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25 Blockbuster Threequels: Did They Sink Or Save Their Franchises?

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by The Playlist Staff
May 2, 2013 3:04 PM
35 Comments
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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.

"Transformers: Dark of the Moon" (2011)
Franchise: Transformers
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.

"Lethal Weapon 3" (1992)
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."

"Batman Forever" (1995)
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.

"The Bourne Ultimatum" (2007)
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.

"Back to the Future 3" (1990)
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.

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35 Comments

  • Mark T | May 8, 2013 1:07 PMReply

    My apologies for the spam my internet just went on the fritz. Hopefully they get deleted soon.

  • Mark T | May 8, 2013 1:06 PMReply

    I have to say that "Return of the King" is my favourite of the Lord of the Rings, and "Dead Man's Chest" left me excited to see "At World's End", which I was quite disappointed with, but I still enjoyed. "Dark Knight Rises" disappointed me, because it lacked the visceral darkness, and intellect of "The Dark Knight", and the excellent pace of "Batman Begins", and my hat goes off to "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" for the performance of Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, and the consistent "appropriate use of a shotgun." T:3" lacked the character arcs I love so much about the second, which really are what made it for me.

  • Mark T | May 8, 2013 1:05 PMReply

    I have to say that "Return of the King" is my favourite of the Lord of the Rings, and "Dead Man's Chest" left me excited to see "At World's End", which I was quite disappointed with, but I still enjoyed. "Dark Knight Rises" disappointed me, because it lacked the visceral darkness, and intellect of "The Dark Knight", and the excellent pace of "Batman Begins", and my hat goes off to "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" for the performance of Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, and the consistent "appropriate use of a shotgun." T:3" lacked the character arcs I love so much about the second, which really are what made it for me.

  • Mark T | May 8, 2013 1:05 PMReply

    I have to say that "Return of the King" is my favourite of the Lord of the Rings, and "Dead Man's Chest" left me excited to see "At World's End", which I was quite disappointed with, but I still enjoyed. "Dark Knight Rises" disappointed me, because it lacked the visceral darkness, and intellect of "The Dark Knight", and the excellent pace of "Batman Begins", and my hat goes off to "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" for the performance of Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, and the consistent "appropriate use of a shotgun." T:3" lacked the character arcs I love so much about the second, which really are what made it for me.

  • Mark T | May 8, 2013 1:05 PMReply

    I have to say that "Return of the King" is my favourite of the Lord of the Rings, and "Dead Man's Chest" left me excited to see "At World's End", which I was quite disappointed with, but I still enjoyed. "Dark Knight Rises" disappointed me, because it lacked the visceral darkness, and intellect of "The Dark Knight", and the excellent pace of "Batman Begins", and my hat goes off to "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" for the performance of Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, and the consistent "appropriate use of a shotgun." T:3" lacked the character arcs I love so much about the second, which really are what made it for me.

  • Mark T | May 8, 2013 1:04 PMReply

    I have to say that "Return of the King" is my favourite of the Lord of the Rings, and "Dead Man's Chest" left me excited to see "At World's End", which I was quite disappointed with, but I still enjoyed. "Dark Knight Rises" disappointed me, because it lacked the visceral darkness, and intellect of "The Dark Knight", and the excellent pace of "Batman Begins", and my hat goes off to "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" for the performance of Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, and the consistent "appropriate use of a shotgun." T:3" lacked the character arcs I love so much about the second, which really are what made it for me.

  • andrew m | May 6, 2013 10:50 PMReply

    This is probably a franchise that most don't think about, but The Transporter 3 might have been the first time I really thought the third installment of a series was outright the best. They are thoroughly dumb movies to be sure, but the whole series is a lot of fun, and the third one really gets it right - enough that I'd love to see a 4th.

  • Tom McGibbet | May 5, 2013 4:30 AMReply

    Also, Identity might have a much smoother plot, but Ultimatum is still the superior film. It is pure, genius cinema, and cemented the trilogy's influence over the entire action genre.

  • Tom McGibbet | May 5, 2013 4:29 AMReply

    The muddled and weirdly dark (but still reasonably enjoyable) Back to the Future II and At World's End better than the breezily entertaining Dead Man's Chest and Back to the Future III? Definitely not. Also, John McClane and Samuel L. Jackson chemistry raises Die Hard 3 above 2.

