• Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives

  • Awards & Nominations

The Trouble With Trilogies: Why Superhero Fanchises Have Trouble With the Third Instalment…

So, it turns out that The Dark Knight Rises has a top secret ending. That’s very interesting, and I wonder what it could be. A few obvious possibilities have popped into my head, but there’s one facet of this news which really fascinates me: this piece of information gives weight to the suggestion that Nolan is going to give his superhero franchise a definitive ending, something that perhaps explains why we don’t really have a “classic” superhero trilogy yet, despite the fact that quite a few comic book characters have pushed well past the third film. So will Batman be able to do what Superman, Spider-Man, the X-Men and even another Batman have failed to do before him? Will he craft a complete and wonderful trilogy?

Batman really wants to know what the ending is...

Don’t get me wrong. Each of those trilogies contains at least one (sometimes more) fantastic films. However, the general perception of audiences and film nerds is that the third film in each sequence is a bit of a letdown. Spider-Man III was a disappointment, X-Men III: The Last Stand is pretty consistently disliked and, even if one ignores Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace as travesties, Superman Returns (intended to close a trilogy with Superman and Superman II) was hardly a creative success.

On the other hand, look at the list of iconic movie trilogies. There’s The Godfather, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings and quite a few others that come to mind almost instantly. One would imagine that blockbuster superhero cinema should have produced something almost that good by this stage, right? The sheer laws of probability favour it, after all – just based on the sheer volume of superhero movie being churned out.

Do trilogies need an Indy charm?

There are a few potential reasons. The most obvious might be that many directors don’t stick around for three movies. Tim Burton directed Batman and Batman Returns before Joel Schumacher took over for Batman Forever. Singer left after X-Men and X-Men II to take over from Richard Donner on Superman Returns, leaving Brett Ratner to direct the third X-Men film. You could make a case that these franchises suffered from changing hands, and I think you’d be right – but I don’t think it’s as simple as that.

Sam Raimi directed all three Spider-Man films, and that wasn’t necessarily brilliant. On the other hand, George Lucas passed each of his original three Star Wars movies to different directors – and that’s regarded as one of the finest film trilogies ever made. On the contrary, Lucas was the only director on the prequel trilogy which was… not as well received as the first set of films. Similarly, the Wachowski Brothers handled all three Matrix movies, and the last two were notably weaker than the first. So I’m not entirely convinced that the success of a trilogy rests on consistency of creative vision.

Do studios force out too many sequels?

You could also suggest that a weak third film harms the entire trilogy. I accept this logic, but I don’t think a weak third film necessarily prevents a trilogy from attaining cult status. After all, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi was the weakest instalment of the original three films, but the Star Wars films are pretty much beloved by all. Godfather III has become something of a joke to film fans (to the point where, in The Simpsons, a comparison to Godfather III receives the warning, “let’s not say things we can’t take back”), but Coppola’s trilogy is still highly regarded.

So I think it’s possible to create a well-received trilogy, even where the final film falters (as seems to be the norm in superhero cycles). So, what do I think might be the reason that Hollywood has yet to produce an iconic superhero trilogy that can stand on its own two feet? Personally, I’d suggest “closure.” I think that’s what defines a really good trilogy, is the sense that a lot of stuff has been tied up or resolved by the end of the third film.

Three of a kind?

The three Godfather films tell a pretty conclusive story about Michael Carleone, war-hero-turned-mobster. The original Star Wars cycle carries all of the plots to their logical conclusion, to the point that (despite the success of the expanded universe), you don’t need to know any more about the characters – they’ve all done what they wanted or needed to. The Lord of the Rings sees not only the survival of Middle Earth against an impossible threat, but it also closes the book on this world of myths and legends. In short, these third instalments all represent some sort of definitive ending to the stories told.

You might argue that superhero stories don’t get that sort of closure because the studios are always waiting to pop out another film afterwards – Spider-Man IV was planned, for example, as are X-Men IV and X-Men V. I think there’s a strong argument to be made that this is at least strongly related to the fact that we have yet to see an iconic superhero trilogy – there’s no sense of closure because the studio don’t want fans to worry about not getting a fourth film. Even in cases where classic trilogies have got follow-ups (The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings, for example, or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), there’s generally enough of a gap (in either time or in the material covered) that the original trilogy continues to stand alone.

