Back to IndieWire

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

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

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.

“This is Marvel Studios‘ first Part Three. It’s my first Part Three as a solo producer,” he told EW, “but I’ve been a part of other Part Threes that I don’t think people [consider] tremendous successes.” (Feige’s threequel production credits are: “Blade Trinity,” “X-Men: The Last Stand” and “Spider-Man 3” so, yeah.) “There, I witnessed what I thought were pitfalls we should avoid. And one of them was not taking a risk to do something different, to take a chance with the formula.”

It’s an interesting take on what can make a threequel sing. It got us to thinking about other tentpole titles and how they’ve approached their third episode — and it’s illuminating to note just how many more of them go there, and often beyond, than not (“Ghostbusters,” “Gremlins,” “Fantastic Four,” “Tomb Raider,” “Speed” and “Under Siege” being the more blockbustery of the ones that, for one reason or another, did stop after only 2). So rather than try to compare apples and oranges and get into circular “Is ‘The Godfather 3‘ inherently better or worse than ‘Die Hard with a Vengeance‘ “-type arguments, we decided to talk about how each of these 25 films fared within their franchises to that point, and what, if anything, they can tell us about the delicate art of the threequel.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon” (2011)
Franchise: Transformers
How Threequel-y Was It: Two years after “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” and barely ten minutes after our lingering headache from it had subsided, Michael Bay inflicted the third installment of his ginormous, brainless, noisy cash cow on a world that already contained so much pain and cruelty. To be fair, though, number 3 was marginally more bearable than the unwatchable ‘Fallen,’ mainly down to more coherent third-act action, and offensive robot characterisations being kept to a minimum. Plus, it gets some points for trying the old “alternate history thing” vis-a-vis the moon landing (which actually had us marginally intrigued at trailer stage), though it then loses them all, and more besides, for being too paste-eating dumb to have that idea go anywhere. Making much less of a difference to the finished product was the complete substitution of one of the “humans” involved — with bombshell Megan Fox replaced this time out by bombshell Rosie Huntington-Whitely, who is totes empowered by a plot that sees her suddenly spout quantum-physicist levels of scientific knowhow and basically chat arch Decepticon Megatron out of Murdering The World. Still, as everyone always tells us, you don’t go to Transformers movies for decent plot or characterisation, you go to see a second franchise (after “Fast & Furious“) in which Tyrese Gibson gets to chicken out of things at the last minute on account of their likelihood of failure. On that level, unlike every single other, ‘Transformers 3’ does not disappoint.
Where does it rate in its franchise (to that date): 2/3 Worse than no. 1, better than no. 2. The inevitable 4th is on its way, less LaBeouf.

Lethal Weapon 3” (1992)
Franchise: Lethal Weapon
How Threequel-y Was It: There was a certain rhythm established to a few of the big franchises of the eighties/early nineties in which a sometimes surprisingly successful original would go a little darker with its sequel, which would in turn be pulled back for the third entry. And so it was with “Lethal Weapon 3,” a movie that, after the relative darkness of ‘2‘ (Patsy Kensit drowns!), decided that what the audience really wanted was more of grating comic foil/fall guy Leo Getz (Joe Pesci). Whatever collective delusion we may have been laboring under as to the lovability of that character has however, thoroughly worn off in subsequent years, and now “Lethal Weapon 3” stacks up rather poorly beside the preceding entries, with the hair-trigger unpredictability and genuine angst of Mel Gibson‘s Riggs, and the weary, grounded decency of Danny Glover‘s Murtaugh here relegated to a series of worn out one-liners, though those characters and their relationship were what gave this series its raison d’etre in the first place. So a couple of decent chase scenes (certainly the film can’t be faulted for its breakneck pace) and a funny, cute makeout scene which begins when Riggs and Rene Russo‘s Sergeant Cole compare scars (indeed Russo is a welcome addition to a series that had given its women short shrift till then) save it from being a total loss, but it’s not a patch on ‘2’ and not a patch on a patch on the first one.
Where does it rate in its franchise (to that date): 3/3 of the films to that point, and then not necessarily better, but certainly a little less pointless than the run-around-the-paddock that was “Lethal Weapon 4.”

