A great movie trilogy is one of the most exciting things in film. After all, what’s better than one great film than three great films? But truly great trilogies are few and far between. Even some of the best films of all time have led to poor to terrible follow up films simply banking on the good name and will of the original entry. And while its more than possible to create a great sequel, capping off the series with a high quality part three is a daunting task.
Here, I’ve counted down the 15 best trilogies of all time, ranging from classic action films to westerns to fantasy epics. Each of these have their strengths and weaknesses, with some coming together to create a truly special series of films.
Franchises with many entries but no distinct trilogies, such as Star Trek or James Bond, have been omitted, as there are no three films within them that form a distinct three film arc. In addition, trilogies that have had additional films added, or even had another trilogy that followed, are still in contention for conclusion, but the additional films are not included with the original trilogy.
Have your own personal favorite trilogies? Let me know in the comments below!
15. Die Hard
John McClane is a hard luck cop who just so happens to get involved in multiple terrorist takeovers. His wits and good aim win out in the end, but he takes a beating. Starting with one of the all-time great action films and ending with an amazing follow-up, Die Hard is one of the best action trilogies.
Best Entry: Die Hard – an all-time classic, the first entry in the series not only set the precedent for the entire series, but inspired countless copycat films.
Weakest Entry: Die Hard 2: Die Harder – Trying to replicate the strengths of the original simply didn’t work as well as the studio was hoping. It may be fun to see John McClane struggling with the idea that he’s been thrown into another terrorist takeover against his will, but the lack of a good villain (unlike parts 1 and 3) and a less exciting setting means that this airport adventure is fun, but still weak.
Trilogy Strength:John McClane is one of the great action heroes. Combine his appeal with some amazing action sequences and the trilogy is a fun ride through and through.
14. Mad Max
Director and writer George Miller’s post-apocalyptic trilogy follows “Mad” Max Rockatansky – who goes from good cop to wandering mad man in a nuclear world gone insane. The original Mad Max is a thrilling indie action movie that spawned an all-time classic and ended with a very ‘80s film that had some good Tina Turner tunes.
Best Entry: The Road Warrior – it’s the pinnacle of what George Miller created with the post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max. This is lean and mean storytelling with vibrant characters and action sequences that blow minds again and again. It also has plenty of classic lines, a fantastic antihero in the form of Gibson’s Max, and a climax that is one of the great chases in cinema.
Weakest Entry: Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome – While it may have some fun ideas (especially the Thunderdome fight and anything Tina Turner), the light tone and fractured narrative means that Beyond Thunderdome loses the hardcore post-apocalyptic ideas of the first two. Miller’s lack of involvement also means it mostly lacks his signature style and grit.
Trilogy Strength:All three entries focus on Max – a violent and broken man who is forced to do good in an apocalyptic world gone insane. Plus, there are plenty of awesome car chases. While Beyond Thunderdomestumbled, the power of these themes is evident in Fury Road’s rebirth of the franchise decades later.
James Cameron cooked up a heady sci-fi thriller that spawned amazing one-liners, defined the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and gave one of the all-time greatest examples of the power of a sequel. It also ended with a misguided part three and it was only downhill from there.
Best Entry: Terminator 2: Judgment Day – Cameron’s second entry takes everything good about the original (which is a classic itself) and takes it to the next level. Great action, wonderful characters, a terrifying villain, and very cool science fiction concepts mean T2 is a film that works on many different levels.
Weakest Entry: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines – while it may try to provide a conclusion to the trilogy as a whole, it’s simply poorly done in most ways. The lack of Cameron also means it doesn’t have true ties to the themes present in the other two movies. It also has a very inconsistent and cheesy tone that undermines most of its better qualities.
Trilogy Strength:The concepts of time travel and destiny ties all three together while both Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger breathe life into their iconic roles. The strength of these in parts 1 and 2 show why part 3 is such a disappointment.
12. The Three Flavors Cornetto
Writer and director Edgar Wright partnered with actor friends Simon Pegg and Nick Frost to send up the zombie genre and made one of horror’s greatest movies. Then they followed up with cop parody Hot Fuzz and the sci-fi The World’s End. While they may be unconnected in narrative or characters, their themes and style create a greater whole.
