Die Hard, Indiana Jones and Toy Story, three pretty perfect trilogies. In my opinion there isn’t one film in any of these series that has a huge, detrimental effect on the others. This is because every single one of those films is a single story, not trying to carry over any plot-threads, unanswered questions or huge story arcs from any previous film and what’s more, the first film didn’t try to set up the sequels before it had even finished!
This has been a ridiculous trend in films that I don’t think ever really works. Recently I watched the worst possible case of this with The Three Musketeers. The whole film is full of flaws (which I outline in my review) but one of the biggest gripes was that it lacked any major, set-piece finale. That is until the final scene sets up what could have been a very cool moment in the first film and the proceeds to run the credits! They literally saved the cool, major set-piece for what they believed was going to be an inevitable sequel!
This just left me angry because I’d invested two hours of my life. I was already pretty dejected by the fact that they’d somehow managed to mess-up the pretty straight forward Three Musketeers story but to then tell me that what I was watching was really just the “first act” and that I need to hope that enough people actually liked this film to get a sequel felt like a slap in the face!
It’s almost like they are planning to make a mediocre or under-developed film. To plot out a whole story that will take three films (or more) to actually tell means you are planning to leave out key moments, great moments, cool moments, so that you have something to put in a sequel you are gambling on being made. The irony being of course that by leaving out these potentially great ideas, you are hurting the film you are hoping will launch a series.
It isn’t just films hoping to launch a franchise that fall foul of this “plan.” Another major bug bear is finding you have a critically and commercially successful film and then making the decision, before a story is written or even thought about, that it must be a trilogy and the next story will be told over two films! Pirates of the Caribbean and The Matrix are the big examples of this. (The original Star Wars trilogy, Lord of the Rings and Back to the Future to a lesser extent.) The problem with this is that whoever is writing these films then has to try to tell a story that warrants two films and the way to do this, usually, is to have about five different stories going on at once, one over-arching “huge” story that is flimsy at best and then two ”main” stories for the individual films because the “huge” story wouldn’t hold together a six-hour film!
This will almost always lead to the second film being brilliant, setting up cool story points, introducing new characters and ending with a massive cliffhanger that leaves you desperate for film 3. When you get film 3 though, you find that a lot of the story they set up in the first film is resolved really quickly, the huge cliffhanger is also resolved easily within the first ten minutes and you are just waiting for the weak resolution to the “huge” story (or in the case of Lord of the Rings, the twenty different endings!)
The best way to do a trilogy is to have three films connected by a character or plot device. Die Hard has John Mclane, Indiana Jones has Indiana Jones and Toy Story has the great concept of toys that come to life. The films are connected and they will reference previous installments but this is just as a nod to the audience or to add realism. These films work because the writers didn’t have to try to tell a massive story but instead got two hours to recreate the magic that made the first film a success.
This is something that two of the most successful films framchises seems to have avoided. The Avengers was a combination of lots of single films but the best in series (Iron Man and Thor) didn’t try to connect themselves with the “huge” story in any major way. The weakest films in the series (Iron Man 2 and Captain America) do try to connect and because of that they feel like prequels or in the case of Captain America, feel like an ending has been “bolted-on.” Luckily, Nolan seems to be comprising his trilogy of three stand-alone films and I’m sure that this will help The Dark Knight trilogy become one of the best ever.
Overall, as long as we have these huge summer blockbusters, we are always going to have forced sequels/trilogies. In the case of Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean we were luckily enough to get one, maybe two, great films but when production companies are trying to launch series with films like The Three Musketeers, we are going to have to sit through lots of mediocre first films so we can see the potentially brilliant sequels. My only worry is that there is a certain web-slinging superhero that could potentially be going down the Musketeers route as well…