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

The Playlist 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.
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Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
"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 Nighy
"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...

Harrison Ford Return Of The Jedi
"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 3 Cruise
"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, Christian Bale
"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.

This article is related to: Iron Man 3, Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi , Feature, The Dark Knight Rises, The Lord Of the Rings, The Bourne Ultimatum, Transformers: The Dark Of The Moon, Features


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