5 Movie Franchises That Got Better With Each Installment

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Movie franchises decay at an alarming rate. Narratives which had no business continuing in the first place have soaked the realms of cinema with thousands of unnecessary sequels, most of which have proved mediocre and damaging to their source material.

Think Resident Evil, or Saw, two perfect examples of movie franchises which constantly have to drum up banal reasons for bringing their characters back into the fray. Sequels like these only serve to push their characters into territories which compromise their established personalities and motives, or to rehash the same plot elements all over again, essentially destroying the integrity of the original story. There’s good reason why nobody talks about The Matrix anymore.

We know that sequels aren’t an especially great idea (creatively speaking), given that only a small fraction ever turn out to be better than the films they’re based upon. And when we remember that these films have been thought-up solely to cash-in on prior successes (despite any good intentions the assigned filmmakers may have), it’s even more painful to watch writers and directors struggling to re-capture the magic.

Now and again, however, a franchise will somehow make it through this messy period and will manage to justify a reason for existing in further parts. Though these remain definite rarities, here’s our list of 5 movie franchises that actually got better with every installment. Trust us: there aren’t that many out there, but these ones certainly cut the mustard.

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5. Mission: Impossible (1996-2011)

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The Movies: Mission: Impossible (1996), Mission: Impossible 2 (2000), Mission: Impossible 3 (2006), Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

Mission: Impossible (1996) (Dir. Brian De Palma)

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The original Mission: Impossible flick isn’t half bad, but it’s by no means a groundbreaking addition to the action canon. Based on a far more kosher 80s TV series, director Brian De Palma amped up the explosions and espionage, and gave Tom Cruise room to deliver a fine, charismatic performance as slick secret agent Ethan Hunt. The story suffered from being a little confusing and strangely unconnected, though De Palma’s camerawork is reliably neat. (3.0/5)

Mission: Impossible 2 (2000) (Dir. John Woo)

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Hong Kong action master John Woo took over for the next entry, establishing Mission: Impossible as a movie franchise and bringing a kung-fu and a comic book sensibility to the series. Though the story is arguably weak, Woo plays the entire film as an excuse for pure escapism, essentially shedding the overcomplicated story elements that made the first film so confusing. Though some might see see the intellectual aspects of the franchise as a loss, Woo’s entry actually paved the way for Mission: Impossible‘s fun and set-piece orientated future. (3.0/5)

Mission: Impossible 3 (2007) (Dir. J.J. Abrams)

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Taking his cues from John Woo, J.J. Abrams delivered the most entirely solid movie in the franchise up to that point, granting the series a host of new and intriguing characters and a brand new tone that felt fresh and exciting. Mission: Impossible 3 granted imagination in droves, great banter, and a sense of darkness that gave proceedings a little added weight. The bridge sequence, in particular, emerged as one of the series’ best ever set-pieces, pitting Ethan Hunt against a helicopter in a truly explosive confrontation that saw him going toe-to-toe with Philip Seymour Hoffman.(3.5/5)

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011) (Dir. Brad Bird)

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In his first ever live-action movie, Pixar veteran Brad Bird crafted an immaculate and arguably genre-perfect spy flick, incorporating a wide range of stunning set-pieces, a sense of fun and sexy, and a movie that ultimately served to bring Ethan Hunt up to date with more contemporary action heroes like Jason Bourne and James Bond. Not just the best ever Mission: Impossible installment, but one of the best popcorn features of 2011, Ghost Protocol proved that – given the right director – the fourth film in a series didn’t have to be the worst. To our mind, there isn’t actually another franchise out there in which the fourth entry could actually be called the best. Congrats, Brad: can we have another one? (4.0/5)

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4. The Bourne Trilogy (2002-2007)

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The Movies: The Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

The Bourne Identity (2002) (Dir. Doug Liman) 

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The Bourne Identity is an incredibly accomplished thriller in its own right, both generous in action spectacle, and equally gripping and intelligent throughout. There’s emotional stake at the heart of Doug Liam’s adaptation of the Robert Ludlum novel of the same name, hammered home by a great Matt Damon performance. Though the next films would improve on the formula established here, it’s important to remember that this is where those Bourne staples came from in the first place – including that especially paranoid soundtrack, which seemed to guide the series hereafter. (3.5/5)

