10 Things We’ve Learned From Failed Threequels

By  · Published on July 7th, 2009

This weekend, yet another third installment hit theaters like a jackhammer on half-speed, proving once again that when art goes up against commerce, commerce beats the hell out of art. With a jackhammer. Granted, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs isn’t a terrible movie – it’s just a sublimely average film, and it’s nowhere near as good as its predecessors. It took the top of the box office, and a ton of families are going to find a lot to love, but it seems clear that the same heart that was invested in the original Ice Age is missing. Who knew that you couldn’t stretch those characters that far?

It’s no secret that the Law of Diminishing Returns applies to sequels. In fact, it used to be the hard and fast rule that a sequel would suck – often meaning that a potential franchise never even made it to a third film. But the game has changed in the past decade wherein studios and directors are more dedicated to the concept of a franchise (and its potential moneymaking abilities). Still, just because Return of the King is the best of the trilogy doesn’t mean that everyone has figured out how to make sequels and threequels work.

Thus, I’ve decided to investigate a few threequels that bit the big one in order to see why they almost never work.

10. Don’t Change Horses Midstream – Batman Forever

There are a lot of lessons that come from this abomination of a film, several things that could be considered The Batman Forever Rule. However, the most astounding lesson to be learned from this epic failure in filmmaking is that you don’t scare off the personnel that made the successful versions of what you’re attempting to make. Of course, since Batman Forever outgrossed Batman Returns, I highly doubt that Warners really learned their lesson here.

After Returns didn’t make quite as much money as they wanted, Warners decided to take the film franchise into more mainstream territory which caused Tim Burton to take a step back away from the director’s chair and into a producer’s spot. It also caused Michael Keaton to turn down $15 million to reprise his role as Bruce Wayne. Seriously. You have to do something incredibly shitty with your story in order to get someone to turn down that much money. So Joel Schumacher replaces Tim Burton, Val Kilmer replaces Michael Keaton, the flick is already slated to include Chris O’Donnell’s Robin as well as two previously un-set-up villains by way of Jim Carrey’s Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face. Plus, the film demanded a new love interest (played by Nicole Kidman). Screenwriters Sam Hamm and Daniel Waters were nowhere to be found, and they even lost Danny Elfman’s scoring ability. That’s a basic changeover of eight brand new entities, meaning this threequel didn’t retain any of the major personnel. The result, of course, was an awful movie that looked and felt nothing like the previous installments (and barely anything like Batman at all).

The even harsher lesson is that it made a ton of money and warranted the making of a fourth installment in the franchise (one that would see even more personnel changes and be even shittier somehow).

Another film that failed to obey this rule was Home Alone 3, although it’s obviously in a different world. It lost its main character and main villains, yet proceeded to be made (and followed by a direct-to-DVD fourth installment). Nothing screams Cash Grab like moving forward with an installment that the originators will have nothing to do with.

9. Don’t Do Too Much All At Once – Spider-Man 3

I don’t tend to decry Spider-Man 3 as much as everyone else, but I do recognize a clusterfuck when I see one. I realize that new installments are all about furthering the character and upping the ante, but this just got ridiculous. The film features three major villains – all of whom are ethically complex. It also features two love interests – neither of which get any real amount of attention from the hero. In fact, the movie is so character heavy that screenwriter Alvin Sargent realized it and tried to split it up into two films. The only reason it didn’t get split is because he couldn’t find a genuine climax point at which to chop it in half.

But there has to be a balance, and the characters we fell in love with need to face different, more threatening dangers. Perhaps that’s where this movie also fails. It continued to hammer down a point about power and responsibility that was covered to death in the first two while never really upping the danger level for Spidey despite throwing 300% more villains at him. At the end, those villains are complex, but hollow and meaningless. Plus, since we get very little screentime with each, it’s tough to gauge how dangerously strong they really are. Instead, we get a climactic fight scene that is so confusing that it becomes the perfect symbol for the movie as a whole. Who’s fighting who? Who gives a shit?

8. Don’t Rush Your Production – The Godfather Part III

That’s right. I’m going there. Although it seems like fairly safe ground considering the outcry against this movie and the accusations that Francis Ford Coppola only agreed to do it because he was strapped for cash. Most forget that The Godfather III actually opened to fairly decent critical reactions, but it’s tough to be average when your originator is considered to be one of the best motion pictures of all time. It could be argued that this film forgets the cardinal rule of stretching characters too thin, but the main problem seems to be the time table they had to work on.

Mario Puzo and Coppola asked for six months to write the script, and Paramount gave them six weeks instead. They also wanted to shoot for a Spring release in 1991 while Paramount slated the film for the Christmas Holiday release of 1990. While the creators wanted time to craft a worthy story, the studio seemed anxious to fill its vacant Christmas weekend slot. The resulting film is not absolutely unwatchable, but it’s certainly a shadow of the greatness of the prior two films. Claim all you want that Sophia Coppola was the fatal flaw of the flick, but did we really need to see Michael Corleone obsessed with charity work and making a good name for himself? Were the characters of Joey Zasa and Vincent all that well-defined or compelling? Compared to some films, sure. But compared to the original, this film isn’t worthy of being stamped with the Godfather label.

