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Trilogies ruined by one movie

Truly great film trilogies are few and far between. Sure, there are standouts like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, the original Bourne trilogy doesn't have a weak entry in its run, and you could make a case for Toy Story being the best of the lot. Past those, though, an unblemished trilogy is a shockingly rare thing. Three interconnected movies that set a precedent of quality and proceed to meet or exceed it in every entry are far more uncommon than you may realize — more often than not, at least one installment will fail to live up to the promise of the others. Plenty of franchises go straight downhill after the opening chapter; what's even worse, though, is a trilogy that's held back from perfection by a single entry. It's maddening for fans of the story being told, and more often than not, it denies fans the story structure or resolution they desire. With all that in mind, here's a look at some of the more memorable trilogies ruined by one movie.

Spider-Man (2001-2007)

It's hard to overstate the massive success of Evil Dead director Sam Raimi's first two Spider-Man films. They were crucial in creating the modern superhero boom as we know it: Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 showed modern audiences that the genre could still work in the wake of '90s bombs like Batman & Robin and Steel. Watching them today, it's easy to understand why. Raimi's first two films are clear labors of love, and with the second chapter ending on a cliffhanger for the ages — Harry Osborn discovers Peter's identity, realizing his best friend is responsible for the death of his father — it seemed that the third installment was primed for a killer finale.

Unfortunately, Raimi butted heads with the studio during production, and the director was ultimately forced to include popular comics villain Venom in the story, making for a bloated and convoluted story that lacks the heart of the previous two installments. There's simply too much going on, and the campier moments are tonally jarring against the more serious elements. While a fourth installment was considered and planned, Sony ultimately decided to abandon Raimi's Spidey for a rebooted model under director Marc Webb.

Blade (1998-2004)

They may not get the respect that the X-Men and Spidey do, but the first two Blade films are just as integral to the modern superhero boom — the first one even laid the box office groundwork for superhero films to make their comeback with X-Men. Blade didn't have the name recognition of everyone's favorite mutants and webslingers, and it was never a guarantee that a film featuring the Daywalker would work, yet Blade and Blade II are stellar reimaginings of the character. While directors Stephen Norrington and Guillermo del Toro deserve a great deal of credit for making the films work as well as they do, the success really comes down to star Wesley Snipes, who embodies the calm, collected cool of the character with a performance that feels effortless.

It all went wrong in the third installment, Blade: Trinity. Set drama and a studio feud with Snipes saw writer David S. Goyer step in as a last-minute replacement director; comedian Patton Oswalt, who has a role in the film, has shared some of the horror stories from the shoot. The result is a deeply disappointing conclusion to a trilogy — and a character — that deserves better, but aside from a quickly canceled TV show, we haven't seen him onscreen since.

Iron Man (2008-2013)

There are few superhero origin films as perfect as 2008's Iron Man — the film that gave us Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark, one of the all-time great pieces of movie casting.

As Stark, Downey could read the phonebook and make it fun. Still, Iron Man 2 is something of a mess, and the only thing stopping the Iron Man trilogy from being one of the best of all time. It's a film clearly burdened by expectations and responsibility, almost singlehandedly tasked with taking the MCU to the next level through the introduction of Black Widow and the expansion of Nick Fury, War Machine, and Agent Coulson as characters. On top of that is an ambitious but utterly nonsensical plot involving the invention of a new element, the plans for which are hidden in the plans for the Stark Expo (it doesn't make much more sense than this sentence would lead you to believe). Iron Man 2 didn't tank the MCU by any means, but it's early evidence that these films are far from infallible. 

X-Men (2000-2006)

It's pretty standard for blockbuster films to announce their release date years in advance these days, long before a creative team has been assembled. It's been a part of the film business for a good while now and we're very much used to it. It's crucial to remember, though, that it wasn't always the case. After the first two films in the X-Men franchise were met with critical acclaim and great financial success, the trilogy's conclusion was slated for release before the script had been finalized. This turned out to be its downfall.

After directors Brian Singer and Matthew Vaughn both dropped out, Fox finally settled on Brett Ratner, who at that point barely had a year to make the film. Multiple cast members now had scheduling conflicts as well, leading to some strange character rewrites to account for their absences. That the film came out at all is a small miracle and certainly commendable in a certain light. However, the end product is still pretty lousy. It was such a disaster that it effectively tanked this cinematic incarnation of the X-Men until they reappeared for a brief swan song in 2014's X-Men: Days of Future Past.

The Godfather (1972-1990)

There are few one-two punches in the history of cinema quite like The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. They're perfect — possibly as perfect as movies get. It's a shame we can't say that about the series' conclusion.

Director Francis Ford Coppola set the bar so high with the first two installments of his saga that it would have been truly incredible if The Godfather Part III hadn't been a letdown in at least some respects, so this is one case where it's at least somewhat understandable that the film in question ended up spoiling its classic trilogy. Still, while Part III may not be an outright disaster, it pales in comparison to its predecessors in every way. It also bears the misfortune of containing the only notably subpar performance in the entire trilogy — and unfortunately, it comes courtesy of Coppola's daughter Sofia, a last-minute replacement for Winona Ryder in the pivotal part of Mary Corleone. The first two films are immortal. The third, decidedly less so.

