Do: Add in an exciting new villain
Star Trek: The Motion Picture isn’t as bad as its reputation suggests, but the Enterprise crew’s first cinematic adventure suffered from a serious lack of tension… possibly because the villain was an energy cloud. What a difference a great villain makes: Ricardo Montalban’s miles-over-the-top sneering villainy in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan redefined the series for the big screen.
See Also: The T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort in the later Harry Potters, Lee Van Cleef in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
Don't: Add in too many villains
The first two entries in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy focused on one iconic villain apiece: first the Green Goblin, then Doctor Octopus. For the third film, the filmmaker unwisely brought in three very different baddies — the misunderstood Sandman, the vengeful New Goblin, and the shape-shifting bizarre-Spidey Venom. The result is an unfocused mess.
See Also: Batman & Robin, Iron Man 2, and most egregiously, X-Men 3. It’s a surprisingly common problem for superhero sequels. Pray for The Dark Knight Rises.
Do: Eliminate the lame characters
The best thing about making a sequel? Correcting your past mistakes! The first Hellboy curiously focused on a bland Everyman played by Rupert Evans. (Yeesh, even his name sounds milquetoast: ”John Myers.”) Hellboy 2: The Golden Army got rid of the character and brought the focus where it should’ve been all along: on Ron Perlman’s goofily charismatic demon-spawn.
See Also: The purging of any reference to ”Short Round” after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; the banishment of Jar Jar Binks to the outskirts of the later Star Wars prequels.
Don't: Overload on continuity
The second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies had a unique problem: They suffered from too much continuity, bringing back basically every character from the first film and incorporating all sorts of nonsensical background mythology. (Remember the voodoo priestess who turned out to be a goddess imprisoned on earth by the Pirate Lords?) Johnny Depp recently admitted to EW that the filmmakers ”had to invent a trilogy out of nowhere.” Well, they didn’t have to…
See Also: Terminator: Salvation (which featured assorted CliffsNotes-worthy explanations of the series’ time-traveling curlicues) and Quantum of Solace (which stranded Bond in a post-Casino Royale depressive funk)
Do: Consider a change in scenery
On television, sending your cast on vacation is a hoary cliché. (”The Simpsons are going to Delaware!”) But a location shift can reinvigorate a franchise. Just look at the first part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which leaves Hogwarts behind for a tense traveling plotline that plays out like a road movie from hell.
See Also: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Fast Five, the underrated French Connection 2, Babe: Pig in the City
Don't: Bend over backwards to resurrect dead characters
Agent Smith was a great villain. Problem: He was destroyed at the end of the first Matrix. The Wachowskis’ solution: come up with an elaborate techno-spiritual loophole that turns the baddie into a self-replicating computer virus! Resurrecting dead characters saps all the tension out of a franchise — if death doesn’t stop them, what can? — which is why the shoulda-been-epic finale to the Matrix trilogy is just plain confusing.
See Also: Barbossa and Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Spock in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, the Ripley clone in Alien: Resurrection. Also, let’s be honest: Gandalf was way cooler before he came back to life in The Two Towers.
Do: Make your characters more troubled
In the first Terminator, Sarah Connor is a sweet Everygal who finds herself caught up in a terrifying assassination plot she can barely understand. For Terminator 2, writer-director James Cameron transformed Sarah into an unhinged, pumped-up paranoiac. That’s the Sarah Connor that people remember.
See Also: The rebels-on-the-run in The Empire Strikes Back and the fearful and forgotten playthings of Toy Story 3.
Don't: Forget that villains are supposed to be villainous
Gordon Gekko was one of the great onscreen villains of the ’80s, representing all the addictive vice and greed of the era’s heartless corporate raiders. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps unforgivably softens Gekko, focusing most of its second half on his reconnection with his daughter (a character who was barely mentioned in the first Wall Street).