Best Entry: Shaun of the Dead – A loving sendup of horror films that is just as scary as any zombie film while having more heart and laughs than most romantic comedies. Wright, Pegg, and Frost created something special with their first feature film together and were able to recreate that magic with the next two, but there’s something extra special about the first.
Weakest Entry: The World’s End – It may not have the riotous humor of the other two, but loads of great action scenes and deeper themes mean that World’s End is not a weak film at all. The ideas of growing up and moving on from the things that hold us back also make it a fitting end for a trilogy of movies that share themes, rather than characters or narratives.
Trilogy Strength:Edgar Wright’s stylish vision and his close work relationship with Pegg and Frost mean that all three films share an exciting and incredibly funny style. Tackling different genres means that the themes can be explored through different lenses.
11. The Bourne Trilogy
Amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne searches for his memories and a greater meaning to his life. Along the way, he gets caught up in loads of government conspiracies and beats up bad guys with everyday items. The rough and tumble style of the trilogy reinvigorated the spy genre.
Best Entry: The Bourne Ultimatum – it’s a fitting and incredibly thrilling climax to the entire trilogy thanks to its amazing action scenes, great insight into Jason Bourne, and wrap up of lingering threads and ideas from the previous two entries.
Weakest Entry: The Bourne Supremacy – While director Paul Greengrass brings his dynamic style to the trilogy starting here, Supremacy is easily the least memorable of them all. It lacks the exciting developments of The Bourne Identity and the satisfying conclusion of Ultimatum. It also feels less distinct, causing the three film to blend together a bit, instead of standing on their own.
Trilogy Strength:It’s the dynamic chases and fights that make each Bourne film consistently thrilling, with the very capable Matt Damon as Bourne giving heart to the narrative.
10. The Godfather Trilogy
A trilogy mostly defined by its first two entries, which adapted Mario Puzo’s epic mafia novel, Francis Ford Coppola managed to make two of the greatest films of all time contained in one series. Then The Godfather Part III happened. If the final entry was even half as good as the first two, this trilogy would be a lot higher on the list.
Best Entry: The Godfather – This is what film is all about. By itself, The Godfather is close to a perfect movie, with the themes of family, honor, crime, and corruption intertwining to make something very special, which is also bolstered by top tier directing, acting, and writing. While The Godfather Part II is also fantastic, the original can’t be beat.
Weakest Entry: The Godfather Part III – One of the all-time worst part threes in film history, it’s clear to see this trilogy capper is not a labor of love, but a search for more money. A trilogy with two films that rank among the greatest movies ever made is balanced out by a real turkey. In fact, fans of the first two need not see Part III because it is so useless.
Trilogy Strength: From start to finish, The Godfather Trilogy is all about the corruption of Michael Corleone. See him go from innocent young man to broken criminal head shows a strong narrative throughline, especially in Part I and Part II. While Part IIImay be tacked on, it still carries on these ideas.
9. Dark Knight Trilogy
What started as the rebirth of Batman on film through Christopher Nolan’s grounded Batman Begins soon became a revolutionary superhero series with the iconic The Dark Knight. The finale of The Dark Knight Rises may have brought an ill-advised end to the series in a lackluster manner, but it also solidified the trilogy as a cohesive whole.
Best Entry: Batman Begins – As the rebirth of Batman on the big screen, Batman Begins not only started Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, but it overcame the toxicity that was Batman & Robin while also helping to give birth to the next wave of superhero films. A dark and heady character-focused take on the origins of The Dark Knight, this is the film that Batman finds were dying for. The Dark Knight is awesome, too.
Weakest Entry: The Dark Knight Rises – a hard stumble at the finish line with this bloated and unfocused finish weakens the trilogy as a whole, keeping it from ranking higher despite the strengths of the other two entries. While it may have interesting ideas and a good villain in Bane, the setup for the finale and its execution border on retroactively weakening the meaning of the other two films.
Trilogy Strength:Nolan and company managed to take Batman and ground him in the real world while not losing the thrilling superhero aspects of the character, with many real life political and social issues thrown into the mix throughout for a more intelligent superhero adventure.
8. The Dollars Trilogy
Three Italian westerns directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name, these three adventures track the nameless hero as he wanders the Wild West. A Fistful of Dollarswas an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, but the following two were original stories that ended with one of the all-time greats – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
Best Entry: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly – Leone’s finale is an epic Western that combines thrilling shootouts, amazing characters, beautiful cinematography, and fantastic performances. It’s the distillation of the Western genre while revolutionizing it at the same time. This is easily one of the greatest films ever made and my personal favorite movie of all time.
