Most of the time, sequels are at best entertaining, and at worst an affront to the memory of the original. But once in a great while, a sequel comes along that makes you rethink everything you thought you knew about the original story. Here are 12 sequels that pull back and show you the bigger picture.
1. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
Let's just get the obvious example out of the way right off the bat. Star Wars sells us a particular version of events — not just what happened to Luke Skywalker's dear departed dad, but also what the Force is and what the risks of using it are. Obi-Wan Kenobi is a fountain of misinformation, and it takes both Yoda and Darth Vader to set Luke straight. Just like Luke in the above picture, this movie turns everything on its head.
2. Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik
As SFReviews says, the second book in the Temeraire series "does what a sequel should: expand upon and enrich the world we are introduced to in the first volume, rather than simply rehash its best scenes." Temeraire travels back to China, and discovers that dragons are treated a lot better in China than in Europe — in fact, the British dragons are little better than slaves. All of the stuff we took for granted in the first book is called into question as Novik pulls back the scope of the book and shows us a larger world. Image by Anke Eissman for Subterranean Press.
3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
It's sort of fascinating to watch the two Captain America movies back-to-back — because they present wildly contrasting versions of Captain America and his legacy. The first ends with Steve Rogers finding himself disoriented in present-day New York, and getting a chance to serve once again by joining the noble undertaking of SHIELD. And in the second, we learn some harsh truths about SHIELD, and by extension Captain America's own legacy. It kind of changes how you look at his victory in the first movie, when you see the fruits it actually bore.
4. Tehanu by Ursula K. Le Guin
This is probably the textbook example of a book that causes you to reconsider the earlier books in the series. Some 18 years after the first Earthsea trilogy, Le Guin returns to her beloved fantasy setting and completely reframes it. All of the stuff in the first book about Ged going to the magical school on Gont gets a whole new meaning when you see just how many pointless barriers stand in the way of women learning magic. And you also get a clearer (and darker) sense of people's relationships with dragons. As Peggy Nodelman writes, " the events of the new story change the meaning of what went before."
5. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Along with Empire, this is considered one of the all-time great movie sequels — and it's more evidence that part of what makes a great sequel is forcing you to reconsider the original story. In the Star Trek episode "Space Seed," Kirk proves his superiority to Khan by showing mercy. The whole episode is about whether Kirk is too soft, by contrast with Khan's 20th century barbarianism, and Kirk resolves this by giving Khan his own planet to settle, and by letting the episode's female guest-star go with him. Kirk shows that he's secure in his masculinity, and that 23rd century people can be strong but generous. And then... we find out that Kirk screwed up, and the fertile planet Ceti Alpha V turned into a hellhole. Instead of real magnanimity, this was a thoughtless gesture — kind of like the Enterprise leaving its shields down when the "friendly" Reliant approaches. "I got caught with my britches down," Kirk helpfully explains.
6. The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe
This famously complex and impenetrable tetralogy contains a lot of events in the first book that only really make sense to the reader after reading the later books — events that appear minor early on turn out to be incredibly major. And the famously unreliable narrator Severian turns out to be somewhat different than you originally believe. And that's just scratching the surface. Image by Bruce Pennington.
7. Doctor Who, "Genesis of the Daleks"
In a lot of ways, the 1975 Dalek origin story is a sequel to "The Daleks" from 1963-1964. And "Genesis" reveals that the garbled ancient history the Thals recite in "The Daleks" was mostly inaccurate. According to the first Dalek story, the Daleks were once peaceful philosopher/teachers, until a nuclear war mutated them and turned them into the hateful Daleks. In fact, both the Thals and the Kaleds (the Dalek ancestors) turn out to be warlike — and the Kaleds are Nazis from the beginning. The Daleks aren't just a response to mutation, but also an attempt by the scientist Davros to tip the balance of the endless war between the two races. Instead of the poignant tragedy the Thals had remembered, the truth is a lot grittier and nastier, and it changes the meaning of the Daleks. They're not philosophers gone wrong, they're weapons created in an endless war.
8. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Tolkien famously had to go back and rewrite a key chapter of The Hobbit so that it fit with Lord of the Rings — originally, Gollum offers the Ring as a reward if Bilbo wins the riddle challenge. Even with the rewritten version, we don't really realize the significance of the Ring until Lord of the Rings, and we see a very different side of Bilbo as a result. This is a classic example of pulling back and showing a larger context, so that events take on a new significance.
9. Ender's Shadow by Orson Scott Card
Card actually goes back and reexamines the events of Ender's Game, from the point of view of a relatively minor character, Bean. We learn that Bean was a lot smarter than he looked — in fact, he was a backup in case Ender failed — and we see a lot of the same events from a new vantagepoint (even some of the same scenes) and gain a very different view of the situation. In particular, we discover that the end of the Formic War will mean the rise of new wars among humans.
10. The Dark Knight
Batman Begins is the story of Bruce Wayne taking back Gotham from Falcone and the other mobsters who have torn the city apart. And in the process, he also has to save the city from the fanatics who trained him. But it's not until the second movie that we realize that Batman may have created bigger problems than he's solved, because his elimination of the mob (which seemed more or less a good thing in the first movie) has created a vacuum which gets filled by the much more destructive Joker. Batman begins to see his heroic legend as a burden instead of a goal, and look for an alternative model of heroism in Harvey Dent — something that ends spectacularly badly.
11. Wool by Hugh Howey
In the first Wool book, we slowly discover more about the Silo and explore the mystery of the outside world. But the second book in the series changes the focus drastically, as we're suddenly seeing the point of view of the people in charge of the Silo, and learning a lot of stuff that turns the discoveries in the first book upside down. The big reveals in the first book turn out to be just scratching the surface.
12. Bitterblue by Kristin Kashore
The third book in the Graceling trilogy is radically different than the first two — and it will probably make you re-read the first two books and see them in a whole new light. We learn a lot more of the mystery of the world, and delve much more deeply into the politics... and we uncover a lot of historical revisionism and long-buried stories of abuse and genocide. Both darker and more political than the first two books, this sequel puts the whole series into a new context that adds a lot more depth to the events you've read about previously.
So... what examples did we leave out? This is definitely a bigger topic than just these dozen sequels.
Thanks to Liz Henry and Lee Konstantinou for all their help with this!