Hollywood has returned to a disturbing trend as of late, one that inevitably leads to lower quality movies and the destruction of franchises. I’m talking about sequels, but before I go any further, let me assure you I am not speaking ill of all sequels, just the unending continuation of franchises solely to milk as much money as possible out of fans.
Sequels are not always negative, especially if the story was designed at the outset to have a beginning, middle and end. A great example (even if it’s not technically a trilogy) would be the ‘Harry Potter’ Book series. (Note that I’m speaking of the BOOK series, not the hit or miss movies Warner Bros rushed to theaters.) JK Rowling knew where she was going with the story from the very beginning, as everything led to the inevitable climax/ conclusion of the series, Harry’s showdown with Voldemort. While not a traditional trilogy (the rules of which are noted in the next paragraphs), Rowling’s epic could be seen as one if you consider books 1 and 2 the first act of the story, books 3-5 the second act, and books 6 & 7 the concluding act. If a reader ever went back and revisited the series, they would find a coherent story with legitimate connections across all 7 books. That fact alone leads to a much more satisfying conclusion and fulfilling enjoyment of the various entries.
So what makes a trilogy exactly? First of all, there should only be 3 entries (‘Harry Potter’ example notwithstanding), with the first entry being the introduction, the second being the escalation, and the third being the climax/ conclusion. They don’t always have to be written ahead of time, as some amazing trilogies have been written after the first entry was released, such as the ‘Back to the Future’ trilogy. All that is required is a solid first entry that sets the stage, crafting a world that audiences will want to return to, with fleshed out characters who have legitimate wants and desires, which they’ll need to propel their stories through 2 more films.
Next, a good trilogy always hinges on the second entry, which in my opinion is usually the best of the series. From ‘The Two Towers’ to ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’ the second entry is usually the darkest of the three, and it really delves deep into the characters established in the first outing, pushing them to their limits. It isn’t hampered by having to introduce everything, nor does it have to worry about wrapping up the series in a neat little bow. The second movie can do whatever it wants, although there are certain conventions that are almost always found in the 2nd movie. There is usually a bit of back-story introduced in the second entry that the characters were unaware of (such as Marty’s dislike of the word ‘chicken’ and the consequences of that in ‘Back to the Future Part 2 and 3’), and this information motivates and drives the characters in new directions. Also fairly standard in part two is the literal and/or metaphorical ‘death’ of a major character. ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ killed Jack Sparrow, ‘Matrix Reloaded’ put Neo into a coma, and in the ‘Back to the Future’ example, Doc is presumed dead, only for us to find out he’s actually just stranded in 1885. While these are not necessarily hard and fast rules, they do contribute to the momentum and the stakes involved in a proper trilogy. Actual stakes, and a belief that characters are not invincible, are concepts severely lacking in a series when a studio just continues to churn out one entry after another.
Lastly, a good trilogy ends on an emotionally satisfying note, even if it is not necessarily a happy ending. This is where it gets tough, as few trilogies have managed to stick the landing as it were, and really nail their endings. The original ‘Spider-Man’ films were on their way to trilogy greatness, but they stalled at the third. The same goes for the ‘Matrix’ movies (if 3 had been great, part 2 would have been better accepted), as well as the ‘X-men’ franchise, which crashed in the third film when director Bryan Singer abandoned the franchise. In modern films (1985-2014), the only films to come close to a great ending would be the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy (though some did have issue with how many times they arrived at a great ending), the ‘Bourne’ trilogy (though this has been marred due to their continuation into a 4th film) and the ‘Back to the Future’ trilogy (though some would disagree with me due to their dislike of the Western set 3rd movie).
So why do I think Hollywood needs trilogies? Even with the inane rules and the difficulty in doing it properly, trilogies have one thing that raises them a level beyond the endless franchises. They end. The stories have momentum; people die. There are no character shields that protect anyone all the way through to the conclusion, and the people and worlds the stories take place in will be markedly different due to the events depicted during the trilogy. Neo and Trinity died to procure peace between man and machine, Obi-Wan, Yoda and Darth Vader perished to finally stop the Sith, and Frodo and Gandalf symbolically passed into the afterlife after accomplishing their task. The same cannot be said for John McClane, whose ability to prevent his own death has become more astounding in every installment of the ‘Die Hard’ franchise. And does anyone watch a ‘James Bond’ movie and ever think Bond himself is in any danger of dying? That he somehow will fail in his mission and the world will fall into the hands of the latest super villain? Don’t get me wrong, I love James Bond and have enjoyed his more recent outings with Daniel Craig in the title role, but my point still stands. It’s hard as an audience to truly feel an invincible character is really in any kind of danger, to root for him to get the girl when we know the love interest will be recast in later installments, to worry about his failure when we know the studio has already green-lit the next film.
The fact of the matter is, actors age, characters grow stale, and the fascination an audience first feels when visiting a new world wanes with each new installment. If Hollywood wants franchises that make them money and manage to satisfy the ever-growing audience demand for quality, they need to realize the value of setting a limit to sequels, the value in telling a story with a beginning, middle and end. For me, one of my greatest cinematic experiences was viewing ‘The Return of the King’ at a midnight showing when it opened in 2003. The excitement of the crowd in seeing the crowning achievement and bittersweet end of an amazing trilogy enhanced every aspect of the film. It was a movie respected and eagerly viewed by audiences around the world, held in esteem by the industry as evidenced by the landslide of awards Jackson and company received. You just can’t get that kind of reaction when everyone knows that a sequel will be churned out in a couple of years. (Yes, had I known Jackson would be back doing the ‘Hobbit’ films, I definitely would have felt differently.)