Third Time’s the Charm!
Best Movie Threequels
This weekend saw the debut of Inferno, the third film in Ron Howard/Tom Hanks franchise based on Dan Brown’s work. Despite Tom Hanks’ recent popularity as Sully and SNL character David S. Pumpkins, the film flopped domestically (doing better overseas, admittedly) and earned no love from critics. I find it unfortunate because in my humble opinion the film — with it’s 20% on Rotten Tomatoes — is actually the best of the series. The Da Vinci Code is unbearable, pretentious slog. Angels and Demons ups the fun, but still goes on for at least half an hour too long. Somehow, Inferno gets the pacing right, and adds a welcome dose of self-awareness. It’s a thriller with the right balance of fun and stupidity, as if laboratory designed to be watched on an airplane. (Although I’d like to watch Manchester by the Sea on an airplane, I don’t think it would work; better to watch dumb thrillers or Spider-Man 2).
The unique case surrounding Inferno got me thinking about film franchises where the third film isn’t merely good, but is in fact the best entry. I could easily list good threequels, but most people don’t think Army of Darkness, Die Hard with a Vengeance or The World’s End are the best films in their respective series. That’s no knock on you if you do have that belief, which is exactly why I present my list. It doesn’t necessarily line up with anyone else’s, but hopefully I can win you over. Without further ado…
Star Wars Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith
An obvious inclusion perhaps, but my opinion has changed recently as to why this film is such a step up from the prior prequel-trilogy offerings. For one thing, the film advances with pretty normal pacing. It’s not an interminable slog like The Phantom Menace or a sensory battering ram like Attack of the Clones. On a more thematic level, Sith neatly ties up story arcs percolating for the entire trilogy. The sense of tragic inevitability to the proceedings is high — we’ve seen how Anakin’s Force-potential is poisoned and the innocent little boy has become an angry young man. The original trilogy wasn’t planned in such detail from the start so even though the films are vastly better, they don’t necessarily contain the same insidious pleasure of watching Senator Palpatine destroy democracy one step at a time. Revenge of the Sith isn’t a good movie, but it’s an effective trilogy-capper which provides satisfying ends to the mythology, if only on paper.
Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade
I love Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s the best action movie of all time. It transcends its many influences to become something truly original. But guess what? Last Crusade is also the best of the franchise. If that doesn’t make sense, don’t think about it too hard. Just remember this — Last Crusade is the one that has James Bond as Indiana Jones dad and also the best opening sequence of them all. Those are some stellar credentials.
The opening scene for your pleasure:
Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
I’m sorely tempted not to include this film, simply because I don’t want to downplay the success of Fellowship of the Ring or The Two Towers. Fellowship accomplishes so much elegant world-building, it’s mind-blowing. No wonder it made a gazillion dollars and printed money for New Line Cinema. Then, Two Towers dug deep and found drama while widening the universe even more. Return of the King ties it all back together. We can complain about serial endings till the cows come home. There is nothing wrong, however, with satisfaction on an epic scope — in the final film Jackson sold the entirety of Middle Earth at war and that includes checking back with many characters once the war ends. It’s an exhausting film; it’s also well worth your time.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Movies like this are why people make these damn lists. Few people regard The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly as a threequel because the first two films (A Fistfull of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More) have had such low staying power in public consciousness. Nonetheless, they exist, they are fun, but they ultimately aren’t as iconic. The best images and the best use of Clint Eastwood comes in this spaghetti western.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Yeah, the kids started wearing street clothes and Cuarón made major changes to the text. Adaptation is a tricky game, and sometimes we need to cleave from the source material to ultimately honor it. This is the case with Azkaban, which captures not just the complex plotting of the third book, but finally nails the loneliness at the heart of the HP story. Harry Potter is an orphan and a chosen one, which means he’s destined to be an outsider. Eventually, we’d get a nigh-emo Potter in the fifth/sixth entries, but the magical (no pun intended) intersection of Cuarón’s tone and the actors’ budding adolescence made for the best Potter yet, or in my opinion, ever.