Weakest Entry: For a Few Dollars More – While there isn’t anything bad about it, the second entry in the Dollars Trilogy doesn’t have the freshness of the first entry and will never be considered on the same level as GBU.
Trilogy Strength:The strength of Leone’s vision runs through ever frame of all three films and it only grows stronger with each film. While they may not share a bigger story, they create a fantastic film experience.
7. The Evil Dead
Starting as a low budget indie horror film that launched the careers of Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, the saga of The Evil Dead and hapless hero Ash Williams is one of the most stylish and varied trilogy around. It’s also easily the best horror trilogy ever made, maintaining a unique vision and a thrilling narrative throughout.
Best Entry: Evil Dead II – Raimi created a perfect blend between shocking horror and dark laughs with the second part of the trilogy that came to define the series. Rather than focus purely on horror like the original or comedy like Army of Darkness, there’s a transcendent blend between horror and comedy that is the result of amazing moviemaking.
Weakest Entry: Army of Darkness – There are plenty of zany laughs to be had in this medieval adventure, but its super light tone is a big departure from the previous two, which traded on hard scares and dark ideas. Thankfully, the vast differences between all three entries mean that each can appeal most to viewers with different tastes.
Trilogy Strength:Raimi’s insane vision is let loose with each Evil Dead film, manifesting itself in different ways each time. But it’s his madcap style blended with perfect leading man Bruce Campbell that makes each unique film so enjoyable.
6. Alien Trilogy
The power of the idea behind the horrific Xenomorph has power many films, countless comicbooks, and numerous videogames. But it’s the original trilogy’s story of heroine Ellen Ripley and her battle against these alien creatures that is the best the series has to offer. While part 3 left many disappointed, the first two make this into an incredibly strong trilogy.
Best Entry: Tie between Alien and Aliens – These are two of the greatest science fiction films of all time, with the first being straight horror and the other having a hard action edge to it. Both benefit from directors at the top of their games and Sigourney Weaver’s powerful performance as Ellen Ripley. Saying one is better than the other is simply a matter of genre preference.
Weakest Entry: Alien 3 – While each of the Alien films has its own tone and focus, the utter bleakness of part 3 lacks the fun and excitement of the other two. This is simply a dark and mean film that cannot excite like the other two. The vast amounts of studio interference and behind the scenes conflict mean this isn’t just the worst of the original trilogy, but the only bad David Fincher film.
Trilogy Strength:It’s the idea of a truly monstrous manifestation of existential horror pitted against one badass woman that propels the Alien Trilogy. Even Alien 3 continues this idea, which keeps it better than Alien: Resurrection, Prometheus, or any of the dreadful Alien vs Predatorfilms.
5. Back to the Future
Following the time travelling adventures of Doctor Emmett Brown and Marty McFly, the Back to the Future trilogy crisscrosses timelines and destiny. But best of all, it’s insanely funny, full of iconic moments, and created some of sci-fi’s most enduring characters.
Best Entry: Back to the Future – While the trilogy as a whole is tons of fun, the original is one of sci-fi film’s perfect gems. Doc Brown and Marty McFly are great characters, the time travel ideas are incredible, and there are countless iconic moments in this wonderfully executed story that makes the most of every minute from start to finish. Fun fact, the ending was supposed to be a joke, not the set up for more films!
Weakest Entry: Back to the Future Part III – The wild west setting is fun, but breaking off from the world found in the first two parts keeps this from feeling completely satisfying in wrapping up Doc and Marty’s story.
Trilogy Strength:While the original may be a perfectly constructed standalone, the second and third parts manage to echo the themes and expand the scope in ways that feel organic, not forced. It turns the trilogy into a more complex narrative that still stays fun all the way through.
4. Toy Story
Animated trilogies are few and far between, with most quickly declining in quality following a strong first entry. But Pixar’s Toy Story is simply the best of the best by far. Thanks to some of the most well-loved characters ever brought to life on screen and films that stand on their own thanks to their incredibly writing and animation, this is a trilogy that may be the newest on the list, but will stand the test of time.