The Bourne Supremacy (2004) (Dir. Paul Greengrass) 

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Though Doug Liman did a great job with the first entry in the franchise, it is Paul Greengrass who can credited with making the series so popular, what with his hyper-kinetic, handheld approach to shooting action. Hollywood certainly took note in the years afterwards, eagerly copying the British director’s frantically-paced spectacle. As a sequel, though, Greengrass granted audiences a movie both more exciting and tense than its predecessor, perfectly-paced and with brains to match. (4.0/5)

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) (Dir. Paul Greengrass)

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Paul Greengrass returned to the Bourne series with his action chops fully honed, delivering a second sequel that nobody was entirely expecting – Ultimatum managed to blow previous Bourne efforts out of the water, offering even more in the ways of suspense, quality action sequences, character development and non-stop thrills, none of which felt forced but actually natural for the arc of its title character. As a result, Jason Bourne became the definite action hero of the era. So much so in fact, that even James Bond had to stand up and take note. Brilliant. (4.5/5)

Note: We’re not including the recent The Bourne Legacy, as it’s not a real continuation of this particular story and could be considered more of a spin-off.

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3. The Dollars Trilogy (“The Man With No Name”) (1964-1966)

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The Movies: A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For A Few Dollars More (1965), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

A Fistful of Dollars (1964) (Dir. Sergio Leone)

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Sergio Leone made his name with this reworking of Japanese samurai flick Yojimbo, and it’s not difficult to see why: Clint Eastwood stars as the infamous “Man With No Name” in this tight, violent western that’s packed to the brim with visual flair, and is home to a superbly iconic Ennio Morricone soundtrack. A Fistful of Dollars sees Leone planting seeds as the master filmmaker he was born to be – this may not be as polished as his future westerns, but all the fast zooms and brilliant compositions on show here would remains staples of his work for the rest of his career. (4.0/5)

For A Few Dollars More (1965) (Dir. Sergio Leone)

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This time around, Leone granted Eastwood a rival who could match him in Lee Van Cleef, giving an added layer to For A Few Dollars More lacking in the original: that of a friendly rivalry. One of the best “team-up” westerns ever made, Leone’s second Eastwood movie improves on the first in almost every aspect: everything is tighter, more defined and better assured, showing that the Italian director had finally honed his skills (and just a year later!). Above all, For A Few Dollars More is a genuinely artful piece of filmmaking, a movie that manages to somehow acknowledge and surpass its cheap, pulpy origins in exchange for something more. (4.5/5)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) (Dir. Sergio Leone)

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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the defining work of Sergio Leone’s career, and is without a doubt one of the best motion pictures ever made. Using all the skills attained during the making of previous entries in his “Man With No Name” series, Leone delivered a movie ten times as epic (and ambitious) as any project he had tackled before. Nothing goes into the picture with precise thought and calculation, and it’s here that Leone’s power as a storyteller comes fully-fledged too. The soundtrack is perhaps the greatest in cinematic history, once again composed by Italian maestro Ennio Morricone. A fantastic and beautiful picture, this is a work that feels totally earned having invested time in its loosely-linked prequels. A masterpiece. (5.0/5)

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2. The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)

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The Movies: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) (Dir. Peter Jackson)

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Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy (based on the works of British writer J.R.R. Tolkien) arguably never takes a dip in quality, assuring that every film in this particular franchise is just as good as the others. But we reckon that given how these movies form a rich tapestry of storylines and character relationships that expands and grows with every installment, it makes sense to consider that each film is marginally better than the last. The first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, made the fantasy genre cool again, and gave us a brisk and perfectly-paced journey that didn’t slacken for any of its 178 minute running time. (5.0/5)

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) (Dir. Peter Jackson)