See Also: Anthony Hopkins’ slightly-more-lovable psychopath in Hannibal, Al Pacino’s boringly-more-apologetic patriarch in The Godfather Part III.
Do: In general, it pays to tell a simpler story...
The first instinct when filmmakers are crafting a sequel is to go bigger. But history has shown that it’s usually a better idea to make the sequel’s story simpler. Just look at the Mad Max series. The first film features enough story to fit several TV seasons — a dystopian setting, an evil motorcycle gang, an adorable family with a massive target on their back. The Road Warrior strips the story down to its basics, letting the cars do the talking. (Notably, the third film told a much more complicated, semi-messianic story.)
See Also: The real-time conversation of Before Sunset, and The Dark Knight, the rare Christopher Nolan film that doesn’t feature an extensive flashback structure.
Don't: ...But if you're going bigger, make sure it means something
The Lord of the Rings films are a beautiful portrait of slow, exponential growth. The climactic battle sequence of Fellowship of the Ring is a scrappy forest fight. The Helm’s Deep battle in The Two Towers is much bigger, with an army attacking during a thunderstorm. By the time we reach the Battle of Pelennor Fields in Return of the King, we’ve been adequately prepared for the multiple armies. Compare that steady build to the out-of-nowhere Maelstrom sequence in the third Pirates film: It’s nifty to look at, but with hundreds of ships firing across a massive whirlpool, it’s also unthinkably unrealistic, and without any real stakes, boredom ensues.
See Also: The final battle of The Matrix Revolutions, in which two godlike beings fight each other until they suddenly don’t, for reasons inexplicable to anyone who doesn’t have dual degrees in philosophy and computer science.
Do: Consider switching up directors
Sometimes, a fresh perspective behind the camera can push a franchise in new, exciting directions. Perhaps most famously, James Cameron’s Aliens redefined the first film’s horror aesthetic into a pumped-up action bonanza.
See Also: Irvin Kershner’s The Empire Strikes Back (still the best-looking Star Wars movie), Paul Greengrass taking over on the later Bournes, and the rotating directors behind the Mission: Impossible and Harry Potter series.
Don't: Build your sequel's plot around dense, impenetrable bureaucracies
The first Star Wars trilogy is a vividly exciting portrait of characters perpetually on the run, battling an enemy that could destroy them at any moment. The Star Wars prequels, conversely, focus a shocking amount of attention on the remarkably boring politics of the Galactic Senate. It’s like C-SPAN without the drama.
See Also: All the Vatican stuff in The Godfather Part III, the bargain-basement Mr. Smith Goes to Washington plot of Legally Blonde 2, and the endless sequence in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End in which dozens of pirates meet… to debate pirate law.
Do: Remember that stupid and over-the-top is better than stupid and dull
The original Rocky was a scrappy tale of a lower-class hero; it practically plays like an indie movie now. Rocky IV is the story of a wealthy superman who saves America from Russia with his fists. It’s pretty stupid?but it’s also a lot of fun, thanks to writer-director-star Sylvester Stallone’s fearless belief that he is literally ending the Cold War in movie form.
See Also: The mesmerizingly gonzo Evil Dead 2, the Seventh Seal-aping Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, the kitchen-sink insanity of Crank 2: High Voltage.
Don't: Make a sequel about how bored your characters have become with their successful lives
In the first Shrek, the titular ogre was a lovably pugnacious loser. By Shrek Forever After, the character had become a rich celebrity married to a princess. The whole plot of the fourth film centers on how bored Shrek has become with his own success — a woe-is-me midlife crisis that’s the antithesis of exciting character drama.
See Also: Spider-Man 3, which curiously reimagines the iconically beleaguered webhead as a celebrity beloved by his fellow New Yorkers.
Do: Kill off a main character
The Bourne Supremacy begins with a gutsy twist: The surprise assassination of Franka Potente’s Marie, who gave the first film much of its emotional resonance. The gamble paid off: Supremacy and Ultimatum are both supercharged by the title character’s quest for vengeance.
