Three Part Threes That Are the Best of Their Series (Up to That Point)

By  · Published on May 24th, 2016

Proof the third movie isn’t always the worst.

In a blatantly reflexive scene in X-Men: Apocalypse, young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) offers the following hot take after seeing Return of the Jedi: “Everyone knows the third film is always the worst.” The criticism is intended to be a jab at the much-hated X-Men: The Last Stand but ironically it also could fit Apocalypse itself, being the third of the X-Men prequels.

Anyway, it’s not remotely true. Even back in 1983, when the movie is set, examples of great second sequels already included Goldfinger, which might have been the worst if the James Bond series stopped with three but it fortunately avoided that distinction. Also there was Escape from the Planet of the Apes, which is much better than the first Planet of the Apes sequel.

Since then, there have been plenty of great “threequels” that are hardly the worst in their series. The list could include The Bourne Ultimatum, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Iron Man 3, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, and of course the Best Picture-winning The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (especially if we count the Hobbit movies).

None of them are necessarily the best of their respective franchises, however, and that’s a more interesting conversation to have than claiming all third parts are the worst. Not counting trilogies or series that don’t exactly have a continual narrative (sorry Three Colors: Red and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), I can only come up with three that have that honor.

Mission: Impossible III

Even if you prefer Brian De Palma’s original adaptation of the Mission: Impossible TV series, you’d at least recognize that J.J. Abrams’s 2006 resurrection of the film franchise wasn’t the worst of the three. But the truth is that Mission: Impossible III was the best of the then-trilogy. And I believe the franchise has continued to improve with each new installment.

Abrams’s entry fixed the series’ issues with over-complicated plots and ridiculous action, established a team element that was missing from the first sequel and has been a staple going forward, and it gave the franchise its most interesting villain – and the genre one of its best. Mission: Impossible III grounded its brand, made it more credible and engaging on a human level, which gave it real stakes to care about.

21 Up

Paul Almond’s Seven Up!, the short documentary that inadvertently kicked off what became Michael Apted’s “Up Series,” is an adorable if not totally poignant profile of children representing English class difference. But its significance actually lessened once the follow-ups began. The first of those, 7 Plus Seven, is really just a reunion special. However, with 21 Up, released in 1977, the series started getting great.

Revisiting 14 of the original kids at age 21, the series shows its first real marked changes in the lives of its subjects, and not just because it’s where we first see them as adults. Some are already married with children, some have seen their dream jobs come and gone, and at least one of them has really departed expectations in a shocking turn of events. This is where the series became personal over political, mostly staying so ever since.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Unlike most people, I don’t actually favor Prisoner of Azkaban, the third adaptation of the “Harry Potter” novels and Alfonso Cuaron’s only installment. I think the best is Mike Newell’s subsequent single entry, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, particularly on the strength of its performances and character development if not its special effects. But when there were still only three movies, Azkaban was without a doubt the series’ champion.

It wasn’t hard for Cuaron to improve upon Chris Columbus’s first two installments, which are merely serviceable adaptations of simple, bland children’s fantasy books, turned into simple, bland children’s fantasy films. But Azkaban, while still rather weak as far as its CG effects go, takes things to a whole new level. Like 21 Up, it’s a turning point in terms of its more mature and more emotionally engaging character-driven storytelling.

Here’s a video arguing that it’s still the best of the franchise overall:

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.