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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"Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" (1985)
Franchise: Mad Max
How Threequel-y Was It: While financially the most successful of them all, after the balls out action and thrills of the nihilistic second installment "The Road Warrior," director/co-writer George Miller's third film in the series, "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" was seen as a bit of a head-scratching disappointment. It's got kids in a Never-Never Land situation, and some argued because of that, Mad Max went the sitcom formula route -- enlisting children to liven up a dead and losing-its-flavor franchise. But while slower in pace, and lighter on action set pieces, 'Beyond Thunderdome' is more thoughtful and has a dream-like, fairy-tale tone, seeing Max arrive at the ruthless wasteland outpost of Bartertown (cue delicious Tina Turner villain). Sentenced to exile in the desert after after he breaks the must-die rules of Thunderdome, Max almost meets his doom, but is saved by a tribe of children living on their own in an oasis. They mistake him for Captain Walker, a messianic figured in their made-up myths who will save them and take them to "Tomorrow-morrow Land." Thus in the wastelands of this post-apocalyptic milieu, 'Beyond Thunderdome' finds a tenor previously not available in this series: hope. It's not quite what audiences expected (or maybe even wanted) from this violent and lawless world, but it's what Miller delivered. Considering how threequels usually go, it's a much more unexpected outlier, and the better for it.
Where does it rate in its franchise: 2/3 "The Road Warrior" is beloved, so that's obviously number one, but "Mad Max" doesn't quite have its racing stripes totally down, nor does it hold up as well. Conversely, 'Thunderdome,' seen as something of a disappointment at the time, has aged well. If only we coulda seen that "Mad Max 4" with Gibson and Heath Ledger, but we suppose "Fury Road" with Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron will have to suffice.

"The Godfather: Part III" (1990)
Franchise: The Godfather
How Threequel-y Was It: Almost the poster boy for unnecessary and uncalled-for threequels, Francis Ford Coppola's return to "The Godfather" well, sixteen years after the peerless, sprawling epic genius of "The Godfather: Part II," perhaps doesn't deserve quite the level of odium that was heaped on it at the time, but is undoubtedly a far lesser entry. More an example of failing to live up to astronomically high expectations than a truly bad film, 'Part III' still boasts a cherishable Al Pacino performance even if the film around him never gets close to the richness and layered moral ambivalence of the first two. And in retrospect, while Sofia Coppola's casting still seems like a nepotistic error, can we really say the film would have been that much better with Winona Ryder in that role? A threequel that's destined to never really be more than a footnote to its predecessors, the problems of "The Godfather: Part III" run deeper than a handful of casting issues: it's a strange example of one of our greatest ever directors mimicking himself, and coming up with, at best, a pale imitation. Great auteurs of course need room to push against boundaries, to upset expectations and sometimes to fail, but the problem is that 'Godfather III' doesn't fail through experimentation, it fails through complacency. And if retreading old ground is all a sequel has to offer, better to have left well enough alone.
Where does it rate in its franchise: 3/3 Worst of the series.

"Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" (2004)
Franchise: Harry Potter
How Threequel-y Was It: Director Chris Columbus brought Harry to Hollywood with the franchise's first two installments, giving a shiny sense of awe and wonder to the character's introduction to the big screen. "The Sorcerer's Stone" and "Chamber of Secrets" were fine–the tone was likely more appropriate for the young age of Harry, Ron, and Hermione (and fans)–but all that changed when "Y Tu Mama Tambien" director Alfonso Cuaron was brought on for the third film. There's a distinct visual and tonal shift from its predecessors, moving toward the darker end of the spectrum. This change was due partly to the angsty adolescence that the trio of Hogwarts students was reaching, but it also stemmed from the introduction of the mysterious Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) and the series' creepiest villains: dementors. 'Azkaban' is more complex, both in its time-twisting (turning?) plot and in its characters, being given more depth than in previous films. This was also Michael Gambon's first appearance as Dumbledore after the death of Richard Harris, and while we won't play favorites, Gambon's approach fits better within Cuaron's version of the wizarding world. The series continued on for five more films, with safer (and less stylish) directors Mike Newell and David Yates at the helm. Though our favorite in the series, 'Azkaban' was the lowest-grossing entry in the franchise, but the follow-ups more closely hew to Cuaron's vision than the lighter, brighter take from Columbus.
Where does it rate in its franchise (to that date): 1/3 Best of the series to the point.

"The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (2003)
Franchise: The Lord of the Rings
How Threequel-y Was It: With a decade between us and the release of "The Return of the King," it'd almost be easy to forget how truly amazing and groundbreaking the third film in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy was. Shot back to back with "The Fellowship of the Ring" and "The Two Towers," Peter Jackson's capper to his adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien classic is a satisfying ending to an incredible undertaking. And by "ending," we mean "endings." Though lesser than its predecessors, the movie is still rousing and ambitious, until you reach the series of seemingly interminable final scenes, each followed by one more finale, asking for more of our tears. As though we had any left after watching Billy Boyd's Pippin and his heartbreaking rendition of "Edge of Night." While better in execution than most cinematic war scenes, the major battles in the film -- The Battle of the Pelennor Fields and The Battle of the Black Gate -- can't possibly match the epic grandeur of Helm's Deep, which served as the climax of "The Two Towers." However, we will confess to raising our fists in victory with Miranda Otto's triumphant declaration as Eowyn, "I am no man!" Is that just us?
Where does it rate in its franchise (to that date): 3/3 Worst, if only because the others are so good. The Academy disagreed, bestowing Best Picture and all 10 other awards it was nominated for, likely rewarding "RotK" as well as its predecessors in one shot.

"The Matrix Revolutions" (2003)
Franchise: The Matrix
How Threequel-y Was It: The story goes that The Wachowskis, unsure if they'd be able to make another movie in Hollywood, crammed an entire trilogy's worth of ideas into the first "Matrix" movie. When producer Joel Silver and studio Warner Bros went back to the Wachowskis, clamoring to produce further films in the franchise (after the original had become a surprise smash), the directors cranked out two subsequent films, shot simultaneously and released six months apart. (This at least partially explains the weird, thrown-together vibe of the latter movies.) "The Matrix Revolutions" was the end to that trilogy, a completely bizarre conclusion to an already wonky series that saw franchise mainstays like Laurence Fishburne's Morpheus regulated to second-banana status (he was basically the Chewbacca to Jada Pinkett-Smith's Han Solo), with none of the original characters actually staying in the human stronghold of Zion to defend the population against the robotic menace. Much of the movie is devoted to Keanu Reeves' Neo traveling to the fabled Machine City on a messianic quest for redemption, while the hanging chads established in the previous movies, like Mr. Smith's (Hugo Weaving) ability to occupy human bodies, are ignored almost entirely. There are a handful of standout sequences that rival the first film (including a zero-G hallway shootout and all the Machine City nonsense) and, unlike the second film, the stakes are actually significant. But it's hard to make an emotionally identifiable action movie when your main character is a tragedy-stricken demigod
Where does it rate in the franchise: 2/3 While being superior to the sequel it still falls far short of the original's inventiveness and wily humor.
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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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