Best Entry: Toy Story 2 – Not only a welcome return to the world of the toys audiences came to adore in the first movie, Toy Story 2 adds new layers to the world and throws in some incredibly funny and smart twists along the way. Better animation, a better villain, deeper characters, and greater emotion shows the power of a great sequel.
Weakest Entry: Toy Story 3 – Not that this is a poor film at all, it’s simply that the tough emotions elicited throughout the film means that Toy Story 3 is a far harder film to watch again and again compared to the other two. Of course, a Pixar film that doesn’t hit your emotions hard is a weak movie. Maybe that means that this is the perfect example of what Pixar can do at the height of their strengths.
Trilogy Strength:Pixar was in no rush to create any Toy Story film and the commitment to quality is clearly evident in each entry, which are carefully crafted, rather than slapped together for a profit.
3. The Original Star Wars Trilogy
What can be said about the original Star Warsfilms that hasn’t already been said? Creator George Lucas revolutionized films with the original movie and followed it up with two more that turned the series into a phenomenon. The power of the trilogy can be seen in the countless games, comics, films, and more that have come from it. Even with so much added, the original films still stand on their own.
Best Entry: The Empire Strikes Back – While the original film is a classic, it’s part two that turned the world of Star Wars into a massive epic, as Empire expanded the universe, added many layers to both heroes and villains, and is simply the best made Star Wars film ever created.
Weakest Entry: Return of the Jedi – It’s not that this is an example of a trilogy fumbling at the goal line, but Return can’t be put on the same level as A New Hope or Empire. However, the strength of how the story is resolved makes up for some of the cheesy Ewok parts and the slight comedown from Empire, especially the beautiful resolution to the conflict between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker.
Trilogy Strength:Lucas made sure that the original Star Wars trilogy formed an epic space opera full of good and evil and massive setpieces. Together, they make up an iconic experience loved by people of all ages.
2. Indiana Jones
Inspired by the pulp serials of the ‘40s, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas set out to create a character that would embody the thrilling adventures of their youth. And they made one in Indiana Jones, who could have only been brought to life by Harrison Ford. While these may be barely connected to one another besides some recurring characters, their bold style and unparalleled fun make this trilogy into one of the greats. They never should have done a fourth.
Best Entry: Raiders of the Lost Ark – While Last Crusade is my personal favorite, Raiders is an unmitigated classic that basically captures everything amazing about cinema. Everything established here is what defines the trilogy as being so incredibly amazing. Indiana Jones steps onto the screen and is immediately one of cinema’s great characters and every scene from the very beginning offers something truly great.
Weakest Entry: Temple of Doom – it simply can’t quite reach the other two in terms of quality. However, it is far better than what many people think and provides its own fun brand of thrills, just with a much darker tone. It’s a great thrill ride, but the tonal shift from the other two makes it stick out a bit. The high quality of the weakest entry shows the power of the trilogy.
Trilogy Strength:Spielberg + Lucas + Ford, all in their prime, results in cinema gold. Each entry is insanely fun and are some of the greatest action adventure film ever made. Indiana Jones is one of the all-time great heroes and you’ll want to see his adventures again and again.
Honorable Mentions:Jurassic Park, James Bond, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Trilogy of the Dead, X-Men
1. The Lord of the Rings
Adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy novels, The Lord of the Rings was long thought unfilmable until Peter Jackson and company brought the series to life as a trilogy. An epic undertaking, the closely knit structure of the trilogy, the pitch perfect casting, and the wondrous designs turned what could have been a disaster into an unmatched trilogy.
Best Entry: The Fellowship of the Ring – As the introduction to Tolkien’s Middle Earth, there is a true sense of wonder and magic on screen here as viewers embark on an epic quest. Each character brought on screen is fabulously created, the action scenes are spectacular, and the film is filled with powerful emotions. The Return of the King may be an epic finale, but it’s Fellowship that empowers the trilogy to be something special.
Weakest Entry: The Two Towers – Not to discount the many fantastic elements at play, but part 2 of the LOTR trilogy is more dependent on parts 1 and 3 than any other second entry on this list. The Two Towers is a wonderful movie and strengthens the scope of the trilogy in so many ways, but it simply cannot be taken out of the trilogy to stand on its own without being severely weakened.
Trilogy Strength:This is the most tightly constructed trilogy ever made thanks to being filmed together all at once. By being so interconnected, it’s a far greater and more meaningful experience that strengthens all three films into one powerful whole.