The Godfather Part II is rightly considered one of the best films of all time. But is it really better than its predecessor? One could argue not, and here’s why.
The Godfather, released in 1972 and based on Mario Puzo’s novel of the same name immediately became a seminal entry in the annals of crime film fiction; its continuing influence and impact cannot be understated. Featuring a stellar cast including Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan and Robert Duval among others, the film tells the story of the aging patriarch of one of New York’s Five Mafia Families, Don Vito Corleone. It is also the story of how one his sons, Michael, becomes the head of the family after Vito’s death. The Godfather Part II, released just two years later in 1974, charts Michael’s continual rise within the mafia, culminating in him losing everything he loves despite having acquired immense power.
The general consensus is that the sequel is the better movie. There is no doubt that it’s a classic film in its own right, with stellar performances by a returning Al Pacino and a mesmerising Robert de Niro as a young Vito Corleone. However, what makes that film unique is the contrasting of a young Vito’s rise to power with Michael’s. Some of the best scenes in that film in fact belong to Vito and his rise from innocent child to mafia crime boss. In contrast, Michael’s story taken on its own merits is just not that interesting. Yes, he loses his humanity and he loses his family (even murdering his own brother), and that makes for great drama. But the actual plot of what he’s trying to achieve with Cuba, the casinos and Hyman Roth falls a bit flat. This is brought home by The Godfather Saga on TV edition of the films. Here, the plot proceeds chronologically, starting with Vito as a young boy and ending with Michael alone in Lake Tahoe. Michael’s storyline when told in this order is rote and a bit bland; there’s just not that much to it.
Conversely, The Godfather can be argued to be the more operatic and grandiose movie, featuring uniquely memorable set pieces and character development. Indeed, the film is big and sprawling and epic in scope; at its centre is a masterful performance by Marlon Brando as the aging don, while Al Pacino also impresses as the rebellious son who at first wants nothing to do with the “family business” and then falls from grace. And Michael, who is fairly one note in the sequel, actually has an arc in this one. The family drama is really a tragedy that’s played out on a grand stage, so it is fitting that the film contains overt Shakespearean archetypes: symbolically Don Vito is King Lear, presiding over his kingdom but advancing in age and having to deal with his three sons, Sonny, impetuous and hot-headed, Fredo, dutiful and shy, Michael, rebellious (at least at the start of the film) and quiet. This gives the film richness and an extra layer that the sequel lacks. That’s not to take anything away from The Godfather Part II. It still is a brilliant movie, one of the best ever made; the character of Frank Pantangelli is a particular highlight. But as a compelling drama and portrayal of the life of a crime family, nothing can touch the original.