B-Movies Extended: Why Movie Trilogies Suck (or Don’t)

Witney Seibold argues against Hollywood's obsession with movie trilogies and William Bibbiani tries to mount a defense.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

On the last episode of The B-Movies Podcast (and we’ve now made it through 29 episodes with no signs of leakage), William Bibbiani and I discussed briefly a proposed plan to extend Rupert Wyatt’s sequel/prequel/reboot/whatever-the-hell-it-is Rise of the Planet of the Apes into a full-fledged film trilogy. For those already familiar with the Planet of the Apes chronology, it can already be seen as the seventh film in a series, and takes place somewhere between Escape from the Planet of the Apes and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, so making any more specific sequels will feel suspiciously like padding, and will either have to ignore the other films entirely (which is entirely likely, given Hollywood’s recent memory loss), or simply try to synch right up to the events in Battle for the Planet of the Apes, making the conclusion to a three-part film cycle a completely foregone conclusion.

But it was the announcement that the filmmakers were considering on not one, but two sequels that got me shifting uncomfortable in apprehension. Not that two films had been planned in some vague fashion, and they knew only that they wanted two more Apes films before they were done, but that they were trying to plan a full-fledged trilogy, where all three films in the current “cycle” would be of a part.

I am here to challenge to idea of the “trilogy,” a concept that many filmmakers, writers and Hollywood studios have been obsessed with ever since Return of the Jedi came out in 1983. I would like to argue that people aren’t so much attached to the idea of a three-part structure as they are high on the very simple poetry of the mere word “trilogy.” We cannot have a mere three films in a series. No. They must be a “trilogy.” So enamored are audiences and studios of this word, that when the four Alien films were released on home video, they were called The Alien Quadrilogy. Language purists know that there is no such word in English as “quadrilogy.” Quatrain is a word. Tetralogy is a word. “Quadrilogy” is some over-enthused and over-ignorant studio exec trying to shoehorn the word “trilogy” into a four-film series.

And so enamored are studios and filmmakers with the word “trilogy,” that they’ve actually started making some grievous storytelling mistakes in order to extended what could have been a perfectly decent stand-alone sequel into a gigantic, two-film mega-sequel. Look at a film like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, and its immediate sequel, At World’s End. Laying aside for the moment the weird storytelling decision to overstuff the films with incident, Dead Man’s Chest was all setup and no payoff. It put characters into position in order to have them do more in the following film, which would be the climax. As a result you had one feature film that was unsatisfying because it was all precedent and no conclusion, and a second film that was unsatisfying because it was all climax and no calm. Look also at The Matrix Reloaded, and The Matrix Revolutions. Thanks to this uncanny addiction to a vague and arbitrary three-part structure, we faced a similar problem. One film ended inconclusively, contained ideas that did not pay off, and introduced characters that would have no bearing on the story until later. The other has far too much fighting and action, and made references to the previous film to the point of downright obliqueness.

I’m pretty sure that the marriage to the “trilogy” began in 1983 with Return of the Jedi. Star Wars was immensely successful, The Empire Strikes Back was announced as “Episode V,” leading people to believe that the previous film was episode 4, although I like to think that there were perhaps a few in between that we didn’t get to see (and you can get that impression from watching the original films again; this is before the prequels or any of that obnoxious Star Wars retcon). After Empire, it was announced that there were going to be nine films in the series, but the energy taken to make Return of the Jedi stopped the series at three. Rather than face that there were only three films in the planned nine-film series, fans (or perhaps George Lucas himself) began describing them as a “trilogy,” and we’ve been stuck with the term ever since.

Of course, three-part narratives go back even further. Read Aeschylus sometime.

I propose the following thesis: However intimately connected your film is to another film, it still needs to be satisfying, full, and fully-explained in and of itself. There’s a disturbing trend in feature films these days (and I’m thinking specifically of the recent spate of Marvel superhero flicks, although other films have been doing it as well) to include all of your films as a smaller part of a gigantic super-narrative, wherein they all feed upon the same mythology, and all lead into a later event. There is a mistaken thought that by merely connecting your film to others, you’re making it larger and more important. The “narrative” (and I hate to use the word; it’s a bit over-used in amateur critical circles) can be as expansive as you want it to be, but when you become preoccupied with a sequel, your current film becomes less interesting. Don’t tell a “mythology.” Tell a story. The mythology will grow itself. If not, eventually, you’ll be making a series of films that are all setup, that will be punctuated by action scenes, and that will only conclude when your series comes to a rest. (In a way, at least in the case of the superhero flicks, this is more pure to the narrative structure of comic books, i.e. serialized.) After a while, the film begins to feel less like a movie, and more like a commercial for an upcoming movie.  

