Patterns in Movie Trilogies

I don’t know why trilogies are so appealing, but they’ve been around for well over 2000 years. Maybe it’s because we expect stories to have a beginning, middle, and end, and trilogies mirror that expectation across multiple books/movies.

Anyway, I don’t actually want to get into the philosophical reasoning behind telling a story in three parts, what I actually wanted to write about is how the quality of a trilogy tends to play out in movies. I went through a bunch of well-known trilogies and averaged their imdb rating with their rotten tomatoes critics and audience scores. It turns out that most trilogies can be broken down into three main categories, with one exception. I’ll start with the exception

The Ideal:

Ideally, a trilogy should continue to build from one movie to the next. The first movie should be good, but the second movie should be better, building on all the good of the first movie and adding to it, and the concluding film should be the best. I only found a single trilogy that hit this standard, and it’s not really a fan favorite

Which movies fit this:

IdealTrilogy

The Star Wars prequels. That’s it. This is the only trilogy I found that gets better with each movie. None of the movies are outstanding, but each is better than the last, and that’s quite the accomplishment.

The Hill:

This is one of the more common patterns. The first movie is good, or does better than expected, and the second builds on that. It’s often the case that the second film had a bigger budget, which can really help. In super-hero movies, the second movie may be better because it doesn’t have to incorporate an origin story. The third film, however, stagnates. Sometimes this is due to expectations, cast or crew changes, or other unavoidable issues. Other times it’s because there just isn’t enough source material for a third installment. Another common occurrence is that the studio starts to intervene a lot more. They may force story changes (like when Sony told Sam Raimi that Venom had to be in Spider-Man 3), or push marketing aspects (like the ewoks in Return of the Jedi).

Which movies fit this:

HillTrilogies

There’s quite a variety in the peaks. Trilogies like the Evil Dead and Mad Max have a huge jump in quality from the first to the second movie, but they also fall off pretty significantly for the third film. Lord of the Rings, the original Star Wars, and The Dark Knight trilogies have smaller peaks, but are more consistently excellent.

The Valley:

Unfortunately, this pattern isn’t as common as it probably should be. The valley occurs when the second movie is worse that the first one. It seems like this happens when no sequel was planned, but the first movie was so successful that the studio pushes for a follow-up. That could lead to the second movie being rushed. The third movie then recovers.

Which movies fit this:

ValleyTrilogies

There aren’t nearly as many movies that recover from a bad second installment, and only the Bourne trilogy manages to have the third film surpass the first. The Back to the Future trilogy is another odd group, since the last two films actually ranked the same.

The Decline:

It’s sad to say that this is the largest group. Most trilogies just get worse as they go on. That doesn’t mean that all the movies are bad, just that each sequel doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor. There are many ways this can happen. Sometimes it just takes too long between movies, which means that the actors and screenwriters have moved on and have difficulty getting back into the world. Sometimes a great idea fizzles the longer it goes. Often, the movies just aren’t great to begin with and they just get worse the longer they’re dragged out.

Which movies fit this:

DeclineTrilogies

A few of these had a steady decline. Austin Powers, The Matrix, and The Mighty Ducks were all franchises that just lost their steam as they went on. There are a few, however, that fell off a cliff. Jurassic Park, Alien, and The Godfather trilogies all had spectacular first movies. After that, things started to get bad. Jurassic Park suffered immediately, while the other two franchises managed excellent sequels before dying in the third film.

***

I didn’t get a chance to catch every trilogy I wanted, like the new Star Trek franchise which was just too recent for me to trust the data. I also included some trilogies that later got additional movies, like the Bourne series (I’ll never admit that there was a 4th Indiana Jones film, that’s just an ugly rumor). I also didn’t include the Iron Man or Captain America trilogies since they belong to part of a larger interconnected franchise.

It was fun to look back at these, and it also gave me a chance to remember some of the fantastic trilogies I’ve enjoyed over the years. It also made me a little sad, because there seem to be fewer trilogies planned now. Studios keep looking for ways to increase the number of movies in a franchise, whether that’s by splitting the final installment into multiple films, or just looking for longer works. Hopefully, we’ll see a few more well-planned trilogies make their way to theaters soon. It would be really nice to add another franchise to the ‘Ideal’ list.

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