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With the Fellowship officially broken, Peter Jackson was forced to split the screen-time three ways to encompass each groups’ particular journey for follow-up The Two Towers. This movie brings in a political edge to the trilogy that Fellowship lacks, giving its characters time to slow down and relish in some finely-observed character moments. Gone is the frantic pace of the first movie, but The Two Towers works as more than just a bridge between the more action-heavy entries in the series: it’s where we get to know our characters, proving it a rich and complex work as any fantasy movie has the right to be. (5.0/5)

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) (Dir. Peter Jackson)

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The most emotionally satisfying and appropriately epic entry in the series, The Return of the King sees that all the established elements are brought together, leaving long-time fans feeling utterly drained (in the best way possible), having joined Frodo on his perilous quest to destroy the One Ring. The Return of the King doubles up on the emotion and spectacle, fully fleshing out the amazing world that Peter Jackson crafted for this franchise to inhabit. The ending is often criticized as being way too long, but given the length of the entire story, thirty minutes doesn’t seem long at all for wrapping up the events of these extremely impressive and arguably perfect cinematic endeavors.  (5.0/5)

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 1. Toy Story (1995-2010)

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The Movies: Toy Story (1995), Toy Story 2 (1999), Toy Story 3 (2010)

Toy Story (1995)

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As an entity of three pictures, the Toy Story franchise stands as Pixar’s defining work – and its overall best. The first movie in the trilogy also happened to double as the first feature-length animated film ever made, but the genius of Toy Story is in its serious characterisation, a feature which Pixar wisely chose not to water down. Though the animation was surely a marvel to behold at the time of release, each and every character in Toy Story is gifted with a personality that seems real and developed, assuring audiences that these were individuals they’d want to spend more than one motion picture with. A great movie with a genuine heart, Toy Story‘s success arises from its decision not to focus on its gimmick over that of proper story. (5.0/5)

Toy Story 2 (1999)

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Though Toy Story has all the unmistakable traits of a franchise series, the creative folk over at Pixar have never allowed the movies to feel as though audiences are just sitting down to one big toy commercial (which is surely what Disney see it as). For the follow-up to the original gem – a movie that in theory seems impossible to beat – the emotional aspects established in Toy Story are laid out bare on the table. As well as functioning as a story of ownership, identity and obsession, Toy Story 2 doesn’t shy away from dark and serious themes that we can all relate to. In its telling of Jesse’s story, the movie makes a shift into territory unlikely suited for an animated feature, only for it to pay off in droves. (5.0/5)

Toy Story 3 (2010)

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The sheer genius associated with the third (and hopefully final) Toy Story movie is in its decision to grow up with its audience. Most people who loved the original Toy Story were children when they first fell in love with it, so Pixar designed the next chapter to mainly appeal to those exact people as adults. The story, then, doubles as one about Woody and company saying farewell to their owner as he departs for college, whilst simultaneously placing Toy Story fans in the shoes of Andy. As Andy bids farewell to his own childhood, so do we. That, in effect, gives this hugely admirable and brilliantly-realised conclusion to the world’s best ever motion picture trilogy the rightly resonant and emotion finale it deserves. A sublime achievement, perfect in every frame, Toy Story 3 is Pixar’s masterpiece and a crowing achievement in franchise movie-making. (5.0/5)

Enjoy this article? Which franchises did we miss? Let us know in the comments section below. 

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=746875316 Jon ‘Jonny’ Preece

    as much as i love LOTR there is no way it goes on this list. as one long move its amazing but installment-wise the 1st is sooooo much better

    • http://www.facebook.com/david.schmitt#!/ David R. Schmitt

      Disagree.

    • Gary

      Way disagree.

  • United!!!

    i feel Nolan’s Batman Trilogy should be in the list as well…

    • goodterling

      Maybe in reverse. That last one sucked.

      • stetson

        you suck

      • http://www.clicker.com Patrick Sullivan

        Agreed.

        • Gary

          Way agree

  • greg g

    Damnit TJ! Are you trying to confuse the hell out of people? What kind of mind game are you playing? Here you say LOTR gets better with each installment. However, on your list of the ten best films of the noughties you only list The Fellowship; ranking it at a measly number 7. This is blasphemy! Also, you say, and I quote ” he successfully transformed English novelist J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings into cinema’s best film trilogy.”
    WTF? Toy Story is a trilogy. Why the hell is it in front of LOTR?

