20 Hollywood sequels better than the original

Torn from the finest Web pages of movie reviews, here are 20 titles that critics believe raised the bar for their entire franchises. (For concision’s sake, threequels were excluded.)

1. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

“‘The Empire Strikes Back’ is the best of three Star Wars films, and the most thought-provoking,” wrote Roger Ebert upon its 1997 rerelease. “It is a visual extravaganza from beginning to end, one of the most visionary and inventive of all films.”

2. Back to the Future Part II (1989)

“It never degenerates into Spielbergian sentimentality,” says Time Out London’s Geoff Andrew. “You can laugh, be thrilled and think without feeling embarrassed.”

3. The Godfather, Part II (1974)

“Part II is far more complexly beautiful than the first, just as it’s thematically richer, more shadowed, fuller,” according to The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael.

4. Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment (1985)

In 1985, Reinaldo Ramos of the Milwaukee Sentinel gave the Guttenberg pay day only two and a half stars, but promises “the sequel is better than the original … better than most of the recent comedies that have been released.”

5. A Shot in the Dark (1964)

With a name like Bosley Crowther, you know this New York Times cultural assassin knows zany comedy. “It’s an utterly wacky entertainment,” Crowther writes of “The Pink Panther” follow-up in his 1964 review. “The wonderful dexterity and the air of perpetually buttressed dignity with which Mr. Sellers plays his role make what could quickly be monotonous enjoyable to the end.” Yeah, that’s exactly how I felt.

6. Aliens (1986)

Wesley Lovell of Cinema Sight: “‘Aliens’ is a tightly constructed yarn that has no problem keeping its audience’s attention rapt. [Sigourney] Weaver takes what she built in the first ‘Alien’ film and further defines her iconic character of Ellen Ripley as one of the smartest, sexiest and toughest women ever created on the big screen.”

7. The Road Warrior (1981)

“For pure rhythm and visual panache, Miller has few real competitors,” says the Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr of the “Mad Max” sequel. “The climactic chase, with its deft variation of tempo and point of view, is a minor masterpiece.”

8. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

In 2000, Bob Graham of the San Francisco Chronicle said James Whale’s masterpiece “hasn’t dimmed all that much after 63 years … Lanchester’s twitchy Bride is one of the unforgettable screen presences … perhaps the biggest joke of all comes when she lays eyes on her intended monster of a mate.”

9. Dawn of the Dead (1978)

The sequel to “Night of the Living Dead” “is the zombie movie to end all zombie movies.”

10. Superman II (1980)

The New York Times’ Janet Maslin called Richard Lester’s leotard blockbuster “a marvelous toy” in her 1981 review. “Terrence Stamp, as the leader of the evil threesome, makes an elegantly icy monster.”

11. Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)

“‘Friday the 13th Part 2′ is more existential than mumblecore art house cinema,” postulates Slant’s Jeremiah Kipp, “paring life down to the basics: fucking and death.”

12. The Dark Knight (2008)

Ali Gray of The Shiznit ruined a perfectly good pair of trousers at the screening. “It’s not just the best Batman film ever. It’s not just the best superhero movie ever … There aren’t enough hours in the day to discuss ‘The Dark Knight’s’ finer points.”

13. Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)

“Best remembered (if it is remembered at all) for subverting expectations as a sequel to a beloved and profitable ’80s relic … the much more impressive subversion is within its engagement with its source material,” says Gawker’s Rich Juzwiak. “Director Joe Dante and producer Michael Finnell gleefully pull apart the makings of what they created six years before. The result is nothing short of a riot.”

14. National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1985)

“The floodgates are open for a riot of one-dimensional thumbnail caricatures of European countries,” writes Stephen Dalton of The Times UK in 2004 of the second “Vacation” installment. “‘National Lampoon’s European Vacation’ would probably be offensive if it wasn’t so gloriously dumb and tongue-in cheek.”

15. Evil Dead II (1987)

“The acting is straight out of ’50s B movies,” according to the Washington Post. “The exposition is clumsy, the sound track corny, the denouement silly. Then again, who said bad taste was easy?”

16. Hot Shots! Part Deux (1993)

Unlike its grim predecessor,” raves Trevor Lewis of Time Out London, “there are at least two chuckles this time round.”

17. Problem Child 2 (1991)

That director Brian Levant (“The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas) scored a 14 on Rotten Tomatoes makes me want to re-watch this immediately. Skip to YouTube for one of the best homophobic gags ever and, even better, Murph’s roundhouse kick.

18. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

The Boulder Weekly’s Thomas Delapa: “The Star Trek TV series boldly went where none of its movie versions have gone before or since in [director Nicholas] Meyer’s exceedingly space-worthy sequel.”

19. Return to Oz (1985)

An “underground classic … bleak, creepy, and occasionally terrifying,” says Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader. “Unlike brassy Judy Garland, [Fairuza] Balk is distressingly natural and defenseless, lost in a landscape of nonhumans (read: adults). Studio pressure apparently forced [the director] to back off from the full fury of his conception, but this is still strong stuff.”

20. Spider-Man 2 (2004)

“A careful blend of subtext-rich characters in a super-action movie topped off with musical grace notes from ‘West Side Story’ thanks to Danny Elfman’s understated score,” says Cole Smithey. “This compelling Hollywood cartoon-inspired movie that tops everything else in the genre.”

Previously: The 20 worst Hollywood remakes of the century