Why Are Good Third Films So Difficult?

Trilogies live and die on how they close their stories. While no film trilogy is technically perfect, the best are the series that send audiences out of the theater both satisfied and still wanting more. Unfortunately, there are countless instances of series that have royally botched the landing when it comes to the final film in a trilogy. In the best cases, a bad third film can leave audiences disappointed and jaded concerning the storytelling prowess of the series’ creators. In the worst cases, terrible third movies can retroactively make the good films in the series worse.

While there are plenty of fantastic third movies in franchises, these are the installments that stand tall among their peers and show that a great trilogy finale is possible. But these are instances of fantastic storytelling, strong characters, and a focus on quality over name-recognition profits. Given the sheer number of terrible third movies, especially those that come after strong first and second installments, audience members have long wondered where so many franchises go wrong.

There is no exact winning combination when it comes to creating a worthwhile third movie, or “threequel,” but there are numerous challenges that have led to franchise downfall. Recognizing what causes a bad third movie can help filmmakers avoid making a movie that’s bad for everyone. Or it can at least let audiences see a bomb coming and save their money.

Unreachable Expectations

After two satisfying entries in a film series, it’s understandable that audiences will expect the next film to be the best yet. After all, Hollywood marketing promotes the idea that this going to be the biggest and best yet since this is the movie with the biggest investment. Audiences should always hope that the stories and characters they love will be treated with respect and given closure that they deserve. While it may not happen often, it is still an understandable belief that something that has had so much time and money poured into it should be a quality product in the end.

With so much seemingly leading up to this installment, it’s obvious why viewers have high hopes for another successful installment in the series they have come to love. However, everyone will have his or her own idea on how the series should end and what should happen to the characters they love. This does not always line up with what creators decide for their characters or what studios believe is best for the future of a franchise. In truth, good storytelling and continued profits are not always compatible. That’s why series like Transformers continue to thrive despite a shaky product or franchises like The Hobbit are stretched out into unnecessary sequels that water down the strength of the overall story. It simply makes more money.

That’s why a third film that follows two poorly done movies has a much higher chances of critical success. While no film viewer should be forced to lower his or her expectations about a multi-million dollar work of art, having the idea that a film franchise is truly terrible is a rather effective way of forcing the bar to be lowered.

Finding a Satisfying Conclusion

Whether or not an original film is created with a franchise in mind, the first film in a trilogy is meant to introduce audiences to a world and its characters. The second film widens that world and creates huge challenges for the protagonists. The third film is meant to bring the character arcs and various plot threads to a satisfying conclusion.

Since the first two movies have been able to either conclude a single film’s story or come to a more open ending, they did not need to shoulder the burden of a definitive conclusion. (See “What Makes a Great Sequel?”) The burden of bringing things to a close may simply be too much for how the previous stories had been structured or whether there truly is a good way to definitively bring things to an end. While it may be frustrating, some stories are best left with plot threads dangling to some degree.

Then again, many trilogies simply should not exist. Was there a need for Terminator 3 or The Dark Knight Rises? Yes, people may have wanted to revisit these worlds, but was this a true demand? Or if more chapters were needed, did the third need to be the final? Letting things play out over more than three films may have been best in some cases after all.

Some film series will never have to face a definitive ending, like the James Bond franchise. Others are composed of single entries that have no through line.  While this is definitely not right for every series, it suits those that are not interested in having the three act structure applied to the franchise as a whole.

Creator Fatigue

Making a movie is hard. Making a sequel is even harder. When the time comes for writers, directors, and actors to create a third entry in the series, the ideas may have dried up or the will to push the franchise further may simply be gone. First sequels are often the subject of pushing the envelope and using all remaining ideas for the best follow-up possible. Unfortunately, this often leaves little for the third movie.

Stretching for new ideas can lead to fresh concepts that break away from series-threatening monotony, but it also may lead to desperation that leads to poor choices. A small musical number that broke up the acts and brought some laughs in Spider-Man 2? Good idea. A big musical number that sees Peter Parker disco dancing down the street like an emo clown in Spider-Man 3? Franchise-killing development. Sam Raimi was obviously suffering from creator fatigue.

Bloat in the Budget

It’s a common practice that the next entry in a franchise after a successful film will be given a larger budget. While a bigger budget can allow for filmmakers to pursue ideas that they could not originally bring to life due to monetary restrictions, it can also lead to simply silly choices. Rather than create an installment that is true to the previous two, a mega threequel may easily embrace spectacle over story. It may be impressive to look at, but it leaves little for audiences to cherish.

Given a $300 million budget and little restriction on how director Gore Zerbinski should use it, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End turned into bloated and boring spectacle where the plot meant little and all good will created by the first installment was squandered. The Dark Knight Rises clocked in at close to $300 million as well, and became a sprawling film with enormous acts, scenes filmed around the world, and a major lack of direction that felt disconnected from the rest of the series. While this doesn’t mean that more money always leads to worse decisions, there is a form of quality filmmaking that is only possible when creativity is pushed forward by limitations.

Hollywood may never truly learn from the mistakes that have plagued third films, but looking back on the many obvious pitfalls that have harmed formerly great series can lead to smarter overall decisions in the future. Let’s hope the wonderfully series being developed now can overcome these obstacles in their future chapters.

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