conflict that culminates in one of the most shocking cinematic moments of the 21st century. Unfortunately, the emotional power of seeing multiple major characters disappear into the wind was diminished by the knowledge that they would certainly return in the next movie. Still, Infinity War remains an impressive feat and the MCU’s undisputed peak.
4. Batman Returns (1992)
Tim Burton’s gothic and bleak look into the Batman mythos resulted in two of the best and most interesting takes on the Dark Knight. However, his vision is truly unrestrained in the 1992 sequel Batman Returns, which sees the titular hero facing three different threats in the form of the Penguin, Catwoman, and ambitious businessman Max Schreck.
Michael Keaton remains the best Bruce Wayne and a near-perfect Bruce Wayne. However, Batman Returns is far more interested in its villains, the freaks that make Gotham one of the most fascinating and perilous places in comic book history. Danny DeVito makes for a perfect Penguin, finding empathy for the grotesque creature and delivering a brilliant portrayal that’s as offputting as it’s fascinating. Still, it’s Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman that owns the film from beginning to end. Her Catwoman is broken but alluring, adding a layer of palpable anguish and desperation to what could easily be a cartoonish character and presenting the ultimate version of Catwoman.
3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
The Captain America series gave us arguably the best film in the MCU. Captain America: The Winter Soldier follows Steve Rogers as he discovers SHIELD has been compromised. Accompanied only by the Black Widow and the Falcon, Rogers sets on a quest to uncover the conspiracy, coming face to face with a ghost from the past in the form of the deathly Winter Soldier.
The Winter Soldier is the rare sequel that ups the ante not only in action setpieces but also in emotional turmoil. By framing the action around Steve’s connection to Bucky Barnes, the film gifts itself a powerful emotional hook that keeps the action grounded even when the plot deviates into the usual Marvel brand of big and loud. Featuring Chris Evans’ best performance throughout his MCU tenure and aided by the always-reliable presence of Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, and Robert Redford, The Winter Soldier is a tense and well-paced thriller that honors previous entries into the spy genre and earns its place as Marvel’s best film.
2. Spider-Man 2 (2002)
Sam Raimi redefined the superhero genre with his Spider-Man trilogy. Honoring the source material’s cheeky tone while injecting it with dynamism, humor, charm, and emotional resonance, his trilogy is a near-perfect adaptation of the comic books. His crowning jewel is undoubtedly Spider-Man 2, which centers on Peter Parker struggling to balance his heroic and civilian identities, culminating in the loss of his powers.
Tobey Maguire gives his best performance as Peter Parker, finding the perfect balance between the character’s duty as Spider-Man and his longing for a normal life. The film also receives considerable help from the scene-stealing Alfred Molina, whose Doctor Octopus is among the best Spider-Man villains ever. With a strong emotional hook and several thrilling action sequences that make the best out of Doc Ock’s visually stunning gimmick, Spider-Man 2 is the perfect example of the heights a comic book movie can achieve when guided by a director who understands the genre’s strengths and weaknesses.
1. The Dark Knight (2008)
Christopher Nolan’s 2008 sequel to Batman Begins, The Dark Knight was a game-changer and a turning point for the comic book genre. The film follows Batman as he questions himself and his self-imposed boundaries when facing the Joker, an anarchist and self-described agent of chaos who throws Gotham City into mayhem.
The Dark Knight is a riveting crime drama disguised as a superhero film. Nolan’s neo-noir and overly bleak approach to Batman brings out the character’s greatest strengths, enhanced by Heath Ledger’s tour-de-force performance as the Joker. The Dark Knight is a near-perfect adaptation of the comic books, updating the setting to reflect timely topics of escalation and terrorism while respecting Batman’s essence. The film is a before and after for modern superhero films; many future projects have tried to emulate it, but none has been able to replicate its unique blend of genres.
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