Batman Forever” (1995)
Franchise: Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher‘s Batman films
How Threequel-y Was It: With Tim Burton’s “Batman” breaking all sorts of box office records up to that point, Burton was given a degree of license to pursue a darker agenda with the film’s sequel, “Batman Returns.” But while that movie’s quite willfully grotesque tenor (DeVito‘s Penguin is a truly revolting villain) actually didn’t put audiences off in droves as is sometimes suggested (‘Returns’ had the biggest opening weekend of all time to that date, and wound up the 3rd-highest grossing US film of 1992), Warner Bros — made mad with greed and drunk on the first film’s stellar receipts — felt it was a disappointment, and decided to give the whole franchise a gaudy makeover. And you know what? Damned if it didn’t work, with Joel Schumacher‘s first time at Bat (a pun so glorious we wish we could make it every day) outgrossing its predecessor by quite some distance. It hasn’t matured as well as ‘Returns’ by any means, but maybe that’s partly because we retrospectively spy the spectre of the bloated dayglo horror that would be “Batman and Robin” waiting in the wings. Still, ‘Forever‘ is a decent enough romp, a more kid-friendly colorful version to be sure, and a sight more disposable than the previous entries but, batsuit nipples and all, it walked a line between the darkness of no. 2 and all-out cartoony camp. 
Where does it rate in its franchise (to that date): If the series had ended there, we’d still rate it 3/3, but with a gladder heart than we do now, though, because it’s harder to forgive any movie that did well enough to make “Batman and Robin” a reality.

The Bourne Ultimatum” (2007)
Franchise: The Jason Bourne series
How Threequel-y Was It: Director Paul Greengrass inherited the series after director and shepherd Doug Liman — who bought the rights himself, and pitched and sold it to Universal in the first place — was kicked off for being erratic, overbudget and unpredictable on “The Bourne Identity.” But the writing architect Tony Gilroy (who would go on to direct “The Bourne Legacy“) remained throughout (perhaps against his better judgement since he and Greengrass clashed frequently) and preserved the film’s emotional and philosophical throughline. Starting mere minutes after “The Bourne Supremacy” ended, ‘Ultimatum’ packs a visceral punch from minute one and never gives up. Ultimately seeking redemption, Bourne attempts to atone as best he can for those he killed (or was responsible for, like Marie, his girlfriend played by Franka Potente) and then put an end to the Treadstone/Black Briar black ops programs that turned him into a killer before he lost his memory and essentially became a different person. ‘Ultimatum’ closes the chapter on the former CIA assassin and psychogenic amnesiac Jason Bourne: his true identity is finally revealed, but along the way the film is non-stop electrifying. The most financially successful of them all (natch) and thrillingly watchable, ‘Ultimatum’ is nonethless arguably the least satisfying Bourne film — which may be due to a production that started before the final script had been nailed down. (Gilroy walked early, and others were brought in to triage before and during filming).
Where does it rate in its franchise: This may be a controversial choice. But it’s either 2/3 or 3/3. In retrospect, “The Bourne Identity” is easily the best one of the bunch. ‘Supremacy‘ has two things going for it that ‘Ultimatum’ doesn’t: a new aesthetic (the shaky-cam visuals not yet played out) and a revenge theme that burns with the audience’s desire for Bourne to bring the payback (for Marie’s death). ‘Ultimatum’ is probably the most thrillingly shot and action-packed, but storywise, it sort of stumbles to the finish line in ungainly fashion. This however, will be argued by many.

Back to the Future 3” (1990)
Franchise: Back to the Future
How Threequel-y Was It: For all our Criterion discs and complete Tarkovsky collections, there are few topics that engage the Playlist staff in livelier debate than the relative merits of the sequels to 1985’s universally beloved “Back to the Future.” So let the controversy ensue. By far the blandest of the three films, ‘Part 3‘ mostly jettisons the McFly-family-timeline-criss-crossing antics of the the previous installments, and instead focuses on Doc Brown, a character we adore of course, but not as a romantic lead. His courtship of Old West schoolmistress Clara (Mary Steenburgen) takes up so much of this film’s plot that it saps the franchise of its trademark zip, while the “Marty becomes a cowboy” storyline feels like an episode of a spin-off TV show rather than a full feature, and we say that with a deep abiding love for the Western genre. Arguably, ‘Part 3’ can be praised for at least attempting to do something different with the franchise, but they did rather throw the baby out with the bathwater, excising a great portion of what was so terrific about the the first two, and settling for “sweet” instead. That it was largely better received than its predecessor on initial release is a terrible injustice that posterity, if it has any sense at all, will gradually redress.
Where does it rate in its franchise: 3/3 Worst, by a considerable margin.

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 PinkettSmith‘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.

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.

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.

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 4was 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
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 developingDie Hard 6” will buck the trend…but probably not….

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 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.”