Men in Black (1997-2012)

Will Smith will always be a huge star, but he was a special kind of huge star in the '90s. Any project he led was more or less guaranteed to succeed (unless that movie was Wild Wild West — hey, nobody's perfect). Among the biggest of his hits: 1997's Men in Black, a stylish sci-fi action comedy that bridges the gaps between those genres with Smith's loudmouthed Agent J making a great foil for the straight and narrow Agent K, played to perfection by Tommy Lee Jones. Fifteen years later, Men in Black III arrived, wrapping up the story of Agents J and K perfectly — due in no small part to a killer performance by Josh Brolin as young(er) K.

Why did it take 15 years for this hit trilogy to conclude? One answer, unfortunately, is that the second film is downright lousy. Men in Black II feels like a recycled version of its predecessor with none of the charm or surprise. It may have been a box office hit, but it didn't exactly leave audiences hungry for more. There's no telling the heights the franchise could have reached had the second film not dropped the ball so hard, but don't worry — it's getting a second chance with an upcoming spinoff starring Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson.

Thor (2011-2017)

The first installment in the Thor trilogy, while maybe not the best the MCU has to offer, is a solid origin story with Shakespearean flair thanks to director Kenneth Branagh. It almost feels quaint — a quiet little character study about an arrogant boy who wants to be king but isn't ready. Thor: Ragnarok, on the other hand, is a nutty cosmic romp full of laughs and unparalleled art direction and visual design.

Thor: The Dark World is the black sheep of the trilogy, not so much bad as it is dull. It fails to build on the sense of wonder instilled in the first film. It feels bland and by the numbers, and it often looks like someone scribbled over the first film's bright color palette with a grey crayon. Frankly, it may be the worst movie in the MCU. The complication comes in the fact that had it not been such a creative failure, Ragnarok would likely have never happened. The Dark World exhausts the old version of what a Thor movie should be, to the point that Ragnarok has no choice but to try something new. Ultimately it's a good thing that Ragnarok was able to happen, even if it meant enduring a pretty bland Thor movie first. Still, it's hard not to wish the Thor trilogy had maintained more consistency.

The Ocean Trilogy (2001-2006

When the right performers, script, and director align, a movie can feel effortlessly fun — just a pure pleasure to live in for a little while. Steven Soderbergh's Vegas heist film Ocean's 11, a remake of the 1960 Rat Pack hit, is one of those movies. Featuring a killer cast that includes George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, and Andy Garcia, Soderbergh's 11 is so entertaining that it's almost impossible to turn away from. It's not the kind of movie you can just watch for 20 minutes when you stumble across it on cable. Its second sequel, Ocean's 13, is similarly rewatchable, aided greatly by the inclusion of Al Pacino as the villain (and Garcia's Terry Benedict as a reluctant new addition to the crew).

Ocean's 12, however, very nearly spoils the stew. You can't help but get the feeling when watching it that Soderbergh and company wanted an excuse to hang out in Europe and went on to tailor the film to suit their vacation needs. Everyone seems to be having a good time, but the spark present in the first and third films is gone. Throw in a genuinely bizarre subplot involving Julia Roberts' Tess masquerading as, uh, Julia Roberts and you've got a shockingly lousy film as the direct followup to one of the most entertaining movies of the century.

The Matrix (1999-2003)

The Matrix changed the game upon its release in 1999. Even today, the film feels like a revelation. It pushes genre boundaries, melding heady science fiction with breathtaking action shot in innovative and oft-imitated "bullet time." It gives us a cast of memorable characters and injects themes of existentialism and Buddhism into what could have been a cut-and-dry sci-fi adventure. Its sequel, The Matrix Reloaded, doesn't quite reach the heights of its predecessor, but then again, what could? It's still a fun, interesting action romp that expands on the themes introduced in the first film.

It all comes crashing down with The Matrix Revolutions, a bloated mess that's too long and devoid of anything meaningful or important. The transgressive themes of the franchise are cast aside for more special effects, eventually oversaturating the film — and very nearly the trilogy as a whole. It fails to deliver a satisfying ending to a story its predecessors got audiences deeply invested in, and the fact that Neo's journey never got the resolution it deserved is one of the true missed opportunities in recent film history.

Austin Powers (1997-2002)

While he may be something of an eccentric these days, Mike Myers was a veritable comedy juggernaut in the '90s — an icon in the vein of John Belushi or Will Ferrell, an actor whose association with a project not only meant it would be successful, but that it would be funny. He hit his live-action peak with the Austin Powers series, a parody of the James Bond films that saw shagadelic '60s spy/playboy Austin Powers (played by Myers) frozen and then revived in modern Britain to once more protect his country from the villainous Dr. Evil (also played by Myers). It's a simple concept for a film, but Myers' comedic vigor made it a cultural phenomenon. Two sequels followed, the first being the hugely popular Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.

However, the trilogy's conclusion, 2003's Austin Powers in Goldmember, sank the ship. By the time this installment arrived, the franchise's humor had lost its edge. What's more, Myers plays four characters in the movie, driving the charming multiple-performances gimmick of earlier outings into the ground. Not even a supporting performance by Beyonce could save this one. The franchise hasn't been heard from since, and after the disastrous The Love Guru a few years later, Myers seems to have sworn off filmmaking entirely.