    • T.J. Barnard

      Measly number seven? I thought that the seventh best film of a ten year period is considered damned good.

      These franchises aren’t in any particular order, Greg, consider them loose. As for the Fellowship, that’s my personal favourite of the three, but it seems as though the masses would say otherwise. And remember, here you’re looking at film franchises that got better as they went on. As stand-alone entries, perhaps Fellowship wins out, but as far as adding movies in a franchise goes, I doubt the next two would be considered “lesser” movies.

  • http://www.facebook.com/npu3pagg Aleksey Highlander

    For MI they had a very wrong cast. That shorty ruined everything..

  • http://www.facebook.com/butthisfeelssounnaturalpetergabrieltoo Cal Scherer

    Surprised by the MI films’ ranking. To me it’s more like : MI1 > MI Ghost Protocole > MI3 > MI2

    • http://www.rainestorm.com rainestorm

      Almost. Mission: Impossible > Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol > Mission: Impossible II > Mission: Impossible III

  • Darren Auguste

    Why is Harry Potter not here?????

  • TheFlash

    The Fast & Furious franchise. That’s How We Roll! We Roll Like This!

  • Aliinmali

    Why isn’t twilight on here? It got much better in later movies.

    • Steven Gorry

      Haha nice try troll

  • http://www.rainestorm.com rainestorm

    When I saw the title I knew I would disagree with you about Mission: Impossible. I never imagined I would disagree with virtually every other franchise you selected. In fact, the only one with which I whole-heartedly agree with you is Toy Story.

    Forgetting The Man With No Name trilogy (I always preferred the Kurosawa films), The Mission: Impossible series started incredibly strong. It was only confusing to anyone not paying attention. In fact, it was rather predictable. Still, it had two fantastic set-pieces and a thoughtful plot. Mission: Impossible II is laughably bad but at least the action is top-notch. However, upon repeat viewings you realize how astonishingly dull most of the movie is and the unintentional hilarity only goes so far. Mission: Impossible III is an outright dud. Dreary and dull from start to finish with nary a memorable moment, including the yawn-inducing bridge sequence. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol lives up to its name in the best possible way, bringing the series back from the brink of inconsequentiality, injecting a sense of intended levity and making it fun again.

    The Lord of the Rings is another massive misfire. While the theatrical version of The Fellowship of the Ring is rather tepid, the DVD extended edition fills it out nicely and gives it room to breathe, adding the perfect amount of character development to let the audience care. The theatrical version of The Two Towers is, if you’ll forgive me, a towering achievement in itself. Fantastically edited and with enough gravitas to give the story a sense of urgency. The siege on Helm’s Deep is still one of the best battles on film. The Return of the King is a gargantuan piece of over-indulgent drivel. Every single scene is grossly calculated and panders to the audience in the most vulgar fashion. A groan-inducing film from beginning to end.

    The less said about the entirety of the Bourne series, the better.

    I also agree that The Fast & the Furious, for what it is, gets better with each film.

  • Eoghan-Tony Dwyer

    Mission Impossible? Give up writing lists

  • Jbruns318

    harry potter, although it can be said that each movie after azkaban was a little worse although they still got gradually better

  • Matt

    Ghost Protocol is absolutely the weakest out of the entire MI series. Coming off the heels of any JJ Abrams film is a disaster in the making and that’s exactly what Ghost Protocol was.

  • Mike

    Eh… I felt the Mission Impossible series just got too much over the top with each one. First one, set the standard for what the series should be like, second one said “hey lets turn this into a John Woo action flick” third one said “lets just skip all the plot and cool spy stuff and show him grabbing everything, then we jam a bomb up his nose that can only be deactivated if we electrocute him!”

  • MrSatyre

    Having LOTR on this list makes no sense for two reasons. First of all, all three were shot back to back by—second of all—the same director using the same script writers using the same source material. There was never any chance of style or substance changes (no room for improvement).