On trilogies (part 1)

May 9th, 2008

“Is this the end of the trilogy?”

It’s a good question, posed by my friend Ben after “Iron Man” on Saturday. He wasn’t referring to “Iron Man” it-self (the first movie in a franchise, not the third), but the idea that studios release pictures in threes — or an initial movie, followed by an order of two sequels.

“Back to the Future,” “Spider-Man,” “The Godfather,” “X-Men,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “The Matrix,” “Lord of the Rings,” and “Star Wars” (followed by three more “Star Wars.”) But, the upcoming “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” will take the Indiana Jones trilogy to… a quadrilogy? Somehow it doesn’t have the same ring. Besides, next summer’s “Wolverine” will essentially be the fourth “X-Men” movie, there’s talks of a fourth “Bourne.”

I don’t think the idea of a trilogy is dead, even if studios order up a fourth installment of movies like “Shrek” or “Mission Impossible.” From a creative standpoint, the idea of a trilogy makes a lot of sense.

Most movies employ a three-act story structure. Even if you don’t realize it’s what you’re watching, if you’ve seen more than a few movies, you have a general sense of how they work. The first act sets up the conflict, the second act (the largest chunk of the movie) sets up the resolution. Let’s look at the original “Star Wars.”

Act I: Luke Skywalker is a star gazing farm boy with dreams of becoming a pilot. A chance purchase of two renegade droids, C3PO and R2D2, leads Skywalker to search out “old Ben Kenobi” which leads us, the audience, to…

Act II: Kenobi introduces Luke to an intergalactic struggle and teaches him the way of the Force. With the help of smuggler Han Solo, they escape the desert planet of Tatooine and wind up on the Death Star. They escape the Death Star, only to later return to the battle station with rebel forces, without mercenary Han Solo. Solo returns at the right moment, Luke succeeds in shaking off Darth Vader and destroying the Death Star.

Act III: The characters celebrate their victory. Darth Vader got away, but for now, the galaxy is safe.

Okay, you could argue where the different acts begin and end, but for our purposes, this is just to illustrate how these stories are crafted.

From a creative aspect, trilogies are especially appealing because they take the three-act structure of a single movie and super-size them. Each movie becomes an act in a larger picture (with three acts within).

When I was a kid, my father told me that George Lucas’s original plan was to make nine Star Wars movies. I couldn’t understand why: isn’t 10 a better, more sensible number? No, it’s not. Nine would be three trilogies, a mega-sized three act story (Act I: Anakin becomes Vader. Act II: Luke redeems Vader. Act III: Well, that might not ever happen….).

So, then the question is what happens to franchises that outlast three movies? The general rule is to wrap things up in the third, but we’ve seen four “Die Hards” and, soon, a fourth “Terminator.”

Or, what about Batman? There were four “Batman” movies before Christopher Nolan relaunched the franchise with “Batman Begins.” Not including the campy Adam West feature, “Batman Begins” is the fifth Batflick.

But it’s also not. It is, I suspect, the first of three Nolan-helmed Batman movies. “The Dark Knight,” due later this summer, is the second. I suspect, and I have neither inside information nor proof, the “Batman Begins” cast and crew will return for one more, to tie up lose ends and tell a complete story.

What happens, inevitably, when Warners wants to make another Batman movie? Even if Nolan has said what he wanted to say, there’s clearly a market for the character.

More on this next week, but I suspect properties with mass appeal that transcends three movies — Spider-Man, Batman — will become something more akin to the James Bond franchise. Every few years there will be a new movie; every few movies become a showcase for a different director and cast. Every couple decades there will be a “Casino Royale”-type reboot, to update the property for a new generation.

On the other hand, there’s always “The Next Karate Kid.”

Staff writer Josh Eiserike can be reached at 703-878-8072

Trilogies, love them or hate them, staff writer Josh Eiserike picks his favorites — and least favorites — part threes. He skipped the really, really bad ones (“Problem Child 3: Junior in Love”).

The worst:

5 Porky’s 3: Porky’s Revenge
4 The Godfather Part 3
3 X-Men: The Last Stand
2 The Matrix: Revolutions
1 Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End

The best:

5 Army of Darkness
4 The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
3 Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
2 Back to the Future Part III
1 Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

2 comments to “On trilogies (part 1)”

  1. Umm… correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure that, in Return Of The Jedi, Darth Vader dies (as he predicts he will when he asks Luke to remove his mask), and Luke cremates his remains. Not exactly “getting away”…

  2. no… you misunderstood me. Movies are typically structured into three “acts.” The three acts I described are exclusively in Episode 4. Makes sense?