Remember trilogies? For the last few decades, our most successful franchises were typically term-limited to three movies, at which point the heroes would win, the bad guy would finally perish, and a period could be put on the characters’ adventures. The rule of threes was paramount in Hollywood: Just as the Syd Field school of screenwriting put a premium on three-act structure, so too did the notion of a trilogy allow the movie series itself to encompass setup, confrontation, and resolution.
These days, though, it feels like the closed-end, three-film arc is a thing of the past. In an uncertain movie landscape, A-list actors no longer eschew long-term series work: Just ask Matt Damon and Johnny Depp, who initially wrapped up their franchises — the Bourne and Pirates of the Caribbean movies, respectively — in a nice little trilogy bow but now find themselves back at the table for fourths and even fifths with no agreed-upon end in sight. Or look at the major directors who never used to commit to more than three films but are now content to spend a significant chunk of their lives following the same sure-thing stories.
There’s James Cameron, who originally conceived Avatar as a trilogy but has since expanded it to four films, with additional installments rumored, too. Michael Bay claimed he was done with Transformers after the third movie but now is preparing to shoot his fifth robot battle, while Ridley Scott is currently filming the first of at least three sequels that would bridge his 1979 space thriller, Alien, with his 2012 effort, Prometheus. Even Steven Spielberg, who ended the third Indiana Jones film with our hero literally riding into the sunset — then belatedly directed a fourth movie that once again seemed to close the book on the series — just announced that he’ll soon shoot Indiana Jones 5, with Harrison Ford returning for another go-round. Will it be their last time cracking the whip? In this open-ended era, no one can say for sure.
How did we get to this moment? Like everything else that has to do with Hollywood, it’s partially motivated by greed. Studios don’t want to let a good thing go: Just look at the executives who added a fourth film to book trilogies like Divergent and The Hunger Games and may find a way to add even more movies to the latter series, if profit-hungry Lionsgate executives have their way. Many studios are also envious of Marvel’s mold-breaking, highly profitable sustained universe. When that comic-book studio started signing its stars up for six movies or more — a major break from the previously de rigeur contract option of one movie plus two sequels — other executives scoffed at the overreach, but Marvel has had the last laugh. And while even Marvel initially feinted toward character-specific trilogies that would exist outside of its Avengers megafranchise, the studio has begun to step away from that plan with the character cross-pollination of Captain America: Civil War, a movie that brings back so many Iron Man staples — including actors Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, and Don Cheadle — that Downey has jokingly referred to it as Iron Man 4.
In one sense, the end of trilogies is a good thing. Just a handful of years ago, it used to seem like everything announced in the trades was a wannabe trilogy, and the good stuff would be saved for a second or third movie that never came. Reduced to merely setting the table and spouting exposition, crippled trilogy-starters like Terminator Salvation crashed and burned, and even the franchises that made it to two installments — like the misbegotten Andrew Garfield Spider-Man movies — kept teasing reveals that weren’t planned to pay off until the last film in the trilogy, stringing audiences along until they no longer cared. And, often, the trilogy-ender wasn’t even that good! Nobody thinks of The Godfather: Part III or The Matrix Revolutions as a franchise high point, and sometimes an unexpected fourth entry — say, Mad Max: Fury Road or even Scream 4 — can allow for course correction, a way to remedy the mistakes made by an unsatisfying finish.
But do we lose something by taking the finality of a trilogy off the table? Toy Story 3 packed the punch that it did because of its “all things must end” mood, and it movingly concluded the entire journey the toys had spent with their owner, Andy; to now reopen that toy chest with 2018’s Toy Story 4 can’t help but feel like a disappointment. The Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy sacrificed co-lead Orlando Bloom in the final film to give the series more emotional weight, but now that Johnny Depp is coming back for a fifth go-round as Captain Jack and Bloom needs the work, he’s signed on for a sequel, too. If Lionsgate does manage to make more Hunger Games movies, I don’t think Jennifer Lawrence would return, but Josh Hutcherson might — and then the most recent film’s ending will likely be torn asunder by contract negotiations, not story concerns.
There’s also the question of respect. In deference to talent, studios used to let its intellectual property lay dormant for a while after a trilogy ended … but now, a mere four years after Christian Bale played Batman in one of the biggest trilogies ever, Ben Affleck will swipe his cowl for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice — a film that’s meant to kick off a shared universe where Batman will never, ever be put to bed. Christopher Nolan reportedly grumbled over Batman’s hasty revival, feeling like it trampled on the ending of his Dark Knight trilogy, and the man’s got a point. Then again, if Nolan were mounting that trilogy today, I wonder whether he or Warner Bros would even have deigned to stop at three movies. In just a few short years, the standard three-film arc has begun to feel less like an artistic feat and more like a foolish abnegation of profit potential.
But at least Nolan is free to make new movies. James Cameron is still in the prime of his career, yet he’ll likely end up having spent 25 years of it making Avatar movies instead of launching thrilling new properties. Ridley Scott is coming off of a late-in-life triumph with The Martian; does anyone truly want to see him spend the next few years trying to redeem Prometheus? As trilogies end and the men who shape them are expected to keep returning for more sequels, our best directors are keeping themselves out of the game for significant periods of time. Even a prolific filmmaker like Steven Spielberg is not immune to this director drain: While I want to believe that Indiana Jones 5 will reinvigorate the series, the amount of time Spielberg will have spent on this franchise is now equivalent to the work put in by a television showrunner over several seasons. Perhaps that’s a fitting comparison to end on, since the lines between TV and film have become increasingly blurred as of late: Just as thought-dead TV shows like The X-Files, 24, and Prison Break now find themselves exhumed for open-ended revivals, no film franchise will be allowed to stay in the ground for long. The end of trilogies is only the beginning.