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.
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.
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.
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.
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.