See Also: Scream II, The Dark Knight, and The Godfather Part 2. Harrison Ford always felt that Han Solo should’ve died in Return of the Jedi, which in all fairness would have been totally awesome.
Don't: Kill off everybody
Looking at you, Alien 3.
Do: Consider just not referencing the first movie
It’s easy to overlook just how little The Dark Knight has to do with Batman Begins. Besides a throwaway cameo by the Scarecrow, the Batman sequel mostly stands completely on its own. There’s no mention of the first film’s main villain. Nor, for that matter, is there a Batcave, or any reference to Bruce Wayne’s tortured origin. By comparison, if Dark Knight were a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Ra’s al Ghul would come back to life, there would have been many many soliloquies about Bruce Wayne’s murdered parents, and Rachel Dawes would turn out to be a goddess imprisoned in human form. Also, more sword fights.
See Also: Every James Bond movie besides Quantum of Solace, the let’s-pretend-the-first-movie-didn’t-happen Star Trek II, the Marion-free Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Don't: Make sequels to comedies
Now, there are exceptions to every rule, and we certainly wouldn’t want to live in a world without Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey or Christmas Vacation. But far too many comedy sequels wind up like Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me; old gags are recycled, the characters become more cartoony, and the cumulative effect is like hearing an old friend tell the same joke for the millionth time.
See Also: Caddyshack II, Analyze That, Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, every other Vacation movie, Fletch Lives, Meet the Fockers, The Jewel of the Nile, Smokey and the Bandit II, Beverly Hills Cop 2, Another 48 HRD., the later Naked Guns, the later Fridays, the later Major Leagues, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, The Whole Ten Yards…
Do: Basically everything Toy Story 2 and 3 do
The latter portions of Pixar’s iconic series just do everything right. They honor their predecessor without using it as a crutch. They bravely send their characters off on new adventures in very different landscapes (the city of 2, the frightening play-prison of 3). They add in exciting new costars (Joan Cusack’s Jessie, Michael Keaton’s Ken) and vivid villains (Kelsey Grammer’s Stinky Pete, Ned Beatty’s Lots-O’-Huggin’-Bear.) They keep the plot relatively simple — 2 is a rescue mission, 3 is an escape thriller — saving the one huge flourish for the very end of 3. Toy Story 3 even eliminates the trilogy’s lone lame character: See ya, Bo Peep! Notably, 3 had a new director (Lee Unkrich, who codirected 2 with original director John Lasseter.) Best of all, the later films find the characters in an ever-more-precarious situation, slowly tracing their history from beloved toys to forgotten artifacts of youth.
See Also: No other series comes close. Well, maybe the Apu Trilogy.
Don't: Just grab an original story and plug it into a franchise
Ocean’s Twelve infamously started life as a screenplay called Honor Among Thieves, in which an American thief and a European thief square off. As star Matt Damon explained to EW, the process of turning that screenplay into Ocean’s Twelve was simple: ”They kept the European thief very similar and divided the American up 11 ways.” Because really, who doesn’t want to see one single character arc split across 11 vastly different people?
See Also: Die Hards 3 and 4, which awkwardly plugged Everyman John McClane into a revenge script called Simon Says and a techno-thriller called WW3.com.
Do: Consider adding a co-star with equal (if not greater) star power
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade repeats some of the best elements of Raiders of the Lost Ark: Christian artifact, Middle Eastern setting, the presence of John Rhys-Davies. But it also adds in Sean Connery as Jones’ dad, a perfect cross-generational pairing of superstar action heroes that gives Crusade a flavor all its own.
See Also: Dwayne Johnson as Bizarro-Vin Diesel in Fast Five, Halle Berry as a ”Female Bond” who actually does give 007 a run for his money Die Another Day.
Don't: Just repeat yourself
Another Death Star? That’s your climactic finale? [Sad Trombone Sound]