  • Owen Hughes | May 4, 2013 11:13 AMReply

    Of the five "threequels" pictured at the top: "Return of the Jedi" (although I'm the only person in the world to prefer it to "Empire") is considered the "bad one" of the original Star Wars Trilogy; "Spider-Man 3" got a lukewarm 63% on Rotten Tomatoes and was basically derided by fans; "The Matrix Revolutions" was despised by critics (36% -- even though I personally liked it more than "Reloaded"); "Return of the King" was not a true sequel, because it was the third part of a 9-hour-long film that was all planned out and SHOT in advance, based on the last third-and-a-bit of a single book that had been released 50 years earlier. Of these five, "Iron Man 3" seems to be the only one that critically might (at present we can't tell) outstrip EITHER f its predecessors. But then, like RotK it's also kind of an exception: it's actually the seventh film in a series, four of which had previously featured the character Tony Stark/Iron Man. Going by production/release order, "Iron Man 2" was actually the third film to feature the character, and also the third film in the franchise. In terms of story continuity, the third film in the timeline to feature the character was 2008's "The Incredible Hulk", which was both critically and commercially a disappointment (until "Iron Man 3", which I can only say I LIKE right now, it was my third favourite in the franchise after "The Avengers" and "Thor", though).

  • cirkusfolk | May 3, 2013 1:35 PMReply

    Wow. Almost every one of these films got the worst of the series rating, and the few that didn't (Toy Story, Dark Knight Rises etc) should have. I must admit the only real flaw I see is ranking BTTF 3 as the worst. Oh and btw, saw Iron Man 3 last night and it is easily the worst too. Regenerating fire people, really???

  • Tally | May 11, 2013 1:49 PM

    Die hard with a vengeance is def the better sequel out of all the die hards. and the 3rd back to the future isnt bad. overall a solid trilogy. BOOO PLAYLIST FOR YOUR OPINIONS.

  • The Ritty | May 3, 2013 2:31 PM

    BTTF 2 is FAR worse than 3... give me a break. 3 is great. Lists made by 20-something know nothings raised on crap. Die hard 3 the worst!? whoever wrote this list is a total moron.

  • Nastee | May 3, 2013 10:20 AMReply

    TDKR was the worst of the three, by far.

  • Krazy Joe | May 3, 2013 9:40 AMReply

    So many of these are wrong.

    Jurassic Park III was better than Spielberg's overlong, preachy 2nd film.

    Terminator 3 was better than Terminator 2 because it fixed T2's time travel errors and had the balls to end the way T2 should have ended!

  • Krazy Joe | May 3, 2013 9:32 AMReply

    FOOLS!

    Back to the Future III was the best film in the trilogy!

  • HarveyDent322 | May 3, 2013 3:26 AMReply

    Glad you liked MI: 3 but the only time I saw it I thought I was watching a soap opera with some action beats thrown in which was why that was the only time I've watched it. I understand trying to give nuance to our action heroes but I greatly preferred the high caliber, over-the-top action that John Woo put on the screen for MI: 2. I may even go so far as to rate the sequel higher than the original because it accomplished in spades what it set out to be much more than 1 and 3 which was fun, summer action movie.

    Also, MI: 2 IMO still holds the title for the best hand-to-hand fight in a Hollywood movie between Tom Cruise and Dougray Scott. Great, great action.

  • Alan B | May 2, 2013 10:16 PMReply

    Also, Nivola is a terrific actor, and the only reason he didn't "happen" was because Kenneth Branagh's super-ambitious Shakespeare/musical-hybrid 'Love's Labour's Lost' failed at the box office. It's the same reason why Adrian Lester also didn't "happen". The making of a star is the result of MANY FACTORS, not just the actor's talent. So be offended that a rising star took a chance that didn't come off: no one else gives a shit.

  • nechoplex | May 2, 2013 9:48 PMReply

    "The Bourne Identity is easily the best one of the bunch" That's some ridiculous statement right there. That movie is good, but not even near the greatness of Supremacy. Identity lacked the exciting action and so much more.

  • Derrick | May 2, 2013 11:22 PM

    Glad someone else acknowledges this. Supremacy was amazing..

