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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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Alien 3
"Alien 3" (1992)
Franchise: Alien
How Threequel-y Was It: After the haunted-house scariness of "Alien" and the more go-for-broke thrill ride of "Aliens," the franchise turned darker and more somber with "Alien 3," which takes place on a prison planet inhabited by rapists, thieves, and murderers. (The original, painfully misleading – especially if you're ten – tagline was: "On earth, everyone can hear you scream.") The original version of "Alien 3" was set on a wooden planet inhabited by space monks, but this vision seemed too unwieldy for Fox, so they instead hired music video savant David Fincher, known for his charcoal-black aesthetic, to make his directorial debut. Fincher changed the setting to a prison colony and slathered the film in stylistically impressive grime, although the film didn't really survive its abrupt tonal shift from the previous film -- that was a rollicking good time Fincher literally deadened by killing off the surviving cast members -- and was alienating to say the least. It added up to an unnecessarily dour experience, if one that, aethetically at least, intervening years have been a little kinder to.
Where does it rank in the franchise (to that date): 3/3 It's a fascinating failure, for sure, but at the time was the least impressive of the three movies. It's still more fun to watch than the fourth film, "Alien: Resurrection," and we'll leave last year's kinda-prequel "Prometheus" out of the frame entirely, in the interests of internal Playlist harmony.

Lotso Toy Story 3
"Toy Story 3" (2010)
Franchise: Toy Story
How Threequel-y Was It: While "Cars 2" and "Monsters University" feel more like branding exercises than legitimate follow-ups, the "Toy Story" franchise has always served to grow the characters and find new ways to wring laughs from a premise that is essentially a bunch of talking toys getting into adventures. And "Toy Story 3" really brings the A-game. The scope is expanded, a few new characters are introduced to spice things up, but more crucially, it brings the story full circle. Andy is now all grown up, and the toys that were his companions for 18 years now need to find someone else to love and play with them. Easily the most emotional entry of the series, Woody and the gang nearly find themselves incinerated and contemplating their own mortality in one of the most intense sequences in the series (and maybe in any animated movie in recent years). But "Toy Story 3" is all about passing the torch, saying goodbye to past memories, and hopefully making room for new ones, wherever life takes you, and if your heartstrings didn't tug a little when Bonnie embraces her new friends at the end, you have no soul. A truly satisfying, worthy finale to the series, that perfectly closes the loop on the three movies.
Where does it rate in its franchise (to that date): Well, no franchise is ever truly finished and "Toy Story" has lived on past the third installment with a handful of shorts and Tom Hanks saying himself "Toy Story 4" was in the works (though it doesn't seem to be happening anytime soon). But "Toy Story 3" leaves the series on a high note, and as the best of the bunch, so 1/3.

Die Hard With A Vengeance Willis Jackson
"Die Hard with a Vengeance"
Franchise: Die Hard
How Threequel-y Was It: Starting as an everyman cop in an extraordinary situation in "Die Hard," each progressive entry in the series has seen John McClane become more of a superhero (seriously he should've died a zillion times by now) in increasingly outlandish and empty movies, with villains becoming more anonymous until whats-his-name in "A Good To Day To Die Hard" threatened to we-don't-remember-and-it-doesn't-matter. "Die Hard With Vengeance" represents the tipping point of the series, between its grittier beginnings and homogenized, pre-packaged latter day excursions. On the one hand, you have a scenery-chewing Jeremy Irons playing a guy named Simon who sends McClane around Manhattan on an overly elaborate and evil game of... wait for it... Simon Says. On the other hand, you have McClane in Harlem wearing a sign that says "I hate Niggers." It's a weird mix of cartoony and provocative that never really works, though it's not without its charms, either.
Where does it rate in its franchise: 3/3 Worst, (though there are Playlisters who would insist 'Die Harder' is the lesser sequel). Third best in a series that has gotten worse and worse with each entry -- maybe the developing "Die Hard 6" will buck the trend...but probably not....

Spider-Man 3 emo
"Spider-Man 3" (2007)
Franchise: Spider-Man
How Threequel-y Was It: Where to begin with Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man 3? And what to say that hasn't already been said by hordes of disappointed geeks? "Spider-Man 2" ably balanced character-driven drama with effects-driven action (see the subway showdown between Tobey Maguire's Spidey and Alfred Molina's Doc Ock for the perfect melding of the two in a single scene), but "Spider-Man 3" tried to cram way too much into its two-plus hours. Instead of one stellar villain as its predecessors had, "3" takes its title too literally and offers a trio of sub-par baddies in the form of Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), Venom (Topher Grace) and Harry Osborn (James Franco). Adding to all that weight, the dialogue isn't nearly as much fun as it was in the two previous outings, causing each joke to land with a thud. As if all of that weren't bad enough, it also features Emo Spidey, Kirsten Dunst singing *and* Bruce Campbell's worst cameo in the series, as a French maitre d'. "Spider-Man 3" certainly left things open for "Spider-Man 4," etc., but creative issues and multiple script rewrites of the fourth installment ensured that they wouldn't make Sony's release date. Raimi and the cast pulled out, making room for Marc Webb's reboot "The Amazing Spider-Man" in 2012. That one is gearing up for its second outing now, so only time will tell if it can get to, or perhaps beyond, Raimi's tally of three.
Where does it rate in its franchise (to that date): 3/3 Worst.

Superman 3
"Superman III" (1983)
Franchise: Superman
How Threequel-y Was It: Richard Donner promoted "verisimilitude" in his directed portions of the "Superman" series. But Richard Lester, who directed portions of "Superman II," including a few comic bits, was seen as the future of the franchise. What resulted was a clash of two brands, "Superman" and Richard Pryor, the comic legend who was utilized in a dubious fashion to provide needless merrymaking as a contrast to Christopher Reeve's earnestness in the title role, something that clearly the execs thought would not be enough of a draw on its own. While the first films have a timelessness to them, this picture's threat of computers spelling our doom is definitely a product of eighties genre filmmaking, right down to the horrific and completely inexplicable robot lady threat of the third act. Even the villain leaves much to be desired: without Gene Hackman's grizzled Lex Luthor, the story pivots on the machinations of Ross Webster, an apparent last-minute addition in place of Brainiac (an idea nixed by the studio) that simply repeated the irritated-billionaire-villain routine that we'd seen in the last two films. The jokes don't land, the action doesn't work, and "Superman III" ends up being a typical threequel, over-stuffed with plot lines, like the subplot involving Clark returning back home to Smallville and reuniting with a childhood sweetheart, which is rendered an afterthought by Pryor's dubious PG-rated shucking-and-jiving.
Where does it rate in its franchise (to that date)? 3/3 Worst. At least until "Superman IV: The Quest For Peace."

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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