Somebody was not happy at being recast for the spin-off...

However, I’d argue that this is just a symptom of the real cause for problems with superhero trilogies. I think that, as part of their nature, superhero stories don’t lend themselves well to endings. Due to the serial nature of comic books, Batman will always fight crime, Superman will always fly through the sky. With the odd exception of a story like The Dark Knight Returns, we really won’t get too much closure on a comic book superhero. The adventure always continues, so there’s never any ending – just more adventures on “the same Bat time, same Bat channel.”

I think that superhero movies have definitely borrowed this approach from the source material, with the idea being that they can continue to do whatever they are doing perpetually. As such, the hero can never need to do anything more fundamental than vanquish the villain (and their personal problems) suggested in this instalment, so they can come back and do the same next film or issue. That’s why origin stories are so popular, because those are the one type of superhero story where you can actually have that sort of character growth and development as standard. The second instalment in the franchise typically allows you to develop your character a bit more, but superheroes typically aren’t built for endings.

Currently working on the fifth Wolverine movie...

That’s why I’m excited at the fact that Warner Brothers isn’t going to try to continue on from Nolan’s trilogy (rebooting instead) or the fact that the ending is top secret – because that implies the ending is something more than “Batman stands on the rooftop, looking down over Gotham.” Maybe Nolan can do it – not that I ever really doubted it. Maybe it’s something to genuinely get excited about.

3 Responses

  1. Most superhero threequels fail because there’s no set formula for success (as you pointed out, the serialized nature of comic books contributes to this). The first film is where the hero realizes their destiny and chooses to pursue their calling, the second film is where the hero confronts a seemingly unbeatable foe who pushes him/her to their limits, the third film… well, I don’t really know, what is the accepted template for the third film in a franchise? Maybe Nolan can invent one.

    Another thought is that most comic books these franchises are based on started out with a clear premise and a simple format. For instance, a guy dresses up like a bat and fights crime with the aid of advanced technology. If the first and second movies are based on the early issues of the comics they tend to be golden. But the longer the source material goes on, the more convoluted and confusing it gets. The guy who dresses as a bat teams up with a circus acrobat and a girl librarian, plus he’s got an imp from another dimension following him around, and so on. The more simple and pure the concept starts out as, the more unwieldy and ridiculous it tends to get as it goes on.

  2. I agree with many of your and Carson Dyle’s points, including that there is no set formula for a good third film and that very nature of Superheroes make it dificult to end them.

    That being said, making a proper film trilogy with an overarching story arc and a satisfying conclusion is hard. Really hard. It really hasn’t been successfully accomplished very often. I mean, Godfather 3 arguably belongs with Indy 4 and The Hobbit as a tacked on, years later sequel. The Indiana Jones trilogy was more of a serial format rather than one story.

    The truly successful trilogies, in my opinion, are Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Back to the Future, Bourne and Toy Story. That’s not very many and it just shows how difficult it is to make a conclusive trilogy.

    Endings are really hard to do well. So many movies start great with excellent premises but derail in the third act (Sunshine, I’m looking at you). This would explain why Trilogies are similarly afflicted with the third entry curse.

  3. the x men series was well on its way to becoming an epic trilogy. The reason for this was because (it appeared) that Brian Singer had chosen a truly rich and deep plotline to conclude his series with (the phoenix saga). Furthermore, he planted seeds in the second movie to suggest that there was a clear direction he was taking the story and that it was a pre planned narrative to complete the trilogy. However, when he left, his vision left with him.
    In the case of Spider-man, the original movies never seemed to hint towards specifically delving into the Venom storyline, so when the third film took that route, and added Sandman, it seemed tacked on and cheap. More studio pressure than artistic vision.
    Nolan appears to have thought out his storyline beforehand and with the HUGE success of his films, seems to be given free reign from the studios to do whatever he wants. Therefore, his vision can be fully realized.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: