Hollywood loves the sequel.
So far, 21 big-budget sequel films have been released in 2016, including Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War, and Zoolander 2. In total, theaters will see a record 37 sequels this year, more than double the amount released just a decade ago.
There's a reason for this rise — the average sequel makes more than eight times the average original release:
But in the film business, big money does not correlate with quality. Sequels are notoriously groan-worthy and often garner terrible critical reviews. Consider, for instance, what critic Eric D. Snider had to say about Grown Ups 2: "It is worse than most comedy sequels, worse than most Sandler movies, and worse than most food-borne illnesses," he wrote.
So I got curious: Looking back over the past 20 years, which movie sequels got the absolute worst reviews compared with the reviews of the original film? And which got the best?
How we made our ranking
Metacritic aggregates movie reviews from major news outlets, weights them based on a variety of factors (more on that here), and then gives them a composite score on a 0–100 scale (0 = terrible, 100 = resounding acclaim).
For my analysis, I set a few criteria:
- I limited my list to sequels of originals made in the past 20 years (1996 to 2016). Historic review data often suffers from a "nostalgia bias." Older films tend to have fewer (and more generous) reviews on Metacritic — so I omitted all sequels with pre-1996 prequels.
- For franchises with multiple sequels, I included only the first sequel (or part two).
- Sequels had to gross at least $20 million at the box office, adjusted for inflation.
Lastly, it should be said that the opinions of film critics often differ greatly from the public's. The results here reflect only the former — so don't take it personally if one of your favorite films makes the cut. With that, here are the results.
The worst (and best) movie sequels in the past 20 years
Working from a 13,000-movie data set given to me by Metacritic, I limited my list to films that met the above criteria, then plotted them to see which jumped out.
First, let's take a look at the overall worst- and best-rated sequels:
Predictably, the worst sequels are populated by the likes of Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider, and Marlon Wayans — actors who frequently star in abysmal feature films as well.
With 13 points, Cuba Gooding Jr.’s Daddy Day Camp boasts the overall lowest sequel score. On the other end of the spectrum, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is the most successful, with a score of 88. In general, franchise action sequels, like Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, seem to fare much better than comedies and horror films, which lurk toward the bottom.
But this doesn't tell the full story. To really understand which sequels performed the poorest, it's crucial to look at how they compared with their prequels.
Below, I've pulled out the films with the highest differentiation in Metacritic score points from original to sequel — both those that decreased the most and the those that increased the most:
Going by difference in points, the worst sequel of the 2000s is Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, a film in which some goth kids attempt to recreate The Blair Witch Project and end up killing each other in a fit of paranormally-influenced rage.
The original film, The Blair Witch Project (1999), grossed nearly $250 million worldwide and was one of the most successful independent films ever made. It also gained critical acclaim; in a rave review, Roger Ebert called it "an extraordinarily effective horror film."
Its follow-up did not enjoy the same success. While the Blair Witch commanded a Metacritic score of 81, Blair Witch 2 earned a 15. In contrast to the original’s acclaim, critic Michael Atkinson called the sequel "a club-footed vomit launch of teen-horror clichés."
Taking a deeper look at the 25 most disappointing sequels, there appears to be no shortage of such "vomit launch."
Of the 500 or so films we looked at, sequels declined an average of 8.5 points from their originals. Those in the table above fared far worse, averaging a 26-point decline.
Interestingly, five of 2016's big sequels make this list: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny; Zoolander 2; My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2; Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising; and Alice Through the Looking Glass. (The average time between these films and their originals was 10.6 years, so we should be wary of the "nostalgia bias" we discussed above.)
Though rare, some post-1996 sequels have actually outperformed their originals:
The Devil's Reject — a 2005 Rob Zombie cult horror film — tops its prequel, House of 1000 Corpses, by a whopping 22 points. But in all fairness, this shouldn’t be interpreted as a compliment: The original only had 31 points to begin with.
About 60% of the lowest-rated sequels are comedies; horror and action flicks comprise another 22%. Previously, we analyzed 200 films of each genre on Metacritic and found that these genres, in general, fail to pique movie critics' interest — so this makes sense.
But the majority of the works we've discussed here are really just crappy films followed by slightly less crappy sequels — a trend driven by Hollywood producers looking for quick, reliable hits.
"No movie executive has ever been fired for green-lighting a sequel," Roger Ebert once wrote. "[But] movie critics despair of sequels as betraying a lack of imagination and originality."
If you have any doubts about the frequent truth in that, give Grown Ups 2 a whirl.
Note: A previous version of this article mistakenly reversed 'Justin Bieber: Never Say Never' (2011; 52 Metacritic) and 'Justin Bieber's Believe' (2013; 39 Metacritic). The data has been updated.