This sort of storytelling is satisfying to the fans of the characters, who have been following them ever since their comic book incarnations. The stringent obsessives of popular culture will be well-rewarded for their tenacious attention. But, sadly, it makes for sloppy storytelling (there’s a big difference between carefully meting out information, and eschewing plot points to pad the story), and a long series of films that each have no conclusion, unless you go out to see the final chapter. One of my central criticisms with the last few Harry Potter films was that they weren’t so much complete cinematic experiences as they were visual catalogues of the events from the books; they became, after a fashion, pretentious entertainments; you couldn’t even follow the films too closely, unless you had seen several films and read several books. The idea of connecting the films took precedent over telling self-contained stories.

Here is my desire: That films, no matter how franchise-obsessed, or married to three-part structures they are, can be considered complete in themselves. Filmmakers should not behave as if they’re going to be able to make a sequel, even if it’s been promised. They should not write two-part screenplays, because that makes for two incomplete films rather than one complete one. If they want to write something serialized, they would do better to write for television or comics. Or, heck, bring back the serialized short film. I’d love to see some of those at the head of each movie. It’s not enough that fanboys and familiars are rewarded for their attention, as the film also needs to work as a film. I know I’ll be attacked for this attitude (no doubt Bibbs will have some eloquent words defending the super-narrative), but I feel that movies should stand alone.  Can super-narratives work? Of course. Watch I, Claudius. Or The Prisoner.

I fear that, as time passes, these ambitious but misguided super-narratives will fade into an embarrassing corner of film’s history, making all the ambition and self-importance attached to them seem churlish and wasted. Or, even worse, that the opposite will happen, and no film will come out without some connection to another film. Feature films are, and ever shall be, stand-alone events. They need to work on their own merits to be great. You leave the house and see them in a theater separately. They are dramas with a flow and a structure and a pace and a limited time. As a result, they must conclude. They must refer to only themselves, and stand as their own thesis. I don’t want all my summer blockbusters to be yet another chapter in a gigantic miniseries.

NEXT: Bibbs uses eloquent words and at least one F-bomb to defend trilogies, the super-narrative and movies that set up future sequels…


Witney feels very passionately about this subject, have you noticed? I admire his fervor, but I’m just not as frustrated by the prevalence of trilogies and “super-narratives” as he is, so despite his ranting I think I’ll stay right here on his lawn. Can trilogies be a problem? Yes. Are they arbitrary? Often, yes. But is there room for everyone if we shuffle some chairs around? Absolutely.

Let’s start with the subject of trilogies. Trilogies are an arbitrary creative decision, but not an arbitrary structural one. Does your story need to be a trilogy? No, probably not. But the simple Three Act Structure of a Beginning, Middle and an End applies to almost every narrative movie (not a buzz word, just differentiating stuff like Sunset Boulevard and Scooby Doo from abstract cinema like The Man with the Movie Camera). If your story is too long for one movie, it makes a modicum of sense to spread it out over several films. Then again it also makes sense to shorten it to one film, or – as occurs in most movies that turn into trilogies – make the first act a standalone story in case it’s not popular enough to warrant any sequels, and have ideas for sequels in the back of your mind should audiences demand them.

Sequels are a f***ing way of life. I think we all understand that by now. If a movie makes a lot of money, it makes financial success for the studio to capitalize on that goodwill and make another one. A lot of people think that sequels suck as a rule, but there are enough exceptions to that argument by now that I don’t think it holds much water. Sequels usually suck when the original story is completely open-and-shut. The characters have accomplished their goals, from both character and plot perspectives, so a sequel is unnecessary, and would have to begin with the protagonists, happy after the successful conclusion of the original story, pulled back into an at least vaguely similar plotline and given new problems like, for example, “They’re too happy,” as occurred with Jewel of the Nile, the amazingly bad sequel to the adventure classic Romancing the Stone. Other examples of sequels that had no reason to exist, from a story perspective anyway, including City Slickers 2: The Legend of Curly’s Gold, Weekend at Bernie’s II and Home Alone II: Lost in New York, to name a few. Occasionally screenwriters have found creative workarounds for this problem – The Karate Kid Part II shifted focus from Ralph Macchio’s character to Pat Morita’s, and had a new story to tell as a result – but completely self-contained stories just aren’t conducive to franchises.

Oh yes… Trilogies. I’m getting to them.

My point is, that’s what studios want to make these days: franchises. A perennial (or semi-perennial) influx of cash for as long as it can be sustained. Believe it or not, movie studios do sometimes take chances on new material, and having a sure thing – or at least a perceived one – bringing money in every or every other summer is a big warm blanket to studio types, and will hopefully compensate for any chancier projects that might not make any money at all. I find that most movies, despite Witney’s concerns, still aren’t open-ended. We’re mostly seeing this mentality in genre films and blockbusters, since those are the movies most likely to continue on into sequels. The producers, the writers and directors know this, and as such often leave elements of their films open-ended so that if a sequel does get made, it has a fighting chance to actually turn out well. It’s small artistic compromise, and an attempt to make the most of an often frustrating aspect of the industry. If you think about it, that’s actually a noble endeavor: setting up good sequels as opposed to lame dramatic afterthoughts. Filmmakers can screw it up, obviously (Tim Burton’s remake of The Planet of the Apes certainly did with its abrupt “twist” ending), but the intent seems perfectly reasonable, doesn’t it?

