Why is the third film in a trilogy almost always the worst? Spider-Man 3, Return of the Jedi, The Godfather Part III, X-Men: Apocalypse, X-Men: the Last Stand, the list could go on and on. For some reason, the third film often fails to stick the landing. This isn’t always the case, and several films break this pattern. Return of the King, Logan, and Toy Story 3 are all fine examples of third acts that exceed their predecessors. But, why is this still frequently the case?
Problems with the Ending
In this writer’s opinion, there are three key trends that cause the third act to fall flat. Sometimes there is more story to tell than there is a movie to tell it. Sometimes the studio gets antsy and tries to “fix” things. Other times there just isn’t enough story left to tell. Sequels that can’t stick the landing are often made more for money than it is for story. In order to better understand these causes, let’s look at three popular trilogy clinchers that fell short of their predecessors.
Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)
The final act in George Lucas’ world-changing original trilogy is misremembered and romanticized. With the box office bomb of Solo, backlash to The Last Jedi, and nightmarish disappointment with the prequels, it’s easy to forget just how “good” or “bad” Return of the Jedi is. Don’t get me wrong, I love all Star Wars movies, even the bad ones; and unfortunately Episode VI is one of the bad ones. For the sake of this article, try to examine it only in the context of the Original Trilogy.
1977: Star Wars explodes onto the scene and literally takes over the entire planet. 1980: The Empire Strikes Back destroys all notions of what a sequel and a blockbuster can be. 1983. Unlike its predecessors, Return of the Jedi breaks no new ground and just can’t stick the landing. This isn’t to say that the film is bad. However, it is bad in comparison to the cinematic game changers that came before it.
Too Much to Tell
Return of the Jedi simply struggles from having too much story to tell in the Skywalker saga. Han Solo has to be rescued from Jabba the Hutt, Luke has to complete his training, Darth Vader has to be confronted, and the Empire/Emperor has to be defeated. Roughly the first forty-five minutes of the film are spent establishing Jabba the Hutt, establishing his domain, and rescuing Han. The entire arc of the Emperor, the downfall of the Empire, and Luke’s intertwined end with Darth Vader are all crammed into the remaining ninety(ish) minutes.
Behind the scenes, Return of the Jedi suffers from too much of a return to form. Upon initial release, The Empire Strikes Back was not received with the highest regards. It failed to earn as much money as its predecessor and many fans criticized it for its dark tone and diverging branches of story. Many claimed that “nothing happened” as the story became more basic and less goal-oriented than A New Hope. In other words, the original has the end goal of the Death Star, while Empire just has an end goal of escape from the Empire. (Remind you of any recent Star Wars movies?).
George Lucas decided to react to this reception and, as a result, the tone, plot, and style of Return of the Jedi were shifted to be more in line with the original. The end result was an overly cheesy happy ending, ewoks, and a second Death Star. With too many loose ends to tie up, Episode VI just doesn’t stick the landing.
Still, it is Star Wars, so it’s fine in my book.
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Spider-Man 2 is my favorite movie of all time, so this one stings. Spider-Man 3 could have been Director Sam Raimi’s Magnum Opus, instead, it was the beginning of a nearly ten year stretch of Sony-led Spider-Man movies. I am aware that Sony has produced every Spider-Man film, but their involvement isn’t heavily felt until Spider-Man 3 and the failed reboot Amazing Spider-Man films.
The Humble Beginnings of Spider-Man 3
Much like The Empire Strikes Back, Spider-Man 2 failed to gross as much as its predecessor. Unlike Empire, Spider-Man 2 received greater critical praise and audience reception. Nonetheless, it did not bring in nearly as much money as Sony hoped it would. So, Sony, particularly producer Avi Arad, decided to micromanage the next Spider-Man film and give the fans what the studio thought they wanted. They saw Sam Raimi’s plans for Harry’s vengeful arc as the New Goblin and the grounded and emotional Sandman and said, “Hey, your movie has Venom in it now.“* Sam Raimi was not thrilled and fought the studio on this for some time. Eventually, the director caved and made plans for a New Goblin and Venom movie.
