We all have that friend – they tell a joke that’s mildly humorous, tell a follow-up joke that one-ups the last one, then presses their luck and goes for the coveted trilogy, that almost always, as a rule, fails miserably. They piqued our curiosity with the first one, had us in stitches with the second, and then blows the whole thing with the third, negating any credibility they built up with the first two. Now whether it’s because they tried too hard to top the previous jokes, or simply just ran out of gas, that third success is the hardest thing to accomplish…ever.
This, of course, is the curse of the Tertiary joke, or the “terd” as I like to call it. And it’s not limited to jokes, either. It’s definitely got a presence in Hollywood, and whether or not they like to admit it, that third movie in a trilogy series is normally a “terd” as well. It’s easy to go straight to it, but let’s get the obvious out of the way and mention the elephant in the room: The Godfather Part III. Never before has a film so utterly let its rabid audience down, and arguably, never since, either. I mean, Holy Crap, that fell into all the trappings of a horrible sequel – insane popularity and critical reception for the first two movies, combined with ten-plus years removal between II and III, add in lead actors who have become huge stars in the meantime (a clearly already-going insane, post-Scarface spiky haired Al Pacino), combined with ego-blindness of a top-tier director (why else is Sophia Coppola in this?), throw in a dash of “redemption story that doesn’t make sense”, and voila – you’ve got the worst third movie installation in history. I still haven’t opened the third disc in my Godfather Trilogy boxed set, and frankly, I don’t plan on it.
So what is it about movie trilogies that make it so tough to stick the landing? Well, for starters, making a sequel to a movie is hard enough – interestingly, The Godfather Part II is the only notable great sequel ever to make it to the screen. You could argue that The Empire Strikes Back is good, but the rest are at best decent, if not altogether terrible. So you’ve already got the deck stacked against your favor when making a sequel to a sequel, and by the time the third one rolls around you’re normally trying to squeeze blood from a stone. For instance, look at Look Who’s Talking Now.
Another problem you run into is Ego. You could probably point to every Hollywood movie ever and pick out scenes where ego probably got the best of the actors or director or producers involved, but when it comes to sequels, not only are you dealing with personal egos, but if the first movie was decent enough to warrant a sequel, you’re riding a wave of praise that almost always leads to misguided choices. This can happen in one of two ways – people will load heaps of praise upon your first two efforts that you feel like you can’t lose, and you recycle old jokes and push the envelope on new ones, essentially becoming a parody of your first two efforts. Take for instance Austin Powers in Goldmember – how else can you explain letting Beyonce “act” for the first time (“she’s so hot right now – we can’t lose!”), or a completely contrived “father/son/brother” storyline? Or the worst offense of all – Mike Myers’ “Goldmember” as the most puerile and just plain annoying character to grace the screen since Jerry Lewis. For more proof on the parody paradox, just check out the Annihilator 2000 from Beverly Hills Cop 3, and tell me who signed off on that.
Ego can also lead you down the path of what I like to call “Epic-Shittiness” wherein the director finds success with the first film, and uses the newly earned artistic freedom to finally finish their Magnum Opus – i.e. The Matrix movies. Say what you will about the second one, at least I made it through. The Matrix Revolutions was so far up its own ass that I argue Keanu himself would be hard pressed to try to explain it, and that’s not even a “Keanu Reeves” joke! I’m serious, someone help me out here.
What else can go wrong when completing a trilogy? Well, years from now film classes will be studying the case of Spider-Man 3, and the “Too much is never enough” fallacy. Now we all saw Spider-Man 3 – judging from its grosses, even your grandmother saw it, and she’s more of a Batman kinda girl. And yes, Spider-Man is a great superhero, but what is the real reason we keep going back to see sequel after sequel of these comic book movies? I’ll tell you, it’s the villains, and Spider-Man 3 gave us three of them. Count ‘em up here with me – there was the Sandman, Venom, and the Green Goblin (again?!). Yes, it’s fun to see our favorite villains up there onscreen, but when they start fighting each other for screen time, the real loser is us, as the best we get are three half-assed storylines neutering our favorite baddies. First of all, you could’ve brought in the Hobgoblin rather than recycling the Green Goblin – and that’s just for starters; what did you think was going to happen when you plugged three antagonists into a movie that runs just over two hours long? And that have seemingly nothing to do with each other? You get a jumbled mess of a film that glosses over plot and characters, and speeds toward an end that couldn’t get here fast enough. Let’s be honest here, folks – there are plenty of third movie “terds” that have followed the one-upsmanship of the “Too much is never enough” fallacy, but none did it more curiously infuriating as Spider-Man 3, especially since Sam Raimi should know better than this – you did Army of Darkness, man! A rare third in a trilogy that didn’t completely suck.
Which begs the question – are there any good thirds in a trilogy? Sure there are, but very few and far between. For every Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, we get an I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer. But while Return of the King may be a legitimately good movie, are we giving free passes to “terds” because we like the previous two movies, and the characters they’ve built throughout? For instance, Return of the Jedi is my personal favorite of the Star Wars films, but I’ll be the first to admit that a good third of that movie kinda sucked with all those Ewoks running around, and signaled the first steps of George Lucas jumping the shark with the franchise. And Back to the Future Part III was at best enjoyable only because Marty and Doc could star in a Summer’s Eve commercial and I’d still feel the need to buy what they’re selling. Are they secretly getting past our B.S. scanners? I’d say it’s a pretty good possibility.
So how is it possible that all these “terds” are getting greenlit? Money, duh! Sequels have a built-in fan base, and if you can get to a third movie, well, if I’ve already seen the first two, I might as well finish out the third (most of the time – sorry Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End). But when so many of these movies are of the caliber of direct-to-video, or even (shudder) made-for-TV, what’s the point? Frankly, I don’t know, but as long as there are the two or three shining lights that prove you can make a good third movie, I guess it’s still worth a shot. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade saved the franchise after the bad taste that Temple of Doom left on viewers’ palates. What’d you say? They made a fourth in the Indy series? Interesting….I must’ve selectively forgot that…..