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Why Do Genre Movies Come In Threes?

With the new rumor that Warner Bros is already thinking about the third Green Lantern movie before the first has even finished shooting, I started to wonder: Why are movies so obsessed with trilogies?

It’s easy to point to Lord of The Rings as the cycle that set fantasy literature in the direction of trilogy adoration, of course; Tolkein’s books had a wide-reaching influence throughout genre culture, and those who seek epic sweep tend to have it somewhere in the back of their mind – but yet, there’s something about LoTR that doesn’t fit the profile of blockbuster trilogies as we’ve come to know them… the fact that it’s a continuous story that doesn’t have an easy out earlier on, perhaps.

See, modern movie trilogies have a very particular structure: The first movie is, essentially, complete in and of itself, just in case it tanks at the box office and doesn’t warrant a sequel. Sure, there are threads left hanging to make people want a follow-up, and the core struggle won’t be entirely dealt with in order to make the rest of the trilogy possible, but there’ll be enough closure just in case it does a Prince of Persia and flops at the box office. Then, the second movie will have a completely arbitrary, unsatisfying ending, and exist purely as complication to the overall series and set-up for the final movie, in which everything will be brought together in, more often than not, a manner that feels oddly artificial and somewhat rushed and ill-considered. Seriously, think about things like Back To The Future, The Matrix or the Pirates of The Caribbean series; they follow that throughline entirely (Consider, also, the trilogy within the Star Trek series, Wrath of Khan/Search For Spock/The Voyage Home: Same thing). And where did that formula come from?

Star Wars.

It’s a weird thing to realize that every major sci-fi or fantasy movie trilogy that isn’t Lord of The Rings has modeled itself on Star Wars and its following two sequels, right down to their failures (As Joss Whedon put it at Comic-Con,Empire Strikes Back doesn’t even have an ending); it simultaneously makes Star Wars seem more impressive, and other movie series much less so. It also makes me wonder what movies would have done without George Lucas, and whether the success of longer series, like Harry Potter and Twilight might make filmmakers realize that there’s another model out there to follow that won’t scare people off. Even better, it might make them realize that they can do their own thing and still win friends and influence people.

You know it’s an odd world when Michael Bay seems trailblazing purely because Transformers wasn’t structured as a trilogy from the outset, isn’t it?

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Comments

  • ingenuus

    perhaps because “genre movies” (a phrase that has always seemed odd to me since every movie falls into SOME genre) try to capture the grand feel of a three act play.

  • Falconx2681

    They should concentrate in writing ONE great story rather than stretch it out into trilogies for the sake of making more cash in the long run. It's also sad how the viewers have taken stories for granted and just focus on getting more out of the same thing than have taken something of deeper value like older tales used to contain. Movies now and essentially 2 hour TV show episodes.

  • Blue_Falcon

    …Money?

  • Usasix

    my first thought was because the lord of the rings was the first real trilogy(even though tolkien didn't write it to be one), and it has set the standard especially in fantasy and sci-fi genre.

  • comic relief

    Graeme,

    As usual, you have produced another interesting essay. You claim that this trend owes its origin to the Star Wars trilogy. This is a provocative idea given that Lucas did the same thing again with the Star Wars prequel trilogy. That event seems to double the validity of your observation.

    I was wondering why not choose to build this essay on the success “the Godfather”. Oh, because it is not a not a science fictional action/adventure or fantasy film.

    Why not choose the Superman franchise. Oh, that has more than three films, (five with Christopher Reeve and six if you count the Brian Singer film.

    Why not choose the Spiderman, or X-men franchise. Oh, because you were looking for a front runner and the Star Wars trilogy happened early enough to be a trend setter.

    Maybe in the future you can fill us in on:

    • …whether it’s necessary to retain the same director throughout.
    • …does the original cast have to remain the same throughout
    • …whether there has to be an absolute limit of three films only

    This would clarify why so many films do not meet the description of success you seem to be suggesting.

  • http://www.TelltaleProductions.nl Niels

    It's worth noting that a great many trilogies aren't actually trilogies–they're just three movies that follow each other, without the overarching plot structure being a trilogy suggests. They get called trilogies because that's a popular, commercial term now.. And then if there's a fourth movie, it turns out the series was a quadrilogy!

    I think as often as not, it goes a little like this: Movie 1 is a hit. Movie 2 gets marketed as THE sequel and is a hit. What to do with Movie 3, then? There's already a sequel and another will sound repetitive. Well, why not call it the final installment of a trilogy? Then the audience will come because they've already seen the start and don't want to miss out on the grand conclusion, no matter if the existing story still actually needed one.

  • http://www.TelltaleProductions.nl Niels

    It's worth noting that a great many trilogies aren't actually trilogies–they're just three movies that follow each other, without the overarching plot structure being a trilogy suggests. They get called trilogies because that's a popular, commercial term now.. And then if there's a fourth movie, it turns out the series was a quadrilogy!