7. Don’t Wait Too Long – Psycho III

Plenty of threequels fall prey to this one simply because even a few years difference between films can change the way an audience will receive something. Theoretically, certain genres or types of films aim at a certain age-range, and if culture has changed enough for totally different things to be in vogue for that group, a film can flop hard. There’s few that violate this rule so thoroughly as Psycho III starring and directed by Anthony Perkins (who played Norman Bates in the original). There is a 26-year gap between the first film and this installment, although the second film came out only 3 years earlier in 1983.

Having Perkins take the director’s chair wasn’t the brightest idea, and the story is lacking as it is, but waiting over two decades to shoot sequels is a perfect recipe for making films that the general public doesn’t know exist. Especially if they come off the heels of a horror icon.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to tell how much time is too much. Another threequel that could be said to violate this rule is Rush Hour 3 which came out just 6 years after the first. There’s probably a simple inverse proportion to how interesting the subject matter is to how long you can wait before adding to it, but speculating the future is still hard. Although, giving a third installment to Brett Ratner any day of the week seems like a bad call.

6. Don’t Lose Your Icon – Halloween III: Season of the Witch

Halloween III: Season of the Witch has nothing to do with Michael Myers. Zero. He’s not in it. He’s never mentioned. He’s a non-issue. Basically, the creators behind this film were looking to create a different kind of franchise – a series of anthology-entries that would take a new horrifying look at different scares during the night of Halloween instead of carrying on with one of the most well-known slasher icons of all time. This was a colossal misstep.

It’s an interesting concept to focus on the holiday itself for further films, but the chance to do that is over once you’ve made two films featuring the same bloodthirsty baddie. All the production really needed to do was go out on the street and ask fans why they liked Halloween in the first place. The answer is Myers. Had they just done a little research ahead of time, they would have realized how utterly boneheaded it would be to bait and switch a built-in audience by tagging a film with a familiar name without delivering a familiar Shatner-masked face.

Plus, leaving aside the slasher genre to make a film about an evil mastermind trying to take over the youth makes this thing right at made-for-tv-movie level from the starting gate. The lesson here is not to turn your back on the icons that made you or they might just stab you in it.

5. Deliver Something New – Jurassic Park III

Although this film is also guilty of changing personnel (it’s the first and only flick in the series not directed by Spielberg), it’s also guilty of a far more basic rule. This crapfest parades around old characters as if audiences are supposed to care and delivers nothing new in the way of action or adventure. It achieves this non-newness in two distinct ways. First, it still relies heavily on the Tyrannosaurus and the Raptors. I’m not going to complain about raptors in anything, but if I wanted to see them I’d toss in the original (or, hell, even The Lost World in a pinch). Secondly, the film continually relies on four separate attacks from a Spinosaurus in what can only be a lame attempt at creating a consistent villain for the film. So, the team is still wrestling with the same ethical questions as the first film for some reason, they are still wrestling with the same dinosaurs, and the production keeps shoving Spinosaurus down our throats as if it’s anywhere near as cool as a Raptor.

Not only was Jurassic Park III not directed by Speilberg (and some of you may like Joe Johnston out there, but he’s no Spielberg), it’s not even based on a novel by Michael Crichton. If you weren’t bored enough by the lack of new excitement in this movie, the ending feels like a punch right to the soul. It makes good on the strange closing scene from the first film, having Pteranedons flying off, but leaving the ending open like that in anticipation of yet another sequel is the height of insulting hubris.

Another entry that fails here is The Karate Kid, Part III which finds Daniel fighting against the Cobra Kai dojo in a major sparring event while the main villain from the first film returns. Everything old is new again!

4. Don’t Change Your Tone Too Much – American Wedding

I’m not sure anyone ever asked for or needed a third installment to the American Pie series. The first two films were solid high school raunch-fests that capitalized on some ridiculous humor with just a dash of heart. Buried beneath the warm piss and semen-ale was a coming-of-age-story that was sweet but not saccharine. American Wedding throws all of that out the window along with some pubic hair. Sure there are some weird set ups, but this installment loses a step on the gross-out scale while somehow also losing the innocence inherent in being a witless teenager. Somehow it’s less shocking, but it’s still shocking enough to make you wonder why these guys haven’t grown up more after all their life-lesson escapades. Throw in the fact that most of the cast is missing (a situation blamed on the fact that the production couldn’t come up with compelling storylines for everyone), and you get a movie that’s too focused on their main disgusting character acting pleasant, and two only-decently likable characters being really loving the entire way through.

Jaws 3D also does this by taking a thoughtful thriller and turning it into a mindless action movie. It’s such an egregious violator that it should probably have its own entry.

