By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist May 2, 2013 at 3:04PM
A lot's been written over the years about sequels -- when they go right and bring us a welcome return to characters and themes we'd flocked to see the first time out and, more often, when they do not, and instead deliver diminishing returns in everything except box office terms. But what of the second sequel, the so-called "threequel"? It's a franchise entry that presents its own specific challenges -- is it the conclusion to a trilogy (like "The Dark Knight Rises") or just the continuation of a franchise (such as "Die Hard With A Vengeance")? Does it have lost ground to make up after a disappointing second entry ("Mission: Impossible 3") or are expectations at an all-time high following a mark II triumph ("Return of the Jedi")? This weekend, we all get to see whether "Iron Man 3" rises to or sinks beneath its particular set of challenges -- you can read our judgement here -- but it's a situation with pitfalls Marvel head Kevin Feige, for one, was fully aware of.
"This is Marvel Studios' first Part Three. It's my first Part Three as a solo producer," he told EW, "but I've been a part of other Part Threes that I don't think people [consider] tremendous successes." (Feige's threequel production credits are: "Blade Trinity," "X-Men: The Last Stand" and "Spider-Man 3" so, yeah.) "There, I witnessed what I thought were pitfalls we should avoid. And one of them was not taking a risk to do something different, to take a chance with the formula."
It's an interesting take on what can make a threequel sing. It got us to thinking about other tentpole titles and how they've approached their third episode -- and it's illuminating to note just how many more of them go there, and often beyond, than not ("Ghostbusters," "Gremlins," "Fantastic Four," "Tomb Raider," "Speed" and "Under Siege" being the more blockbustery of the ones that, for one reason or another, did stop after only 2). So rather than try to compare apples and oranges and get into circular "Is 'The Godfather 3' inherently better or worse than 'Die Hard with a Vengeance' "-type arguments, we decided to talk about how each of these 25 films fared within their franchises to that point, and what, if anything, they can tell us about the delicate art of the threequel.
How Threequel-y Was It: Two years after "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," and barely ten minutes after our lingering headache from it had subsided, Michael Bay inflicted the third installment of his ginormous, brainless, noisy cash cow on a world that already contained so much pain and cruelty. To be fair, though, number 3 was marginally more bearable than the unwatchable 'Fallen,' mainly down to more coherent third-act action, and offensive robot characterisations being kept to a minimum. Plus, it gets some points for trying the old "alternate history thing" vis-a-vis the moon landing (which actually had us marginally intrigued at trailer stage), though it then loses them all, and more besides, for being too paste-eating dumb to have that idea go anywhere. Making much less of a difference to the finished product was the complete substitution of one of the "humans" involved -- with bombshell Megan Fox replaced this time out by bombshell Rosie Huntington-Whitely, who is totes empowered by a plot that sees her suddenly spout quantum-physicist levels of scientific knowhow and basically chat arch Decepticon Megatron out of Murdering The World. Still, as everyone always tells us, you don't go to Transformers movies for decent plot or characterisation, you go to see a second franchise (after "Fast & Furious") in which Tyrese Gibson gets to chicken out of things at the last minute on account of their likelihood of failure. On that level, unlike every single other, 'Transformers 3' does not disappoint.
Where does it rate in its franchise (to that date): 2/3 Worse than no. 1, better than no. 2. The inevitable 4th is on its way, less LaBeouf.
Franchise: Lethal Weapon
How Threequel-y Was It: There was a certain rhythm established to a few of the big franchises of the eighties/early nineties in which a sometimes surprisingly successful original would go a little darker with its sequel, which would in turn be pulled back for the third entry. And so it was with "Lethal Weapon 3," a movie that, after the relative darkness of '2' (Patsy Kensit drowns!), decided that what the audience really wanted was more of grating comic foil/fall guy Leo Getz (Joe Pesci). Whatever collective delusion we may have been laboring under as to the lovability of that character has however, thoroughly worn off in subsequent years, and now "Lethal Weapon 3" stacks up rather poorly beside the preceding entries, with the hair-trigger unpredictability and genuine angst of Mel Gibson's Riggs, and the weary, grounded decency of Danny Glover's Murtaugh here relegated to a series of worn out one-liners, though those characters and their relationship were what gave this series its raison d'etre in the first place. So a couple of decent chase scenes (certainly the film can't be faulted for its breakneck pace) and a funny, cute makeout scene which begins when Riggs and Rene Russo's Sergeant Cole compare scars (indeed Russo is a welcome addition to a series that had given its women short shrift till then) save it from being a total loss, but it's not a patch on '2' and not a patch on a patch on the first one.
