NEW YORK – Steven Soderbergh once described the making of sequels as "a whore's game" -- but that was before he signed on to direct Ocean's Twelve.
With X2: X-Men United taking in $85.5 million at the box office over the weekend -- outgrossing the original by more than $30 million -- the so-called "curse of the sequel" has been vanquished.
Gone are the days when Hollywood would merely slap a "2" on the end of a popular movie and churn out a quickie sequel that was a pale imitation of the original.
Keanu Reeves wisely turned down the offer to star in 1997's Speed 2: Cruise Control -- a poorly made rip-off that tanked at the box office.
But he had no such qualms about re-upping for the two sequels to The Matrix -- The Matrix Reloaded, out May 15, and The Matrix Revolutions, due in November.
Along with X2, the Matrix movies epitomize the new attitude to sequels: Hollywood now treats them as part of a "franchise," an open-ended series of "event" films" that are bigger, better, more expensive and, crucially, reunite the original cast and crew.
"Used to be the name of the sequel game was to make it as cheaply and quickly as possible and keep going until moviegoers stopped buying tickets," says Hollywood Reporter Online columnist Martin Grove.
"Now, you wouldn't dare do that with a Harry Potter or X-Men or Spider-Man. The studio has a license to coin money for decades to come unless they're stupid enough to burn it out."
X2 reunited X-Men's director Bryan Singer, stars Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart and Halle Berry among others -- and upped the budget from the original's $75 million to $100 million.
The resulting film drew critical bouquets and a box office that ranked as the fourth-biggest opening weekend ever.
The legendary Stan Lee, the Marvel comics creator who was listed as a producer on X-Men and its sequel, agrees with the critics.
"The second was better than the first, and I thought the first was great," he told The New York Post. "The first one had to spend a lot of time introducing the characters, explaining what mutations were and setting up that world.
"But now we know the characters and there was room to explore the relationships. And of course the special effects were absolutely better."
Avi Arad, the CEO of Marvel Studios, which had its sixth consecutive No. 1 opening with X2, considers the making of a sequel a privilege.
"You have to be careful," he told The Post. "These movies are like flowers. You have to nurture them.
"The nicest thing that is happening to us is that we have Bryan Singer and [Spider-Man director] Sam Raimi doing the second movies." (Filming has almost wrapped on Spider-Man 2, slated for release next year.)
"These are acclaimed directors; they don't want to just do sequels, they want a challenge. They have to get excited creatively again."
The popularity of DVDs has also meant that a greater audience becomes familiar with the films beyond those who saw them at the theater -- priming them for the sequel.
Movie fans have had four years to catch up with The Matrix since its release in 1999, adding to the tremendous buzz surrounding next week's sequel.
With fan frenzy at a fever pitch, Larry and Andy Wachowski, the enigmatic writer-director brothers behind the worldwide phenomenon, are under pressure to live up to expectations - and early signs are they've pulled it off.
The new Matrix movies, besides reuniting Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Ann Moss, Laurence Fishburne and Hugo Weaving, and introducing intriguing new characters such as Persephone (Monica Bellucci) and Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), have upped the ante on the special effects.
Reloaded boasts 1,000 virtual-effects shots, compared with 412 in the original.
It's no small feat to best the original's groundbreaking use of "bullet time," in which the camera circled 360 degrees around an impossible-seeming stunt.
But the Wachowskis have reportedly made "bullet time" passé with a scene dubbed the Burly Brawl.
According to Premiere magazine, Reeves' Neo takes on 100 versions of Agent Smith (Weaving) in a superbly choreographed combat scene that visual-effects supervisor John Gaeta promises will be "the first time you're going to see what virtual reality looks like."
Reloaded ends on a cliffhanger, literally cutting off in mid-scene, which practically guarantees a box-office bonanza for the final act in the trilogy, Revolution.