Saturday, June 25, 2016

Sci-fi, superhero films that demand you watch the sequels

This happens to me all the time. Just after I watch some of my favorite films, I can’t wait to see the follow-up. No matter how many times I’ve seen either one.

The predecessor’s gut-wrenching conclusion simply demands I watch the sequel because of what mess and or possibilities the characters face in the closing minutes.

Here are my choices for films in the science fiction and superhero genres that leave you wanting to watch the next installment. (Look for links to my reviews, linked on the first reference, with the exception of "The Empire Strikes Back" and a superhero film I'm sure will stun fans that even listed here, and related op-eds.)

Only one warning – there are plenty of big-time spoilers ahead! These spoilers are from years — and sometimes decades — ago, but still I like to give fair warning to my fellow no-spoiler fans, who face massive challenges while cruising the Internet. So here are my choices, in order of release date …

“The Empire Strikes Back” (1980): Luke Skywalker loses his left hand, barely escaping the brutal fight of his life with the knowledge that the man (or thing?) he fought says he’s his father.

Even worse, this same baddie, Darth Vader, who leads the evil Galactic Empire, has frozen Luke’s buddy Han Solo in carbonite and then turned him over to the custody of the galaxy’s most infamous bounty hunter, Boba Fett, who will hand Han over to the Tatooine crime boss Jabba the Hutt.

Yikes! How can you not want to watch “Return of the Jedi” after experiencing all that drama?!?

It’s no wonder that “Empire” is considered one of the greatest sequels of all time. 

“Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn” (1982): Spock, one of science fiction’s most beloved characters, sacrifices himself for “the good of the many” to save the crew of the Starship Enterprise. But not before he does a Vulcan mind meld with Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, telling him simply: “Remember.” What does that mean, Spock?!? What is "Bones" supposed to remember?

Captain Kirk sends the coffin containing his best friend’s body onto the surface of the newly rejuvenated planet Genesis, named for “beginning.” Could there be hope for Spock to be resurrected?

Maybe space isn’t “the final frontier” after all. …

“Batman Begins” (2005): As if it weren’t enough to finally see what it took for Bruce Wayne to learn his kick-a** ninja skills as Batman, the closing rooftop scene with Lt. Jim Gordon seals the deal. An armed robber who has “a flair for the theatrical" has left a joker playing card at the scene of the crime.

Yes, Batman, we can’t wait for you to “look into it”!

“Superman Returns” (2006): I know, I know. I understand there’ll never be a sequel to Bryan Singer’s much-maligned take on the Man of Steel that could have been something so much better. And that’s a shame, really.

Despite how much joy fans seemingly have in bustin' on "Returns," it's one of those films that has taken me more than one review to get my head around it. In fact, I wrote a lengthy two-part preview in the NORWALK REFLECTOR newspaper addressing if Singer's movie would fly with audiences. (For part 2, which is about the pressure Singer was under, go here.) Finally, in 2011, I realized the characterization of Superman — even though actor Brandon Routh does a first-rate job, isn't "my Superman."

Regardless, I can’t be the only fan who wanted to see Singer redeem himself with not only the diehard Superman fans, but also the countless critics and especially the fans who have taken such joy in bashing “Returns.”

I was more than ready for Singer to “go all ‘Wrath of Khan’” on a sequel (his words, not mine). Wouldn’t it have been great to see Routh get a second shot at playing Superman and have him take down that snake, Lex Luthor (devishly played by Kevin Spacey)? Almost as delicious would have been the Man of Steel’s reconciliation with Lois Lane (whom Singer truly needed to recast).

“Iron Man” (2008): From the first moments, it’s obvious Tony Stark is a liquor-lovin’ womanizer whose tongue is nearly as sharp as his mind.

By the final minutes, the billionaire industrialist is a new man. And he has new a mission, dedicated to using his weapons technology for good.

Plus, in the final line of dialogue, Stark reveals to the press he’s Iron Man. How can you not want to see what mess Stark gets himself into next? Or if can he redeem his reputation?

And don't forget about that "Avenger initiative" Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury mentions in the post-credits scene ...!

“The Dark Knight” (2008): Batman is forced to blow up the Batmobile, his lifelong friend and unrequited lover gets blown sky-high by Heath Ledger's riveting Joker -- all this amidst a massive gang war …! Woah.