Instead of allowing Raimi to rework the story so that it wouldn’t be cluttered, cheesy, and forced, the studio said “No, we want Sandman, Venom, and the New Goblin.”* If they had seen Batman and Robin ten years prior, Sony would have known that three villains can’t share a movie or else that movie will be a disaster. Nevertheless, Sony meddled, Raimi phoned it in in protest, and we were delivered a sequel more deserving of the DCEU than the nearly perfect Spider-Man duo-logy that proceeded it. Spider-Man 3 doesn’t just fail to stick the landing, it doesn’t even manage to hit the pool it’s jumping into. Instead it splatters all over the concrete, where Sony quietly sweeps it into the gutter.
A Note on Sony
Sony is my least favorite studio. More frequently than any other studio, I see them meddle too much in their films and produce utter garbage. The pre-MCU Spider-Man franchises are a perfect example. The Ghostbusters reboot is another great example. Venom is probably going to be another example in this line of Studio meddling gone wrong.
Sony really wants to be Disney. Hell, every studio wants to be Disney right now. Why? Because Disney is the only studio really capable of maintaining franchises and universes at the moment. The DCEU, the Universal Monsterverse, The Extended Spider-Verse… The list of failed and/or failing shared universes is astounding right now. Sony just happens to screw this up more often than most. Film after film, Sony tries to force in “what audiences want” and artists are hindered from fully realizing their vision in the process.
Sony doesn’t just fail to stick the landing, they can’t even stick the takeoff.
Jurassic Park III (2001)
There are no great Jurassic Park sequels. There is a solid knockoff, Jurassic World, and an entertaining run-away-from-dino’s sequel, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. However, all Jurassic Park films are lackluster in comparison to the original. The worst of these is Jurassic Park III.
There really isn’t much to say about Jurassic Park III, because the movie doesn’t have a lot to say either. Much like Fallen Kingdom it is a generic run-away-from-dinosaurs movie, that falls rather flat in terms of substance. The problem with this doesn’t necessarily lie with the movie itself, but with the subject matter. Jurassic Park as a franchise struggles because it is restrained by its premise. Scientific experimentation gone wrong, the vanity of achievement, and the value of progress are themes explored in the original, and in The Lost World, and again in Jurassic Park III, and again in Jurassic World, and again in Fallen Kingdom.
Jurassic Park III fails because the franchise keeps beating a dead horse (itself). The problem is; you can beat a dead horse all you want, but it won’t go any further. Sometimes the story is already wrapped up, and a sequel is just made for more profits and merchandising potential. This is the case with Jurassic Park III. By this point in the franchise, the characters are all very certain that bringing back dinosaurs is a terrible idea. The T-Rex isn’t scary anymore. The chases aren’t as tense and exciting, and the velociraptors have been reduced to an almost comical level. The characters seem almost as bored as the audience, and the same thematic questions are answered less provocatively for the third time.
The third film isn’t always the worst film in a trilogy, but more often than not, it is. There are three main causes that almost always apply to these films that can’t stick the landing.
Too Much Story Left to Tell
There may be too many loose ends left to tie up. Two hours (or one film) might not be enough time to finish the character arcs and chains of events. Examples of this are Return of the Jedi, X-Men: Apocalypse, and The Dark Knight Rises.
Those Meddling Studios and Their Dumb Dogs
The studio gets involved because they want to make more money. Studio demands get in the way of the story in progress and the movie fails to stick the landing almost completely. This happens more frequently with superhero movies than other franchises. Examples of this are Spider-Man 3, X-Men: The Last Stand, and Batman Forever.
All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go
Other times, there simply isn’t any more story to tell. However, there is more money to be made and a sequel is churned out as a result. Examples of this are Jurassic Park III, The Godfather Part III, and Jaws III.
Thank you for reading! What are you thoughts on third films in a trilogy? Comment down below!
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