Ahhh “trilogy”. Is there any phrase more likely to gladden the heart of a movie fan? That knowledge that a good first film has not totally been ruined by a sequel and thus the studio has consented to make one more film in the hope of eking a bit more cash.
Back in January when I did a list of the best Pixar films of all time I said of Toy Story 3 – “it is without doubt the greatest 3rd film in a trilogy ever”. After boldy making such a statement I knew I would not be able to leave it rest. I also started thinking about what is the best trilogy of all time – a much tougher question given you have to weigh the merit of all three films – such a quandary becomes most stark when you encounter The Godfather trilogy.
Screenwriter William Goldman once said that all sequels are whore’s movies – meaning they are only ever made for money. That is true to an extent – after all there’s a reason George Lucas hasn’t explored the “Willow” galaxy to the extent he has the Indiana Jones or Star Wars worlds. Sometimes though – such as with Mad Max 2, a sequel can be an improvement (perhaps) on the original because the first was on the cheap and the second allows the filmmakers to do everything he or she wants. Sometimes though this extra money can lead to Mad Max 3.
But while this year there are more sequels being released than ever before (Box Office Mojo has it at 27 this year compared to 19 last year), we need not get too snooty about sequels – after all Shakespeare had no concerns churning out Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3, and also Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Antony and Cleopatra is a virtual sequel to Julius Caesar. A good sequel can still be a good film.
The first problem in deciding to examine the best trilogies and best third films etc, is to remember them all. This was proving to be a fairly annoying enterprise, until I remembered the good folk at Box Office Mojo have a page for “franchises’. Now I have been very liberal with my use of the phrase “trilogy”. I haven’t included the Harry Potter films because the story obviously did not end with Number 3, but I have included Twilight and Narnia series because this far they only have three (the next Twilight film comes out in November – incidentally up against Happy Feet 2). Similarly I’ve kept in Star Trek even though there are many of them, mostly because I feel the first three do feel like a nice story arc. Ditto the first three Alien films, but the Halloween, Friday 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street and James Bond series are not.
Other series where the fourth film has come a long way after the third – Indiana Jones, Die Hard – are in. I try my best to forget there even is such a thing as the fourth Indiana Jones film, so that works out well. The Rocky first three are in as well, because with the end of the third a nice circle had been completed, and if it were not for the fact that Rocky needed to win the Cold War for us (and I think I speak for all of us when I say, I am glad he did) the series probably would have ended there.
Other were tricky – the Hannibal Lector films, for example. Not really a trilogy, but I thought bugger it, and so put in the first three with Anthony Hopkins. Other films like the Sergio Leone “Dollars Trilogy” of spaghetti westerns are not strictly a trilogy, but I love them, so they’re in. There was a Jaws 4? Oh dear yes. So horrible, so let’s pretend there wasn’t and call it a trilogy.
All in all I came up with 61 trilogy series.
The way to judge them? Well I could do it myself, but you may be shocked to know I have not seen all of the Blade films, nor all of The Santa Clause films. So instead I have left it up to the Rotten Tomatoes scores. Sure Rotten Tomatoes is not perfect, and in some way I prefer Metacritic – but both have their faults – Metacritic for example gives Superman II a score of 99. And I doubt anyone, even director Richard Donner, would give it that high a mark. I also could have used the imdb scores. But I feel they are too compressed, and also too fanboy-centric. So Rotten Tomatoes it is. I must acknowledge there is a bias towards older films – mostly because there are fewer critics from which to gain an average score, and also because generally only good older films get reviewed.
But hey, let’s not get too precious about it.
Before we get to the good ones let’s dispel a few myths. As a rule the second film is not the best film of a trilogy, even if The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the Star Wars trilogy and Mad Max 2 is the best of the Mad Max film, or even if Aliens is the best of the Alien films. Far and away the best film of the trilogy is usually the first. Out of the 61 films the first film had the best Rotten Tomatoes score of the series 49 times. The worst film? The last – that happened 34 times.
Only in five trilogies was the “worst” film the first one – Jackass, The Phantom Menace, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Mighty Ducks and Step Up
Ok now, let’s have a look at the Rotten Tomato scores of the Top 10 worst first film of a trilogy – ones that obviously did not generate sequels due to artistic merit but lots of cash:
The Mighty Ducks scored 12 on Rotten Tomatoes, but $50m box office in the US for a $10m budget means give more – especially when they don’t get any more expensive to make. But as you can see even the 10th worst gets a 55 score, which isn’t horrible.
The biggest differential in quality is also interesting. How many times has an excellent first film been destroyed by the sequels (yes, The Matrix, I’m looking at you)? Here are the top 10 series with the biggest differences in quality from best to worst:
|Meet the Parents||84||9||75|
|Beverly Hills Cop||84||10||74|
|The Santa Clause||80||15||65|
Yep – House Party the first got a 95 score (no I haven’t seen it either) But by number three it was scoring zero. Alien III did not quite live up to the brilliance of Aliens, and neither did Hannibal ever look like winning the Oscars that The Silence of the Lambs won.
Of course having little difference in quality of the three films is no guarantee of greatness. For example the difference in Rotten Tomatoes score of the first three American Pie films is only 7, but I doubt given the high is 59 and the low is 52, that will have you rushing to buy the box set.
But enough time now to unveil the Top 10 best third film of a trilogy of all time:
|Three Colors: Red||100|
|Toy Story 3||99|
|The Good the Bad and the Ugly||97|
|The Return of the King||94|
|The Bourne Ultimatum||93|
|Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade||89|
|Mad Max III||81|
|The Revenge of the Sith||80|
|Clear and Present Danger||78|
|The Return of the Jedi||78|
As you can see, we are not talking the greatest films of all-time. By and large, when filmmakers get to the end of the trilogy they are really struggling to sustain any narrative. The first does because the Three Colors films were conceived as parts of a whole. The Good the Bad and the Ugly, as I say is a bit of a cheat, and The Return of the King is really just the end of the whole big long film that happened to be split into three parts. That Toy Story 3, a film not even conceived of when the first Toy Story was made achieves such excellence is a pretty major achievement (and also shows I wasn’t too far off!).
For your amusement, here are the best 2nd films in a trilogy:
|Toy Story 2||100|
|Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior||100|
|Evil Dead II||98|
|The Godfather Part II||98|
|The Empire Strikes Back||97|
|The Two Towers||96|
|For a Few Dollars More||92|
Again Toy Story is at the top (given a pretty good indication of which finishes top overall! What you also see here is that the quality of the best second films is a long way above that of the best third films. I have never seen Evil Dead II, but have all the rest, and apart from Toy Story 2 and For a Few Dollars More, these are my favourite films in each of the series (though I may reconsider on The Godfather Part II).
But enough. Let us see the Top 20 all time best trilogies (all 61 seemed a bit of a stretch!)
|3||The Dollars Trilogy||95.3|
|4||The Lord of the Rings||94|
|6||Star Wars Original||89.7|
|16||Back to the Future||78|
Toy Story just nabs it over Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors Blue, White and Red. Evil Dead gets in there for horror fans, and even the execrable mess that is The Godfather Part III isn’t enough to keep that series out of the Top 10.
My Top 10? Here you go:
|2||The Lord of the Rings|
|3||The Dollars Trilogy|
|4||Star Wars Originals|
I must admit I made that selection very quickly. The first two Godfather films are so good I am prepared to go through the third. And why no Three Colors trilogy? Well because I… ummm… haven’t seen them.
And with that I shall duck out of the way from all the scorn from film fans everywhere!!
Have a great weekend