  • Alan B | May 2, 2013 9:37 PMReply

    'Lethal Weapon 3' might not be the best film in the series, but it is THE GREATEST FILM EVER MADE. Not only does the film an opening titles sequence featuring Fire, Sting and Kamen, but the threequel also features STUART FUCKING WILSON as JACK TRAVIS. Not only does the character have the awesome backstory of a COP GONE ROGUE, but he's pulling THE LATE '80s/EARLY '90S REAL ESTATE SCAM TO END ALL REAL ESTATE SCAMS. Herzog in 'Jack Reacher' had NOTHING on this guy: whether Wilson's shooting JACOB FROM LOST in police stations with ZERO CONSEQUENCES, driving forklifts at people for some reason or sporting the most awesome 'tache this side of Kurt Russell in 'Tombstone' (or Sam Elliot in 'Tombstone' or Bill Paxton in 'Tombstone' or EVERYONE IN 'TOMBSTONE'), Wilson is THE MAN. Nothing stops this guy.

  • Echo Seven | May 2, 2013 8:52 PMReply

    Two Towers is the weak link in LOTR. Yes, Helm's Deep is the action pinnacle of the trilogy, but the rest of the film is filled with an inordinate amount of filler and bloat. From Aragorn's love triangle to superfluous warg attacks to the interminable Entmoot that ends with the Ents pussing out then being tricked into war by a hobbit trick that doesn't make one iota of sense, Two Towers is the entry most in need of some judicious trimming. It also committed the unforgivable sin of turning valiant warrior Gimli into Jar Jar Binks, with a lame, sophomoric slob / height / clumsy / hermaphrodite / out-of-shape joke virtually every time he's onscreen. ROTK may need 3 fewer endings, but on the whole it's a tighter, better film.

  • Skippy | May 3, 2013 8:50 PM

    100% agree with you.

  • Ogre RumpleDumps | May 2, 2013 7:08 PMReply

    The Matrix Revolutions is the biggest, giant steaming turd of a threequel ever made. Fact.

  • daniel | May 2, 2013 6:30 PMReply

    Return of the Jedi is, in terms of sheer let down, the worst film I have ever seen. The new films are nearly as bad, but at least if you knew nothing about them whatsoever and heard only the vaguest outline of what the story might be, they could sound promising. But no matter how you slice it, Jedi is an utter mess, missing every single cue set up in Empire, and collapsing into a repetitive, grating, pointless hash.

  • Erik | May 2, 2013 5:27 PMReply

    I agree that Prizoner of Azkaban is by far the best film in the franchise, but...you should've mentioned David Thewlis's performance. His Lupin is the heart and soul of that movie.

  • Andrew | May 2, 2013 4:04 PMReply

    Ocean's 13 is in my opinion way better than 12, and Die Hard 3 is much better than 2, and I have no idea why I'm wasting my time stating this. Stuck in the office. Nothing else to do, but nerd rant, I suppose.

  • Other Andrew | May 2, 2013 7:19 PM

    Couldn't agree more. Ocean's 13 was a return to form after the, easiest way to put it, weird Ocean's 12, and Die Hard with a Vengeance is absolutely better than Die Hard 2 (which was still a good movie). Although I personally feel Last Crusade was better than all three Indiana Jones' movies, just barely over Raiders though. I have to say though, the scene in Temple of Doom where he pulls out his heart is totally kick ass.

  • andrew | May 2, 2013 3:59 PMReply

    Whoa, whoa, whoa. Last Crusade over Temple of Doom? Surely you jest.

  • KrazyJoe | May 3, 2013 9:42 AM

    Temple of Doom sucks.

    I only acknowledge 3 Indiana Jones films....and Temple of Doom aint one of them....

  • Tony | May 2, 2013 3:49 PMReply

    This weekend? Hasn't Iron Man 3 already made about $300m?

  • RNL | May 2, 2013 3:33 PMReply

    Michael Caine took his Bahamas holiday for Jaws 4, not 3.

  • Jess | May 2, 2013 6:54 PM

    Very true. Thanks for the correction.

  • Duranduran | May 2, 2013 3:27 PMReply

    ... Well, I hope the next Tron will be as least as cool as Legacy... ##dream##

  • TheoC | May 2, 2013 3:26 PMReply

    YES Rocky III getting the love. Fantastic montage sequence which ends with Rocky & Creed jumping up & down in the ocean. Also a brilliant ending, the fight we don't get to see.

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