Movie sequels that don't suck are rare creatures — like flying unicorns — but they do exist. But it's almost impossible to find an example of a third movie in a series that didn't self-immolate. Why is that?
After yesterday's list of sequels that don't suck — and I still cling to RoboCop 2, although maybe I should watch it again — people asked for a list of threequels that do suck. Which seemed kind of pointless, because that would be the same as a complete list of threequels. Search For Spock? Sucked. Return Of The Jedi? Blew. Spider-Man 3? Superman III? RoboCop 3? X-Men 3? It's making my head pound just to list them. Alien³?
In the non-"this movie is melting my pituitary gland" category, there's... Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade. Which isn't science fiction, and for my money isn't quite as good as Raiders. But it's way better than Temple Of Doom. There are also some movies with numbers higher than three that were decent, like Star Treks IV and VI.
So why are so many "threequels" so horrifyingly bad? Here are some possible explanations.
There's no ready-made formula.
Talking to Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman about Transformers 2 drove something home for me: there's a standard formula for the second movie in the series, just like there is for the first. In the first movie, the young hero discovers his (usually his) heroic destiny and learns from a father figure, who frequently dies or transcends somehow. In the second movie, the hero rejects his heroic mission and tries to return to a normal life — just like Superman in Superman II, Spidey in Spider-Man II and Sam in Transformers 2. Even in Star Trek II, you could argue that Kirk is questioning whether he's too old to keep adventuring.
But what happens in the third movie? Uhh... The hero gets a new hairstyle? There are more bad guys than before? What? There's no road map.
Sam Raimi blames Sony for the disaster that was Spider-Man 3, and I sort of believe him. Once a movie series becomes cash-cowy enough for the studio to want to do a third go-around, I guess the suits get a bit antsy. They start insisting on shoe-horning Venom into a movie where he and his giant alien tongue just don't belong. Or they demand random rewrites of a perfectly good script, or weird stunt casting. (Hello, Richard Pryor!) The same execs who might have been willing to let a film-maker have a long leash the first couple times start tugging at that leash more, and choking the director and writers, because there's more at stake.
Just google the phrases "third movie" and "studio interference", and you'll see what I mean. Terminator 3, Alien3, X-Men 3... all blamed on studio bigshots stepping in and meddling.
Sam Raimi's presence on Spider-Man 3 was, in itself, an aberration. Normally, after directing two awesome movies in a series, someone like Raimi would have stepped out to do a serious Nazi epic or cop drama, leaving Spider-Man in the hands of Brett Ratner or Joel Schumacher. I'm actually not the world's biggest fan of Tim Burton's first two Bat-films, but compared to the Schumacher films that followed, Batman and Batman Returns look like Citizen Kane and Citizen Kane's Big Score. (Now I'm picturing Citizen Kane In Africa — sorry, in-joke.)
For some reason, very few writers and directors are willing to stick around for a third ride on the blockbuster-mobile, even if they're up for a second.
And even if any of the original creative team do come along, it's entirely possible to get a bit burned out after spending years of your life working on one saga. (It's probably a different matter if you're filming a trilogy all in one go, like Lord Of The Rings.) As much as any studio nonsense, I'm willing to bet that Sam Raimi's Spider-fatigue was a big reason for Spider-Man 3's problems. Raimi needed to go work on a smaller, less mainstream project, like Drag Me To Hell. (And here's hoping that his return to low-budget horror has cleansed his palate a bit, so he can come back to Peter Parker with a fresh eye.
And finally, there's always...
Problems in the source material.
A lot of these big movie series are based on comic books, television shows and older movies, which started out with a clear premise and a simple format: a guy dresses up as a bat and fights crime with the aid of fantastical tech. A guy gets bitten by a spider and gains fantastica powers, which he uses to fight crime. Etc. etc. So if your first movie is based on the early issues of the comic, or the early episodes of the TV show, you're golden. But the longer the source material goes on, the more convoluted and confusing it gets. The guy who dresses as a bat teams up with a circus acrobat and a girl librarian, plus he's got an imp from another dimension following him around, and so on. The more simple and pure the concept starts out, the more confusing and ridiculous it gets. So if a movie series tries to stick to the original, it'll run into similar problems the longer it goes on.
That's one huge problem with X-Men 3, for example — the need to include cameos from dozens of random X-people who were big in the 1980s and 1990s. Ditto with Venom in Spider-Man 3, and Robin and Batgirl in the Schumacher Bat-scursions. It doesn't really excuse those films' wretchness, but it's really true that the longer a serial goes on, the more baggage it tends to accrue. Movie-makers have be very careful to avoid shouldering that baggage as well.