That’s where trilogies come in. (See? I told you I was getting to it.) I actually respect the idea of a trilogy from a practical perspective. You’re making a film that, if successful, will probably get a sequel or two, so you’ve come up with somewhere for the story and hopefully the characters to go, and grow. You’ve probably thought it out in a Three Act Structure, because that’s how most screenwriters learn to develop a storyline. Plus, planning to make three films – as opposed to an open-ended series – makes it far more likely that you’ll be able to keep the original talent involved throughout the entire franchise, as opposed to going through a risky recasting process two or three movies down the line. So basically, movie trilogies make sense, and might even be a good idea. But they’re arbitrary as hell. Witney’s right about that.

As I’ve said before, screenwriters are pretty much married to a Three Act Structure. That’s what’s expected of them, at any rate. But that’s not the only structure available. There’s the Two Act structure, prevalent in plays and occasionally found in films like Full Metal Jacket, The Sound of Music or Scarface. There’s the Five Act Structure, although you rarely see or read those outside of Shakespeare anymore, and just about every structure in between (although those are rare, particularly in film). Then there’s the plain old-fashioned serialized narrative, which can be as long or short as your need, or as audience interest requires. Comic books and radio and television and hell, even plain old-fashioned books have a rich history of serialized narratives. Movies do too, dating back at least as far as the old Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan or Frankenstein movie series are concerned, and extend today into the James Bond, Fast and Furious and Shrek franchises, to name but a few. These series will keep on going until they stop making money as opposed to when the “story” is finished. And as such, most films in these franchises stand more-or-less alone, since any one of them could be the last. And every single one of the structures mentioned is viable both for a standalone film or a series of sequels. Trilogies make sense from the aforementioned practical perspective, but from a creative standpoint they are but one of option of many, and Witney’s definitely right that their popularity is in large part due to an prolonged zeitgeist.

Witney’s also right (man, I’m saying that a lot today… I’d better stop) about every movie needing to stand on its own merits. But I maintain that having an open ending doesn’t intrinsically qualify as a negative. Case in point: I saw The Empire Strikes Back before I ever saw Star Wars, and I didn’t even know that Return of the Jedi came afterwards. (I was really young, okay?) And the film works on its own, albeit in an unusual way. The cold opening introduces us to strong characters through their actions rather than a filmmaker’s often blunt attempts to ingratiate them to the audience, the middle of the film was easy to follow and clipped along nicely, and Luke reaches the apex of a character arc when he confronts Vader and to the harsh realization that he’s not as grown up as he thinks he is, forcing him to finally grow up after all. Han Solo may be frozen in carbonite, but just before that his personal journey concludes when Leia finally admits that she loves him. So while the overarching plot isn’t resolved, the character arcs actually are… for the time being (Luke still has to overcome The Dark Side, and Han still has to accept genuine responsibility). The Empire Strikes Back reaches a satisfying conclusion despite a lack of resolution, leaving room for a sequel to tell another story, which has enough existing conflicts to work on its own merits too. Other movies that successfully balanced the two include Batman Begins (the hero finally comes to terms with his psychological hang-ups but inadvertently escalates the level of crime in Gotham City) and The Matrix (the protagonist achieves enlightenment but has yet to actually save humanity from the machines). So essentially, I argue that it’s possible to leave room for a sequel without making a disappointing single film. Making that sequel good is still a problem, of course.

Another thing Witney said that I really like (damn it…) was how nice it would be to bring back movie serials. Imagine a mid-sized summer action movie like Conan the Barbarian, but rather than release it to middling success on its own, you make it work in 20-30 minute chunks like Commando Cody (but actually good) and have it play in front of three or four other movies you’re releasing that summer, each installment ending in a cliffhanger. Fans of the serial will pay to see the opening act and stay for the other film to get their money’s worth, and audiences who only came out for the feature film will have more incentive to see another of your studio’s movies in a few weeks. Either way, attendance improves, the already inflated ticket prices will finally seem justified, and the potential for DVD and Blu-Ray sales of the complete serial will skyrocket (again, if it’s any good). My God, it’s such a good idea that it’s practically evil.

Ultimately, my take on the issue of trilogies is that they’re perfectly fine as long as they’re not a foregone conclusion. This is a metaphor that I use a lot (because it’s apt), but they’re just one tool in the toolbox: great to have as an option, but not right for every project. If you’re making a film that might get sequels, why not make just one sequel? Or four? Or twenty? Why limit yourself, or stretch yourself too thin, just because trilogies are a popular buzz word? Make all the super-narratives you want, Hollywood (I’m looking forward to The Avengers as much as anybody), but justify their existence, make them good, and make sure each movie works on its own, even if it does end in a cliffhanger.