3. Don’t Be A Gimmick – Jaws 3D

Is there a higher fall from grace than this threequel? Jurassic Park III comes close for me personally, but I think Jaws is even more universally revered. The reason the first film works so well is that it’s a genuinely dangerous situation with tortured characters that change over time. As they realize more and more what the shark is capable of, so too must they become even more vicious and violent. All pretense about a smart action film is thrown out as soon as you hear the phrase “3D.” As much as it’s still struggling to be used in a truly artistic way today, 3D was firmly in the gimmick category back in the 1980s. Everything about it was cheap and easy.

Also like Jurassic Park, perhaps the stronger lesson should be not to make a sequel to a film without Spielberg returning. Everything about Jaws 3D is compromised including characters that belong in a slasher film instead of in a serious movie about the devastation that attacks like these can cause on a small community. Can you imagine that on the JawsDeep Blue Scale, this film is actually closer to Deep Blue Sea than its namesake? That’s truly terrifying. Treat your subject mater with a little reverence and you may actually be rewarded. Turn a classic into a mindless gimmick and suffer the ridicule of the masses.

2. Resist Tossing Your Fish Out of Water – Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles

If there’s a threequel trope that trumps them all it’s the too obvious sign that you’ve run out of steam on your characters otherwise known as The Fish Out of Water. You’ve done all you can with a particular character or set of characters and in order to spice things up you’ve decided to put them in an exotic locale to give them a whole host of new experiences to possibly react differently to. Resist! As much as you want to do it, resist. Sure, one could argue that a few films have pulled this off, notably The Karate Kid, Part II and Back to The Future Part III, but more often than not it’s the thinly veiled ruse that audiences know it to be. Thank god that the sequel to Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian, was aborted.

You’re probably asking yourself, “There’s a third Crocodile Dundee movie?” The answer is yes. The reason you don’t know about it is that it’s worse than terrible. It violates a whole host of rules, including waiting more than a decade to be made, but it also serves as a fine example of what happens when you put your fish out of water. It’s not so much that taking character and putting them in different environments is bad on its own since it can be done well and is a staple of storytelling. It’s more so that resorting to it means that you’re probably digging in a well that long ago ran out of water in which to put your fish. It’s also usually a sign of a production that doesn’t realize when audiences have had enough of their product. To continue the nautical theme, it’s a sign that your characters have already jumped the shark.

To discontinue the nautical theme, resorting to the fish out of water concept is akin to having to do CPR on someone. It could work, but once you get to a point where you have to use it, the person is probably going to die anyway.

Another violator of this bad boy is The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift. Once filmmakers had said all they could stateside, they take the action to The Orient Japan. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End could also be considered an offender since it removes its characters from their normal environment and takes them to The Orient Japan and the end of the world. And of course, there’s also Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III where the crew not only goes to The Orient Japan, but also goes back…in time. This is something done constantly in sitcoms. Why it’s made the jump to feature films is anyone’s guess.

1. Adding Cute Things Is Fatal – Look Who’s Talking Now

A franchise with an otherwise innocuous concept where Bruce Willis is the inner monologue of a baby that’s born to two idiots gets taken beyond its stretching point when talking animals are added. The inclusion of Roseanne Barr in the sequel was bad enough without abandoning the child-talking concept for two mutts voiced by Danny DeVito and Diane Keaton. It’s not like the fall from grace was all that huge, but even though babies can’t talk (or form anything resembling real thoughts for that matter), at least they’re human. Therefore, Look Who’s Talking Now is a disgustingly inhumane movie.

Of course talking animals is not the only cute thing that can kill a film. Children themselves are pretty brutal, especially when added to a series that didn’t previously have them. The aforementioned Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles is guilty of that maneuver as is Another Thin Man (the third film in the Thin Man series) and Return of the Jedi (Oh Shit He Went There) with its unbearable fucking ewoks.

A Few Parting Shots

What have we learned over all? Hopefully a lot, but also that these rules should be taken with a grain of salt. If you look hard enough you can find exceptions that prove the rule. You can also find more rules if you look hard enough – especially considering I didn’t even mention Superman III yet. There was something about “Don’t Cast Richard Pryor in Your Superhero Film” that seemed far too specific to be applied to other productions.

It’s not that a threequel can’t be done well; it’s that it’s already on treacherous ground because audiences have already seen a ton of what you have to offer and most characters just can’t stretch that far. Already on thin ice, if you violate any or all of these rules, it’s almost certain that your movie is going to be trash. It might still make a few million at the box office as a consolation prize, but the studio gets to keep that money while you wallow in shame and guilt at what you’ve brought into the world. Think about it, and practice safe filmmaking.

Also, as a note of caution I should say that while these films have a great potential for us to learn from their failures, you should not approach them at all. I’m a trained professional, and even I lost three fingers while researching this article. Most of these films are terrible, and I wouldn’t want you, dear reader, to suffer because you think they are safe simply because they’ve been written about.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.