Sean Connery is the best Bond and this is the best Bond film. That it happens to be the third one gives a good argument for sequels. By this outing, Broccoli and Co. figured out the indelible Bond formula and execute it with perfection. Diabolical villains, murderous henchman, fast cars, quippy girls, death machines, and our ice-cold hero. Goldfinger has it all.
Iron Man 3
Iron Man started it all for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It deserves all the credit gets. Iron Man 2 ain’t great and I have yet to encounter anyone who seriously wants to defend it. Iron Man 3, on the other hand, is a font of controversy with equal praise and shame thrown around. Most of the fuss centers on Shane Black and Drew Pearce’s non-canonical treatment of the Mandarin villain. Not only do I support the gleefully deconstructionist take, I simply think that the film stands up on a number of small levels. Black is a hilarious screenwriter, the pacing zips along, and the action looks incredible. The film followed The Avengers massive worldwide success, so Marvel upped the budget just for the hell of it. It shows. Outside of The Avengers flagship films, this is the best looking Marvel film. Give it re-watch if you don’t agree.
Mission Impossible III
I love the Mission: Impossible franchise dearly and I love to advocate for the third entry. JJ Abrams fused his Alias espionage sensibilities with Tom Cruise’s intensity and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s magnetism. Even with five films, this is the only one with a good villain in it — scratch that, he’s great. The film is literally rated PG-13, in part, because of his menace. We must also acknowledge the great work by Laurence Fishburne, Billy Crudup, Keri Russell, Ving Rhames, Maggie Q, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and Michelle Monaghan. Lest we forget this film introduced us to Benji (Simon Pegg), an underrated Q rip off if there ever was one. MI:III is an excellent ensemble action film; yes it’s built around Cruise, but it’s more than just his personal vehicle. While I’m writing, I’ll also add that I think that Brian DePalma’s Mission: Impossible (1996) is a masterclass in suspense. JJ Abram’s zippy action sequences are not nearly as iconic as Tom Cruise lowering to the floor of a CIA vault. The cinematography and editing are impeccable in DePalma’s film and it also explores interesting spy themes more subtly than the obvious melodrama of MI:III. Mission: Impossible might be the better movie but it’s not my favorite one, I suppose.
Probably not the best film in the franchise, but it includes this (NSFW) gem:
Maybe I should have saved best for third, but I saved best for last. Richard Linklater knocked it out of the park with Before Midnight. As much as the franchise derives satisfaction from the progression of the protagonists’ relationship across all three films, Linkater-Hawk-Delpy are careful to lave entry points for new viewers in numero tres. Without having seen Before Sunrise or Before Sunset, you can hop in and immediately connect to the super relatable woes of this married couple. Hell, I’m not married and I can feel every barb in their arguments stab me, the same way that I love watching the couple hold hands. Before Midnight is a brilliant slice-of-life film and also uniquely immune to the typical issues that plague sequels. Most sequels try to replicate past success and fall short. The Before franchise is resolutely interested in the moment, the one day, the one hour in the character’s lives. With that goal, it’s possible the 15th film will end up being best.
Films that didn’t make the cut:
The Bourne Ultimatum
Bourne Identity or Supremacy could come down to a coin flip. Ultimatum gamely serves up the best action scenes of the whole franchise (Legacy and Jason Bourne included). But the story isn’t just scant, it’s almost nonexistent. The film is just a chase scene and then an exposition dump at the end. Exciting, sure. Franchise best? Go re-watch the priors and we’ll talk.
The Dark Knight Rises
Does anyone actually think this is better than The Dark Knight? Didn’t think so.
Toy Story 3
I didn’t feel comfortable writing about Toy Story 3. I’ve only seen it once. I’ve seen Toy Story and Toy Story 2 countless times. The comparison just wasn’t fair.