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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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"Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" (1989)
Franchise: Indiana Jones
How Threequel-y Was It: After famed archaeologist and professor Indiana Jones faced down psychotic cult leaders and Nazis in search of the Ark of the Covenant, he had something even more dangerous to deal with in the third movie: Daddy issues. Like most threequels, it went back to what made the original so special (and even further back, too – a prologue set the stage for the "Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" television series), in this case a cursed religious artifact (the Holy Grail) and a timely villain (Nazis!) After the dourness of the original sequel "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," the third movie was more lively and enjoyable – thanks largely to Jeffrey Boam's fizzy-fun script, Harrison Ford's comic timing and Sean Connery's wonderful portrayal as the senior Jones. It was assumed that this would be the final entry in the popular franchise – the word "last" is in the title and the movie literally ends with the characters riding off into the sunset – but George Lucas' insatiable need to fuck with people's childhoods led him to return to the Indiana Jones well one more time with 2008's regrettable "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."
Where Does It Rate In The Franchise: 2/3 The third film is strong, but seriously could you ever hope to top "Raiders of the Lost Ark?"

"Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End"(2007)
Franchise: Pirates of the Caribbean
How Threequel-y Was It: Like "The Matrix," Disney shot both sequels to its surprise hit "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" (starring an unproven weirdo named Johnny Depp and based on a Disneyland attraction) simultaneously, although scheduling difficulties and an actual hurricane pushed back production to the point that, after the second film was released theatrically, the cast and crew had to hurriedly finish production on the third. (This led to the third film being, at the time of its release, the most expensive movie ever made, a fact tactfully obscured by its shot-at-the-same-time-as-the-sequel status.) While no 2. ("Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest") had been a box office sensation, the third movie (released the following summer) failed to connect in the same way – it is overlong and unnecessarily complicated, with a climax that can be conservatively described as "fucking insane." But it also features some of the most memorable imagery of the entire franchise (all of the dreamy netherworld stuff at the beginning, Tom Hollander running his hand down the banister of an East India Trading Company ship seconds before its blown to smithereens) and it pushed director Gore Verbinski's aesthetic even further into the realm of animation/live-action hybridization. Unfairly maligned at the time of its release, "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" is unflinchingly dark and often quite rousing – suitable for the conclusion to a trilogy that nobody thought would ever exist in the first place. And while it wraps up a number of plot threads, it still left some open, which is why a fourth film, "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," was released in 2011 without the involvement of Verbinski. A fifth film, tentatively slated for 2015, is still looking for a director.
Where Does It Rate In The Franchise: 2/3 It lacks the surprise of the first film, but has a number of flourishes that rival or eclipse similar embellishments elsewhere. Yo ho ho...

"Return of the Jedi" (1983)
Franchise: Star Wars
How Threequel-y Was It: 'Jedi,' like you don't know, is the conclusion to the record-breaking original "Star Wars" trilogy, which more or less defined, for an entire generation, what it was like to go to the movies and come away genuinely awestruck. The third film after the noticeably darker sequel "The Empire Strikes Back," saw the return of the planet-destroying space station the Death Star, secrets revealed and a final, gripping confrontation between good and evil. Also, in a development that would come to define not only "Return of the Jedi" but the second set of "Star Wars" movies (the prequels), it was aimed more directly at children, with the introduction of the cuddly, teddy bear-ish Ewoks. (Their adorable primitivism defeated a technologically advanced race! Yay!) At the time, it seemed like the book was closed on the "Star Wars" cinematic universe, with the galaxy celebrating the defeat of the evil Galactic Empire with fireworks and Ewok songs. Of course, George Lucas wanted further adventures in this playground, so first he decided to endlessly tinker with the original films (on the recent Blu-rays he made the decision to have the Ewoks blink), and then he went back and explored the saga of a young Darth Vader – a decision hilariously derided by Patton Oswalt recently. It's weird to think of "Return of the Jedi" as a (relative) highpoint for the franchise.
Where does it rank in the franchise (to that date): 3/3 Although the weakest of the original trilogy, it's still much stronger than anything the prequels, with their jazzy visual effects and narrative incoherence, could muster up.

"Mission: Impossible III" (2006)
Franchise: Mission: Impossible
How Threequel-y Was It: After a notoriously prolonged development period that saw directors like David Fincher and Joe Carnahan come and go (along with writers like David Koepp and Frank Darabont), it was decided that J.J. Abrams, then primarily known for his cultish ABC spy series "Alias," would direct the movie, which saw a larger cast and Abrams placing a greater emphasis on the private life of superspy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). The results are awkward and uneven – it has some of the best sequences of the entire franchise (like the Vatican setpiece) and one of the best villains in Philip Seymour Hoffman's evil arms dealer. But Abrams' inexperience with a big canvas is painfully apparent, thanks to his insistence on television-sized close-ups and clumsy plotting. As a third film and potential cap to the franchise, it doesn't feel definitive or spectacular enough (thankfully this installment would be followed with "Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol," overseen by Abrams but directed with more energy by Brad Bird), but Abrams still brought enough new blood and fine set pieces to make it agreeably enjoyable. There's a reason Abrams has stayed on to shepherd future entries. It's his mission and he decided to accept it.
Where does it rank in the franchise (to that date): 2/3. At the time it was much better than John Woo's almost painful second film, but didn't match the class or elegance of Brian De Palma's sorely underrated original. "Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol" might be the best of the whole bunch, though.

"The Dark Knight Rises" (2012)
Franchise: Christopher Nolan's Batman films
How Threequel-y Was It: Having already set himself an unenviably high bar with both "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight," Christopher Nolan ratcheted the stakes even higher by insisting that "The Dark Knight Rises" would be the definitive end end, the final final installment of his Batman story. So arcs would close, contracts would be fulfilled and, whatever happened to the property next, these three films would always be a completed trilogy. What's impressive is the degree to which he made good on those promises -- "The Dark Knight Rises," is to us a fantastic example of how to round off a trilogy while leaving enough canonical possibilities open for someone else to take it somewhere else, without cheating the audience of a sense of satisfaction and closure. Yes, we agree that Nolan does occasionally take his eye off the ball when it comes to plot plausibility (really? It's the whole police department down there?), and sometimes skitters over details that a simple line of dialogue, or a tiny action beat could solve, but juggling so many strands simultaneously we cut him some slack. Especially considering that what he really nails is what sets this universe apart from that of other comic-based properties: there is a sense of time passed, lessons learned and people changed fundamentally that a more cartoonish approach could never really attain. More than a sequence of stories in which Batman works out how to defeat a bad guy, these films are about Bruce Wayne getting older, getting wiser and eventually, getting strong enough to leave Batman behind, and number 3 is where that agenda is writ largest.
Where does it rate in its franchise: Probably 2/3, though whether you consider it better than 'Dark Knight' and worse than 'Begins' or the other way round is a teensy bit more up for debate.

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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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