    I think as often as not, it goes a little like this: Movie 1 is a hit. Movie 2 gets marketed as THE sequel and is a hit. What to do with Movie 3, then? There's already a sequel and another will sound repetitive. Well, why not call it the final installment of a trilogy? Then the audience will come because they've already seen the start and don't want to miss out on the grand conclusion, no matter if the existing story still actually needed one.

  • Tomfitz1

    Let's not forget the Harry Potter and the Twilight films.

    Those may not fit in the trilogy theme, but like the LOTR, are rather a continuing story.

  • Josh

    Just the fact that you're willing to lump Back to the Future in with The Matrix and Pirates franchises all but invalidates you as a human being, let alone your argument (kidding), but here goes:

    It's the rule of threes. If you bring a joke back, it needs to be brought back three times. If you write a script, the standard structure is three acts. You'll find threes all over entertainment and art going back to Wagner's Ring cycle (A trilogy with a “preliminary night”, which is basically a 17th century prequel) and probably beyond that. It's an easy pattern. Establish>Disrupt>Resolve. They can each have their own pattern within the respective chapters, but overall that's the way of storytelling.

  • Rajiv

    * Beginning, middle, end?
    * Apprentice, journeyman, master?
    * Childhood, adult, old age?

    (Notice how you can never have just two bullet points?)

  • stealthwise

    Against the grain here is Nolan's Batman films. There's no way you can tell me this series has been perfectly set up for three films. Hell, The Dark Knight doesn't even have three distinct acts.

  • Kal-El Fan

    FYI, there were four Superman films with Reeve (Superman: The Move – Superman IV: The Quest for Peace) and one with Routh (Superman Returns, directed by Singer). There are only six if you count Supergirl with Helen Slater, which Reeve was originally supposed to be in.

  • comic relief

    @Niels

    I like what you are saying. In your definition the LoTR, Harry Potter, & Twilight, all qualify as Trilogies (until the fourth film was completed). The Director of the first movie knew, in the very beginning, the sequels were coming. Or let me correct myself: they would not be called “sequels” as much as chapters in a (convention challenging) expanded narrative.

    By your definition all of these Marvel movies: X-men, Iron man, Spiderman (and more) don’t actually qualify because each sequel was purely a response (new money making effort) to the success of the previous film. Clarifying that there are no over arching narrative arcs makes a huge difference in judging the success or value of the series.

    I believe your perception of this scenario is exact and correct as well.
    Movie 1 is a hit. Movie 2 gets marketed as THE sequel and is a hit. What to do with Movie 3, then?

  • Spike

    @Stealthwise: There are a few “trilogies” that are like that. Spider-Man and X-Men are the ones that pop to mind immediately. Those ended because the third ones sucked and tanked, not because they were following the “three act play” feel. I'd chalk it up to just differing approaches more than going against the grain.

  • Raskal67

    Usually they come in threes because Hollywood really can't be trusted to make more than three movies without finding new and creative ways to screw it up. They'll either put way too many villains in one movie, or do something so totally out of character that the audiences get turned off. See Spider Man, X-Men, and the Schumacher era Batman movies. The third installment of each of those was almost nearly unwatchable because they gave the keys to the franchise to a moron, or just crammed in all the best villains too quickly or both.

    The first movie should establish the heroes with a good but only marginal threat. The second should be the main character's most evil villain. Anything after that should be gravy with good stories, but one villain at a time.

    If they remake the Fantastic Four (dear god don't let Fox make it) the first movie should be against Mole Man or some such. Save Doctor Doom until part two, and then see where it goes.

    Also I think it has something to with it being difficult to sign actors to more than three movies at one time.

  • Raskal67

    There was a different Supergirl movie, with Faye Dunaway and Peter O'Toole that many have forgotten about.

  • Chris Schillig

    “Planet of the Apes” follows this formula, too, to some extent, except that at the end of the second movie, the entire world blows up. Didn't stop them from making three more films in the original series.

  • Kladjf

    How about the Alien movies?

    I've read somewhere that the three good ones can be related back to Beowulf, so maybe it goes back further than Star Wars.

  • R3ckl3sson3

    This is the thing that doomed Pirates and the Matrix trilogies. I honestly like to think that Pirates ended with the Black Pearl and leave it at that. Probably should include Godfather Part III, but that was more because it was a little too modern for my taste and Sofia Coppolla's sad acting. Glad she found directing.

  • comic relief

    @Kal-El Fan,

    I’m going to assume you are a monstrous fan of Superman; so I don’t want to contradict you in any way.