Where does it rate in its franchise (to that date): 3/3 of the films to that point, and then not necessarily better, but certainly a little less pointless than the run-around-the-paddock that was "Lethal Weapon 4."
Franchise: Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher's Batman films
How Threequel-y Was It: With Tim Burton's "Batman" breaking all sorts of box office records up to that point, Burton was given a degree of license to pursue a darker agenda with the film's sequel, "Batman Returns." But while that movie's quite willfully grotesque tenor (DeVito's Penguin is a truly revolting villain) actually didn't put audiences off in droves as is sometimes suggested ('Returns' had the biggest opening weekend of all time to that date, and wound up the 3rd-highest grossing US film of 1992), Warner Bros -- made mad with greed and drunk on the first film's stellar receipts -- felt it was a disappointment, and decided to give the whole franchise a gaudy makeover. And you know what? Damned if it didn't work, with Joel Schumacher's first time at Bat (a pun so glorious we wish we could make it every day) outgrossing its predecessor by quite some distance. It hasn't matured as well as 'Returns' by any means, but maybe that's partly because we retrospectively spy the spectre of the bloated dayglo horror that would be "Batman and Robin" waiting in the wings. Still, 'Forever' is a decent enough romp, a more kid-friendly colorful version to be sure, and a sight more disposable than the previous entries but, batsuit nipples and all, it walked a line between the darkness of no. 2 and all-out cartoony camp.
Where does it rate in its franchise (to that date): If the series had ended there, we'd still rate it 3/3, but with a gladder heart than we do now, though, because it's harder to forgive any movie that did well enough to make "Batman and Robin" a reality.
Franchise: The Jason Bourne series
How Threequel-y Was It: Director Paul Greengrass inherited the series after director and shepherd Doug Liman -- who bought the rights himself, and pitched and sold it to Universal in the first place -- was kicked off for being erratic, overbudget and unpredictable on "The Bourne Identity." But the writing architect Tony Gilroy (who would go on to direct "The Bourne Legacy") remained throughout (perhaps against his better judgement since he and Greengrass clashed frequently) and preserved the film's emotional and philosophical throughline. Starting mere minutes after "The Bourne Supremacy" ended, 'Ultimatum' packs a visceral punch from minute one and never gives up. Ultimately seeking redemption, Bourne attempts to atone as best he can for those he killed (or was responsible for, like Marie, his girlfriend played by Franka Potente) and then put an end to the Treadstone/Black Briar black ops programs that turned him into a killer before he lost his memory and essentially became a different person. 'Ultimatum' closes the chapter on the former CIA assassin and psychogenic amnesiac Jason Bourne: his true identity is finally revealed, but along the way the film is non-stop electrifying. The most financially successful of them all (natch) and thrillingly watchable, 'Ultimatum' is nonethless arguably the least satisfying Bourne film -- which may be due to a production that started before the final script had been nailed down. (Gilroy walked early, and others were brought in to triage before and during filming).
Where does it rate in its franchise: This may be a controversial choice. But it's either 2/3 or 3/3. In retrospect, "The Bourne Identity" is easily the best one of the bunch. 'Supremacy' has two things going for it that 'Ultimatum' doesn't: a new aesthetic (the shaky-cam visuals not yet played out) and a revenge theme that burns with the audience's desire for Bourne to bring the payback (for Marie's death). 'Ultimatum' is probably the most thrillingly shot and action-packed, but storywise, it sort of stumbles to the finish line in ungainly fashion. This however, will be argued by many.
Franchise: Back to the Future
How Threequel-y Was It: For all our Criterion discs and complete Tarkovsky collections, there are few topics that engage the Playlist staff in livelier debate than the relative merits of the sequels to 1985's universally beloved "Back to the Future." So let the controversy ensue. By far the blandest of the three films, 'Part 3' mostly jettisons the McFly-family-timeline-criss-crossing antics of the the previous installments, and instead focuses on Doc Brown, a character we adore of course, but not as a romantic lead. His courtship of Old West schoolmistress Clara (Mary Steenburgen) takes up so much of this film's plot that it saps the franchise of its trademark zip, while the "Marty becomes a cowboy" storyline feels like an episode of a spin-off TV show rather than a full feature, and we say that with a deep abiding love for the Western genre. Arguably, 'Part 3' can be praised for at least attempting to do something different with the franchise, but they did rather throw the baby out with the bathwater, excising a great portion of what was so terrific about the the first two, and settling for "sweet" instead. That it was largely better received than its predecessor on initial release is a terrible injustice that posterity, if it has any sense at all, will gradually redress.
Where does it rate in its franchise: 3/3 Worst, by a considerable margin.