Third Time's a Charm

May 27, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

There's a saying that states "Third time's a charm." In life, this may often be the case, but when it comes to movies and their sequels, third time's anything but a charm.

May 2007 has seen the release of three part threes. Spider-Man 3 has already ensnared a tremendous amount of cash in its web Shrek 3 is in the process of scaring up an obscene amount of green. And Pirates of the Caribbean 3 has started pilfering boatloads of money. No one could accuse any of these films of being disappointments based purely on dollars or euros or yen but, contrary to what some believe, there's more to a motion picture than how much it pulls in at the box office.

Even fans of these series would be hard-pressed to put up passionate arguments promoting the third movies as the best. A film doesn't have to be a total bust creatively to miss expectations, and that's what has happened in each of these cases. In the history of cinema, they're not alone. Often, it's the second sequel where a series takes a downturn. It's not hard to find counterexamples - 007, Harry Potter, and Star Trek leap to mind - but for every exception, there are many more that prove the rule. (Note: I do not consider The Lord of the Rings to be part of this discussion since that was essentially one very long movie split by necessity into three parts.)

Most die-hards believe that The Godfather Part III should never have been made. Return of the Jedi was a respectable effort, but coming in the wake of two of the genre's most revered titles, it felt feeble. Superman III effectively killed the franchise. (I will pretend Superman IV was never made, because it shouldn't have been.) It took a fourth Batman movie to end that series, but the seeds were sown in an otherwise acceptable Batman Forever. Most people would agree that the less said about Matrix Revolutions, the better. And Back to the Future 3 may have been the most forgettable third movie of any series. (Although I kind of liked it.)

This is not intended to be a comprehensive or semi-comprehensive list of disappointing third films. It's merely used to illustrate that the disappointment accompanying May 2007's most anticipated releases should not have been unexpected. One can always hope for the best, and maybe we'll get it with one of the summer's other number threes. The Bourne Ultimatum, anyone? Or perhaps Rush Hour 3? (Actually, considering the relative quality of the first two Rush Hour movies, it's not a stretch that this could be one instance when the third film isn't a disappointment.)

The question is: Why? Why is it so difficult for filmmakers to produce a third film that's on par with its predecessors?

I have a few about the answer. The first is plot fatigue. In many instances, movies are designed as one-offs. Their box office success demanded sequels, not anything inherent in the story. So writers and directors are pulled back in and forced to revisit characters and situations that were effectively closed off in the first film. Shrek is an example of that. The filmmakers were struggling a little the second time around. For film number three, they're treading water. The story is played out. There's no new territory to explore. One wonders where things will go with Shrek 4. This was the essential flaw underlying Back to the Future and The Matrix. Each had a great first installment, designed at the time as a stand-alone. The sequels were inferior because they were tacked-on rather than being integral to the director's vision from the beginning.

Secondly, filmmakers sometimes run out of creative juices over the course of a few films. The first Star Wars trilogy is an example. After the release of Return of the Jedi, George Lucas was so burned out that he waited more than 15 years to make another Star Wars film. Evidence would suggest that the burn-out started earlier. A lot of what happens in the third film is obligatory - a way to tie off loose ends. There's some good stuff in there (Luke, Vader, and the Emperor), but the interminable Ewok sequences will forever blotch this movie's reputation. The Godfather trilogy was similarly afflicted. Francis Ford Coppola made the third film reluctantly, and his lack of enthusiasm for the project is evident in the final cut. Viewed on its own, The Godfather Part III is a good movie. Viewed as part of a larger whole, it's the weak link. When creativity fails, there's a tendency to repeat the past or go off in odd directions. Both Return of the Jedi and The Godfather Part III evidence these problems.

Finally, and most tellingly, there's an almost desperate compulsion to top what has come before. This is the flaw most evident in both Spider-Man 3 and Pirates 3. These movies want to be bigger, louder, longer, and more dazzling than their predecessors. They stink of desperation and, when the desire for spectacle takes precedence, things like character, storyline, and coherence often suffer. Spider-Man 3 shows that three villains aren't necessarily better than one, and Pirates 3 displays that 10 subplots aren't necessarily better than a few. Both films are too long and feel ungainly. It's obvious to almost everyone in the audience that shorter would have been better in both cases, but Sam Raimi and Gore Verbinski were burdened by the need to top themselves. The result: movies that keep trying to amaze but consistently fail to do so.

Most third films disappoint because they are third films. The honeymoon is over. The freshness has expired. The best stories have usually been told. All that's left is to try to provide some eye candy and give viewers a chance to revisit characters they have grown to care about over the years. 90 minutes will do this as effectively as three hours. We don't need the excess. And that, more than anything else, is the reason to go sour on this latest crop of three-peats - not because they're unnecessary or ungainly but because they keep us in theaters for longer than their predecessors while not delivering entertainment at the same level.