    If you are merely stating that Supergirl was one of these films, I and Wikipedia agree that all of the Superman films did not feature Reeves.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superman_(film_ser

  • Some guy

    Its my assumption that when marketing a film, people seem to respond better when something has a '2' or a '3' at the end of its title, However, a soon as someone puts a '4' on the end it starts to feel like a franchise trying to milk every last penny it can.
    Nothing makes a movie goer groan more than hearing 'Shrek 4' or '6Fast 6Furious' so instead they make films in triologies or they get creative with the naming of it. Of course, that doesn't mean a fourth film would make any less money just brcause of it.
    This also doesn't apply to things like Harry Potter or James Bond because they based on pre-existing sequals in books and such.

  • Getter Dragun

    That Supergirl movie IS the one with Helen Slater one.

  • RetroWarbird

    I won't make the rookie mistake of trying to compare any of them – particularly Star Wars v. Lord of the Rings.

    But it does feel like The Lord of the Rings films are the first “Trilogy” that succeeds in NOT following in the “Star Wars Mold”. And I think that factors into its overall success. Of course, the subject matter being faithfully translated, and the heart and soul of the crew and actors, the cutting edge tech, amazing artists at Weta, and Pete Jackson also had plenty to do with it. (And I do wonder how much the fact that the LOTR Trilogy is actually not a trilogy at all, because it's SIX books, might factor in.)

    Then again … there's those Trilogies where the second one tops the first but the third is absolute bullshit. X-Men 3. Jurassic Park 3. Typically they're the botched result of the first two being directed by a Single Person (Singer, Spielberg) and then the Studios finding a less-than-suitable replacement (Ratner, Johnston – Although I'll give Johnston props, he's grown, as “The Wolfman” shows).

  • RockinRobin

    The Godfather isn't a good example no matter which way you look at it. The first two movies essentially work hand in hand, and are sometimes even presented as a single film (see: The Godfather Saga). The third movie was the definition of tacked on, it was superfluous in many ways besides some satisfaction that Michael felt guilty about Fredo. Also, the third one came out almost 20 years after the first two, and that was relatively recently (1992), so I think that's a bit late considering it's preceded by many trilogies already.

  • http://twitter.com/dangertroy dangertroy

    Its due to the three act structure every film uses internally.
    Beginning, middle, end.
    Its also due to producers of surprise hits wanting to seem smarter than they are. The first film is structured to standalone, and then as soon as its a success, there is pressure to push out another two. Everyone who sees the first will probably see the second, and a few more for good measure. If the second one has no ending, your almost guaranteed of people watching the third, no matter how much of a turkey the second was. See the matrix and pirate examples.

  • lead_sharp

    This is why I have high hopes for the third Bat movie, it's following the trend of successful trilogies.

  • Kal-El Fan

    Indeed. It really doesn't make much difference as far as making your point. I just felt the impulse to clarify. LOL

  • Josh

    First act, Second act, Third act.

    Easiest way to break things down and tell a complete story.

  • Bored and Annoyed

    Under redundant in the dictionary, it says “see redundant”.

    Seriously, this article seems to be structured for either people who were
    a) born 20 minutes ago, or
    b) have no interest in these type of movies and wouldn't be reading these articles anyway.

    Whose relative is this writer? OR whose relative is he sleeping with? Because I really can't fathom that this guy got the job through his writing skills.

  • Jackallison

    3 movies makes more money than one movie'

  • comic relief

    @Kal-El Fan,

    Thanks.

    Hope you see this.

    It’s really hard to fact check everything for an entertainment blog that only allows posts to stay up for a day.

    Other corrections include:

    • “Reeve” instead of “Reeves”

    • “Monsterous” instead of “Montrous”

  • Joe S. Walker

    In the nineteenth century nearly all novels were published in three volumes, and authors had to stretch or pad things out to reach the required length. As George Gissing put it, “the critics are wont to complain of the weakness of second volumes; they are generally right, because a story which would have made a tolerable book refuses to fill three books.”

  • Alton

    Bored and annoyed sure seems to have a stick up his butt doesn't he? Recently fired and replaced by the bosses son I presume? What the hell does Joss Whedon know about Star Wars after a fiasco like Dollhouse because he was wasting his time trying to script a project as worthless as Wonder Woman.Just quoting a has been doesn't make it true.I personally don't see the point to Bay's “it's a toy that turns into a bad movie that turns into another out sourced toy” as a concept that is trailblazing, but whatever.

  • Jurman

    Lucas and Tolkien were groundbreaking, sure, but not for the use of the trilogy. The concept of a trilogy is hardly a new one. Aeschylus and Sophocles were writing trilogies in ancient Greece long before Star Wars or Lord of the Rings.

  • Plhostetler

    But a trilogy has to have a first act, second act, and third act THREE times.

    The crappy trilogies spoken of above usually go: First act, second act, third act, second act, third act. Story-wise, that makes no sense.

  • comic relief

    @RockinRobin,

    I understand a lot of people may not think much of the Godfather. I proposed the film to better understand Graeme's thesis.

  • Eiki charles

    The last Airbender animated series was an excellent example of material that needed a trilogy to be told well in motion picture form. Unfortunately enough care was not taken in either choosing which parts to use or alter and the outcome of the first live movie was horrible. A golden oppurtunity was missed nickelodeon studios and shows why a company like DC entertainment with Geoff Johns is needed to guide the process.

  • Thad

    “but yet, there’s something about LoTR that doesn’t fit the profile of blockbuster trilogies as we’ve come to know them… the fact that it’s a continuous story that doesn’t have an easy out earlier on, perhaps.”

    Indeed, Tolkien said that LoTR wasn't actually a trilogy; it was a single novel split into three volumes so that readers wouldn't have to lug around a 1200-page book. The plot IS divided up into six “books” and a set of appendices, and each of those six books has a logical beginning, middle, and end, but they're by no means standalone — the original Star Wars or Matrix would have stood alone even if there hadn't been any sequels (and in the latter case, don't we all wish they'd left it at that?).

  • Mwedmer

    All films are designed around 3 acts. If the core concept is strong enough, then it is possible to continue on with those characters and subplots.
    the Star Wars films WERE THE FIRST to attempt this. this is especially apparent in the fact that there is no ending to Empire Strikes Back. It is actually continued in the 3rd film along with all of the plot threads from the first film.

    MATRIX had a full story in the first film but had enough subplots left dangling that it allowed for a continuation.
    This is the same with the Aliens and the Predators fanchises.

    Lord of The Rings is actually the only TRUE Trilogy that has released because it telss a single story over the course of all three films.

    Pirates of the Carribean is close because they tei up past events in the life of Jack Sparrow over the course of all three films, but even those tell a totally different tale as the main plot thread of the films.

    Sorry, Godfather as great as it is does not fit into this category at all.
    Nor does Harry Potter.
    Harry Potter is closer to the James Bond series more than anything. This is because it tells a different story in each film with the same characters. Just like Bond.

    Even Indiana Jones is a stretch because each story is a stand alone tale.

    So when you get down to it, Star Wars (Both series), Lord of the Rings and the Matrix films are the only true trilogies that have come out.

    The rest are just a series of films dealing with the same characters in different situations.

    Hope that clears it up for everyone.

  • jmac

    Very hard to think of Michael Bay as “trailblazing”. His model is the same as the Jurassic Parks and any number of super hero series. Just keep making films until they're so godawful people stop paying to see them.

  • http://twitter.com/KlingonKnitter Jay M. Hurd

    The way I've seen it with trilogy flicks is that there is a beginning, middle and end. The first movie covers the beginning of the story where we are introduced to the characters and the big bad which culminates in a confrontation with the big bad by the end of the film. If the film bombs, we can assume that the villain is defeated, the hero gets the girl and the comedic relief is either stuck with his partner for life or retires to the improv circut at a theater near you.

    The second film, if the first was a success, is usually a transitional film that expands the characters beyond the introduction of the first. If you didn't care about them then, you will be the end of this film. You also get a better feeling for the big bad by the this film too, and may start to care about him/her/it. If not, too bad for him, his action figure may not do as well unless you need it to complete the collection. The second film, in my opinion, is usually a vehicle for the third film, setting up the scene by splitting up the heroes and strengthening the villians in to an epic force.

    The final film usually has the heroes getting their act together enough to to be able to lay the smack down on the big bad, who may or may not still be a villain by then, but likely has a diabolical superior that needs a serious butt whuppin'.

    Genre trilogies obviously have a formula to some extent, but we only see trilogies if there is the initial money to support the development of the first film and that film develops a strong fan following or has one built in, such was the case for films like X-Men, Star Trek or others. Flims like The Matrix made a risky bet that fans would embrace the movie. Sometimes, regardless of fan reception, a film triology may not make it to the next flick if the revenue from the first wasn't high enough.

    I think McMillian could have expanded out this article a lot more, as the concept and practice of a trilogy is a lot more complicated than this.

  • Zor-El of Argo

    Actually, it's six if you include “Superman II The Richard Donner Cut.”

    The Superman films do not fit the trilogy mold being discussed here because everything was tied up at the end of “Superman II.” “Superman III” and “Superman IV: The Quest For Peace” were each self-contained stories that did not need any of the other films to support them.

    Well, actually, NO ONE needed “Superman IV.” Just saying.

  • Zor-El of Argo

    “Spiderman III” did not tank. It may not have done as well as the first two but still grossed over $300Million. It was not as good as the previous films because in an attempt to “protect thier investment” Sony execs started telling the director how to make his film rather than letting him do his own thing, which is how he produced two blockbusters previously. It was kind of like what happens when Senators starting directing troop movements in war instead of leaving it to the generals.