X-Men: The Last Stand” (2006)
Franchise: X-Men
How Threequel-y Was It: One of probably many films literally hate-fucked into existence, this franchise extension, teased at the end of “X2: X-Men United,” was the product of Fox utilizing an accelerated shooting schedule and an orgy of completed scripts in order to beat Bryan Singer‘s “Superman Returns” to the big screen. They didn’t have a director, script or cast when they started promoting the release date, a good two months before “Superman Returns,” which meant they eventually had to approach Brett Ratner, the Guy Fieri of directing, to bring back the merry mutants. What resulted was even more busy than the usual threequel, with Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) resurrected as the Phoenix, Magneto (Ian McKellen, pimpin’) joining up with underground mutant Morlocks, and a weaponized cure to turn our heroes into regular citizens. The first two films had a distinct sexuality, while this one features a cuckolded Rogue (Anna Paquin) trying to get her cheating man back by taking the cure, a de-powered Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) somehow going turncoat on best friend Magneto, and a Phoenix that is so hyper-sexual it turns off horndog Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) until she finally has to be put down by his claw. Along with kooky gender politics, there was also the needless deaths of several characters, the suggestion being that this installment would change everything, despite those deaths immediately being called into question before the end of the film. Just in case.
Where does it rate in the franchise (to that date)? 3/3 Worst, though slightly more competent than “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.”

Ocean’s Thirteen” (2007)
Franchise: Ocean’s Eleven.
How Threequel-y Was It: While the first two films had style and wit to spare, they were open acknowledgements that director Steven Soderbergh took these as a paycheck in order to fuel his independent experiments, and by the third film, no one was in doubt that this was just for the money. But as far as threequels go, this one isn’t bad, still suffused with the bright colors and sexy movie-star glamor that made the first two cable favorites. And while almost literally every side character from the first two films is back, the picture never feels bloated or overly complex, defaulting to that boozy, laid-back vibe provided by George Clooney and Brad Pitt in the leads. But there’s certainly no tension here: the crew unite to take revenge for ailing buddy Elliot Gould after his casino is shut down by villain Al Pacino. But Pacino is decidedly dialed-down as the baddie, and driving him to financial ruin doesn’t have the same feeling as it did knocking off Andy Garcia‘s sniveling jerk in the first two films. Moreover, Gould casually mentions his casino being eliminated by Garcia in the first film; why repurpose one minor motivation for the first film, and turn it into the major, and only, driving force in the third? This merely cemented the feeling that the gang was simply in it for the cash this time around.
Where does it rate in the franchise: 3/3 Worst, though they’re all around the same level.

Rocky III” (1982)
Franchise: Rocky
How Threequel-y Was It: This was the point where Sylvester Stallone was the biggest star in the galaxy, and the line separating star and character had almost vanished. Taking on directing duties for this installment, Stallone tells you everything you need to know in an opening montage that rivals Eisenstein. Glimpsed are sequences of Stallone-as-Rocky (and possibly Stallone-as-himself repurposed for “Rocky III“) filming advertisements and appearing on kids’ shows, Rocky enjoying the spoils of fame as he makes sweet love to wife Adrian (Talia Shire). Meanwhile, a new challenger is rising, and in snippets we glimpse supervillain Clubber Lang (a peerless Mr. T) laying waste to his opponents, loudly crowing about his desire to dismantle the Italian Stallion in the ring. The sheer force of Lang’s jabs seem to almost rattle the frame, dislodging the domestic bliss of Rocky and Adrian, as Survivor‘s “Eye Of The Tiger” wails on the soundtrack like you’re hearing it for the first time (which moviegoers were at the time). The montage closes in on Adrian’s drunk brother Paulie (Burt Young) as he stumbles into an arcade and hurls a flask at a real-life Rocky pinball machine, sending the glass crashing to the floor in slow motion over the credit “Directed by Sylvester Stallone.” Sublime.
Where does it rate in the franchise (to that date): Controversially ranked by Gabe 1/3 but probably 2/3 to everyone else.