And just as we've finished watch one of the most interesting and thought-provoking action/Batman/superhero films of all time, director Christopher Nolan leaves us with another cliffhanger. The Dark Knight has agreed with Commissioner Gordon to cover up that district attorney Harvey Dent was Two-Face. And Batman is on the run from Gotham's finest. What will all this mean for Batman, Gordon and Gotham City? Ooof!

Four years later in "The Dark Knight Rises," we see what happens next in Gotham City and how Nolan completes his incomparable “Dark Knight” trilogy. Nolan doesn't leave one storyline pebble unturned until literally the closing credits — in what's easily the best superhero trilogy of all time.

NOTE: The "Dark Knight Trilogy" and "Captain America" series (which follows) hold a unique distinction on this list; they're the only franchises to have back-to-back films listed as a must-see-the-sequel.

"Captain America: The First Avenger" (2011): Steve Rogers proves he's willing to pay the ultimate price for his country.

Instead of leaving Rogers a frozen cube in suspended animation at the end of the film, we find the World War II solider has woken up to a world he no longer knows. This is the man out of time that Stan Lee introduced to the early years of Marvel Comics in THE AVENGERS No. 4.

The crease on actor Chris Evans' face isn't just because he's overwhelmed by standing in the middle of New York City. Rogers is even more concerned about standing up his "best girl" for a date they had set (in a heartbreaking yet tender scene between Evans and Hayley Atwell as Rogers prepares to crash the Red Skull's bomb-filled plane) — but for a dance he and Peggy Carter knew they wouldn't have at the end of WWII.

As if we Capheads weren't any more ready to see what's next for Captain America, there's the teaser trailer for "The Avengers" the follows the credits for "The First Avenger." Nick Fury shows up as Rogers takes out his frustration on one massive punching bag after another to see if Cap won't just get into the world, but will help save it. Avengers assemble indeed!

"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" (2014):
In "Winter Soldier," a film that's as much of a political thriller and government conspiracy as it is a superhero film, the Russo brothers put Cap through the emotional ringer.

Rogers discovers S.H.I.E.L.D. has been infiltrated by Hydra, his next-door neighbor is an undercover S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and it's believed Fury died from severe injuries in a brutal car chase, when he was pursued and attacked not just by Hydra agents disguised by cops but a nearly legendary cold-blooded assassin.

Worst yet, Cap learns that Bucky Barnes -- who was brainwashed (after being presumed dead during WWII) -- was programmed to be that very same assassin, codenamed the Winter Soldier! The Star-Spangled Avenger barely escapes with his life after battling Barnes/Winter Soldier aboard a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier doomed for destruction. But there's a glimmer of hope; Barnes pulls Rogers' badly beaten body out of the water.

But Barnes/Winter Soldier then walks away. So the questions now abound: Is there any good left in Barnes' soul? What is his mindset? Does Barnes have any memories before becoming Winter Soldier? Can he overcome his Hydra programming?

What do you mean "Avengers: Age of Ultron" comes out before the third "Captain America" film?! I want to see what happens with Team Cap next!

And finally ...

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens" (2015): The first four words of the opening scroll sets up it all up -- right down to the very closing minutes: "Luke Skywalker has vanished."

Photos courtesy of
Before we can process what that exactly means, director J.J. Abrams throws us in the middle of the action and gets us wrapped up and intrigued by these new characters in these universe that stays true to the spirit of the original "Star Wars" trilogy. 

(So much so that "The Force Awakens" has one homage or shout-out after another to "Episode IV: A New Hope." And while there isn't a terrible amount of storytelling creativity in "The Force Awakens," to say it's one giant remake is an injustice to a great film that remains enjoyable, no matter how many times you've seen it.) 

Regardless of one's thoughts on the "New Hope"-"Force Awakens" parallels, there's an ongoing theme of many characters running away. Yet the two main characters, Rey -- without a doubt "the new hope" of the new trilogy -- and Finn, are heading toward a newer, promising future.

Finally, just before the credits roll, Abrams gives us our first and only look at Skywalker, an old man now. Actor Mark Hamill says nothing, but his face is full of questions and doubt. And we're left thinking, "just accept the lightsaber from Rey!" And if Skywalker does, what does that mean for the aged Jedi Master, Rey and where will this take the rest of the "Star Wars" universe? 

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