Jurassic Park 3” (1993)
Franchise: Jurassic Park
How Threequel-y Was It: What’s striking about those first two “Jurassic Park” films is just how secretly nasty they could be, a surprise coming from Steven Spielberg, known to protect women and children first. As a result, “Jurassic Park 3” begins with some atonal b.s. about a hang gliding kid that would fit quite nicely in the CV of some eighties-era Spielberg wannabe, which makes it no surprise that this third installment is helmed by Spielberg fanboy Joe Johnston. The idea of using a second island in “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” was somewhat tolerable, but then revealing there’s another island, with a host of new dinosaurs, seems craven even by genre standards, and a step down from the “Lost World” finale that put a T-Rex in San Diego. Everything feels a bit more off-brand in “Jurassic Park 3,” like they’re conscious about forcing this into a continued story even if it’s the first of the three films not based on a book. Now the raptors communicate. Now the T-Rex fights the Spinosaurus. And Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) isn’t enough: he has to have a handsome young sidekick that jumps into the action headfirst. Yeah, guys, Alessandro Nivola didn’t happen, and we have contempt for how you tried to make him happen.
Where does it rate in the franchise? 3/3 Worst. Joe Johnston is no Steven Spielberg.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” (2003)
Franchise: The Terminator
How Threequel-y Was It: The third in this time-spanning franchise opens on an intriguing hypothetical: what if you prevented the destruction of the world, but no one could ever possibly know? As a result, humanity’s savior John Connor (Nick Stahl) is now a broke drifter, going from leader of the resistance against the evil Skynet to unkempt vagrant and addict, an element of the film given added dimension by Stahl’s latter-day tabloid adventures. The return of the T-100 gives him purpose, and it’s great to see a grizzled, broken-down Arnold Schwarzenegger in this iconic role again as he pretends that it’s 1992 forever. But the first forty-five minutes of “Terminator 3” play out like “Terminator Dinner Theater,” particularly with a needless emphasis on a PG-13 rating. Credit where credit’s due: the third film lacks the existentialist dread of the second film and the distinct horror of the first, but director Jonathan Mostow wisely compensates with sheer wall-to-wall destruction. Entire city blocks are felled as Schwarzenegger does battle with an upgraded new villain (Kristanna Lokken, sadly no Robert Patrick), ensuring that if this was going to be a rung underneath the first two films, it would at least be a violent rung. “Rise Of The Machines” eventually closes on a surprisingly downbeat note, one that both effectively honors the spirit of the James Cameron films but also establishes a new status quo, taking the series in a new direction.
Where does it rate in the franchise (to that date)? 3/3 So — worst. But superior to the later “Terminator Salvation.”

We capped our list at 25 out of consideration for your scrolling fingers, but we could have gone on and on. Some of the ones we regret having to leave off include “Jaws 3D” — after all, “Jaws” was the first blockbuster of them all, and the progressively increasing terribleness of its sequels also set something of a trend. 3D gimmickry, none of the original cast returning, and shoddy effects are what “Jaws 3D” delivers, but, though we’re not huge fans of the Rotten Tomatoes system, we do get a snicker seeing how no. 3’s appalling 12% is blown, yes out of the water, by Michael Caine‘s finest hour “Jaws: The Revenge“‘s 0%.

“Twilight” too was at one point a trilogy and ‘Eclipse‘ is probably the best of any of them bar the first, as little as that says. “Men in Black 3” scrabbled back some of the goodwill lost on no. 2; “Blade: Trinity” is the least of the “Blade”s but was a little unfairly vilified if you ask this writer; while “Revenge of the Sith” was the best of the “Star Wars” prequels if only because it was the only one that featured something we actually wanted to see instead of more stuff about trade embargoes and galactic tax law. “Goldfinger” is an interesting one to consider as an early proto-blockbuster, and to this day is a high watermark in the James Bond canon; “Army of Darkness” is hardly a threequel at all — though we do enjoy it greatly, it shares little DNA with the fabulous “Evil Dead” and “Evil Dead 2” except a chainsaw and Bruce Campbell‘s chin; we’re reliably assured that “Resident Evil: Extinction” is better than ‘Apocalypse‘ that came before it, but not as good as the first; while fellow cheapie female-led action horror franchise ‘Underworld‘ went with a prequel for its threequel in “Rise of the Lycans” and managed to keep the fires burning, even without Kate Beckinsale in PVC.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” is terrible, but controversially, we rate it somewhat above the also terrible “The Mummy Returns“; “Beverly Hills Cop 3” is a crime against that franchise; “The Karate Kid 3” is as by-the-numbers a retread of past glories as we’ve had the misfortune to watch; “Star Trek: The Search for Spock” is often unjustly overlooked, but was a solid third entry back in 1984; “Scream 3” has a couple good set pieces (like Neve Campbell being stalked through a Hollywood set version of her original home), but is largely inelegant and not in the least bit scary, so ranks as the least successful in the entire series; “Robocop 3” is a dull pounding headache of a film in which all vestiges of wit or originality from the original are gone; speaking of which, “Rambo 3” fits the same mold.

There are loads more we left out, especially comedies and cultish favorites that didn’t maybe quite fit the “blockbuster” mold, but still, this is a fun game, so feel free to join in below about how you can’t believe we skipped “Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles” or whether or not “Look Who’s Talking Now” is ripe for reappraisal. –– Jessica Kiang, Drew Taylor, Gabe Toro, Kimber Myers, Rodrigo Perez, Kevin Jagernauth.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged , , , , , , , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox